Katagiri and the heart strings

shin_sealWhen we have an experience that lets us touch the heart strings, at that time we feel great joy, with words or with our mind or body.  Sometimes we cannot say anything, because touching the heart strings is a deep, spiritual experience.

Sometimes it can be explained, and sometimes it cannot; but it really influences your life.

(From Touching the Heart Strings in Returning to Silence by Dainin Katagiri).

Around 1978 or ’79, I picked up my first Japanese ink brush. It cost $1.98 and that seemed a reasonable investment along with a course in brush painting.  The handle is a rough bamboo and the bristles are some mix of hairs (if you want to explore the details of sumi-e brushes wander over to Acorn Planet for a delightful education on how to wear out your credit card)The course never happened because death, divorce, and deconstruction did.

The brush, however, outlasted all the psychological and physical shiftsIt took couple of decades to finally attend that brush painting course.  Now, another decade later, I’ve accumulated a number of brushes, ink stones, and enough reams of paper to feel very guilty about trees and bushes.  The paper recycle box is usually full of practice attempts and I’m never at a loss for packing or wrapping paper. And occasionally, I can even churn out something quite passable.

In the process of learning a new skill and finding a new way to pacify old cravings for possessions, the practice of sumi-e has become a way to touch the heart strings. It has become a practice of learning to let go, to lose, to understand what “good enough” means.

It is that moment when discerning arises between “not yet” and “now let go.”

It is a seeing without eyes, a hearing without ears, a feeling without touch.

It is the teaching of Ikkyu Zenji:


What is it, the heart?
it is the sound of the pine breeze,
there in the sumi-e painting.

Kokoro towa
ikanaru mono wo
iu yaran
sumie ni kakashi
matsukaze no oto

Roshi Katagiri teaches from this poem which he translated in Returning to Silence. Although there are various translations that shift the context slightly, there are a myriad variations when read by the brush.

This has been my practice for about a decade: crafting the lines of the characters over and over, hearing, feeling the heart strings.

kokoro towa… matsukaze no oto.
what kind of thing is heart?  … the sound of the wind in the sumi-e pines.

Please enjoy this week as we play with the brush mind.

Thank you for practising,


(upper image:  seal script for shin heart/mind
lower image: clerical script)

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