This calligraphy reads from right to left in the traditional manner. It says Shu Sho Itto and means "Practice and enlightenment are essentially the same".
Shu means to study something with complete dedication. Sho means 'proof' or 'attainment'. You could think of shu as being the journey and sho as the goal.
The saying is from the founder of the Soto Zen sect Dogen Zenji. Soto Zen focuses on sitting meditation and a 'gradual' approach to Enlightenment rather than the 'sudden' approach of the Rinzai Sect.
Rinzai Zen uses sitting meditation and also Koan practice where the student meditates on a kind of nonsensical riddle such as, "Two hands together make a clapping sound. What is the sound of one hand?" There are a lot of historical stories about Rinzai Zen students having a sudden realisation or awakening — satori or kensho —where they became enlightened to the nature of life, birth, death and everything.
Dogen believed that this approach was flawed and that such awakening moments were all well-and-good, but what do you do afterwards? For him, and for Soto Zen students still, the most important thing is to keep practicing, keep sitting in meditation. He believed that enlightenment was not separate from practice itself. That way you wouldn't accidentally become attached to the fact that you may have had an enlightenment experience and get a big head about it.
He also believed that enlightenment was not something you had to search for and sweat over, or rather, searching and sweating were no guarantee of enlightenment. He taught that this right here is enlightenment, whatever you are doing or experiencing right now. But the only way most of us can ever perceive this is to sit in meditation. So just sit and don't worry about becoming enlightened. Eventually you will experience some benefits from meditation. Is it enlightenment? It doesn't matter, just keep practicing.
This is very like the way we should think of our kendo practice. We may win competitions or achieve high grades. Or we may not. Doesn't matter. The main thing is to keep practicing. Practice will help us to improve. Even when we think we are hopeless and want to give up, we don't need to worry about it if we keep training. Training itself is success. This is a very profound teaching. This is what "Shu sho itto" means.
This tenugui is written in reisho, 隷書 or scribe script, one of the oldest styles of calligraphy. Reisho was developed in the Qin Dynasty (221 - 207 BC) for use by Chinese Government officials. Reisho characters are written slightly wider than normal script, and horizontal strokes have a characteristic bowed shape, with often an exaggerated tail on the right hand side. Also, all boxes must meet cleanly on each corner, with no obvious strokes sticking out like is usual for the more cursive styles of gyosho and sosho. The other big difference is that each stroke is started with a reverse movement, creating a small knob or serif. For example a vertical stroke, which are always made going top to bottom, should in the case of reisho always start with a short upwards movement.
The article was originally published on Dojo News, but I have moved it here as it fits better the purpose of this blog.
This calligraphy is (c) Ben Sheppard, all rights reserved. Please contact me if you wish to reproduce it in any way. ichibyoshi at gmail. So long as it is not for commercial purposes or is altered in any way, I can't see a problem. But I would like to know before it gets reposted anywhere. Thanks.