Flexible Focus #6: Peace in the Elements

by William Reed on June 17, 2010

A great way to gain flexible focus is to study elements of words, their roots, nuances, and varieties of expression. This can be done in any language, but in Chinese and Japanese you have the additional dimension of written characters (kanji), not only the elements or radicals which make up the kanji, but the remarkable range of expression made possible in writing with a brush.

Brush writing does for the written word what singing does for the spoken word.

Original brush calligraphy by William Reed, meaning 和 (wa, peace, harmony, Japan)

As in vocal music, as long as the word is legible and aesthetically appealing, the range of expression is limited only by your imagination and skill with the brush.

Let’s look at the elements in the character of 和 (wa). It is written with eight strokes in two radicals, 禾 (rice plants), and 口 (mouth). The image is distinctly Asian, that of families cultivating rice and being well fed. The character has multiple meanings: the congeniality of peace and harmony, the calmness of softening, and the country of Japan.

In Japanese the same character is alternatively pronounced wa (peace), yawaragu (to soften), and yamato (Japan). Moreover, Japanese also uses a syllabic hiragana character for pronunciation with unspecified meaning, and it so happens that the hiragana for the sound わ (wa) was originally created as an abbreviated way to write the Chinese character for 和 (wa). And this is only one of several thousand characters in common use, over 6,000 in the Japanese language, and possibly double that in Chinese. Now that is flexible focus!

Although the character of 和 (wa) is currently written with the radical for mouth on the right, there was a period in Chinese history when it was also acceptable to write the radical for mouth on the left, which is how I have painted it here. Just as the spelling and meaning of English words was quite different hundreds of years ago from what it is today, the kanji have also undergone an evolution, the knowledge of which gives them even more character.

The 禾 (rice plants) radical contains 5 strokes. In this painting, where the diagonal stroke at the top crosses the square, it created a chromatographic halo, with a serendipitous circle effect. I rendered the two lower diagonal strokes not as lines, but as a large red circle on the left, and a small red circle on the right side of the radical. This was both to highlight the circle theme, and to represent Japan’s national symbol, the rising sun. The 口 (mouth) radical contains 3 strokes, the left side, the right corner, and the lower side. I painted it using a more transparent tone of ink for contrast, overlapping the 禾 (rice plants) radical, and placed it on the left in the archaic-ancient style. The interplay of all of these elements creates a sort of ancient modern art effect, as well as an experience of flexible focus.

What I find fascinating about the character for 和 (wa) is that it contains three geometric elements which have deep symbolic associations in both Eastern and Western culture, the triangle , the circle , and the square . These are the very elements which I emphasized in painting the character 和 (wa), using different shades and colors of ink for contrast.

These three elements were used in the now world famous Zen painting by Sengai Gibon (1751~1837), a Zen Priest of the Rinzai School who lived in the Edo Period, and was known for his sense of humor and philosophical depth. This painting was untitled, and contains a circle, triangle, and square, painted in that order but from right to left. This painting has been appropriately given the title in English of, Universe. The circle contains all things and so represents the infinite. The triangle is the first form, and the square is the triangle doubled.

Sengai rendered a picture of the Universe in three elements, seeing the essential nature of things, and also implying the indefinite multiplication of forms which generates the world of phenomena, what the Chinese call the ten thousand things. The Chinese fascination for the connection between these elements and the many shapes that come from their combinations can be seen in the ancient seven-piece puzzle known as Tangrams.

Though Sengai’s expression may seem abstract, search the internet for the key words circle triangle square, and you find over 1.4 million references to the symbolism, many of them specifically about Sengai, Zen Buddhism, and Art. In Aikido, the same symbols are used to describe movement in circles, stance in triangles, and posture in the square, as well as to the deeper meanings in cosmology.

The circle triangle square also appear in another world famous work of art, the Vitruvian Man, created by Leonardo da Vinci in 1487. The fascination with these elemental shapes in the West goes back to 300 BC with Euclidean Geometry and its founder Euclid, whose primary work is known as Euclid’s Elements.

And we come full circle in returning to the Mandala, our primary tool for flexible focus, which itself contains each of the three elements, the circle in the view of the whole, the triangle in the division and the details, and the square in the flexible frames at every level.

Download a Mandala on Peace in the Elements of Wa to contemplate the rich meaning and associations of the simple character 和 (wa)

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