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Brush Meditation: A Japanese Way to Mind & Body Harmony

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By H. E. Davey
144 PAGES, ISBN 1-880656-38-8, PAPERBACK

Reviewed by GARY DeCOKER


“We are witnessing the meeting of East and West. Through positive, non-biased Eastern and Western cultural exchange, a new, more balanced, more enlightened global culture may result” (preface). So begins Brush Meditation by H. E. Davey, who according to the author biography is the first non-Japanese ever to receive the highest rank from a worldwide Japanese calligraphy association and who has received numerous awards for his calligraphy.

Why someone with such impressive credentials would write such a superficial book on his art is a mystery waiting to be solved. Perhaps the preface can shed some light. Davey states, “I’m not teaching and pursuing the above-mentioned art forms because of an overwhelming interest in Japanese culture. While I certainly am, of course, interested in Japan, my main intention in studying these arts is to examine the nature of the self, the uni­verse, and life as a whole” (7). Following this approach, the book treats calligraphy lightly and holds out the promise of enlighten­ment to those who pursue the Japanese traditional arts.

The book begins with a history of calligraphy that includes the names of a few of China’s classic masters—sometimes written using Chinese pronunciation, sometimes written using Japanese pronunciation, and seldom including birth and death dates. Next, a few Japanese Zen calligraphers receive mention in a fuzzy discus­sion of Zen and the Japanese arts. A few pages later, Davey explores the relationship between calligraphy and Western artists such as Franz Kline and Robert Motherwell. This potentially fruit­ful discussion is abandoned after a few pages, without providing a single reproduction of Eastern-inspired Western art. In fact, the only reproductions in the book are from the author and one of his students.

The last half of the book is a “how to” manual for studying calligraphy that explains even the most basic aspects of practice along with more esoteric advice about ki energy and meditation. Finally, Davey encourages the reader to pick up the brush and imi­tate a few examples. But surely the author realizes that calligraphy, or any of the Japanese arts for that matter, cannot be studied without a teacher. In fact, he even says this at the end of the book, where he lists contact information about his organization.

What the Western student of Japanese and Chinese calligra­phy needs, and what this book lacks, is a sophisticated discussion of the art—its literary and religious heritage. The serious student of calligraphy can draw on hundreds of such books written in Japanese and Chinese. For the student less fluent in these languages, Stone Bridge Press could have produced a book of this sort with references to many good, but somewhat obscure, English-language sources. A book such as this would be useful to the student of calligraphy to supplement his or her teacher’s instruction.

In the end, Davey’s book clouds the arts in a murky mysti­cism that holds out to the spiritual seeker the possibility of enlight­enment, while extinguishing in the more intellectually curious per­son the desire to explore the arts in any depth. As anyone who studies Japanese art or literature soon realizes, the arts are an important part of Japan’s cultural history, and some of the masters of the Japanese arts do achieve a certain “spiritual” depth. But none of this richness comes through in Brush Meditation.