As I made mention a few shodo posts ago, I attained a ranking of first Dan in kanji in shodo. I picked up a brush for the first time in my life exactly 2 years ago and I think at the time my teacher didn’t quite know what to make of me. One of my coworkers – an art teacher – had always given off an aura of one who knew calligraphy, so after a while of internal debating I decided to ask her if she took classes and where. At first she wasn’t very helpful and I got the feeling she didn’t want to introduce me to her class – something I can understand completely – but after enough goading she did finally give me an introduction to her classroom.
Only a month before I started attending class the founder of the school had had a stroke and his main student was taking over for him. My teacher, 竹風, has a thick country accent, thick-framed glasses, curly hair, and a very friendly demeanor. From what I can gather, he’s retired self-defence forces, and when he moved to the area years ago on duty, began learning shodo for the first time. I really respect the guy, I just have no idea what he’s saying 95 percent of the time. I know I could learn so much more if I did but I do the best I can to watch his writing with careful attention. For his part, he has probably never met a foreigner yet took me under his wing after only a month of giving me random work to see whether or not I’d stick around. Now that his teacher has given up teaching, 竹風 holds lessons at a nearby citizen’s hall every week. I get the feeling a lot of the students that once used to attend the other teacher’s class have fallen by the wayside, so I do my best not to disappoint him and to repay him for his investment of time in me. Honestly, it’s thanks to him that I’ve found shodo as engaging as I have, so my personal goal is to be the best student he could have ever asked for.
The Black Belt
I took lessons in American Kenpo Karate throughout my junior high and high school years. While I never took it very seriously, I can remember something my teacher told me in the first few weeks of classes. I don’t know how true this is, but I’ll recite it the best I can:
The black belt is the first step to real mastery. When a Karate-ka first receives his black belt, it is clean and new. But as the years go on and the martial artist builds experience, the black on the belt wears away gradually until there’s nothing left but white, and they are back at the beginning.
Obviously this speaks to the circular nature of mastery. Personally, I think there’s something about the fundamentals that you can never quite separate yourself from when pursuing any discipline. I mean, at 30 years of age I don’t really feel that I’ve mastered anything by any means, but from what I can tell, you can never escape the fundamentals. You start with them, and you build on them, but at the end of years and years of practice, you find masters cutting away from the fluff and returning to the fundamentals. With my calligraphy, penmanship, and martial arts (even my art), it’s easy to feel rushed and want to learn as many new things as you can, but at the end of the day, if you can’t make the fundamental strokes or moves with true skill, then you have nothing.
Adding to these words from my Kenpo Karate teacher are some thoughts I have about mastery that come from my Japanese study. I can remember very clearly how I felt when I got N1 on the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. The thought in the forefront of my mind ever since gaining that qualification is that I basically know nothing. Here I was, sitting with the highest level of qualification a foreigner can get in Japanese, and I still would struggle with watching a television show. The lesson? The first step to mastery is realising how little you actually know.
A first degree black belt isn’t the final level for a reason. N1 may be the highest level of qualification, but it isn’t the end of the road. The first Dan is an opportunity to step back and take an objective look at your progress. It’s an opportunity to strengthen fundamentals. In many ways, it’s only the first step. Everything up until now was just learning to put on your shoes and tie the laces.
*Calligraphy above courtesy of my teacher. Translation: A thousand-mile journey begins with a single step.