Buddhist Calligraphy

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PURCHASE

About Me

I am Di Fan, and although I was born and brought up in China, I now live in Manchester, UK. I have been a Buddhist practitioner since 2011, and am currently training for ordination into a (lay) Buddhist Order. I’m also married, with a son.

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My Buddhist practice consists of many elements – meditation, study, spiritual friendship, ethics, and calligraphy. The mysterious symbols of Chinese characters have long been considered to have profound meanings beyond the grasp of the conceptual mind. I guess this is partly because, as well as their conceptual meanings, each character is (or should be!) beautiful. And I think it’s the combination of meaning and beauty that makes calligraphic representation of the Buddha’s words so powerful.

Another aspect of this is that calligraphy expresses my longing for deeper connection with the truth

When I’m painting these characters I try to make them as beautiful as I can, and I’m also reflecting on their meaning. I often find myself completely absorbed in the activity. Everything else – the past, the future, thoughts of other things I might have to do later in the day, worries, frustrations – simply drops away, and I’m left with only my brush, the ink being spread on the paper or cloth, and the meaning of each character slowly emerging out of nothing. So for me, calligraphy is a meditation practice. Ideally, people who see my calligraphy will also treat it as a meditation practice, giving each character their full attention, and reflecting on their meaning. It is for this reason that I like to translate the characters of my art work on my website. But of course Chinese characters are not simply words, they are also pictures or diagrams, or have evolved from pictures (hence they are sometimes called pictograms), and I like to explain something about this visual element too.

Of course you may not be a Buddhist and may not wish to reflect on – or even know – the meaning of the calligraphy, but just enjoy the beauty. That’s fine too. As the great English poet Keats wrote, Beauty is truth, truth beauty,’ – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Why I sell my work

If I were a monk, calligraphy would simply be part of my Buddhist practice and I would give my creations away. In fact, up until recently that’s exactly what I’ve done, giving them to the Buddhist Centre where I practice, and to my Buddhist friends. 

But I’m married, and have a child, so I need to earn a living. One day, when I was complaining about my job in a call centre to a Buddhist friend Ratnaguna, he suggested that I consider selling my calligraphy, to see if it might be possible to earn a living through it. In doing that I would be practising what the Buddha called ‘right livelihood’, which is based on the principle of ahimsa – non harm, or non violence. That is, one’s work should not involve any harm to other living beings, and it should also allow the practitioner to thrive.

The Buddha said, for instance, that “The layperson’s objective [is to] live a long and dignified life with the wealth obtained through rightful means.”  

In selling my work, I don’t wish to become wealthy, just earn enough to look after my family. If I can do that, I’m happy.

Meaning of the word sutra

Sutra is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘string’ or ‘thread’, and in Buddhist literature a sutra is a discourse or teaching purportedly originally spoken by the Buddha (he lived in an oral society, so didn’t write). Some time later all his teachings were written down, and it’s these texts that are called sutras. So a sutra nowadays is understood as a literary discourse that has a thread of meaning woven through it. Interestingly, the English word text has a similar etymological root – from the Latin textus “style or texture of a work,” literally “thing woven”. (Now of course we send and receive texts on our mobile phones, the majority of which probably don’t have a thread of meaning running through them).

I should make it clear that it’s actually highly unlikely that all Buddhist sutras really were originally spoken by the Buddha himself. Mahayana sutras for instance, such as the Heart Sutra and the Shorter Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra were almost certainly the creation of later Buddhist practitioners. Does it matter? Perhaps not. Maybe those who wrote those later sutras were Awakened themselves, and as one Mahayana Sutra states – “Whatever is well said is the word of the Buddha”.

The value of reflecting on a Sutra, or part of a Sutra

Information is endlessly available to us: where shall wisdom be found?

This quote, by the late literary critic Harold Bloom, makes it clear that information is not the same as wisdom. Information is made up of facts about the world (whether or not those ‘facts’ are true). With the internet we can gather facts very easily and quickly. Wisdom, on the other hand, is cultivated through slow and deep reflection. It cannot be hurried.

In the Dhammapada the Buddha says

Better than a thousand meaningless statements
Composed of meaningless words,
Is a single meaningful word which,
Having been heard, brings peace.

(Translated by Glenn Wallis).

This is verse 100 of the text. It’s as if, having come to the hundredth verse, the Buddha is reminding us not to merely plough ahead to the end (there are 423 verses), collecting information, but to stop, reflect, contemplate, meditate on, each verse.

Di’s calligraphy, created slowly and contemplatively, is his way of reflecting on the Buddha’s teachings. Every character is created with great care.

I’m reminded of a poem, written by Hui Yung, one of the early (4th-5th Century) Chinese translators of Indian Buddhist Sutras:

We go unwinding the woof
From the web of meaning.

Words of the Sutras
Day by day come forth

Head on, we chase the mystery of the Dharma.

(Translating Holy Books, Translated by P. Seaton).

Just as Hui Yang ‘chased the mystery of the Dharma’ by translating Buddhist texts, and Di by copying them in his calligraphy, so we can do the same by looking at, and contemplating, each character.

 

The practice of copying, memorising, and reflecting, on Buddhist texts

Towards the end of many Mahayana Sutras the Buddha recommends that we listen to, memorise, recite, and copy (write out) the Sutra. These passages have been largely ignored by Western Buddhist scholars, or considered to be simply devices to encourage people to preserve the Sutras. One scholar though, David Drewes, thinks that ‘a more straightforward explanation’ is that these were the main practices that Mahayana Buddhists engaged in. He writes:

“Part of the problem with imagining this to be so is that Westerners have long tended to ignore the importance of Buddhist textual practices, especially those connected with memorization, recitation, and preaching, imagining true Buddhism to be primarily a matter of meditation and philosophy. In fact, composing, memorizing, reciting, preaching, listening to, and copying texts – a vast labour of of extending Buddhist narrative – seem always to have been significantly more important than philosophy and meditation in South and Southeast Asian Buddhism, both in theory and practice”.

David Dewes, Early Indian Mahayana Buddhism ll: New Perspectives.

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