Calligraphy: The 3 Perfections
By Rene J. Navarro
I have just received my certificate of completion for taking the online seminar on Chinese calligraphy as a Cultivation by Taoist priest Jeffrey Yuen. No, I haven’t really completed anything. The course presented in segments in less than one day seemed more like a beginning, an introduction to the basics. Learning calligraphy takes much, much more time, over years under the close supervision of a master. A day-long lesson does not make one a master.
To prepare for the lesson, we were asked to get, among others, paper (preferably xuan or rice paper), ink stone, brush and ink stand. Yuen Shifu demonstrated different ways of holding the brush, how to dissolve the ink in water and how to draw what is considered the first traditional character, Yong, that means forever or eternity. Yong contains the 8 basic strokes in calligraphy. When I studied calligraphy in Hangzhou 12 years ago, Yong was also the very first character I was introduced to. Jet-lagged, I drew 200-500 characters from a manual with a pen or pencil on a notebook into the night. Using brush and ink, I realized, was totally different from a pen. I wrote a poem about my first experiences with calligraphy (below).
Calligraphy is considered a meditative and divine art. You have to honor the sacred, so before you even start, you have to spend a time in an attitude of worship or contemplation to prepare your heartmind and body for the work. ("Heartmind" is a translation of the Chinese word "Xin".*) It is one of the 3 Perfections along with painting and poetry. The concept of the 3 Perfections came about when Zhang Qian, a poet and painter, contemporary and drinking buddy of Du-Fu and Li Bai, gifted the emperor with his painting. The emperor was so moved that he drew the words “Zheng Xian san jue” – meaning Zhang Xian’s 3 perfections – on the canvas. Since then the 3 arts have been drawn together as related work and a painting is invariably paired with a poem written in calligraphy.**
I followed the lessons by drawing the different characters. Yuen shifu said that he did them while in a horse stance/ma bo. Well, I did them sitting down, with my back straight, feet flat on the floor and chin down … in the manner of a meditation posture.
There’s a long way to go!
Drawing the Characters: Ars Poetica
2 am and I am writing more characters
in my notebook with a ballpoint pen.
There are verticals and horizontals
and diagonals … and drops and slides
and strokes I do not know the Chinese names
for. I study the length of this line, it’s longer
than the one above it. This line starts
hanging from a vertical, that one ends
where one line begins. Another
begins at the eaves of a roof. I start over
again and feel the pressure
on the pen and how it varies the shade
of the ink, a little darker here, little lighter
there, thicker here, thinner there.
The proportion strikes me for the first
time, and balance, nothing weighted
down, nothing leaning this way
or that … I know I do not see
the perspective of the whole
character yet, not even each
drop. I notice that I have to learn
what it means to be light, to spread
the ink evenly like they show
in the manual I am following.
Repetitions, repetitions, as my teachers
used to tell me when I was training
in Shaolin and Tai chi: imitate and
follow, repeat the way they did
the movement and I did each
a hundred times, two hundred,
until my sweat dripped to the floor
of the old Buddhist Temple.
Now each page of my sketchbook is covered
with squiggles. There are no erasures,
no corrections. I can only start all
over again. I know a lot
more now. But I do not even have
an idea what ground I have yet to cover.
How about the Qi that each line
should manifest? How about the Shen?
How about the Life
that breathes through each stroke?
How did the ancients
write with brush and ink?
(Poem from Ascension and Return: Poetry of a Village Daoist by Rene J. Navarro (Tambuli Media)
* Xin (or Hsin in Wade-Giles) refers not only to the heart but also to the mind.
The character is difficult to translate, although it is often translated as heart-mind.
Like many Chinese words, like Yin and Yang, Qi, Ling and Gong, Xin should not be translated.
** For an extended study, see Michael Sullivan’s “The Three Perfections: Chinese Painting, Poetry and Calligraphy” (George Braziller, Inc.: 1999). I’ve also heard of a tradition, I do not know how old it is, of the 5 Excellences: poetry, calligraphy, painting, Tai chi chuan and Chinese Medicine. I’ve studied four of them. Well, four out five ain’t bad.
Rene J. Navarro is an acupuncturist, herbalist, alchemist, martial artist, healer, published writer and poet. His training in Chinese arts started more than 50 years ago with Dragon-Tiger Shaolin Hong Kuen Kung-Fu as a closed-door disciple of Grandmaster Johnny Chiuten and the legendary Grandmaster Lao Kim of the Philippines. Although he has also studied Pa-Kua Chuan (in Binondo, Manila) and Hsing-I Chuan (in China), two of the 3 Wudang systems, Arnis de Mano (in Cebu), and Shaolin Hong Kuen, Rene has focused on the study of the curriculum of Classical Yang Family Tai Chi Chuan, including Solo Fist Forms and weapons (Dao, Jian, Staff-Spear) under Masters Gin Soon Chu (second disciple of Yang Sau-Cheung) and Vincent Chu, lineage teachers of the system.
Rene holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science (MLQU), a Bachelor of Law/JD (University of the Philippines), a diploma in acupuncture and a certificate in classical Chinese herbs (New England School of Acupuncture), and a certificate in TESOL-TESL (Oxford Seminars). In an earlier incarnation, he was a member of the NY bar and worked as a lawyer for indigent clients. website: www.renenavarro.org