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  • Rob Will

Art as Therapeutic Practice and Spiritual Discipline

Updated: Mar 23, 2023

“Like worldly people, oh Lord, may I thirst more for sense objects, but may I see them as Your body, without any notion of difference?”

Shiva-Stotra-Avali (s-8v3) Utpaladeva

Dharma art. Conceptualism. Sacred Art. Symbolism. Art as lived experience. Merzgesam Kuntswerk. Unity of all art-forms. Art as therapeutic practice and spiritual discipline. Art for me can be one thing at one time but it can also be many things at once.

I have spent months working with one particular concept and then move on to only have this concept suddenly reemerge years later– unconsciously bursting forth with explosive evolutionary energy that shapes and guides a current piece into new exploratory realms; or, perhaps, simply accents a work in progress in a concise and pointed yet unique manner. As I have said many times before, such things are extremely difficult to describe. With art I really just rock out and dance to the eurythmic free-form music of creative energy that is flowing through me…

Not long after I began to paint I felt compelled to study the art of sacred calligraphy off and on. I had seen examples of– and read some commentary on– sacred calligraphy in books I read on Zen Buddhism and other eastern spiritual paths. This was just general information though and I wanted to engage in some serious study. I got in a delightful little stack of books covering all areas of the subject. This included works structured for linguists, scholars and artists, which contained detailed instruction and practice manuals.

Learning about the history of engaging in the creation of sacred calligraphy as an actual multi-dynamic ritual process and act of religious worship led me onto a path of deeper exploration and practical application. The historical development of the religions of China, Japan and India gave birth to unique traditions of sacred calligraphy rich with complex doctrines, practices, and structures filled with deep symbolic meaning.

A common theme within the various schools is that in practicing calligraphy the artist merges completely with the ink brush, paper and creative spirit, ascending in unity to heightened states of sacred devotional worship. To gain the ability to experience true calligraphic spiritual enlightenment and sacred artistic transcendence, takes years of initial basic preparation through intense physical and spiritual training. In Zen calligraphy the one stroke character ichi is a very basic single brushstroke, a short simple line drawn from left to right.

Zen Master Tesshu (1836 - 1888) had a famous dojo, Shumpukan, in Tokyo, Japan, that was a renowned training hall for swordsmanship, calligraphy and Zen. Tesshu is one of only a few teachers in Japanese history to be recognized as a master of all three disciplines. New students at his dojo were required to practice the single one-stroke character ichi non-stop for three years. Before this stroke could be made the student had to go through preparation procedures involving meditation practice and specific arrangements of brush, ink, paper, and inkstone. Such preparation is required in many schools of sacred calligraphy.

Siddham is known as the “Script of Gods and Buddhas” and to engage in the sacred act of Siddham calligraphy requires memorizing the specific brush stroke order for painting each character. Writing the first character of the Siddham alphabet involves a flowing dance of six separate brush strokes. Training requires repeated practice until the process occurs with the eurythmic ease and a natural flow of unconscious motion.

There are instructions on methods of teaching that allow the student to learn to properly hold the brush, dip it in ink, and hold it at specific angles for specific strokes. In the various traditions of sacred calligraphy of the East, there are many different physical and spiritual-mental methods of practice which vary from school to school, from temple to temple and from individual to individual. I started putting myself through training in some of these methods, and, you know, just rocking with the rhythm of artistic exploration and creation...

Reading more on the philosophy behind the practice of repeatedly painting the single stroke ichi inspired me to explore this method on a consistent basis. In doing so I came to understand the revelatory secret of the raku-hitsu, the instant one’s paintbrush first comes into contact with the canvas: this can reveal much about the state of mind of the artist. I did a bunch of little experiments with this– and the similar practice of painting the enso (Zen circle) – and made some interesting discoveries.

I discovered that this is essentially a mindfulness practice, a Mind-Body Health technique that enhances awareness in a way very similar to that of various yogic practices. Yoga was already an integral part of my life and I started noticing all kinds of conceptual synergy merging and leaping about and influencing my process of artistic creation.

Every individual line of paint that I laid upon a canvas began to feel more and more like strokes of ichi. Curved and angular lines of paint seemed to possess the ability to dance new sacred stroke order patterns into existence. In doing an ink portrait in all crosshatching, every line drawn from my pen became a form of meditation. My perceptual experience of artistic creation took on new dimensions.

I practiced some formal styles of sacred calligraphy, learning and following standard stroke orders, attempting to create characters with precise and well defined forms. I quickly learned that this was absolutely impossible with only the materials I had access to. I spent some time with this though so I could try to gain a little perceptual insight in to the experience of engaging in this methodical, precise and highly formal devotional practice.

During meditation I kept envisioning large works of calligraphy. When this happens I pretty much have to let this energy manifest outwardly into works of visual art. I did not have any type of flowing paint or ink, and I only had very small brushes unsuited for calligraphy. Wretched prison. In further studying Zen and Zen calligraphy I read about the 8th century Chinese mystic, “Drunken Master Zhang”. He would imbibe large amounts of rice wine and slap “delicious cursive” characters on anything he encountered: trees, walls, pots, clothes. At times he would even soak his hair in ink and write with it.

His disciple “mad monk Hui” was famous for painting zen calligraphy on banana leaves instead of paper, which he was unable to afford. Master Hui inevitably found money for wine though, which would compel him into drunken bouts of frenzied calligraphy writing. Japanese Zen Master RyoKan would drink sake but then calmly write calligraphy and compose poetry with friends. He once declared that there are only two things he disliked: “poetry by a poet and calligraphy by a calligrapher”. These masters taught that the proper method of Zen calligraphy is no method…

– I grabbed what art supplies I had, constructed some large (approx) 20 by 30 inch canvases, made a big ass bottle of paint, and snatched up a small brush. I engaged in meditative ritual preparation and utilized the classic method of sitting and bowing. I raised my paint-filled brush to the heavens as I breathed in deeply, my lower body rooted firmly to the earth. At the apex of the realm of emptiness I brought my brush down to the realm of fullness and form as I hit up the canvas. Working non-stop I used the small brush- dip, stroke, dip, stroke- to paint the large Chinese character for writing (Sho). This is the painting entitled Sho/In Honor of Drunken Master Zhang/ MadMonk Huai and Master RyoKan (and I did another version after the first).

Sho/In Honor of Drunken Master Zhang/ MadMonk Huai and Master RyoKan 20 x 30 inches

Much to my surprise I came across an image of a samurai helmet with a large metalwork sacred seed character (hrih) of Amida Nyorai, Buddha of Infinite Light and Life, affixed to the front of it. I saw an incense burner shaped in the form of this same seed-syllable. I came across stone memorial monuments engraved with sacred calligraphy. I saw a sword inscribed with the sacred Siddham character of the fierce protective Buddhist deity Fudo Myoo. None of these formal images of sacred calligraphy were painted. Visions of new connections of perceptions arose…

Sho/In Honor of Drunken Master Zhang/ MadMonk Huai and Master RyoKan 20 x 30 inches

"Dharma art means not creating further pollution in society. Dharma art means creating greater vision and greater sanity. Art has to be done with genuineness as it actually is in the name of basic beauty and basic goodness. When basic goodness or basic beauty is not being expressed, what you do is neurotic and destructive, and cultivating other people's sanity becomes difficult…

The purpose of a work of art is bodhisattva action. This means that your production, manifestation, demonstration and performance should be geared towards waking people up from their neurosis… Being an artist is not an occupation: it is your life and your whole being. From the time you wake up in the morning, when the buzzer in your clock rings, until you go to bed, every perception you experience is an expression of vision."

Dharma and Art, Chogyam Trungpa

The painting that I did entitled Kali-Lakshmi-Durga is definitely a work of sacred art. There are many levels of psycho-sociopolitical meaning to this piece but it can be considered a personal modern version of a thangka painting. As one might discern from the title, a main theme of this painting is the expression of the full spectrum of divine feminine power. The sacred calligraphy inscription in the top right corner is the name Lakshmi written in Lentsa script. On the top left corner is the formal HAMMAM character of the fierce Fudo Myoo, who wields the righteous phallic sword and is surrounded by protective divine masculine flames. Gotta have a little balance in all things!

Kali-Lakshmi-Durga 15 x 20 Inches

After learning about the history and meaning of stamping in sacred art I decided to create my own stamp. This is the small stylized elephant figure in the bottom left corner. I also did a series of a more formal style of Kami calligraphy pieces. On some of them I hit up original haikus on the bottom left side. The script is my own form of sacred calligraphy written in English.

All of the above mentioned pieces are from years back. The mindfulness, awareness, balance and enhanced sense of being present that I developed while practicing sacred calligraphy bled over into other areas of my artistic process and is still present today. I think this is readily apparent in the more current pieces of mine such as Urbana Stylistica III, ARATI (light ceremony)- Ode to Swami Jyotir Maya Nanda; and Urbana Stylistica IV.

ARATI (Light Ceremony) Ode to Swami Jyotir Maya Nada / Shiva Natarajan - Quantum Mechanics (Red Buddha head)

30 x 40 Inches

Urbana Stylistica III/ Fela Kuti- Jimi Hendrix Remix (Shout out to Esperanza Spalding) 20 x 45 inches

Urban Stylistica IV A Biocognition- Neuropsychology Rock and Roll Remix/ A Vicious Condemnation of Cartesian Dualism (HA!)/ The Mind Body Code (Dr Mario Martinez is the King!) 40 x 15 Inches

Art is a medium, a messenger and a conveyor of symbols that can direct one into deep transformational states of insight. In this wretched place I have discovered the powerful truth that art is a territory of freedom and unlimited creative potential. Sacred art. Dharma art. Art as a lived experience. Art as therapeutic practice and spiritual discipline with the power to transform culture. Is that not a holy and sacred thing?

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