The Way of the Brush
The following is an English translation of an interview conducted with Abe Shihan in the spring of 1995.
SENSEI, YOU ARE WELL KNOWN AS A MASTER CALLIGRAPHER, HOW WAS IT THAT YOU STARTED DOWN “THE PATH OF THE BRUSH?”
I used to be a school teacher, first at the elementary school level, then at a girls’ school, and then at the junior and senior high school and university levels. During that time, I often asked myself, “What is the most important thing I can impart to my students?” One of the answers I arrived at was “to appreciate, value, and honor one’s parents.” This conclusion was probably influenced, at least in part, by the general Japanese cultural value of taking one’s household and ancestors into consideration before thinking about oneself.
In my case, my father happened to be a skilled calligrapher, so I thought the best way to “honor” him, as it were, would be to take up the brush myself. Doing so became one of my goals in life. By coincidence my mother’s name happened to be “Fude,” which is also the Japanese word for “brush!” Anyway, it seemed apparent to me that part of my destiny lay in trying to make something of myself as a calligrapher.
My father had studied calligraphy under a well-known Osaka calligrapher by the name of Ekido Teranishi and therefore his style bore Teranishi’s influence to some extent and he became quite skilled. It occurred to me that I was probably the successor, and that is how I came to take up calligraphy myself.
HAS CALLIGRAPHY BEEN A TRADITION IN YOUR FAMILY OVER THE GENERATIONS?
Yes, for quite a while it seems. Ever since I can remember practically every room in our house has always been decorated by the framed calligraphic works of previous generations.
Encounter With Misogi
I’VE HEARD THAT AT ONE POINT IN YOUR CALLIGRAPHY CAREER YOU FOUND YOURSELF AT SOMETHING OF A DEADLOCK –A PERIOD OF STAGNATION, IF YOU WILL– AND IT WAS THEN THAT YOU DISCOVERED A GROUP CALLED THE MISOGIKAI THAT HELPED YOU BREAK THROUGH THAT BARRIER. COULD YOU TELL US A BIT MORE ABOUT THAT?
One’s growth as a calligrapher comes in a number of stages. To begin with, you learn how to work with the “form” or “shape” of the characters. Fortunately, there are so many examples of beautiful form –going all the way back to the Han Dynasty in China even– that there’s not much chance of stagnation when it comes to exploring form. Where I started to run into trouble was in my exploration of “line” (although “line” may be too simplistic a term), which is what you work on after you’ve mastered form to a certain degree. When it comes to line, concepts like “thickness” and “thinness” are easy enough to understand, but in addition to these you also have to work with “depth” and “shallowness.” Shallowness is easy enough to understand as well, so what I was having trouble with had to do with adding depth to my brush strokes. Such depth is more or less invisible to the eye, yet it is still one of the qualities that gives life to a calligraphic work. So much so, in fact, that it may be considered the very heart and soul of Japanese calligraphy. The degree of thickness or thinness is a relatively visible quality that determines whether a line conveys the intended degree of energy or vigor, but qualities like depth (and also “height”) are invisible to the eye and therefore much more elusive.
It was there that I found my growth as a calligrapher moving toward to an impasse. It was about that time that I first encountered Kenzo Futaki’s Misogi no Renseikai (Misogi Training Society). Kenzo Futaki was a Doctor of Medicine and a pre-war student of Morihei Ueshiba. This Misogikai was a group dedicated to exploring and teaching methods that could be used to draw on a kind of “psychological” or “spiritual” strength beyond mere physical strength –what we might now call misogi (purification) to draw out” ki”. It sounded like exactly what I needed. The application date had already passed, but they made an exception for me and I was able to join the first session, which was conducted as kind of “training camp” consisting of about a week’s worth of seminars.
WAS THE MISOGIKAI THE CREATION OF FUTAKI SENSEI HIMSELF?
Yes, he was the one who set it up, although the training methods taught were derived from those formulated by Bonji Kawazura [philosopher who organized and formalized Japanese misogi practices], which were taught at the Misogikai by one of Kawazura Sensei’s students, Ken Tatsumi.
WHAT WERE SOME OF THOSE PRACTICES?
There are eight major ones. Standing under cold water (mizu no gyo) is one of the more well known. The eight include norito no sojo, mizu no gyo, furitama no gyo, ameno-torifune no gyo, chinkon no gyo, otakebi, okorobi, and ibuki no gyo, genshoku no gyo, and bunkon touitsu no gyo.
ARE THESE PRACTICES RELATED TO THE OMOTO RELIGION?
What Futaki Sensei and Kawazura Sensei were doing was based not on religion, but on traditional Japanese customs and mores. Misogi practices are really nothing more than specific formalization of various customs commonly followed by the Japanese in their daily lives in ancient times. They are not, in other words, derived from Indian Buddhism or Chinese Confucianism, but from ancient Japanese practices that are clearly documented in works like the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters). Kawazura Sensei’s work involved casting these in accessible forms that anybody can pursue.
DID KAWAZURA SENSEI EVER AUTHOR ANY BOOKS ON MISOGI?
One of best would be his ten-volume Bonji Kawazura: Collected Works. Although it is written in the formal Chinese style (kambun), it is still probably the most accessible work on misogi for ordinary Japanese people. The treatment of the subject gives readers an excellent sense of what Kawazura Sensei was all about, although, because he was a philosopher and a scholar of religion, the discussion becomes quite sophisticated and difficult to follow in places. Futaki Sensei, on the other hand, was a doctor trained in modern medical science, so he was easier to understand. He was also a scholar of the Kojiki and at the Misogikai presented his interpretations of the Kojiki and the norito which are formulaic statements or prayers, formulated in classical language, addressed to the deities present at Shinto rituals.
WERE THOSE INTERPRETATIONS PART OF THE SEMINAR SYLLABUS?
Yes. In fact, they were a primary focus of the seminar. In between cold-water training sessions we listened to Futaki Sensei lecture on his interpretations of the Kojiki and the norito. The cold-water training lasted anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour, four times a day (once in the morning, twice in the afternoon, and once in the evening).
Futaki Sensei was also an enthusiastic advocate of eating unrefined brown rice. Reducing your consumption of food is one of the most difficult aspects of misogi practice, but it is considered quite important based on the idea that eating a normal amount limits your mind to having only normal thoughts. Brown rice is good for this because it’s one of the best foods you can provide your body. The fact that it is unrefined puts it closer to living rice –it will sprout if planted, for example–, so eating just a little bit is enough. This “brown rice-assisted” reduction of food consumption comes first. Then you move into the cold-water training. Naturally pouring cold water over your body makes you cold, which leads then to the practice of furitama and, later, chinkon kishin. Altogether these comprise a set of practice toward a degree of enlightenment, toward the experience of a state of being of great spiritual height and depth that is inexpressible in words, a state of mind and being in which we truly know what it is to live and to be alive.