Jan 24, 2008

10,000 ichi

When I took calligraphy lessons in Japan, I went to an old man who would teach me if I brought him tea sweets every week. He had many Western students, but they sometimes came, were late or did not bring sweets. I came promptly at 8:00 pm every Monday with my sweets to share.

Each week he would give students a character to practice, and other students would get characters like "willow", "horse", "dragon", "brocade of flowers". Some students would come for a few weeks and quit. Every week I got the character for "ichi", just one horizontal line. He would come and look at my efforts and say "da me, no good. mo ichido, do it again". I would practice at home all week and bring my best efforts to show him the next week. He'd look at them and shake his head. He never gave me technique instruction, he just said do it again. He would, however, straighten my posture and adjust my grip on the brush, but did not tell me how to achieve what he did with so much ease.

After six months of trying to copy exactly the character he wrote for me every week, the single character ichi, I asked sensei that because I was only going to be in Japan for one year, I would like to take home to show my mother another character. He said that I probably only wrote 5,000 ichi and to be competent, I would have to write another 5,000. But since I had been diligent and uncomplaining, he would give me a second character "for my mother". The character he gave me was "ju" or 10. It consisted of a single horizontal line and a single vertical line like a cross. So, as I had promised to write another 5,000 ichi, I could also practice the new charater ju. After one year of study I could write two characters passably -- ichi and ju.

In the end, though, at my last class, I went to the most expensive sweets shop in Kyoto and bought him their most famous sweet. He surprised me with two gifts. One was a brand new calligraphy brush that he said would be my friend for life. The other was a scroll he had written (unmounted) that read "yukima no kusa" and that means the sprouts of grass under the snow. He told me that he recognized that I was a serious and diligent student and he wanted to teach me the correct way.

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