Sacred Calligraphy of the East

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By John Stevens.

For centuries, Buddhist teachings were transmitted orally.  Only after Buddhism reached China, Japan, and Tibet did written sutras assume a prominent role in propagating the teachings.  Shandao, the first patriarch of Pure Land Buddhism, made over ten thousand copies of the Sukhavativyuja Sutra (Amidakyo). As Stevens states, “The physical relics of Buddha are his ashes; the relics of his teaching are the copied sutras.”

In this beautifully illustrated book, ordained Buddhist priest John Stevens presents the religious art of calligraphy.  He covers the historical development of written language, Shakyo (the art of sutra copying), biographies of Zen calligraphers such as Ikkyu, Takuan, Hakuin, and others including examples of their work, and practical instruction on calligraphy materials and techniques intended to both inform and inspire.

Stevens discusses in detail the Hindu tantric philosophy of sacred sounds and the practice of meditating on Sanskrit seed syllables/mantras such as HRIH, a representation of Amida Buddha.  Also included is a chart of the thirteen principal Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who are venerated on specific days following a person’s death (Fudo Myoo, Shaka Nyorai, Monju Bosatsu, Fugen Bosatsu, Jizo Bosatsu, Miroku Bosatsu, Yakushi Nyorai, Kanzeon Bosatsu, Seishi Bosatsu, Amida Nyorai, Akushu Nyorai, Dainichi Nyorai, and Kokuzo Bosatsu).  Stevens provides individual explanations of these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas along with their corresponding characters, stroke order, and mantras.

Of particular interest is a fascinating description of the sutra copying offices established in Nara, the first one having been created in 728 by imperial order.  Over a 50 year period, that first office produced 16 complete sets of what was then the entire canon, one set consisting of 1,716 volumes.  Additional copies were produced by other offices in the years that followed.  Stevens also tells of the only two men to copy the entire canon by themselves.  Fujiwara Sadanobu (1088-1156) completed it in 23 years only to lose it soon after in a disastrous fire.  The priest Shikijo Hoshi (1159-1242) completed it over a period of 42 years.