…because some thoughts are worth remembering
When I was young, even before attending elementary school, I recall attending different lessons, from piano (like every other Japanese girl) and swimming. I’m not sure how it came to be that I was to attend Japanese calligraphy 書道 (shodō, “the way of writing”) classes, but there I was, every Saturday morning, walking with my bag with my carefully packed 文房四宝 (bunboushihou, “four treasures of the study“), the four minimum elements you need in Japanese calligraphy: paper, brush, ink stick and an ink stone. Unlike Western calligraphy, the ink must first be prepared by hand. You sit on your folded legs on the floor, a form called 正座 (seiza, “proper sitting”), pour some water in the little well built into the ink stone. You drag some water out of the well of the ink stone with the ink stick and slowly grind the stick on the flat part of the ink stone surface. You push back the liquid into the well, and drag some more water out and continue the process in silence. When the liquid is dark enough, you are finally ready to start practicing.
But, of course, “the practicing of Japanese calligraphy starts with the making of the ink,” said my father, when I was doing my calligraphy homework. “You must make your own ink, and in doing so, you clear your mind to prepare for the brush strokes on paper.” As a kid, wanting to get on with it, the preparing of the ink was a chore and an obstacle to completing the lessons I didn’t enjoy in the first place. “My ink’s been fine!” I argued, but he had already started his instructions:
“You move the ink stick in a circular motion several times before you reach for the next batch of water.”
“How many times?”
“Several. You’ll know when it’s ready.”
He had other pointers: the angle of the ink stick, my sitting posture, etc.
But the most important thing instruction was for me to draw that circle on the ink stone with the ink stick. I was to visualize it in my mind’s eye. He said I had to think about it the whole time.
After several minutes of silence and circular strokes on the ink stone made by the ink stick, my father asked, “What are you thinking now?”
He caught me. I wasn’t thinking about the circle anymore. I wasn’t thinking about anything.
“The… circle,” I lied, knowing that’s what my father was expecting.
“No, you shouldn’t be thinking about anything by now.”
That day, I learned two things: I shouldn’t lie, and I knew what it felt like to meditate.