Ink Painting

Ink Painting

The tradition of writing “haiku verse” painting lessons for one’s students began with ancient Chinese monk painters who prepared these versions so that their students might more easily memorize them.  This essay is in memory of my classmate Jim Luguri, a poet and teacher at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California, who first introduced the Haiku to me as a  “poem of one breath.”.

Five good friends meeting: 

water, paper, brush, ink and  


            Za Zen means “just sitting” which could be loosely paraphrased as not fussing around in mind stuff, but just sitting comfortably in each of life’s unfolding moments.  When chopping wood, as we have so often heard, chop wood.  When baking bread, bake bread.  When laughing, laugh aloud.  When painting, get on with it.  Just don’t make such a big deal out of art.  KISS, as my godson often reminds me: Keep it simple, stupid.

Water pouring on stone:                    

silences raw emotion,                            

quells a restless mind.

            Does painting come more easily to Orientals who grow up using a brush for all of their writing needs, including signing their names, or making shopping lists?  We Western folk tend to treat the artist’s brush as if it were a specialist’s tool, like a surgeon’s scalpel, rather than a common tool, like a pencil.  Probably many Americans have never held or tried to use an artist’s brush to express themselves since becoming adults.

Water is waiting                                                                                                          

patiently upon the stone                                                                                                    

to melt the coal stick.  

                  Using painting to express yourself is perhaps easier in cultures where the popular image of using a brush for self expression is not limited to a few, special, tortured souls with special talents.  After all in the East even as everyone uses a brush, so to everyone is considered to have some inner artistic talents.  All persons are invited to include some art making into their daily routines.  Emperors, soldiers, and monks all paint, write poetry and meditate.  Zen Emperors, soldiers and monks paint, write poetry and meditate Za-Zen, just sitting.  No big deal.  KISS.

In quiet circles                                                                                                                 

coal-stick and water make shades                                                                                     

of gray, hues of black.

                        For Westerners, learning to hold and manipulate a brush full of black ink can be a daunting experience.  One commonly begins by trying to exert too much control over the brush, either grasping it too tightly, or holding it too low, near the bristles.  Eventually with practice and more practice one loosens up on the grip, and begins to hold the brush more lightly and more in the middle where it can roll around in your fingers a little, and even dance onto the page, as they say.

Water and Ink-Stick 
when they combine they become: 
all dark and all light.
               One nickname for Zen style ink painting is  “The Dancing Brush School.”    The idea within this image is that the brush should be encouraged to dance its way across the page, rather than carve its way through the paper.  This aesthetic speaks among other things of incorporating any mistakes right into the texture of the painting, rather than trying to remedy them or cover them over.  Blots of ink, splashes, drips or sprays, can all add character to the picture, the dance.
Holding the brush stem
Lightly, uprightly, gently
Dip only the tip.
             But what exactly is one supposed to paint with this wobbly dancer –this pointed brush, using the fresh, fragrant black ink?   Well, Za-Zen.  Look around you.  What do you see?  Paint that.  Paint the trees, the flowers, the critters. Paint the world:  the rock, the river, the ocean.  Paint the sky with sparrows, swallows, and cranes, with ducks, hummingbirds, and owls.  Paint the stars.  Paint the Sun, brother Sun.

Pull the brush toward you
vary the pressure, the heft
Twist, curl and then lift.
                 In order for the brush to dance, one tries not let the needs of the anxious ego guide the painting nor satisfy the perfectionist yearnings of one’s chattering mind.  Zen painting says that art comes from a motiveless place, a relaxed place of just sitting quietly, Za-Zen, in the “now” and painting more with your heart than with expectations.  So, how does that happen?  Practice over time perfects the imperfect attempts of all those who are sincerely faithful to this sort of meditation.  It is an eventuality, like learning the piano if you practice.

Turn the brush sideways                                                                                                 

Pull it down, then lift it

Leaving a large smear.


One way to negotiate your painting experience past the quality-control issues of a critical ego simply involves using some speed in painting, by which I mean to say going a little faster than the censor can actually track.   The overall speed of ink painting is facilitated by the fact that once an ink stroke touches the paper, it can’t be deleted or painted over, as oil paints can.  Another sort of speed can be seen in the places within the painting that are without ink; the white spaces whose presence is so highly treasured in the Eastern tradition.

Take a tiny brush:                                                                                                          

dip it in dark ink and add:                                                                                              

contours to the smear.

There are many fine teachers and many fine books to help anyone who wants to begin to learn ink painting meditation.  But why would anyone even consider going there in the first place?  One good reason I have found is simply to engage in a spiritual practice that is beyond words. Ink painting practice is an investment of one’s time that is freed of words and therefore existing somewhere beyond verbal dogma along a truth or error continuum.  Instead, ink painting operates more along the lines of a holistic secular spirituality, such as petting the cat, gardening, cooking, musical improvisation, or dancing.  It belongs in the spiritual self-help category of “empowering oneself” rather than simply reading about what someone else has to say about fulfillment in life.

A rock, a boulder                                                                                                                      

a hillside, a mountain range:                                                                                                   

a smear of whitecaps.

         The question of ink painting is also as it turns out the Christian believer’s bottom-line question isn’t it?  Namely, how do we go about investing more spiritual empowerment into our daily lives, our daily bread?  Za Zen, pilgrims.  Ink painting meditation is one way.  Pick up your brushes and dance.

559 thoughts on “Ink Painting

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