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Lecture, workshop explore calligraphy

“A great person makes a great calligrapher,” said Kazuaki Tanahashi, a world-renowned painter and calligrapher, in his lecture “The Zen Poet Ryokan” Wednesday in List 120.

Sitting on a stool in front of about 60 attendees, Tanahashi gave off an air of tranquility as he spoke quietly about Ryokan’s life as a gifted calligrapher and poet. Listening intently, audience members took notes and laughed at his anecdotes emphasizing Ryokan’s carefree spirit.

“In China, if your poem didn’t rhyme, they didn’t consider it a serious poem, but Ryokan didn’t care. He was free. He didn’t care if it wasn’t considered a poem,” Tanahashi said.

Ryokan would often practice his calligraphy in the air because he couldn’t afford the necessary materials to write on paper. Because he was so poor, he felt free to live his life however he wished, Tanahashi explained.

Ryokan taught Tanahashi to open himself up to his own emotions, Tanahashi said. “Ryokan was so honest about his own emotions about being lonely, being loving and being sensitive to the changes of nature,” Tanahashi told The Herald.

Tanahashi employed humorous anecdotes to further highlight Ryokan’s tendency to go beyond the norm. In one such tale, a wealthy man invited Ryokan into his home and forced him to do calligraphy. In an act of defiance, Ryokan did as the wealthy man asked but wrote the words, “I don’t want to. I don’t want to. I don’t want to” as his poem, Tanahashi said.

“(Tanahashi) was a great story-teller and painted a great picture for us of who this poet was,” said Michaela Lewis ’13 who attended the lecture.

Tanahashi is “someone who has a deep understanding of art and who also has a deep understanding of Buddhism,” said Larson Di Fiori GS. “The poet who he is lecturing on has a deep understanding of Buddhism and is also a very profound poet, so I think it’s very useful to hear from someone who has a very similar perspective talking about that.”

Tanahashi began studying calligraphy after his poor handwriting required him to start practicing with a master, he told The Herald, adding that he later began doing oil paintings and decided to combine the two.

Tanahashi also led a calligraphy workshop Tuesday night at which he urged the students to embrace qualities in line with how Ryokan lived his life.

At the calligraphy workshop, 55 Brown and RISD students, as well as community members, sat in a circle and worked on writing out characters of heaven and earth. Though Tanahashi said he believes technique matters, he insisted a person’s character has the greatest effect on a person’s calligraphy and urged the participants to avoid trying to achieve perfection. Instead, he encouraged them to let go and allow their minds and bodies to work together to create characters, said Wayne Assing, RISD’s director of Student Development and Counseling and an organizer of the event.

Tanahashi provided a “humanistic and artistic linkage” that fits the mission of the contemplative studies department, which was founded in 2006, said Harold Roth, director of contemplative studies and professor of religious and East Asian studies. Both events were sponsored by Brown’s contemplative studies department, the Rhode Island School of Design painting department and RISD student development, according to Brown’s contemplative studies website.