Shodo 書道, ‘the way of calligraphy’, can trace its origins to the very earliest days of Chinese culture, and like so many other ‘dou’ 道- traditional Japanese arts, has found expression over the centuries in the unique space where Japanese culture and Buddhism converge. The concentration and stillness of mind required to create calligraphy, and the finality of the single chance the brush has to make the mark on the paper, bear deep relations with Zen.
Though personally uninitiated to the mysteries of shodo practice, years of practicing tea have given me a peripheral appreciation of the sacred nature of the scroll. In the tea ceremony the scroll opens a door of reflection to the abstract or philosophical elements that the tea master has intended for the gathering. And for years I have watched in wonder as my own children (who attend public Japanese schools) have created their own ‘kakizome’ or first writing of the new year. Observing their struggles, it is obvious that the way of calligraphy, as practiced by a master, is an art of deep skill born from years of tireless practice and repetition. But are skill and technical excellence really what being a master are all about? Shoko Kanazawa is rapidly rising to super-stardom fame in Japan, and I believe her story holds some interesting insights into the psyche of a Japan that has undergone some deep soul-searching since the events of March 11, 2011.
Between January 7th and 22nd, an exhibition of Shoko’s calligraphy was held in the gallery space at Tokai Tokyo Shoken, a financial firm located in Tokyo’s Nihonbashi area. The exhibit also included two live events where Shoko created calligraphy in front of a select audience. I had the opportunity to come into contact with Shoko and her work through my work with the Aibi Ikebana group.
Led by our teacher Nagai Yuuyou, the Aibi group helped create large scale bamboo installations as well as ikebana to complement Shoko’s exhibition. This project was a tremendous opportunity to get hands-on experience in the planning, execution and maintenance of a large-scale project, but it was especially rewarding to see what can be generated from the collaboration artists working in different mediums. The visual impact of the calligraphy was greatly enhanced by the ikebana and vice versa; truly “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”.
The piece below, made of split 9-meter sections of bamboo is precisely such a piece where the finished work was conceived from the the union of differing talents. In our initial sketches, the bamboo piece would have been much smaller and anchored in a large vase. In discussion with the calligraphy group, the idea came to enlarge it to be more like a frame , and subsequently, the kanji were chosen that describe the interplay between bamboo and flowers.
Despite being a complete outsider to the world of shodo, and lacking any previous knowledge of Shoko Kanazawa and her story, I fell instantly prey to the visceral beauty of her work. Even without understanding the meaning of the characters, I found myself standing before the humungous scrolls, drawn in to the point where time and place momentarily slip away. And then I noticed day after day, among the hundreds of people that came to see the exhibit, the same almost reverential attitude in front of her work. I knew that she was young (26), had Down’s Syndrome, and that her fame had been steadily spreading through multiple appearances on NHK (Japanese public television). But what was it about Shoko that could so enamor a nation with such a seemingly unlikely heroine?
The live event of Jan. 15th provided several insights into her story. In most press photos and the few youtube videos one can find of Shoko, she appears almost always alongside her mother, Yasuko. Prior to Shoko’s live calligraphy drawing, Yasuko gave a deeply moving account of her life since Shoko was born. From agony and despair at learning of her child’s disability to repeated failed attempts at finding avenues for Shoko to participate meaningfully in society as she outgrew the available schooling and employment training options, it is a seemingly heartbreaking story of a mother’s sacrifices. Shodo appears almost by chance. Yasuko herself had been practicing shodo since before her daughter’s birth, and it seemed to be the only thing filling the void when there was no where else to go and nothing else to do during the long hard early years of motherhood. So she began drawing calligraphy with Shoko from the tender age of 5, and it has been a constant in both of their lives ever since. Humble though Yasuko may be- she doesn’t attribute any exceptional skill to her daughter- it is obvious that there is something other than technical mastery that has been drawing in crowds to Shoko’s non-stop exhibits and that so deeply moves the audience as they watch her create her calligraphy.
It begs the question of what emotions are stirred deep in one’s heart when one watches someone with a ‘disability’ performing so eloquently an art that requires both tremendous spiritual presence and physical skill. We are certainly, as a global society, moving past outdated perceptions of those with disabilities as second-class citizens who deserve our pity, to a society that strives to embrace and learn to live better with diversity, in whatever shape and form it appears. Yasuko commented that if someone were to say “oh how hard it must be” that it was certainly not Shoko herself who was suffering, indeed, quite the contrary, Shoko radiates joy and happiness to all those around her. Her infectious smile and exuberant personality instantly win over any audience. She told us that she was writing this calligraphy for all of us, to make us happy, and we unhesitatingly believe her.
I’m reminded of this beautiful quote by Baha’u’llah:
“Know thou that the soul of man is exalted above, and is independent of all infirmities of body or mind. That a sick person showeth signs of weakness is due to the hindrances that interpose themselves between his soul and his body, for the soul itself remaineth unaffected by any bodily ailments. Consider the light of the lamp. Though an external object may interfere with its radiance, the light itself continueth to shine with undiminished power. In like manner, every malady afflicting the body of man is an impediment that preventeth the soul from manifesting its inherent might and power.” (Gleanings p. 154)
Shoko teaches us not just about the meaning of living joyfully in the moment, but also about the intrinsic power of the human spirit. While most of us are weighed down by lives spent on material pursuits, and can only struggle to reign in by degrees our ever-persistent egos, Shoko speaks, and creates calligraphy, straight from the heart. In a sense, it is us, who are so caught up in the trappings of the world that we have forgotten to take a moment to breathe, to look within, to remember our true selves, who are suffering “infirmities”, and the grace of Shoko’s radiant spirit acts as a poignant reminder of the human soul’s “inherent might and power”.
Japan is truly blessed to have such an ambassador for the arts, whose message of simplicity, love and compassion could not come at a better time or place.