Ei Mei Kan - November - 2009

Aikido and Calligraphy

by Szevone Chin

I attended a calligraphy course taught by Kazuaki Tanahashi Sensei in June 2009 in Switzerland. Each session, Tanahashi Sensei would ask us to copy different calligraphy templates that he provided. I thought that I did. I did not, in Tanahashi Sensei's opinion. I quickly realised that I carried my teacher's form and when I copied any kanji, I always added my (and my teacher's) form in. One piece of advice Tanahashi Sensei gave me was that I should copy calligraphy from ancient artists faithfully, and the more I copy, the closer I will get to the teachings ofthe ancient calligrapher.

After returning from the trip, Tanahashi Sensei posted me a calligraphy book and recommended that I copy the calligraphy faithfully. It was calligraphy by an ancient Chinese calligrapher, Ouyang Xun. Tanahashi Sensei thought that the study of Ouyang Xun's calligraphy is very well suited for my further self-training, because of my background in classical calligraphy training. I have since been copying Ouyang Xun faithfully, as I promised Tanahashi Sensei.

I recently found some old calligraphy templates provided by my teacher and I realised that I had been studying Ouyang Xun through my teacher for all those years. It now occurs to me that I have actually learnt indirectly from a few ancient calligraphers. I compared my recent work with previous ones: my brushwork has changed, and I think I have found a way to step out of the shadow of my teacher's calligraphy.

The way of learning begins with copying. In Aikido, we copy the Aikido movement taught by our Sensei, or luckily for some of us (occasionally) directly from Chiba Sensei. Chiba Sensei began his training copying O-Sensei and he has talked repeatedly about the importance of preserving the teachings of O-Sensei. For most of us, Chiba Sensei's teaching is the closest bridge to O-Sensei's. Of course, these days we have access to O-Sensei's teaching through other sources, e.g. books, DVDs, video clips on the internet; but it is never the same as learning a martial art from a living person, a real master. Therefore, we must be grateful of Chiba Sensei's hard work of preserving O-Sensei's work, his hard work of transmitting O-Sensei's teaching to us. We must treasure our time with him and study him faithfully without any questions, without any doubts.

Tanahashi Sensei said to me: it isn't about making a kanji beautiful when copying; copying is about capturing the energy of the calligraphy, feeling the energy of every brushstroke, every movement of an ancient calligrapher. I consider my teacher, Khoonshin Tan, a genius in calligraphy and I have faithfully studied classical calligraphy in his form for ten years. At the stage of ‘Ri’ of ‘Shu Ha Ri’, I am learning to capture the energy of different ancient calligraphers and learning to transmit my energy to my future work.

Copying Chiba Sensei is not just about copying his movement beautifully and precisely, it is also about capturing and preserving his energy, his ki, O-Sensei's ki. There is no question that we must master the form before we can move on to the next level. Perhaps, as a junior in Aikido, I am jumping ahead of myself because of my own understanding of arts from a different angle.

I remember a conversation with Chiba Sensei at Bangor Summer School 2009. He commented that my ‘Ko-Shin’ looks almost like O-Sensei's calligraphy. “Haha, are you trying to copy O-Sensei?”, said Chiba Sensei laughingly. “Yes, Sensei”, I said. I found myself feeling extremely lucky that I could still learn directly from O-Sensei through his calligraphy.

Kazuaki Tanahashi Sensei is a well-known calligrapher. He started studying Aikido with O-Sensei when he was 13 years old at Iwama in 1947, when the practice of martial arts was not allowed. O-Sensei was secretly teaching Aikido to several young people, including Tanahashi Sensei in his small dojo. He sees Aikido as a source of inspiration for his calligraphy


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