“Pure Movement, Aikido, and Big Brush Calligraphy,” by Gary Ohama

“The bushi used calligraphy as he did the other arts: as a method for simultaneously centering and balancing his mind and body. Any faltering, any self-consciousness will show up in his work.”

“On the highest levels the calligrapher moves in a world of pure form.”

Such finesse can also be displayed in Aikido Martial Art. The calligraphic beauty is observing the combined form of both the thrower and the receiver throughout the technique.

A perplexity is how to reach this level of performance; and/or this a state of being? The dilemma is that is most of this knowledge is received by a very privileged oral transmission. Often this is under the condition that this is for one’s own use and not taught, or even displayed to others. We know such things exist; but it is the “how” that remains elusive.

There also could be a path of individual training that leads to this insight. Perhaps Musashi Miyamoto may have been on this pathway. Tesshu had his students concentrate on three years of preliminary study. This was front cut for his sword students; and the single horizontal line “ichi” for his calligraphy students. Tesshu’s school curriculum was for sword, calligraphy and Zen. Maybe there is a connection?
Hiji/himitsu “hidden secrets” of mastery are recognized by another master.

For example, ”the instant the brush first comes into contact with the paper, reveals the state of mind of the calligrapher.” To an experienced physician, the state of a patient’s brush stroke reveals much about the condition of the patient. There are stories about how Mushashi instantly recognizes the master’s expertise displayed in the cut end of a flower; and in the decorative design strokes cut into a tea master’s clay fired tea bowls. Such “one opportunity” techniques are only evident to a likewise trained master. We don’t know what we don’t know. This performance is conveyed as being in a particular physical, mental, and spiritual realm. A prized calligraphy is one brushed by a Samurai before he engaged in battle. Who he was in mind, body, and spirit would be recorded throughout time on this sheet of paper.

Miyamoto Mushashi, as did Chinese calligraphers before his time, considered calligraphy as the “Battle of the Brush.” Played out and preserved on a sheet of paper this “one opportunity,” one moment, in time is identical to the “one opportunity” of a well executed sword cut, or martial art technique.

Such finesse is also displayed in Aikido martial art. Just as a piece of paper records the resultant brush stroke of the calligrapher; so does the receiver (uke or tori) of the technique display the particular nuances of Aikido technique. Displayed in the movements and reactions of the receiver are the sophistication of the particular encounter. Both the thrower’s and receiver’s body form is a “calligraphy.”

It is very difficult to analyze one’s own movement. It is difficult to record movement for the purpose of analysis. Brush and paper does this. A “big brush” magnifies movement, even if the character is the single horizontal line of the word “ichi.” Use of the “big brush” on a large sheet of paper requires the ability to move the entire body with the center/hara, in a breath rhythm, executing properly proportioned brushwork, and conveying the Zen spirit onto the paper. Perhaps this is the ultimate test of total body form, training, and spirit. Practicing in the calligraphic medium is an easy to understand means of entry into the advanced world of mastery. Concepts are able to be turned into a visible reality.

In my personal collection of Zen scrolls is a “Daruma” by Oiishi Junko. The Daruma’s back is a single, long, curving line. The delicate lack of tension in this perfectly brushed arc is a wonder to experience; and to me is a highlight of the scroll. It is of note that Junko held the brush in her mouth, and had to move her body to create the length of this arc. She had both her hands cut off when she was young, and a promising dancer. Her flawless calligraphies are highly treasured because of the spirit in her brushwork.
Live opportunities to see “big brushwork” in action are rare. However, there are two examples of John Stevens doing “big brush” calligraphy on youtube. One is a very huge, moplike, brush writing of an eight foot tall “hikari” (light.) The other is a four to five foot “Zen Dragon.” This fall there will be a “big brush” calligraphy workshop with John Stevens in New Hope, PA at the Nakashima Woodworkers Compound. See the Events Forum of aikidojournal.com for upcoming details and reports on past workshops.

This article is also located in the “General Forum” section of aikidojournal.com.
Sword and Brush, The Spirit of the Martial Arts, Lowry, Dave, Shambhala, Boston, 1995.
Sacred Calligraphy of the East. Stevens, John, Shambhala, Boston, 1995.
Japanese Painting, Bowie Henry, Dover Publications, NY, 1952.
Zen and Japanese Culture, Suzuki Daisetz, Princeton University Press, 1973.


  1. …am not much of a calligrapher. the paper, even the brush, have individual characteristics, but not to the same extent as an uke. an image i like is sharpening a blade. the stone gets worn. steel is also taken from the blade. both mix in the oil between them and in the motion of the process…

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