Calligraphy and Meditation

Healing & Meditation

Ganga talks about calligraphy and how it can be helpful (and fun) for meditators

In the slideshow of my memory which is arranged in colourful pictures, there is one of Ganga stirring a huge pot of jam with an enormous wooden spoon, and also another one where she is rolling apple and cinnamon filling into the thinnest layer of dough imaginable, to make a traditional strudel. But in my ‘real’ collection of photographs I have one showing her holding a tray of calligraphy symbols she had baked for us. It was taken during a workshop run by master calligrapher Qui Zheng Ping, where Alok acted as a translator, Ganga as the organiser, and a few of us as helpers. Since I am now living a few minutes from her home, it is high time to squeeze out of her a few answers about the subject of calligraphy, a great passion of hers (and mine). With a fresh cup of Earl Gray tea in our hands I ask her my first question:

What does calligraphy have to do with meditation?

Calligraphy is a free, spontaneous expression of oneself and that is the link to meditation – it happens in the moment.

It is ever such a beautiful moment when you are standing in front of the white paper: you empty yourself and then you wait. All of a sudden something starts moving – I get goosebumps just thinking of it – I don’t know, and nobody knows what is going to happen. And then there comes this impulse and in a couple of seconds it is on the paper.

In a nutshell this is why I love calligraphy. It is the expression of something inside which has to do with me, of course, but at the same time it has nothing to do with me. Something is coming through and that is exciting. It is a happening like giving birth or being present while a birth is happening.

Another similarity to meditation is that nothing can be corrected – what is, is. Calligraphy paper is very absorbent and very responsive to ink and water. It is not like using acrylics where you can apply layer over layer without loosing lucidity. You have to make your strokes in one go. That’s it, a unique statement of the moment.

When you practice calligraphy, in particular when in a group, it makes you see various aspects of yourself, of your personality and ego structure. Pride comes up when you have done something beautiful. If you are competitive, you will check if others are doing more beautiful things than you and your nose goes up in the air when you are doing better than others. Or the disappointment when you have done something beautiful and then you add one more stroke and mess it all up.

There are plenty of opportunities to see yourself in various moods and emotions in a very short time span. Even tears might be shed because you might feel: “I can’t do it! I am too clumsy! I am too this and not enough of that!” This is the same as when you sit and meditate: in one sitting you just sit quietly and in the next crowds of monkeys jump about inside your head.

From whom have you learnt calligraphy?

I was working at the School for Centering and Martial Arts of the Multiversity in Pune – since
calligraphy is one of the paths to enlightenment in the martial arts tradition it came to this school – and I was asked if I would organise the workshop together with Alok – a wizard of elating energy paintings, by the way. He was friends with calligraphy master Qui Zheng Ping, who was invited to come from China. Master Qui was the first person to teach at the Multiversity who was not a sannyasin. He also had the priviledge to paint in Osho’s garden and illustrate Osho’s last book: The Zen Manifesto. He died last year.

I loved calligraphy immediately: it touched something inside of me which was very precious. I organised his workshop for six years in a row. What I appreciated most in master Qui was his knack to trigger creativity and enthusiasm in people. All shyness went out the window in no time. The atmosphere in his workshops was always very light and joyful and everybody felt encouraged. He had a great sense of humour, but also a lot of power. He had some huge brushes in his collection – the Buddha brush was the largest one, it took both hands to embrace the bristles. But he could paint with anything: a piece of bamboo fallen from a tree, the long hair of somebody bending over, a flower or even tissue paper – just to show that material things like brushes and techniques were not important.

Master Qui Zheng Ping also had an incredible sense of spacing: each year we had an exhibition and he would write on a huge banner – he would just look at it and start writing. The result was always perfect: all the spaces between the characters were even with no spare space or squashed letters at the end. He started as a calligrapher in a factory where he used to write on bags of rice and at a harbour where he wrote the names on ships, if I remember correctly. At any rate, he always liked BIG letters so this story might fit. Then by and by he found his own expression and he was one of the first calligraphers who were exhibited, while still alive, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. I believe Alok also has a painting there.

Another peculiarity of his was that he had an astute sense when something interesting was happening in the class, as if he could smell it. He would suddenly dash across the room – with me in tow – and praise the beautiful calligraphy somebody had just done. “Goodie, goodie!” “Very goodie goodie!” I learned a lot from him!

When did you start teaching calligraphy by yourself?

For many years I have been leading Awareness Intensives (also called ‘Who is in?’ or ‘Satori’), a powerful self inquiry technique, first in the Multiversity and now out of the Academy of Awareness and Creative Expression which I run. Many participants told me that they quickly fall back into their old habits and had difficulties to integrate in their day-to-day life what they had discovered during the Satori process. I have been looking for ways which will help anchor the experience in the body and found that a combination of Satori with either movements like Qi Gong or Gurdjieff Movements, or creativity like calligraphy, painting or clowning, is ideal. This means that in the first days the emphasis is on Awareness and in the last days on the additional technique, but not so much on learning the technique, but rather as an anchor for the newly discovered ways of experiencing.

To do calligraphy, which comes out of no-mind, right after a Satori workshop is just perfect.

What do you teach in the workshops?

What I am mostly interested in is to kindle that spark of free expression. One has to forget all ideas about how to paint and all plans of what to paint. We need to be just present and available in and to the moment.

So, in a way, what I teach has nothing to do with Chinese calligraphy as such, but I do show the basic principles of Chinese calligraphy: the preparing of the ink with an ink stone (a strong centering device), how to hold the brush and allow the strokes to come out of a loose wrist, which is very different from the stiff way we hold pens, pencils and brushes in the West. The whole body needs to be loose and this is one of the reasons why we do Osho’s active meditations in the mornings and evenings. If we paint with a stiff shoulder, with locked knees, or are stifled by fear and emotions the flow will not be there. In fact, all good calligraphy strokes come out of the hara. Movements coming from the belly are vibrant and alive, have power and grace.

I show the main brush strokes following the ‘one, two, shrrreee’ principle which master Qui taught us; i.e. most strokes begin and end in the opposite direction of the stroke, containing the energy in the stroke with a free flow in the middle. I also demonstrate how to load the brush with water and ink to create different effects and complete a stroke in one go without reloading and breaking the energy; how to vary the width of the stroke by pressing down or lifting the brush up to a single bristle of the tip. The Chinese brushes are round and have a very fine tip consisting of just a few hairs, and usually a quite big body or belly which can hold a lot of ink.

We use cheap, untreated newsprint paper which has similar absorbent qualities as the traditional rice paper. This helps to express with abundance and free of inhibitions because it is not ‘the good paper’ and it does not matter if we ‘spoil’ it; but I do introduce rice paper in the first few days already with the encouragement to use it right away and not to keep it for later when we paint ‘better’. We are masters already!

Apart from the paper with all its surprises, there are the surprises coming from the brush: the way we load it, the balance between water and ink (either the ink or the water first). Then there is the speed of the stroke: if it is slow more ink flows onto the paper and the stroke becomes bigger; if it is fast, the stroke becomes thinner. We can wet the paper first or spray it with water later, and we can use different coloured inks. Also the paintings change once they are totally dry and after having mounted them. Without even mentioning the ‘accidents’ which might either destroy the painting or give it that special something which turns it into a masterpiece, we never know the outcome, we can only be with the flux of change – like in meditation.

At the end of each day we choose our five best paintings, introduce them to the others and explain why we have picked those five. This way we learn to present our creations and the moment we hear the appreciative feedback about them, we experience the effect they have on others: what’s precious and meaningful for one might not be for another. Not only do we learn to expose ourselves to others and receive feedback – especially with something we do not have much practice with – but we also expand our scope by taking in the creations of others. We become less judgemental towards ourselves and get more distance from other people’s judgements.

The main mode in these workshops is experimenting, free expression, daring to try something, daring to make a mess – expecially on ‘the good paper’ – and to celebrate being alive.

Ganga took sannyas in 1975 and spent many years in Osho’s communes. She has been running the Satori (Enlightenment Intensive) process since 1976 and travels the world with her workshops. Her next one which combines Satori with calligraphy will be held in the beautiful, unspoilt nature of the Bulgarian mountains (20-30 July 2011).

Interview by Punya for Osho News
Photos by Anna Simeonova and Regina.

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