Pictured: “Kenshō” Shodo piece by Ivan Melo on Gyodokan Kamiza.

About our new dojo calligraphy piece​.

by Ivan Melo (18.04.2024)

This week our dojo got a new calligraphy piece for the kamiza, the altar to which we face at the beginning and ending of every class.  

Calligraphy is an ancient and important art in most cultures, but especially in asian cultures, it has been respected for millenia. In China and Japan, it was considered the highest art form, because by someone’s writing in such a simple medium – paper and black ink – one could see the artist’s soul. In the dojo, the art of writing was not only a way to decorate the space of practice, but to transmit teachings, guiding people towards the goals of their art.

As we find a more permanent space for our dojo at St Matthew’s Hall, we thought the word “Kenshō” would be fitting to be displayed at our kamiza. 

Kenshō means to “see one’s true nature”. It’s a Zen phrase which encourages to look beyond what we understand nowadays, living in a society of materialism and of personality cult, as the self.

We are used to seeing the world from dichotomous positions: you and me, woman and man, liking and disliking, good and bad and so on. However, the true nature that “kenshō” refers to is one that goes beyond duality.

The phrase first appeared in the chinese text “Platform Sutra” in the 8th century. The following excerpt is a commentary by Zen teacher teacher Shodo Harada on the sutra: 

“This teaching is that of realizing our true nature directly—the true mind with

which we are endowed from birth, prior to all of the ideas and knowledge we

have gathered. These are what obstruct us. This true nature, uninterrupted, is

kenshō. Without producing or inventing anything, we align our body and our

breath. There is nothing we have to make happen to realize that true nature. But

it is not something we can know by following our ego and doing whatever we

feel like, whenever we want to. Because we have invented an ego and are living

in a way of ego, we have to let go of the ego.

To realize true nature directly, we must let go of our discriminative sense of

things. Otherwise, even though we say we don’t see people in terms of

differences, we do. We have to see each person’s true human character, rather

than filtering our perceptions through the relative terms of male, female, sick,

healthy, old, young, rich, poor. And before we can see another’s clear nature, we

first have to see our own”.

Although in Zen the main vehicle of practice is zazen, all traditional arts, when well instructed and practiced, have the potential mechnisms to take a pracitioner to this deeper understanding of themselves, beyond duality. These mechnisms are often action based, as words often hinder, hide or mislead true understanding, which can’t be described. 

That’s why in a dojo environment, practice is done mainly in silence, why we bow as we enter the dojo, bow to our partners and to our teachers. It’s why we clean the space and keep an eye out to help visitors and beginners; those are all actions that allow us to drop our self-centered dualistic mind, inside and outside the dojo.  

However, even when such realisation is experienced, the practice of this skill has to be sustained, applied to all parts of our lives or it will be lost, as reminded by the the great 17th century Japanese master Hakuin: 

“… unless you go through this gate of practice, you cannot clear away obstructions brought about by afflictions and actions and therefore cannot attain to the state of liberation and freedom. What a pity that would be, what a loss”.

Having said all this, I hope you also enjoy the calligraphy displayed for its aesthetic beauty as well. For beauty also encourages us to go beyond.

Bibliography

Platform Sutra – by Huineng, translation and commentary by Red Pine. 

Not One Single Thing: a commentary on the Platform Sutra by Shodo Harada.

 Zen no Sho – the calligraphy of Fukushima Keido Roshi, by Jason M Wirth. 

Hakuin on Kensho – a commentary by Albert Low 

Morning Dewdrops of the Mind – by Shodo Harada 

Zen Word, Zen Calligraphy – Eido Tai Shimano 

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