The practice of sutra copying, Japanese shakyo, has been a major brush meditation throughout my life. I will introduce you to this virtuous shodo practice and show you some examples of my own style of sutra writing of the Heart Sutra. You can also see some calligraphies of the Heart Sutra at my Shodo Art Gallery.
Sutra copying is a Buddhist practice and a special way of doing Japanese calligraphy. It is the art of copying a Buddhist sutra with awareness and it brings together the ideals of genuine shodo. Shakyo harmonizes body and mind and through their integration creativity flows freely.
Sutra copying is a very inspiring brush meditation, which you can make yourself easily familiar with. In silence and with awareness you write down the characters with the brush, one after the other. Slowly the words of the Blessed One flow through you and artistic formed kanji appear on the blank sheet. Shakyo gives you a feeling of bliss, your mind and body are calm and you become one with the Buddha. The whole
event inspires respect for the Dharma and you feel a growing gratitude for the precious teachings.
Now I will show you by means of the Heart Sutra how you can practice sutra copying on your own.
The sutra that I write time and again is the Heart Sutra, in Japanese Shingyo, in Sanskrit, Prajnaparamita Hirdaya.
Why the Heart Sutra
I was drawn to this sutra from the very beginning. It explains in very few words the teachings on emptiness, the essence of the Buddhist Dharma. When reciting or chanting it or doing shakyo of the Heart Sutra the teachings on emptiness flow into my mind, the words are impressed in my mind and they invite me to contemplation. When I first did sutra copying of the Heart Sutra I did not understand anything, but I was captivated by the text and I did not let go of it. I wrote the characters down with the brush over and over and slowly, through shakyo, literature, contemplation and in particular through the teachings of the masters I started to understand it.
Each new copy of the Heart Sutra leads to more insight.
How many times will I have to copy the Heart Sutra until I really understand these profound teachings? Hundred, thousand times?
If the Heart Sutra inspires you likewise, I would like to encourage you to do sutra copying yourself. The Heart Sutra is not long; it only has 276 characters, depending on the version you choose, and it is therefore appropriate for our busy life.
Brush meditation, sutra copying of the Heart Sutra.
The following explanation assumes that you are already familiar with the basic principles of Japanese calligraphy.
Take your time and calm down – To do sutra copying you need a quiet place, where you can be on your own for a while and nobody disturbs you. The best is to do a short sitting meditation before you start with shakyo.
You need a writing table, a flannel undersheet for protection and the “four treasures”: Chinese or Japanese rice paper, an oriental writing brush (about 2.5 cm/1 inch long), a good quality ink stick, an ink stone and some paperweights or stones to fix the paper on the table.
Create space and openness – Make sure that on your writing table there is nothing but what you need for shakyo. This spatial openness allows your mind to become clear and to expand and thus to create room for new experiences.
Fold the rice paper in squares. In China or Japan you can buy calligraphy sheets that are specially designed to write down one character below the other. If you do not have them, it can be of great help to fold the rice paper in small squares. In each square you write one character. Choose the size you want the kanji to be and fold the rice paper accordingly; for example squares of 2.5 cm/1 inch for small characters and of 4.5 cm/1.5 inch for bigger ones. Let a blank margin for the borders. Reflect for a moment on the size, if you just started doing sutra copying it is very important that you feel comfortable with the size you choose.
Make fresh ink – The grinding of the ink stick on the ink stone has a synergetic effect. It calms your thoughts before writing, it warms up your arm and hand and the room fills with the wonderful smell of the resins in the ink stick.
Adopt the right body posture – When grinding the ink you should adopt the right body posture, which you will maintain during the whole session of the sutra copying. Your back is straight and you do not lean against the chair. Spread out your legs slightly and make sure that both feet are standing firmly on the ground and well rooted in the earth. This posture allows your energy to flow freely through your body and that way you can move the brush fluently.
Now you can start the actual sutra copying itself.
Click on the image or on the link below for an enlarged view of this model for practicing sutra copying and some reflections by the artist.
Example of sutra copying of the Heart Sutra, written by the Korean calligrapher Kim Chong-hui, 1786-1857, Korea.
The original hard copy of the Heart Sutra you want to copy lies in front of you. Ink, writing brush and rice paper are ready.
Your body and your mind are calm and you have a feeling of spaciousness and openness.
Before you take up the brush, you take a deep breath and are aware of the three principles that are going to work together in your shakyo experience, the principles of heaven, earth and mankind.
The principle of heaven represents the silent emptiness from which the characters are born; it is the primordial energy of the characters, which is free from preconceived concepts –the space where you are moving in.
The principle of earth stands for the ground that makes your performance possible, the whole existing environment.
The principle of mankind is yourself who is joining heaven and earth through your creative expression with the brush.
Bring the brush to your forehead, lean slightly forward, as if you were greeting it. You are expressing your deep connection with the brush for the moments to come.
Traditionally you now take refuge in the Three Jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha and then recite the Heart Sutra.
Romanized text of the Heart Sutra in Japanese:
HANNYA HARAMITTA SHINGYÔ
KANJIZAI BOSATSU GYÔ JIN HANNYA HARAMITTA JI
SHÔKENGO UN KAI KÛ DO ISSAI KUYAKU.
SHARISHI. SHIKI FU I KÛ KÛ FU I SHIKI. SHIKI SOKU ZE
KÛKÛ SOKU ZE SHIKI. JU SÔ GYÔ SHIKI YAKUBU NYO ZE.
SHARISHI. ZE SHOHÔ KÛSÔ. FU SHÔ FU METSU FU KUFU JÔ
FU ZÔ FU GEN. ZEKO KÛ CHÛ MU SHIKI MUJU SÔ GYÔ
SHIKI. MU GEN NI BI ZETSU SHIN I. MU SHIKI SHÔKÔ MI
SOKU HÔ. MU GEN KAI NAISHI MU ISHIKI KAI. MU
MUMYÔYAKU MU MUMYÔ JIN. NAISHI MU RÔ SHI YAKU MU
RÔ SHI JIN. MU KUSHÛ METSU DÔ. MU CHI YAKU MU TOKU
I MU SHO TOKU KO.
BODAISATTA E HANNYA HARAMITTA KO SHIN MU KEIGEI
MU KEIGEI KO MU U KUFU ONRI ISSAI TENDÔ MU SÔ
SANZE SHO BUTSU E HANNYA HARAMITTA KO TOKU
ANOKUTARA SANMYAKU SANBODAI. KO CHI HANNYA
HARAMITTA ZE DAI JIN SHU ZE DAI MYÔ SHU ZE MUJÔ SHU
ZE MUTÔDÔ SHU NÔ JO ISSAI KU.
SHINJITSU FU KO. KO SETSU HANNYA HARAMITTA SHU
SOKU SETSU SHU WATSU:
GYATEI GYATEI HARAGYATEI HARASÔGYATEI BOJI SOWAKA.
Now dip the brush in the ink and write the first character, then the next one and so on, the whole way through until you have written the entire Heart Sutra. Write each character with full awareness. You are with the character, with the Heart Sutra and you do not let your mind wander. If your thoughts stray away, you bring them back. Be mindful. ‘Write’ each character clearly in your mind and then, in oneness, let it flow onto the paper. Thus the characters become more than a character, they are a true union with the words of the Enlightened One and this is a wonderful feeling.
After finishing the copy, you stay quiet for a while, you can look at the copy you just wrote, and then slowly you step out of the brush meditation. Now do the dedication, which is the perfect way to end the shakyo. You wish that the virtue of the sutra copying brought all sentient beings to Enlightenment.
I dedicate the virtue generated by this sutra copying to all sentient beings. Through this virtue may all sentient beings enter the way of the Buddha and achieve ultimate Enlightenment.
Treat the copy of the sutra with respect. Even exercises are carefully put away or burned. You can keep the copy in your temple or give it to your Buddhist community.
I hope that you feel inspired and that you will enjoy sutra copying.
If you want to learn more about the kanji of the Heart Sutra, their meaning and phonetic reading, click here for the kanji course of the heart sutra in Japanese.
Shakyo of the Heart Sutra in Seal Script
I have been practicing shakyo of the Heart Sutra for a long time now and I thought it was time to gather all my knowledge and experience of sutra copying in a book. In association with Stone Bridge Press, a Berkeley based publisher of quality Asian books, I have published my book The Heart Sutra in Calligraphy: A Visual Appreciation of The Perfection of Wisdom.
For anyone who wants to practice shakyo of the Heart Sutra, this book gives you the unique opportunity to do sutra copying of the Heart Sutra in the ancient Chinese seal script and enhance your shakyo practice with a fully new experience.