Interviewsand Articles


Ron Nakasone on the Art of Sho

by Peter Doebler, Oct 30, 2015



photo by Jerry Hsu

Spend five minutes talking with Ron Nakasone and you will sense two things: a wisdom that makes you curious and a casualness that makes you comfortable. One example of this kind of relaxed intelligence was when I was having lunch with him and we were discussing some of the ins and outs of doctoral research. In an off-handed way he said, “Don’t worry about finding the answers; find the questions. When you find the right questions the answers will follow.”

     Dr. Nakasone’s inquisitive nature is evident in the variety of activities he has pursued and keeps pursuing. He is an accomplished scholar in Buddhist studies (he is a member of the Core Doctoral Faculty in Buddhist Art and Culture at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley), is an ordained Buddhist priest, is an active member in the Asian-American communities in the Bay Area, is a subtle gardener and—as will be seen—is a master of Japanese calligraphy. In May of 2015 I was able to sit down with him at his house in Fremont and talk at length about this art, one that for those outside of an Asian context may appear difficult to appreciate. Through our discussion I learned more about the art through the man, but also more about the man through the art. The following will hopefully introduce you to both.”

Peter Doebler:  How did you originally become interested in the art of sho?

Ronald Nakasone:  Well, just before I had left in 1969 for Japan to study, I started taking calligraphy lessons in Hawai‘i. There were many Japanese who still practiced the art at that time. And after getting settled in Kyoto one of the first things I asked Abe Masao [1915-2006]—one of my professors—was for a calligraphy teacher, and he introduced me to Morita Shiryu. So I began almost immediately studying calligraphy. That was from 1969 to 1975; I studied with Morita for about five and a half years. I studied with him for another year between 1979-1980 when I returned to work on my dissertation. That was a really nice experience for me, because studying calligraphy, like any other craft in the Japanese tradition, is not only to study a craft, but to be mentored by a teacher. We learn not only a craft, but how to be, I guess in a sense, how to be a human being.
     I should mention that my relationship with Morita continued. I would visit him each time I visited Kyoto. The last time we met was in 1998, three weeks before he passed away.

PD:  Your teacher was a significant avant-garde calligraphy artist. Can you tell me more about him?

RN:  Yes. I didn’t know that when I first met him. [laughs] But he was one of the first artists in Japan to introduce calligraphy—he calls it the art of sho—to the Western world. He was invited, I believe, by the Japanese government to represent the Japanese art world. He and other Japanese artists exhibited in Europe, South America, Montréal, and other places. This is where he apparently established his international reputation.
     Many people, especially Abstract Expressionists, were very interested in calligraphy because of its very expressive component, the dynamic brush. People like Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock, were very interested. And while I was in Japan, I would meet, from time to time, Western artists. I didn’t know who they were, but we’d have to go out to dinner and I was Morita’s translator.

PD:  That’s great. In addition to your teacher, the classics also form an essential part of training in sho. These are exemplary works from the past. What role do these play in your training?

RN:  Well, in Japan, or in the East, the way one studied calligraphy was to practice—to look and to write. We call that practice rinshō, “to see and to write.” “To see” means to look at an exemplary piece of work, to understand and to know how certain lines are made, how certain movements are made. The second step is to write what was seen.
    So learning technique is very important. Every individual, or every great master makes brushwork innovation, as it were, and so one would learn those techniques. More importantly, it is not so much imitation per se, but to get into the spirit of that writer and see what kind of a person is able to write such exemplary work. In a sense one enters into history and relives the past.
     For example, this piece, Rekihi [Ch Liqi], was written in 156 CE. This is a memorial that was found in Confucius’s hometown, Qufu; it’s a memorial to those who kept up, or preserved, the Confucius Family Cemetery. Now, this is a very old style. Its called reisho, or clerical script, and I really like this particular style because of its form. Also, these lines, because they’re so masterful, are very difficult to study, and very difficult to not so much mimic, but to understand how the brush is used, and the stroke order. The stroke order is quite unconventional.
    There are many, many great sho masters throughout history. Another one would be Ganshinkei [Ch Yanzhenqing, 709–785], the Tang Dynasty general and imperial bureaucrat; his sho is dynamic and masterful. Among the Japanese calligraphers who I especially like is Ryōkan [1758–1831]. His calligraphy is very, very difficult to—“copy” is not a good word—but to study because of its very delicate lines, but also because it involves quite a bit of breathing rhythm; so one gets to read or breathe, as it were, life into lines.

PD:  So it’s not just exemplary technique, but also exemplary moral spirit?

RN:  I don’t know if we’d call it “moral spirit,” but somehow when one masters a skill—any skill, not only calligraphy—one develops great confidence in oneself, and that can be seen. So, I guess one can say it’s a kind of a “self-development;” a “self-polishing.” The more one practices, the better one becomes, and somehow it gives one more confidence to be able to know that one can do better the next time one writes.

PD:  So by copying the masters it wouldn’t be so much you want to exactly imitate them, but that through them you will discover your own ability?

RN:  Yes. Now, when I do my own work, I need to forget what I had learned, so to speak, and that’s where the creative element comes in. It’s not only structure—that is, how a character is formed—but how one would place a character on a piece of paper; what kind of brush stroke would be appropriate for this particular character for this particular occasion. There are also other considerations. But oftentimes, no matter how much one calculates, one has to get rid of the calculation, and I guess the word now is get “into the zone.” Buddhism would say the samādhi of writing. And when one becomes what one writes, it is really a reflection of one’s self. It’s really a wonderful moment. Those moments don’t come too often, though! [laughs] So you practice, practice, practice, and when something appears that’s very good. One knows.
Yuta (Shaman) 2014

PD:  You’ve said that sho is basically just writing an ideogram, but of course there are thousands. In preparing to do a work, how do you choose which particular one you are going to do at that moment?

RN:  Well, for one, I’m given an assignment. For example, Mrs. Nakasone will be performing in a concert in Los Angeles. There’s a certain theme that was chosen, so they asked me to write the theme. I really don’t like these requests, because there’s not too much freedom of choice. But when I do my own work, I choose characters that can be very expressive, especially with a bigger brush. The big brush has great potential because it can be very explosive, or very energetic. But the big brush, also, with lots of ink, has quite a bit of limitations because it is very difficult to show subtlety in line. And certain words have great meaning for me personally, because I studied Buddhism; so words from Buddhism are very meaningful for me. Or words from my ancestral past; my family is from Okinawa, so images and metaphors from Okinawa have great meaning for me, they resonate. So I would choose those characters. Or ideograms, or words that I think are meaningful for the viewer, because I am not only writing for myself. Since writing is a kind of communication, I choose words that I think would resonate with people.

PD:  Can you say a little something about the physical training that is necessary to do sho? For example, what do you need to do to get your hand and your muscle to the point where the can fluidly execute a work?

RN:  Well, like anything else—practice, practice, practice. There’s no secret to this thing. I don’t know if one should have determination, but one should just keep on practicing. There’s a joy in just the process of doing itself, and the longer one does it—the more familiar one becomes, the more comfortable one is—the more one will want to do it. So it’s just simply practice, practice, and more practice. And it’s endless, of course, and there’s a great joy in that. It’s very ambiguous; there are no goals. [laughs]

PD:  The materials of sho are very rudimentary—like a brush with animal hair or hand-ground ink—and they are very visceral. How important is the physical experience of doing sho?

RN:  As I mentioned earlier, the more you do it the more comfortable you become with the medium. There’s a great joy in familiarity. And also there’s great freedom, that one can control and express one’s self through this “learned control” as it were. Although we talk of the dynamic brush and the fluidity, that all has to be learned.

PD:  Speaking of the brush, you have a lot of brushes, all sorts of shapes and sizes. Can you say something about the different potentiality of each brush?

RN:  Yes. Now that’s an important factor. I like to use brushes with very long bristles. Why? For example, I have this one brush here. Its hairs are probably twice as long as a normal brush, but because it’s twice as long I can write lines that are twice as wide. So there’s a great potentiality there. It doesn’t mean that I’ll use it fully, but I like to have that possibility. Also, there are different kinds of hair. This is made from sheep hair, wool, so it’s very soft; it’s very difficult to handle. There are brushes made from bear hair, badger hair, deer hair, etc. There’s even brushes made from baby hair. And the quality of the brush is determined by the quality of the bristles. So, for example, if you cut the brush’s bristles it becomes a blunt instrument. It has to be naturally tapered; like baby’s hair has never been cut, it’s tapered and very fine and becomes very, very supple.
     The important thing in using a brush is how you knead the ink into the brush. Most people use just the brush with the ink only on the tip of the brush. But then if you only do that you’re loosing the potentiality of three-quarters of the brush, or the rest of the brush. So I like to use an ink-filled brush; very heavy, very full, so I have more possibilities. And it’s important to knead the ink into the brush when you think the ink will be flowing out. When the brush is very full with ink, it flows very easily. So one has to have great confidence when one uses the brush, that there’s no hesitation, otherwise it will be just a pool of ink.

PD:  I’ve heard people speak of a “wet” and a “dry” brush. Is that what you were just describing?

RN:  No, it’s a little different. A wet brush, of course, is filled with ink. A dry brush refers to a brush in which the ink is almost gone, a very thin-ink brush. The lines that emerge are called kareta-sen—dried or withered lines. This, by the way, is an aesthetic value. But that usually comes as the brushstroke ends, when the ink has run out from the brush and one has not much ink to work with. But if the ink is too thin, especially for a big brush like this, the brushes are not very supple. Because the ink actually gives buoyancy, gives body, gives volume to the brush and makes it more supple. The thicker the ink, the more supple the brush. The thinner the ink, the brush becomes almost like a pen, like a bamboo brush. We have brushes made of bamboo fiber; they are very stiff.

PD:  One surprising thing in sho is the amount of empty, white space. Euro-American art has almost always tried to cover the surface with paint. Can you say something about this difference?

RN:  I guess one can say it’s a difference in worldview. For East Asia, especially with Daoism and Buddhism, it is space that makes things meaningful or useful. This is a very Daoist thing. We can use a room because there is space. The window has a function because there’s no wall, so there’s a space. We can use a cup because it’s empty. And so this emptiness is not a vacuity or absence, it’s what gives space function—it becomes a functional space. So that’s the physical aspect of space. But space is also, in East Asia, where objects emerge from. Objects are not placed in space, but because there is space objects can grow. It’s like planting in a garden; we can plant a tree because there’s space, and it’s space that gives this life. In calligraphy we have lots of space, and part of it is Japanese aesthetic taste, or East Asian aesthetic taste. But the space is really a reflection of the attitude in Buddhism, for example, which refers to the idea of śūnyatā, or emptiness. This is an ontological space from which things emerge and from which things disappear. It is, in a sense, the underlying reality of all things. What else can I say? [laughs]
Ryū (Dragon) 2014

PD:  Indeed. Turning from space to time, the temporal aspect of sho also has few comparisons in Euro-American art; one work is done in a few swift motions, and then it’s all over. What is the role of time in the production, as well as the appreciation of, sho?

RN:  Of course, writing sho is in many ways like a performance art, because we’re so conscious of the rhythm in which things are created, the way lines are created. Certain lines for a single character require different tempos. If it’s executed with the same rhythm the lines are monotonous—visually monotonous and rhythmically monotonous. So we have to vary the rhythm as well as the length of the stroke. It has something to do with one’s breath and body movement: the rhythm of the body, rhythm of the breath, rhythm of the mind in creating a work of art. That’s all a part of the writing, or creative, process.
     Also, the rhythm allows for what we call the “accidental.” Sometimes when the brush is full of ink, the ink will dribble or splatter, and that becomes part of the creative process. That adds to the aesthetic appeal and one can read, as it were, the rhythm of the brush as it moves across the paper, pauses where the writer pauses and quickens where the stroke quickens. This is part of the joy in writing; it’s also a problem that we have to solve aesthetically to have a creative piece. In great calligraphy pieces there’s a certain rhythm which is part and parcel of the character itself and that’s one of the things I study when I look at a piece of work. What is the rhythm? Certain rhythms lead to certain kinds of lines. If the sho artist is in a good rhythm one can read that in his stroke. I also want to have my rhythm, as it were, reflected in whatever work I do, because that becomes part of the aesthetic appeal.

PD:  So for the person viewing a finished work of sho it could almost be like listening to a piece of music?

RN:  I never thought about it that way, but perhaps so. One becomes part of the music, as it were. T.S. Eliot said something like that in the Four Quartets.

PD:  In one of your essays on the art of sho, you described it as having both an aesthetic geography—the sensual aspects of line, space, and time—as well as a spiritual geography. One phrase that stands out for me is when you say sho is, “Giving form to the formless.” What is the nature of this formless beauty in sho?

RN:  It’s like anything else. We as human beings, or sentient beings, must express our needs or our thoughts. We do that with language. Some people do it with music. Others do it with violence. Our thoughts, emotions, and feelings are essentially formless and we give them form in different ways. The musician uses sound. The artist uses color. The poet uses words. The calligrapher uses line and space. The important thing is—what is the basis for these formless forms that we hold? And what is the basis of our emotions? Are they angry thoughts? Are they more refined, sublime thoughts of a deeper human insight?
     The best art, I would say, is to give form to more sublime instincts or sublime states of mind. So, we give form to our spiritual condition, our spiritual state. This is what it means to give form to the formless. One of the reasons why, for example, works by Ryōkan or Hakuin Zenji [1685–1768]—both of them were Zen monks—are so appreciated is that they reveal something of the inner life of these men. It can be women, too; it doesn’t only have to be men or Zen monks. But, how do we give life or form to our highest human potential? The term is kyōgai—one’s spiritual station. This is one of the great challenges for anyone, not only calligraphers, and also one of the great joys, to be able to recognize those conditions.

PD:  Based on what you just said, when you sit down to do a work of sho, how do you get into that state of mind, or like you said earlier, how do you get into that “zone”?

RN:  You know, I’m still a young calligrapher; I know that when I write. And hopefully, I’ll get better. The only way I can tell you is just practice, practice, practice, and more practice, and maybe someday it’ll come. But it has to become something which becomes second nature to a person, totally second nature. I studied kendō, Japanese fencing, for many years and was quite adept. Essentially, the practice sword—we call it shinai, or bokken—becomes just an extension of the arm. But more importantly, it becomes an extension of your being, of your development, of the training you’ve had. This is what it means to be second nature. You know exactly how long that shinai is; you know exactly where it can be stopped; you know exactly what can be done.
     It is the same with the brush. Every brush is different. You have to learn the personality of each brush. And the ink, different temperatures affect the ink and you need to be able to instinctively respond to how the ink touches the paper or how it grips the paper. How it responds to pressure, and how it responds when you move it from left to right, or right to left, or up and down. And this should all be done in a second nature manner.

PD:  Do you just know intuitively, then, when you’ve done a good job, or when you’ve created a work that you’re happy to show to other people?

RN:  Yes. [laughs]

PD:  Speaking of showing your work to others, you had your first solo show in 1975, and your most recent show ended in 2015. In 2016 you’re having a show in Chile. How have audiences responded to your work over the years and what surprised you most?

RN:  What surprised me most is that I continued this long. [laughs] I didn’t give it up because I knew I had a skill, but I didn’t pay much attention to it because I made a wrong turn. I went into academics and earned a Ph.D in Buddhist Studies. And when you do that, it ruins your aesthetic life. [laughs] But, I had a solo show in Kyoto just before I left Japan in 1975. I had no intention, actually, of having a show, but I was exhibiting regularly with Morita, my sensei, and others in our group. I didn’t think about it, but he said, “Before you leave I want you to have a show.”
     Okay, so I really worked hard on that one. And, its not only writing, but it’s also exhibiting, choosing works. That was a great education for me, of course. I’m not sure how people reacted to that first one. I was a foreigner and, calligraphy is very difficult to appreciate, especially in the West, because we do not have a craft or art like that: using a soft brush, writing characters.
     My last show, I thought, was fairly successful. What happened was that in 1998 Morita-sensei passed away. At that moment, I thought I really needed to take my brushes out again. I did not abandon my brushes, but I practiced only sporadically. I felt a sense of responsibility, because I thought that when he had given me permission to have my own show that was a kind of transmission that, although I was not quite ready, I understood enough that he allowed me to have my own show. He helped me a lot to choose my pieces. And the last show I had a few months ago at the Graduate Theological Union is a culmination, as it were, of sho that I had since Morita passed away in 1998. I think that was my third solo show in the Bay Area. And at that time I used all of the skills that I learned or practiced, and while preparing for the show, I had other epiphanies with the brush. So that was really nice.
     I’m not sure how people at the Graduate Theological Union who viewed it took my show. They left comments in the guest book, but they just say it’s beautiful or it’s nice, or whatever; very calming.
     That’s a kind of typical reaction of Western persons. But one comment that I had came from an Okinawan colleague during the reception; she said that she didn’t expect to see such beautiful work done in America. So I thought I passed muster. But I do have confidence in my brush, in my skill of the use of the brush.

PD:  Thinking further about reception, a lot of contemporary visual art deals with issues of race, gender, social justice, etc. Sho seems to kind of side step this through its traditional, constrained content and form. Do you think sho can play any role in bringing about social change?

RN:  You know, I never really thought about that. I can say this much, though. In Asia, Asians, even if they only use the computer now, appreciate good calligraphy. They will recognize a person’s calligraphy and say, “Wow, there’s a great work.” In fact, an acquaintance, a Taiwanese woman, had taken one of my catalogues to her mother, and the mother, after looking at the images that were reproduced, wanted to meet me. So that’s a kind of, what should I say? A recognition that the East Asians who are familiar with calligraphy place on the skillful use of the brush.

PD:  Now, as you mentioned, you went on and got a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies. Professionally, you are an academic and you’ve written on ethics, aging, and Okinawan Studies, among others. I’m interested if you see your practice of sho relating to your academic pursuits at all.

RN:  A good calligraphy piece, whether it’s one character or a series of characters, has an internal rationality. It’s a system, in a sense, a paradigm; it has its own logic. In the same way, a good academic paper has its own internal logic and consistency and rationality. To be able to develop this kind of rationality is not an easy task. I mentioned that I studied kendō. The best kendō teachers I met were ones who had developed a “rationality” in their style. Those were the most difficult people to defeat. So in the same way, a calligraphy that is a good piece of work has a certain internal rationality—of rhythm, of breath, of will, of artistic expression. I’m not sure how to explain that.

PD:  I know that in your early studies you did a lot of philology, studying Buddhist sutras. Would you say it’s a similar thing there: studying the sutra you learn the logic of it?

RN:  You know, that’s probably so. Every calligraphy style has a certain logic. Where they fail is where the logic did not follow through.

PD:  You’ve now been practicing sho for over forty-five years. How has your art changed and are there things you’re still learning?

RN:  Hopefully I’ve gotten better. There are still things I don’t understand about the brush; I know that when I practice. I know what kind of lines I want. The lines have to be ones with great integrity, a great rationality; and also ones that are visually appealing, because the role of an artist, of course, is to communicate. It doesn’t have to be to communicate things in a beautiful manner, but there’s a need to communicate. Hopefully my sho, my calligraphy, will get better and more mature as I get older. I remember when I first began to study with Morita he and I were talking—I’ve written about this before; I had great conversations with him—and he says to me, “You know, I’m looking forward to growing old.”
     I was kind of befuddled by this. I was only about twenty-six. I thought, “What is this old man talking about?” So I asked him, “Why?” very incredulously.
     And he said, “Well, I want to see how my art will grow and how it will change.” What a nice testament to an artist, or to any individual.

PD:  Yes, that is. And related to that, especially in Asian traditions, elders are valued for their wisdom. There’s even an expectation that you’ll develop wisdom and pass that on as a sort of inheritance. As your art progresses into ever new forms, what is the wisdom that you are hoping you’ll pass on?

RN:  I never thought much about that. Well, I think what I want to pass on to my daughter, if she hasn’t figured this one out yet, [laughs] is that there’s always room to be a better person, to grow and mature in wisdom and in dignity. But actually, I’ve been thinking about this a little bit; I don’t want to leave many marks back in this world. I want to disappear into the sunset and not leave any karmic marks behind.

More here on Ron Nakasone, and also here.                


About the Author

Peter Doebler is the Hone Research Fellow for Museum Engagement at The Dayton Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union, where he studied with Dr. Nakasone.    


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