Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche executing a calligraphy for a dharma art exhibit in Los Angeles, circa 1980. Photograph by Andrea Roth, 1980. © 2004 by Andrea Roth. Used here by arrangement with Andrea Roth. All rights reserved.

Venerating the past in itself will not solve the world’s problems. We need to find the link between our traditions and our present experience of life. Nowness, or the magic of the present moment, is what joins the wisdom of the past with the present. When you appreciate a painting or a piece of music or a work of literature, no matter when it was created, you appreciate it now. You experience the same now in which it was created. It is always now.

                       —Chögyam Trungpa, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior


THE ART OF OCALLIGRAPHY, JOINING HEAVEN & EARTH is available in Volume Seven of the Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa, published by Shambhala Publication.

During the twenty year period of his remarkable proclamation of Buddhist and Shambhala teachings in the West, brush calligraphy was a primary means of expression for Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Through his practice of calligraphy, Trungpa Rinpoche captured the moment of now and gave it concrete expression in order that others, in other times and places, might also experience now.

Trungpa Rinpoche emphasized what he called “art in everyday life.” As he explains at some length in the essay published in this book, this means that the attitude, insight, and skill one brings to creating a work of art are not different from the attitude, insight, and skill with which one approaches every aspect of life. The “sacred world” expressed through art is not in opposition to a profane world. Samsara and nirvana are nondual. This basic view, so different in its thrust from the mainstream of Western spiritual and artistic tradition, sees “Art” as a part of a continuous spectrum that includes every kind of creativity in one’s life—even, as Rinpoche was fond of saying, how we brush our teeth and wear our clothes.

While not separate from everyday life, art nonetheless represents a heightening of experience, what Trungpa Rinpoche refers to as “extending the mind through the sense perceptions.” It is the apprehension and the expression of what he calls “basic beauty,” beauty that transcends the dualities of beautiful versus ugly. Basic beauty is recognized and captured through the threefold dynamic of heaven, earth, and human. This ancient Asian hierarchy of the cosmos, and of our experience of it, forms the basis of Trungpa Rinpoche’s Dharma Art teachings. Focusing in turn on artistic creation, the process of perception, and the discipline of artmaking, he explicates the heaven, earth, and human of each.

The essential moment in both creation and perception, the moment when heaven and earth touch, is indicated by Trungpa Rinpoche’s hallmark phrase “first thought best thought.” Whether applied to art or to life in general, the import of this slogan is not so much that we should seize on the first thought or image that pops into our head; rather, it is to trust in a state of mind that is uncensored and unmanipulated. “It’s the vajrayana [tantric Buddhist] idea of…simplicity, no ego involved, just purely”—here Rinpoche pauses and gasps, then continues—“precise! Tchoo!”

Trungpa Rinpoche’s calligraphies can be read as
visual haiku, a kind of nonthought action painting that
captures and records unique moments of awareness

The mark of first thought is what Trungpa Rinpoche calls “first dot.” In executing a calligraphy, this is literally the first touch of the brush tip, soaked with rich, wet, black ink, to the pure white ground of the paper. It is the moment of joining heaven and earth, making the nondimensional mark that signals the unconditional nature of space. Figure and ground, form and emptiness, time and space, are born together. From this seed, in turn, all manifest forms and experiential phenomena arise.

Every calligraphy begins with a first dot. From it, the rest of the statement unfolds in the manner of a haiku poem—beginning, middle, end. Indeed, Trungpa Rinpoche’s calligraphies can be read as visual haiku, a kind of nonthought action painting that captures and records unique moments of awareness. They are—to borrow Rinpoche’s characterization of the nature of reality as perceived by the fully realized mind of mahamudra—”symbols of themselves.”

Only a small number of Trungpa Rinpoche’s calligraphies have been reproduced heretofore, some in very limited editions. The great majority exist only as originals, and most of these are in private hands. Since Rinpoche’s death in April 1987, a major archival effort has been launched to gather together and document his works in its multitude of forms, including a sustained effort to photograph and document the calligraphies. A selection of these photographs are presented in THE ART OF CALLIGRAPHY, along with an essay title “Heaven, Earth, and Man”. This essay is based on the DHARMA ART SEMINAR given in July 1979 in Boulder, Colorado and serves as an important statement of Trungpa Rinpoche’s view and practice of art.

From The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa: Volume Seven by Chögyam Trungpa and edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian. © 2004 by Diana J. Mukpo. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
Thank you to Abbie Halpern for her assistance in preparing this article for online publication.
David I. Rome is a teacher and writer on applications of contemplative methods in personal, organizational and social change. He is the creator of Mindful Focusing, a training program that brings together Eugene Gendlin’s Felt-Sense Focusing method with Buddhist mindfulness-awareness practices, described in his book YOUR BODY KNOWS THE ANSWER: Using Your FELT SENSE to Solve Problems, Effect Change, and Liberate Creativity (Shambhala, 2014). David began practicing Buddhism in 1971 and served as private secretary to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He studied Focusing with Gendlin, Ann Weiser Cornell, Robert Lee and others, and is a senior trainer with the International Focusing Institute and Shambhala International.