Chinese Brush SetChinese Brush Set base

Chinese Brush Painting Set

Meditative Art - Zen Ink Painting

Here are notes for a talk to the Emerald Coast Meditation Society on September 8, 2011.


Caroling will demonstrate Zen ink painting, a meditative art. She'll tell how she got into it as a graduate student in art, writing an MFA thesis on the First Zen Buddhist Painters, then continuing the practice as her artwork and meditation evolved. Discussing the materials, process, mindset, culture, and goals of this art form leads to diving deeper to find the principles involved. The basic relationship of simple ideas to meditation is the same whether the discipline is writing, music, yoga, martial art, flower arranging, archery or any creative endeavor, including math. To conclude, everyone will have a go with the brush, getting a feel for it. See examples here, related art work at Minnesota Ink Paintings and a hyperbook, Zen and the Art of Dividing by Zero. The artform evolved with the computers.


Set a long haired brush, rice paper, bowl, rag, slate ink stone and hardened-soot stick on a low table. Kneel so arms and torso can move freely. Focusing on the task, add water to the ink stone cavity. Grinding with the ink stick, continue to deepen concentration until the ink is black and ready to paint. Dipping the brush in the ink, test it in the bowl, shaping the bristles to a fine point. Let the image flow down through the arm to the brush and onto the paper in a quick series of strokes. It might take a few more touches and an inscription. The photos above show these materials in a Chinese brush painting set. The background to this page shows rice paper.

How and When I got into it

I was a graduate college art student without direction. In addition to various teachers, I had seen art in Minnesota, Europe, New York, and San Francisco. In 1958, life began to gel for me. I buckled down to finished my degree, realizing academia is part of me that I love. I studied oriental art from Mather. Suddenly my interest in Zen meshed with my need for a medium of expression. I began to ink paint.

Zen book by HerrigelIn 1957, at City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, SF, with beatniks, I found Suzuki's book on Zen Buddhism. I brought it back to MN and shared with my friends Bob and Nancy Pirsig. I was really impressed. It meant a lot to me. Through Pirsigs, I met David and Beverly White, who had studied at a Zen monastery in Japan. I read Zen in the Art of Archery. I studied oriental art history as part of my MFA degree. I took all the classes available from Mather, who taught them. I began to do ink paintings first on paper towels, then on rice paper with Japanese sumi ink ground with the ink stick on the ink stone.

When working on my Master's thesis, "The First Zen Buddhist Painters: Liang K'ai, Mu Chi, and Ying Yu-Chien, and their relationship to Contemporary Art", my interest in Zen deepened. I ferreted out any information I could find on Zen and ink painting. Read a lot of the new books coming out about Zen. Went to hear Alan Watts talk when he came to town.

I photocopied every picture I could find by the painters. The library had the Japanese art magazine Kokka. I studied the pictures. I copied them in ink and tried to emulate their method. I struggled with how to mesh this approach with my interest in Abstract Expressionism that had giant canvases and colored paint. The technical and material presence of the new art materials were far from the austere minimalism of the original Zen painters. The huge colored paintings took a lot more resources to create: more time space energy and money.

Color of course introduces a whole new set of technical considerations. The original Zen painters only implied color, with their black and white. I read Japanese Zen priest Basho's haiku-laden book about his walking trip through Japan. I tried to put poems with my drawings. But basic to that, it was inspiring to my sense of how to view reality. It was the philosophy of Zen. The essence was my inspiration. I struggled with it almost as hard as Unitarianism (I was brought up as a church-going Unitarian). I see my moves in life and art as a direct result of Zen. I have explained this in Liberating the Handmaiden (stained glass). And my visions are going on.

When I found Zen ink painting as a grad student, I had watched my mom painting landscapes, sitting outside with eye going back and forth from vista to canvas, needing the immediate stimulus, almost trying to short out any contemplation. In art classes we drew from a model the same way. I had been trained to think that if you didn't work from nature directly, your work would be lacking.

The Zen ink painters of China and Japan had a completely different tradition. Say my subject is persimmons (see famous ones). I contemplate persimmons. I seek to know the essence of persimmons, singly and perhaps in association with something else. I try to have no distance between me and the persimmon, no subject vs object. So I virtually become the persimmon. In this process, I do not have to continually observe the persimmon or think of the farming or my cultural bias. I might have seen and eaten the fruit yesterday. The painting matures in my inner vision. The soft tones. The stem connecting to the tree. The bird peck with outline of its bill. The ripe heaviness of the form. The slight wrinkling of the skin. The way it seems to talk to the other persimmons. It's all in my mind. When I feel ready I paint quickly. It is simple. Doesn't need color. Only the essence remains, nothing superfluous. The calligraphic inscription and the flourish of my brush might have some of my mood upon the eating. I hope that's not misleading. There is so much that could be said of Zen painting, but to find just the right words is hard.

How it carried on

Oh, the pain of coding. Such a thick medium. Remember how drawn I was to ink painting after oil painting. And painting after printmaking. And printmaking after photography. I wanted to be more direct, to get to the core vision with less craft and thought and pre-this and process that. But coding for the computer is quintessentially indirect. Skip a stained glass period and enter an electronic and technical writing for the computer industry stage in the 1980s, leading to my current web art.

Mac Calligraphy software and Michael Green's Zen and the Art of MacIntosh book helped me evolve meditative art in the HyperCard Zen and the Art of Dividing by Zero stacks.

See also Chris Pirsig's rakusu for an actual Zen priest's ink calligraphy.

MacCalligraphy box coverEnso in Zen and the Art of MacintoshZen and the Art of Dividing by Zero splash

I might concentrate on a symbol of wholeness, the circle. Here are circling fish in a dynamic Zen enso, a circle always moving to completion. Choose a 10-second video clip:

How meditative art might apply to day of silence

The ECMS sponsors 12 retreats on the equinoxes and solstices leading up to the solstice December 21, 2012. There are four events each year. During the retreat, in addition to meditation, there are non-verbal interactions between us, our activities, and our environment. In the breaks perhaps one could practice a meditative art. I haven't checked this with the retreat leader, so it is my own humble view.

For example, on one retreat walk outdoors, a person gathered samples from plants. When we returned, he broke the silence and told how his Native American grandmother identified and used these plants. His spontaneous sharing was valuable and memorable but it was out of keeping with the intent of the day. How could he have channeled his experience and energy more harmoniously for himself and others?

On the walk, he could have gathered the plants by intense experience of them at the time, rather than picking them. He would be meditating with the acorn, being an acorn, feeling the sap giving him life, generating the seed of the next generation. Still with him during the break he would like to create with this experience. Depending on his nature and what materials he has, he could compose a haiku or short writing. Or a drawing or ink painting. Or both. Maybe fold a very green napkin into a sphere. Act out acorn life as a modern dance. Make a journal entry. If he feels like sharing the expression he can add it to the display. He could discuss it during our noon or end of day sharing period. Perhaps he'd forget it until the next day, when he would blog it on our facebook page.

As understanding deepens, I encompass the paradox: meditation clears the way for art and can be a constant companion, yet meditation is not mired all this.

See Meditative Art or 12 solstices and equinoxes.
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