There are a few simple rules of the order to use when brushing a stroke:

  1. Horizontal strokes are written from left to right and are parallel.
  2. Vertical strokes are written from top to bottom.
  3. Hook strokes run from top left to bottom left or bottom right.
  4. Brushing of characters generally proceeds from top to bottom.
  5. Brushing of characters generally proceeds from left to right.

Then there a number of other principles:

  • When strokes cross each other, horizontal strokes usually precede vertical strokes.
  • In some circumstances the vertical stroke does precede the horizontal stroke.
  • Centre strokes are written first and then the left and right strokes if the left and right strokes do not exceed two strokes each.
  • Outside frames first, but bottom closure is last.
  • Vertical strokes drawn through the centre are written last.
  • Right to left diagonal strokes precede left to right.
  • Strokes which cut through the middle of a character are written last.
  • Characters should be of the same size.

Taigu Ryokan (1758 - 1831) is a famous Soto Zen monk who excelled in Buddhist scriptural studies, calligraphy and poetry. In Izumozaki, where Ryokan was born, a legend is told of a Go game between Ryokan and Sekigawa Mansuke. Mansuke was a close friend of Ryokan’s and people would often ask him if he could talk, or even trick, Ryokan into doing some calligraphy. Everyone wanted an original poem written with brush and ink in Ryokan's own hand. Ryokan knew about this, of course, and the story that follows concerns an interaction between two good friends over a wager for calligraphy.

Legend has it that one chilly autumn morning Mansuke was picking persimmons in his garden when he turned to see Ryokan standing there, looking up at the sky dreamily. Mansuke climbed down from the tree and Ryokan said, “Let’s play Go today.”

Mansuke loved to play Go, so they went into his house and Mansuke immediately laid out his Go board and stones. But before they began to play he said, “Just playing an ordinary game of Go isn’t much fun. Why don’t we bet something? If you win….”,
“It’s getting cold,” Ryokan said, “so if I win, you could give me a quilted robe.”
“And if I win?” asked Mansuke.
“I have nothing to give you,” Ryokan replied.
“Then why don’t you do some calligraphy?” asked Mansuke, looking over at the brushes and calligraphy paper he had piled on his desk.
“All right,” agreed Ryokan.

They began to play, but Mansuke was much more skilled at playing Go than Ryokan was, (which Ryokan knew from long experience) so he soon beat him. And he insisted that Ryokan do some calligraphy. Ryokan took a fan from the desk on which he wrote:

Picking persimmons
my balls feel the chill
of the autumn wind

Mansuke read the poem with a bitter smile. They resumed playing and when Mansuke won, Ryokan wrote out the same poem. When this happened three times, Mansuke, in exasperation exclaimed, “Three times for that same poem about balls is too much!”,
“Well,” Ryokan replied, ‘you won the same game of Go three times, didn’t you? So I wrote the same poem three times.”

The First Principle

In the Zen tradition, any art form (and anything else for that matter) is considered to be capable of revealing the degree of 'mindfulness' of the artist, and their ability to accord spontaneously with both their own nature and the nature and character of the materials used.

Carved in large letters above the gate of Obaku temple in Kyoto are the words "The First Principle". Those who appreciate calligraphy consider the lettering to be a masterpiece, but the story of their creation is appreciated just as much.

The letters were first sketched on paper, then carved into wood. The story goes that Kosen, the Zen master who made the original sketches, was watched and constantly criticized by the student whose job it was to mix the calligraphy ink. Each time Kosen sketched the letters, the student would proclaim the result to be unsatisfactory.

Kosen patiently wrote out the words "The First Principle" again and again, and each time the student dismissed the result, until there were eighty-four rejected attempts. Fortunately, at this point the student stepped outside for a moment, and Kosen saw his opportunity. Quickly, and with a mind free of distraction, Kosen wrote, "The First Principle".

The student returned and saw Kosen's latest attempt. "A masterpiece", he declared.

Those truly familiar with Zen stories will know not to look for a simplistic moral or a straightforward lesson here, however tempting that may seem. Still, perhaps it does go some way towards illustrating which way you should move your brush when doing Japanese calligraphy.

Adapted from the account in "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones" by Paul Reps

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