Religion and Philosophy in Chinese Calligraphy – Buddhism and Chinese Calligraphy: Mad Monks

Chinese Buddhism: The Chan Tradition

Since its first arrival in China in the Han, Buddhism has put down deep roots in Chinese society. Although Buddhism did not originate in China, to say that it is a ‘foreign’ religion is to disregard the majority of Chinese history, in which Buddhism played a major role. Moreover, the Buddhism that evolved in China is different from any other iteration of the religion, and must be considered in its cultural and societal context, according to its own characteristics. In general, Chinese Buddhism has emphasized meditation and monasticism above scripture and doctrine: the pursuit of enlightenment is achieved through casting aside the ‘illusions’ of text and even the physical sensations of the world.

In the Period of Disunion, we might hope to find the origins of what has come to be known as Chan Buddhism. During the Northern Wei Dynasty, it is said that the prince-turned-monk Bodhidharma (菩提達摩/Pu Ti Da Mo/P’u T’I Da Mo) came to China, preaching an extra-scriptural interpretation of Buddhism that was deeply suspicious of all methods of recording or explaining the fundamental nature of Buddha or the world.

As China was reunited in the formation of the Tang Dynasty, Chan Buddhism, based on the teachings of Bodhidharma, was divided into two major factions: the Northern and Southern Schools. Since its inception, Chan Buddhism has emphasized the idea of religious lineage: each enlightened master would select a disciple to carry forward his teaching just before his death. The sixth and last ancestral master, Hui Neng (慧能, 638-715 CE) was forced to flee for his life after receiving the endorsement of Hong Ren (弘忍/Hong Jen, 601-674 CE), the fifth ancestral master. The succession of Huineng remained a controversial issue in Chan: in the mid-8th century, the split between those following the teachings of Hui Neng and those asserting lineage from Hong Ren was formalized in the establishment of the Northern and Southern Schools of Chan.

The Northern School, following Hong Ren, asserts that enlightenment is achieved gradually. That is, that only through years of meditation and religious practice can the mind and body be attuned to perceive the Buddha. The Southern School, by contrast, states that enlightenment is sudden: that any person at any time may achieve enlightenment. While the meditation practice of the two schools may look quite similar, in the Southern School it is more the active pursuit of an enlightenment that could occur at any time. In the Northern School it is the painstaking pursuit of a gradual apprehension.

Buddhism in Calligraphy: Provocative Irreverence

The Calligraphic history of China contains many celebrated masters who had significant connections to Chan Buddhism. Indeed, for a long time, becoming a monk was one of the few ways that people of a low class could become literate and practice calligraphy. Likewise, between the 3rd and 6th centuries, the copying of religious texts served as one of the main tools for disseminating the somewhat new religion. A few monks would receive no small degree of commendation for their calligraphy. In many cases, such monks were celebrated as much for their odd behavior as for their calligraphy.

One such monk is Huai Su (懷素, 737-799 CE) of the Tang dynasty. He came from very humble origins to establish himself as one of the premier Cursive calligraphists of the Tang. Nevertheless, he enjoyed a reputation as a notorious drunk. Although monks were not allowed to drink, it is said that only in the grips of alcoholic stupor would Huai Su’s calligraphy totally express his mastery of calligraphy. He was known to write on any surface he could find: even temple walls were not safe from his brush. His style, emphasizing thin, dashing strokes with extensive exposed tips (link: Brush methods article explaining exposed/concealed tips) became known as “steel stokes and silver hooks” because of its wire-like strength and flexibility, as well as the sharpness of his tips.