A calligraphic scroll

This work titled , after the Japanese character mu meaning negative/not/none/nothing, was an exploration of the intersection between eastern and western philosophy. In Buddhism, there is a practice called Shakyo, which translates to “tracing the Sutras.” In order to communicate and deepen my Buddhist practice, I partook in Shakyo. One day I practiced a series of seated, standing, walking, and writing meditations. Each writing meditation was Shakyo, but I used traditional methods from the western calligraphic tradition. For 18 hours I calligraphed The Heart Sutra, one of the most important sutras in Mahayana Buddhism. Additionally, I painted an ensō, carved a Hanko stamp and illuminated the Sanskrit words. This experience exposed me to a new culture and taught me discipline and patience.

~ bows


Breathe by Breathe Reflection on The Process

by Joey Grable (Written shortly after completing the calligraphy)

The Mu-scroll was created in the shakyō (写経), or sutra writing, Zen practice. It was done in three succeeding sessions. Calligraphed on the scroll is an English translation of the Maka Hannya Haramita Shingyo, or Heart Sutra, using the foundational hand from the western calligraphy tradition. After completing shakyō practice, the Mu-scroll was illuminated, painted with an Ensō (円相), or circle, and stamped with a Hanko (判子) seal. Overall the Mu-scroll took 18 hours to complete and was executed in one continuous practice.

Before beginning my practice, I set up my calligraphy workspace and made a shrine to bow.



I bow into my workspace and the shakyō ritual begins.

I bow out of my workspace and leave the studio to practice zazen. I place a buckwheat cushion on the grass along the edge of a field facing inward. The Maka Hannya Haramita Shingyo, or Heart Sutra, is beneath my cushion.

I bow in and practice Zazen.

I sit on my cushion and recite the Heart Sutra.

I bow and mind slows

For 15 minutes the wind comes and goes practice Zazen.

With mind full and body grounded bow out of Zazen practice and return to the studio to begin the shakyō writing session 1.

Bow into the workspace. practice shakyō writing session #1

Heart Sutra ignore punctuation

capitalize all sanskrit words Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva doing deep Prajna Paramita

perceived the emptiness of all five conditions brush more sumi ink onto the pen nib

and mi was freed breathe of pain

O Sariputra form is no other than emptiness

emptiness is not no nothing other than form

form is precisely emptiness

emptiness precisely form

mi sensation perception reaction and consciousness are also not like this

O Sariputra all things are expressions of emptiness

Bow out of shakyō writing session #1.

Make a fresh cup of tea in serenity and silently take a practice break on a bench in the Union Green park. After finishing the tea, return to the studio.

Bow in.

begin shakyō writing session #2. Change the pen nib to a larger size and write.

not born not destroyed not stained not pure
not waxing not waning
not emptiness not form
not sensation not perception
not reaction not consciousness
no eye no ear no nose no tongue no body no mind
no color no sound no smell no taste no touch no thing
no realm of sight no realm of consciousness
no ignorance no end to ignorance
no old age and death no end to old age and death
no suffering no cause or end to suffering
no path no wisdom and no gain

Bow out.

I take a long break for dinner. After dinner I return to the studio.

Bow into my workspace and begin shakyō writing practice #3, attempt 1. Change the pen nib and write.

[O Sariputra all things are expressions of emptiness]

thus Bodhisattvas live and die this Prajna Paramita

with no hindrance of small mind

no hindrance therefore no fear

Bow out. My hand shakes. Mara is in my mind and manifests in my writing. Exit the studio and sit grounded on the bench outside the studio. Sit in silence for 15 minutes. Return to the studio.

Bow in. Begin shakyō session #3, attempt 2.

far beyond all such marred delusion Nirvana is not mind nor body already here

all past present and future Buddhas live this Prajna Paramita mind is body

and attain supreme perfect enlightenment

therefore know that Prajna Paramita Is the holy mantra the luminous mantra enlighten

the supreme mantra the incomparable mantra

by which all suffering is cleared

this is not no none other than Truth

therefore set forth this breath Prajna Paramita mantra

set forth this centering mantra and know proclaim

ga te ga te pa ra ga te pa ra sam ga te Bodhi Svaha grounded below

Prajnaparamita Sutra

Bow out.

The shakyō writing concludes.

Wait for the sumi ink to dry.

Erase all text path pencil lines from the Mu-scroll and illuminate each individual capital letter: H, S, A, B, P, P, O, S, O, S, B, P, P, N, B, P, P, P, P, I, T, P, P, B, S, P, S

Bow in.

Prepare the workspace in order to create the Ensō.

Bow out.

Exit the studio and sit on the bench outside the room.

Bow in.

Zazen. Chant the Hannya Shingyo. Sit for 15 minutes.

Bow out.

Return to the studio.

Bow in.

Create one distinct Ensō with two brush strokes. Make the first stroke with water. The water stroke is unseen except as it glistens from the light above. Dip the brush in sumi and make a second stroke over the first. The water stroke shapes the sumi stroke as the hydrophilic sumi slithers across the wet paper surface. The sumi gives visible form to the unseen water stroke. The two mix and influence one another to create one harmonious form.

Bow out.

Wait for the Ensō to dry. Measure, position and stamp the Hanko seal mark in the lower right hand corner of the Mu-scroll. Wait to ensure the sutra, Ensō and Hanko are completely dry.

Bow in.

Roll the Mu-scroll up.

Bow out.

The Mu-scroll is complete.

Bow in.

Clean the workspace — make no impact on what was before me.

Bow out.

The shakyō ritual is complete.



My shakyō practice is zen. In zazen, when I sit, I am sitting. The practice is “without gaining idea” (Suzuki Roshi). This means to say there is no goal; there is no purpose. In shakyō, when I write, I am writing. I am not thinking about how much sumi ink is in the nib reservoir, what angle I am holding the pen, the pressure of pen nib on the surface of the pencil ruled BFK paper, how brightly lit the surface is, the temperature in the studio, or even what time it is. When I write, I am just writing. I am not thinking about what letter I will write next. I am just writing the letter before me, one stroke at a time. I do not sit in my chair to create letters, words, lines and blocks of text. I do not sit to create the Mu-scroll. I sit in my chair to write.

“Zen practice means, to practice.”
— Shunryu Suzuki Roshi