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PERFECT PENMANSHIP. Sanje Elliott has published a new book, Tibetan Calligraphy, that captures the elegance and grace of Tibetan calligraphy without prior knowledge of the language and art form. The book includes prayers, mantras, and seed syllables to copy and study.
From The Asian Reporter, V22, #06 (March 19, 2012), page 13.
A practical and beautiful manual
How to Write the Alphabet and More
By Sanje Elliott
Wisdom Publications, 2012
Paperback, 104 pages, $14.95
By Josephine Bridges
The Asian Reporter
Among the many laudable aspects of Sanje Elliott’s succinct and exquisite book, Tibetan Calligraphy: How to Write the Alphabet and More, is the way it is organized, which this review follows, giving the reader a taste of how a potentially daunting topic can be made tantalizing instead.
To begin with, Tibetan Calligraphy is dedicated "to bodhichitta, the wish that each and every being may achieve enlightenment, becoming free from the causes of suffering and suffused with the causes of true happiness." What better dedication could there be?
Sarah Harding, director of the Tibetan Language Correspondence Course and associate professor at Naropa University, writes in the foreword that in seventh century Tibet, King Songtsen Gampo "recognized the need of a written script for both his statecraft and to support the spread of Buddhism." The Tibetan alphabet, with pronunciation of the letters in English, appears on the following page, like a preview of coming attractions.
In the introduction, Elliott presents the goal of his book: "to introduce the classical uchen alphabet to western students of Tibetan and to Tibetans growing up in the west," and goes on to enumerate the uses of the Tibetan alphabet.
The first chapter, "Getting Started," includes not only a list of materials and a glossary, but also the author’s encouragement to view Tibetan calligraphy as a contemplative practice. "Practicing like this, mindfully and keeping aware of the breath as one writes the letters, can be a source of inspiration to the student of calligraphy and can create some benefit for oneself and also for others." Examples of nine fundamental pen strokes are presented in the second chapter, along with photographs of the calligrapher’s hand holding the pen making the strokes.
Chapters three through eight keep the aspiring calligrapher attentive to the alphabet, vowel markers, stacked letters, reversed letters, punctuation, and numerals. The order of the pen strokes is clearly shown for all new characters, and there are photographs of the first three letters of the alphabet in progress as the calligrapher pens them, stroke by stroke.
"Tibetan Seed Syllables," we learn in the ninth chapter, "do not have meanings that can be put into words but are used as symbols, both visual and auditory, to invoke a specific focus: a deity, for instance, or the essence of the chakras of ‘body, speech, and mind,’ or the germination point of a mantra." The author touches on the power of these complex symbols, urging the advancing student to bring a "spirit of meditative concentration into your calligraphy and create letters that will match that intention."
In the 10th chapter, "Mantras," the student is encouraged to start becoming "aware of not just the letter forms, but also the arrangement of the whole page." The student who wonders how mantras and prayers are similar and different will find the answer in "Prayers," the final chapter.
A brief afterword explores the use of brush for Tibetan calligraphy, and there are additional resources for those for whom Tibetan Calligraphy is only the beginning. Throughout this lovely book, magnificent images of Tibetan calligraphy serve both to illustrate some of the author’s points and to inspire students with shining examples.
A Portland native, Elliott got started in calligraphy at Grant High School, where he made signs for events and learned to letter with a brush. Tibetan Buddhism led him to Tibetan calligraphy, which, nearly 20 years after he first thought of it, led him to this book.
"I was just relieved that nobody else did it first," he quips. On a more serious note, he imagines people asking what value there is in learning to write and speak Tibetan, rather than simply translating into English. "My teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, would say that it carries with it the blessing of the lineage. It has a sacred power that the English wouldn’t quite have."
Ugyen Shola, a Tibetan who lives in Portland and works for the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition, an international Tibetan Buddhism nonprofit headquartered in Portland, says, "This book shows the distinct nature of Tibetan calligraphy." He says the book would be helpful for anyone interested in learning Tibetan calligraphy.
Leigh Sangster, director of programs at Maitripa College, a local Buddhist school, says, "Those interested in the cultural history of Tibet, the study or practice of Tibetan Buddhism, or the calligraphic arts, will appreciate this practical and beautiful manual."
This reviewer couldn’t agree more.