High on a hill, below the perilous skies, a fury sweeps through the woods. Like a flame in the darkness, my shelter perseveres. Will we last through the night?
In early September, I stayed on Cape Breton Island for a solitary retreat. Every morning, I would get up in my small hilltop cabin and peer out the window to see a great expanse of forest trailing off into the distance. It was the perfect setting to reconnect with nature and do some meditation in silence. I had brought a book to study for that week. But when I arrived at the cabin, I found resting on a rustic shelf a paperback titled The Zen of Creativity by John Daido Loori. I spent the next several days savouring its contents.
After a brief encounter with the tropical storm Dorian at the end of my retreat, I returned to Toronto. The peace and turbulence on the east coast had broadened my sense of being, and I wanted to bring it back to everyday life. So, a few weeks later, I signed up for a course to learn Sumi-e, Japanese ink painting. It’s been three months since then, and through this enduring art form, I’ve learned a lot about art, myself and my heritage.
Origin of Sumi-e
Sumi-e (which means ink painting) originated from ancient China. In the Northern Song Dynasty (960–1127), scholar-officials, known as the literati, employed their skill in calligraphy to paint in a style called xieyi, which means ‘to write an idea’. For the literati, the aim of a xieyi painting is not to depict outer forms of reality but to evoke an inner feeling and spirit.
In the 14th century, Buddhist monks brought the paintings by the Chinese literati and Chan (Zen) monastics to Japan. By that time, Zen Buddhism in Japan had grown to become a dominant religion that infused various aspects of Japanese culture. The paintings of Chan monk Muqi Fachang (1210–1269) inspired generations of Japanese artists, beginning with Tenshō Shūbun (1444–50) and Sesshū Tōyō (1420–1506).
Differences between Chinese and Japanese ink paintings
Since my background is Chinese, I felt inclined to better understand the differences between Chinese and Japanese ink painting. Identifying the differences was not easy because they share the same subjects and origin. There also isn’t only one style of Chinese or Japanese painting – various styles had developed over the centuries. However, it may be helpful to compare the works that represent the pinnacle of the art form in both countries. Based on my speculations, some notable differences may result from how each culture viewed reality.
In traditional Chinese ink paintings, you will frequently find meticulous brushwork that conveys multiplicity, complexity and corporeality. These characteristics may express the inextricable link of the individual to society within the great nation, which longs for immortality. By contrast, the Japanese favour a simpler, abstract and dramatic aesthetic that reveals natural, imperfect beauty and their acknowledgment of the world’s ephemerality (wabi-sabi). This is most evident in the famous work Pine Trees by the Japanese artist Tohaku Hasegawa (1539–1610). Through the use of varying ink tones, the image appears like a dream, fading from memory.
What Sumi-e has taught me
Although Sumi-e looks simple, mastering the art can take a lifetime. The brushwork of my teacher Hiroshi Yamamoto appears free and springy, in tune with his buoyant and unostentatious spirit. Under his guidance, I discovered that many of the skills I learned from Sumi-e can apply to our modern everyday life.
Here are eight things I’ve learned from practicing Sumi-e.
In Sumi-e, the first thing you do before painting is grind ink on an inkstone. This is a form of meditation to still the mind before painting. While painting, I found that if my mind was unsteady or wavered, my brushstrokes would reveal my inner state. In Japan, Ichi-go Ichi-e is an expression that means each present moment is unique and will never come again. So to paint a clean, confident line, my mind has to be fully present, calm and engaged.
Before setting ink on paper, you have to set an intention on which direction the brush should take. Being aware of your intentions is important because it directs your actions and influences the results. For example, when I failed to set a clear intention, I created lines that show trepidation and uncertainty.
Attitude relates to the word Xin in Chinese (similar to Kororo in Japanese), loosely translated often as heart-mind. It is the quality of our mind, body and spirit in our disposition and actions. If my attitude is forceful or unsettled, I will end up with brushstrokes that appear strained and coarse. But by softening my attitude to be more gentle, my brushwork will appear more light and graceful.
Professional athletes use visualization to improve their physical performance. Artists, too, employ imagination to actualize their intentions. If I first imagine myself creating a delicate orchid leaf, I can then produce a stroke on paper with greater success. Unfortunately, as we age we often forget how to imagine as we did in childhood. The precise moment that happened may escape us, but one day the world became a system of boxes and possibilities limited.
Holding fast onto ideals, my trees look like fish bones. Letting go of faultlessness, my trees look more like trees. As John Daido Loori explains: “When you learn to trust yourself implicitly, you no longer need to prove something through your art. You simply allow it to come out, to be as it is. This is when creating art becomes effortless. It happens just as you grow your hair. It grows.”
In Taoism, the concept wu wei is often translated as “non-action”. Contrary to doing nothing, wu wei is achieved through effort without attachment. The Chinese believed that the rhythm of an artist’s movements can connect with their heartbeat and circulation, acting in accord with nature. In that state, in which the ego dissolves, the painting achieves “spiritual resonance” (shenyun 神韻).
As my teacher tells me, Sumi-e is a life-long practice. Many great painters and calligraphers from China and Japan created their greatest work close to the end of their life – and some lived to be over 90 years old. In this age of instant gratification, it’s important to cultivate patience, focusing on the process instead of rushing towards the destination.
When I first started to practice Sumi-e regularly, I felt guilty about taking the time to just paint during the day. A part of me insisted that I should be focusing on more practical things. But we mustn’t let the voice of insecurity deny us of experiencing joy, for it is only when joy is present that we can give the best we can offer to this world.
Landscapes of the mind
Stepping into the misty landscape, the air feels oddly familiar. The scene ahead unravels as my heart guides me onward. What awaits on the other shore is a mystery…
Translated by Professor Ryuichi Abe.
Although its scent still lingers on
the form of a flower has scattered away
For whom will the glory
of this world remain unchanged?
Arriving today at the yonder side
of the deep mountains of evanescent existence
We shall never allow ourselves to drift away
intoxicated, in the world of shallow dreams.