Following the brush

I’ve been asked to explain how I choose my topics, how I go about doing my research, and how I make connections as I go.   Here’s a reply by way of a demonstration, that might seem like a detour – or might not.

There is a classical genre of Japanese literature called Zuihitsu (随筆).  The word is made up of the kanji (Japanese ideograms) for “to follow” and “brush,” and is usually translated as “following the brush” or “running brush”.  Zuihitsu combines fragments of text, loosely connected essays, poems, lists, word paintings, and poems; genres and styles move freely, reflecting a movement of the mind the Japanese associate with the flow of a calligraphy brush.

Outside of Japan, the most well-known example of zuihitsu is the first: a set of notebooks called the Pillow Book (枕草子 Makura no Sōshi), by Sei Shonagon (c. 966–1025), a lady of court in Heian Japan (794-1185 CE).  Film director Peter Greenaway made the book famous in his eponymous film.

The other classic early zuihitsu text comes from the Buddhist world of the Kamakura period – Dogen’s world.  Hojoki (方丈記, literally "square- record" - translated as An Account of My Hut or The Ten Foot Square Hut), is an extended poem written by religious hermit Kamo no Chomei in 1212.  It's a famous book in Japan, popular for the beauty of its poetry, its mixture of Buddhist reflections on the impermanence of life and the material world, personal history. nature writing, and descriptions of the series of natural disasters (earthquakes, famine, fires, even whirlwind) that caused political upheaval in Kyoto.

Why bother investigating an ancient literary genre?  What does zuihitsu have to do with SAORI? 

Here’s how writers understand zuihitsu – as:

  • an artistic form that “incorporates a sense of process, movement, juxtaposition, collage.  To ‘follow the brush’ suggests a certain not-knowing of what will happen, that whatever might result from the process will be down to discovery rather than plan" (source); and 
  • an “associative form, alive and intuitive …. In zuihitsu we feel the writing process and touch the textures of the author’s mind more than the themes or subjects referred to, which is why it is often translated as “miscellany” or “miscellaneous essay;” there is no central point but rather parts that interact with each other. ...  Reading or writing zuihitsu is, in short, to see how the form changes the content” (source).

We really don’t have a literary genre like it in the West (although some of the more experimental, "encyclopedic" novels by Borges, Calvino and Perec might come close).  We might call it stream of consciousness.   We might call it writing "SAORI-way".

One of the many goals of this “blog” project is the effort to make connections between SAORI and Japanese culture broadly investigated, much of which must be a matter of translation for me.  I was working my way through a list of words associated with Japanese aesthetics and Zen when I crossed paths with zuihitsu.  Working to understand it might be described by Western readers as “lateral thinking”, “solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic.” (source).  Thinking "SAORI-way"?

Sometimes you can learn some pretty interesting things by following your brush.

To understand the world of today, hold it up to the world of long ago.
- Komo no Chomei, Hojoki

Note:  Read a prose translation of Chomei’s Hojoki here.



Zen 101: Dogen

"Under the moonlit sky,
people enjoy dancing,
casting shadows of different shapes."
--Dogen (SAORI: Self-Innovation (2000), p.1)

It is no accident that Misao Jo quotes Dogen's verse as the epigraph opening Self-Innovation, not merely because the text poetically expresses Misao Jo's central commitment to the dignity of individual creative expression: “Do not teach, develop individual creativity.  This is the basis of SAORI. [...] Develop individuality; do not merely produce articles”  (Self-Innovation, pp.10-11). 

Dōgen Zenji (道元禅師; 1200–1253) was a Japanese Buddhist priest, writer, poet, philosopher and founder of the Soto Zen school during the feudal Kamakura period in Japan (1185–1333), when military dictatorships (shogunates) and the samurai warrior class were established.  He traveled to China to study  Chan ("meditation") Buddhism as a teenager; after he returned to Japan, he parted ways with the reigning Zen establishment and established the Soto school at the Eihei-ji monastery outside Kyoto.   Zen, which means sitting meditation, is derived from a transliteration of the Chinese word Chán. Most contemporary forms of Zen originated during the Kamakura period.

From what I’ve read, Dogen was a popular teacher, prolific writer, and creative personality, who taught Zen as a combination of meditation and philosophical thinking. Like other Zen masters of his time, Dogen aimed to simplify Buddhist practice and make it widely accessible; he taught zazen (sitting meditation) to monks and laypeople, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, men and women.  He advocated meditation as a process of discovering the true nature of consciousness and self.  For Dogen, all of nature is inherently enlightened, and practitioners become aware of their original enlightenment through meditation.  And what is gained from “just sitting” is “non-discriminatory wisdom” (hannya haramitsu): the direct experience of understanding that all things are essentially equal, and profound compassion for oneself, others and all of nature.  In spite of his extensive teaching record, Dogen believed that non-discriminatory wisdom eventually follows from practical, experiential knowledge rather than theoretical knowledge, reached by suspending judgment and “ego-less” thinking during meditation.  Soto Zen practice seeks mental stillness, holistic understanding, compassion and the freedom of original human nature. 

Accessibility … self-discovery and self-expression … inherent enlightenment … non-discriminatory wisdom … practical, experiential knowledge …. Those of us familiar with Misao Jo’s essays probably hear echoes from Self-Innovation.

What about the SAORI slogans?  Where's the Zen?  We could start with Slogan #1: consider the difference between people and machines.

“I can do what a machine cannot do.  The belief that human beings are different from machines led me to the field of weaving ....”  Misao Jo, “We Don’t Teach, We Develop Individual Creativity”, Self-Innovation, at 10-12, 15.

" We try not to weave a cloth which looks like a machine-made cloth, which values regularity of patterns and cleanness of the cloth. In SAORI, we try to do the opposite of the machine-made cloth. … The irregular selvage and accidental skip of thread add the un-programmed beauty to the SAORI cloths; and we admire this irregularity as "the beauty with lack of intentions" created by our natural creativity.  In SAORI, we do not weave only a cloth. We weave our true self.”  Misao Jo, “….”, "SAORI - It's beginning" (my emphasis).

At around the same time that Misao Jo was developing SAORI philosophy in Japan in the late 1960's, Japanese scholarship about the life and influence of Dogen was also emerging on account of the work of Masunaga Reiho (1901-1980), a renowned Zen master and Buddhist scholar at Komazawa University in Tokyo.  Professor Reiho’s scholarship addressed the Soto school of Zen Buddhism and made the work of Dogen widely available.  In his words,

"Zen is a practice that penetrates to one's true self through cross-legged sitting and leads to vitalize this self in daily life. Zen frees the human being from the enslavement to machines and enables him to return to his basic humanity. ... Zen maximizes the present moment through full awareness in daily life.”
-- Masunaga Reiho, "The Role of Zen in Modern Age", Zen Beyond Zen (1960), ch.5, p.19, 1960 (quoted here).

Reiho articulates a view that became cliché in the late 1960’s and ‘70’s in movements familiar to those of us “of a certain age” – the “return to nature” groups, return to hand-crafts of all kinds, and the many meditation movements in the West that drew on Indian transcendental meditation and Japanese zazen.

How lucky for weavers that Misao Jo arrived at a similar insight: that our weaving might also return us to our own basic humanity.  Misao Jo recognized that her new ideas were received more favorably by the time she started sharing them in the late 1960’s because the world had changed (Self-Innovation, at 12).  If she was able to understand her weaving philosophy in the context of the intellectual climate of the late 1960’s, can we?

Note:  in spite of all my efforts to search electronic resources for “shadow”, “dance” and moonlit”, I was unable to find the source of the Dogen text quoted by Misao Jo – at least as it might be translated into English.  If anyone can identify the source, please get in touch!


"SHADOWS ARISE from forms, echoes come from sounds. If we fiddle with shadows and ignore the forms, we do not recognize that the forms are the roots of the shadows. If we raise our voices to stop echoes, we are not cognizant of the fact that sounds are the roots of the echoes ....  we know that illusion and enlightenment are one road. Ignorance and knowledge are not separate."  Layman Hsiang, "Form and Shadow, in The True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dōgen’s THREE HUNDRED KŌANS, translated by Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori (Shambala Press, Boston, 2011) (available as a download here).