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Hitsuzendō: The Practice of Zen Brush Painting

The practice of Zen brush painting originated in East Asia where painting was considered a Zen practice. This type of painting is also known as Hitsuzendō which translates to ‘the way of the brush’ or Sumi-e which means ‘ink wash painting’. Zen brush painting is often based on traditional Japanese calligraphy forms but can also take the form of intuitive markings or forms of the natural world. The objective of Zen painting is not always to create a piece of fine art but rather it is a practice; a meditation in the presence and embodiment of Zen teachings. Within this article, we shall explore this topic further starting with a summary of Zen concepts in order to effectively understand how this technique of painting is part of Zen practice as well as more details of Zen brush paintings significance and forms. We will conclude with simple suggested steps on how you can experience Zen brush painting yourself.

The Practice of Zen Brush Painting

Zen is a way of life; there are a variety of teachings within Zen that can be embodied to experience liberation and enlightenment. Zen brush painting can be intentionally used as a practice that encompasses the teachings of Zen. The foundational elements of a Zen way of life are presence, meditation (Zazen), going with the flow, acceptance of duality and acknowledging and experiencing the sacredness in everyday life and all activities. Knowing these elements of Zen it is easy to see how painting can be a Zen activity. If you are interested in learning more about Zen teachings in general we suggest reading our blog post 7 Life Enriching Teachings of Zen.

Zen brush painting is the intentional use of simple and intuitive brush painting to embody the teachings of Zen. Each Zen painting can be regarded as a unique marking or brushstroke representing the presence in the moment it was created. The painter of a Zen painting usually approaches his/her brush and ink with a meditative mind state and with reverence and intention to connect and flow with the brush and materials. Creating a Zen brush piece can be considered a channeling of divine energy; life force or chi flows through the painter in the moment of presence and is expressed as a brushstroke. A Zen brush painting can also be considered a practice of connection, expression, active meditation, learning to accept the markings made by the brush without judgments of good or bad, ugly or beautiful but rather as a representation of going with the flow and grounding into the unique present no matter what it holds. Zen brush painting has this element of learning to go with the flow as it teaches the painter to release control of the outcome, to go beyond the ego, to simply allow what is and accept whatever the outcome may be; this is a core aspect of a Zen way of life.

Symbolism in Zen Brush Painting

Zen brush painting can take on various intuitive forms. Traditionally symbolism with this type of painting includes calligraphy, natural forms and most commonly what is known as an ensō which is a circular form that is usually created in a single or only a few sweeping brush strokes. The ensō or Zen circle can be representative of the completeness or wholeness of each moment. The ensō is both a universal and a unique form, in the flowing motion of Zen brush painting each circle painted will have intricate nuances as each present moment is intricate and different.

The forms created through Zen brush painting can also be likened to Koans (which are Zen riddles that are paradoxical and enlightening in nature) as they are often abstract forms that don’t have to make sense to the rational or logical mind.

An interesting artist that primarily focuses on creating Zen brush paintings and shares his practice is Kazuaki Tanahashi. A poetic documentation of his process can be seen in the documentary entitled The Brush Mind.

Creating a Zen Brush Painting

An enjoyable way to understand Zen brush painting is through firsthand experience of this practice. You do not need to identify as a creative or artistic person to be able to experience this practice as it is really not about thinking, innovation or creativity but rather about centered connectedness, flow, presence and acceptance. Below are some suggested steps to consider:

  1. The materials you will need are: a brush (a calligraphy brush or any larger soft bristle brush will do), a large piece of paper and ink, thin paint or even plain water can be used (water will create an ephemeral piece).

  2. Once you have prepared your materials, take a moment to center yourself in the present moment. You can have a meditation or breathwork session or simply clear your mind in whatever way works best for you.

  3. When you feel ready, hold the brush and take a deep breath in, swiftly dip your brush into your ink/water and as you exhale bring the brush to your paper creating the brushstroke that comes through as you exhale.

  4. The simplest way to begin your experience of Zen brush painting is to start with brushing an ensō (circular form) in a single brushstroke. You can also just let whatever wants to flow through you appear as brushstrokes.

Zen brush painting is an energetic and enjoyable way of embodying the elements of a Zen way of life. Allowing the energy of the universe that is always present to flow through and express in simple forms is an effective way of connecting to and grounding divine energy and perspectives into your life. __Written by Music Of Wisdom team

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