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by Barbara Bash

Calligraphy – from the Greek Kalli – graphos – for "beautiful writing"


Since ancient times, and from the first moment we opened our eyes, the world has been speaking to us – through the black marks of a crow flying across the sky, through the moving line of a meandering river, through the dark shapes of thunderclouds, through the cursive script of grasses bending in the wind, through the soft strokes of rain, through the slashing line of lightning. Reading this beautiful writing of the world, we are drawn out of ourselves to a wider view.

The first human writing was a footprint in the sand, a handprint in the mud, the original mark. Then the eyes looked out. The world was so enormous and powerful to ancient man. By drawing its forms – sun, moon, bison, bird – one could hold some of its power. Drawing has always been a way of connecting with the world. When we draw something we understand it, we know it in a deeper way, we take in its nature and become interested in the something beyond ourselves. At the same time we are grounded in our bodies through the movement of the pencil or brush in the hand following the eye following the form. A circular energy develops, going out, coming back to the body and the page, going out again. In the ancient world this act of drawing created a sensory engagement with the magical energy all around.

These early images of the world, painted on cave walls, scratched into clay tablets, drawn and re-drawn and handed down through the centuries, gave visual voice to the natural forces and creatures of the world. In China this pictographic language evolved into a vast writing system of 40,000 characters. Over time these images simplified and changed, yet even today Chinese writing encompasses a huge body of characters that a literate person must know.

In the Sumerian world of the Fertile Crescent pictures also formed the first written language. But the needs of record keeping took prominence. Around 1000 B.C.E. Phoenician traders began using an alphabetic system of twenty-two letters that assigned one sound to one letter. With this crucial shift to a more efficient syllabic system the letters became completely abstract and their link to the natural world was forgotten. Yet deep inside our alphabet the images of the world still reside - an ox, a river, a snake, a cave opening. The gateway is narrowed, but the power finds a way through.

Over the following centuries western alphabetic forms were beautifully wrought, carved into massive stone inscriptions, written with reed pens on sheets of calf skin vellum, passed along from hand to hand, the forms expanding and contracting in response to the energies of the times. The making of letters by the human hand kept the magical gateway of connection open and flowing, joining body and mind, heart and spirit, nature and human. Hundreds of years later we are still under the spell of this powerful alphabet. But now it has lulled us to sleep. Sitting in our homes and offices reading the computer screen we have forgotten the starry sky overhead, the sound of the wind, the creaking trees. Yet the door to connection is still there, overgrown and hidden, waiting to be discovered and opened again.

"It is possible to make a brushstroke that expresses your whole life." Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Dharma Art Seminar 1978 I was sitting in an auditorium in Boulder, Colorado when I heard these words. They sank inside me like a stone of truth. I thought to myself "He must mean a very large brush." This was the beginning of my big brush practice.

By 1978 I had been studying the art of calligraphy for over ten years. Fascinated by the twenty-six letters of the alphabet since I was a child, I was drawn in to the revival of the book arts in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1970's and had learned to write the scripts of Rome, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. This was the "palette of colors" that I used in my work as a graphic designer, creating posters, invitations, brochures and personal commissions that all utilized the aliveness of the handwritten script. When I met Trungpa Rinpoche I was standing on a foundation of western alphabetic tradition, ready for a wider perspective.

Throughout the history of the world the practice of calligraphy has been interwoven with spiritual practice. Medieval monks illuminated Christian texts. Buddhist monks copied out sacred sutras; Islamic calligraphers poured all their imagery into complex designs praising Allah. In retrospect it was a natural move for me as a calligrapher to become a Buddhist practitioner.

"Calligraphy is a picture of the mind." – Chinese Saying

What is the nature of calligraphy?

  • It is a direct act. There is no touching up or working over. It stands on its own, fresh and immediate.
  • Calligraphy is alive. It is created on the spot and is a living expression of the moment.
  • Calligraphy creates connection. In the making of stroke we bring the mind of space down onto the earth of paper, mixing with the moisture of ink and the fire of heart. It is an act that joins the vision of heaven with the practicalities of earth within the human experience.

The path of calligraphy follows the form of language – alphabet, pictogram or character. These forms are given life through the calligraphic act. They have bones and flesh and body. They move and run and leap on the page. They begin to speak. As with all true paths, the calligraphic journey begins through a low and narrow doorway. We copy the forms again and again until they become part of us – until we begin to understand the nature of brush or pen, the nature of ink, the nature of paper. Through this process we gain insight into our own true nature. This is the contemplative aspect.

The art of calligraphy is passed from human to human. Find a teacher you can watch closely. Then sit down in front of a blank page, pick up a brush, dip it in ink, and touch the paper – drawing a circle – the ancient symbol of wholeness.

Heaven and earth – joined in the moment.

Editor's Note

Vist our Brush Calligraphy section for brushes, sumi ink, rice paper, shikishi boards, shikishi frames and other brush calligraphy supplies from Japan, as well as sealable ink pots, pens and paper.

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