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SUMI-E, ZEN, AND THE MARTIAL ARTS

May 22, 2007
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Pete Starr author photo, B and WIf you’ve never seen it, the “ink and wash” style of Chinese chan* and Japanese zen art is exceptionally beautiful. These paintings are done on white paper using only black ink. Some of you might wonder, “What? Black and white? They can’t be too interesting if they lack color…” But you’d be very much mistaken; color would ruin them. It’s the stark simplicity of black and white that is an important part of their essence.

The so-called “zen art” method of sumi-e is my favorite. These works may contain only a few brush strokes and are usually focused on a single subject; a stalk of bamboo or a bird…and although you can look at these paintings and immediately identify the subject of the work you eventually come to realize that they’re mostly empty space.

The most highly skilled artists of this style use very few brush strokes to portray and give life and spirit to their paintings. Some of the most prized examples of this form of artwork were produced by Japan’s “sword saint”, Miyamoto Musashi (1584?-1645). They are very simple, use a minimal number of strokes and yet they capture the essence – the spirit – of their subjects. Musashi’s painting of Da-Mo (the legendary founder of Chan/Zen Buddhism who is also credited with originating the Shao-lin system of kung-fu) is especially well-known.

These seemingly simple paintings lack the multi-colors, the “busy-ness” of western artwork. Western art is like a candy store for the eyes; so much to see, so many things going on. Look here and you see one thing, look there and there’s something else. It’s like a kid in a candy store gorging him or her self on everything he or she can grab. And in doing so, the youngster tastes…nothing. Nothing distinct, anyway. With a mouth full of all kinds of different goodies, everything kind of tastes the same. A big glop, as it were. The child is so busy gulping down all the candies at once that he/she is unable to fully appreciate any one of them.

But zen art is different. It’s like taking a single piece of candy and savoring it. These paintings focus on only one thing, one subject. There is no solid background material to view.

And consider that most of the painting is comprised of…empty space! White, empty space.

Were it not for the few brush strokes which more or less “outline” the subject, there’d be just a sheet of white paper!

That’s right…outline! Unlike western styles of painting, zen artwork doesn’t concern itself with tiny details. At first glance you may think you see details (almost as if the painting is a black and white photograph) but when you grip your mind and look at the painting, you’ll notice that the small number of brush strokes just don’t contain any small details. Your mind provides them for you!

When you stop and think about it, it’s not so much the strokes themselves that make the painting what it is, it’s the empty space between them! The strokes actually direct your eye to the empty spaces and it’s because of this phenomenon that the art is so beautiful.

The forms of a given martial art are very much like zen paintings. The outward, obvious techniques and stances are like the brush strokes. But there’s a lot of empty space, a lot of white paper between them. And it is in those spaces where the true art lies. That space isn’t really empty.

Think about it.

*Chan is a Buddhist/Daoist synthesis. As an expression of art, it first became popular during the Southern Sung Dynasty period of China 1127 – 1279 A.D. Later it was manifested as a vital force in Japan, known today as Zen.

Bio: A martial arts practitioner for nearly 50 years, Pete Starr is a black belt in Kyokushin karate, trained in traditional shao-lin, xingyiquan, and baguazhang, and the author of The Making of a Butterfly, he lives and teaches in Omaha, NE. His upcoming book Martial Mechanics comes out in the Spring of 2008.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. cbfeeling permalink
    June 4, 2007 4:32 am

    I’m really glad Sifu Starr posted this article. I love making comparisons between the different Arts because there are so many similarities within the creative process of each discipline. As a musician I can appreciate the point he is making because there are so many so skilled players, but the ones that get my attention have the ability to convey more feeling in two or three notes as opposed to a hundred. Anyone who has listened intently to music long enough, has realised that the space between notes is just as, if not more important than the notes themselves. The silence is what gives the notes their meaning. His comparison between the painting and a form helped me to see that the use of movements within the form are not just opportunities for subjective interpretation, but potential for developing your own unique fighting style within the confines of your chosen system. I would encourage everyone who practices the martial arts, if they have not done so already, to learn a different form of expression such as; music, film making, pottery, gardening, painting, photography, etc. . You will be surprised at what you can learn, realise, and take back to your practice. Having more than one interest broadens the mind and makes you a more well rounded human being. Well done!

  2. pstarr permalink
    June 5, 2007 4:55 am

    Thank you for the kind words! It’s been said by numerous martial arts masters that the best martial arts practitioners are also practitioners or admirers of other art forms such as music, painting, shodo (calligraphy), ikebana (flower arranging), and so forth.

    I think that most people (especially Westerners) tend to limit themselves to seeing only the bright swaths of color or hearing only the most obvious notes. They’re like undisciplined children in a candy store.

    But in martial arts (forms) there’s much to be gleaned from looking into WHAT APPEAR TO BE empty, colorless, silent spaces!

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