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First Principle

September 21, 2013

by Stephen Damon

When one goes to Obaku temple in Kyoto he sees carved over the gate the words “The First Principle.” The letters are unusually large, and those who appreciate calligraphy always admire them as being a masterpiece. They were drawn by Kosen two hundred years ago.

When the master drew them he did so on paper, from which workmen made the larger carving in wood. As Kosen sketched the letters a bold pupil was with him who had made several gallons of ink for the calligraphy and who never failed to criticize his master’s work.

“That is not good,” he told Kosen after the first effort.

“How is that one?”

“Poor. Worse than before,” pronounced the pupil.

Kosen patiently wrote one sheet after another until eighty-four First Principles had been accumulated, still without the approval of the pupil.

Then, when the young man stepped outside for a few moments, Kosen thought: “Now is my chance to escape his keen eye,” and he wrote hurriedly, with a mind free from distraction. “The First Principle.”

“A masterpiece,” pronounced the pupil.

One immediately senses that the author is talking not about a teacher and a student but rather two parts of the master calligrapher. In order for the master to succeed in drawing a perfect character he must be free of his ordinary discerning intellect that prevents him from seeing things as they are.  He must be free not only of judgments but of all pre-conceived ideas of beauty and perfection.  He must be free of everything that has gone on before in his life so he can live freely in the moment. He must be free of thought.

Thinking Mind is never directed on knowing myself as I am in this moment. It is difficult for thought to remain on what is, because it is based on memory and is constantly visualizing the possibility of becoming. We need to detach from the desire to become in favor of simply to see what is. It is difficult for my thought to stay in front of the unknown. The calligrapher must abandon belief in everything he knows, even the trace of the preceding moment.

Only then will his brush be able to express the birth and death of a moment that has never been before and never will be again. A moment that contains the three worlds and the ten directions. As Dogen put it in Uji, each moment is all being, each moment is the entire world.  Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment… And so the master’s effort to draw the symbols for “first principle” will be perfect only if he is free of all distractions and sees everything—inside himself and outside himself—exactly as they are.  Only then will his drawing contain everything that ever was and ever will be—all Buddhas and sentient beings. How remarkable that it took only 84 tries to do that!

His brush strokes may not look quite right from a “phenomenal point of view,” but even the imperfections somehow express the master’s sincere effort to see things just as they are. And so, his painting will bring the viewer into a deeper state of stillness and quiet. A painting is a masterpiece, not because it is perfect in any conventional sense, but because it evokes something very deep and unknown in the viewer.  Look at an ancient calligraphic scroll and see how you change. Of course, it may not be so easy to look at a painting and “get” what it expresses. To do that, we first must be able to see ourselves, completely and fully, from moment to moment.  Only then will we be able to see each moment as a masterpiece.


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