Kuukai Revisited

弘法筆を選ばす (Koubou fude wo erabazu; “Kuukai doesn’t choose his brush.”)


A master produces masterpieces regardless of what they are given to work with. Quality comes from skill, not merely from good tools. If you find yourself unwilling to start a project because you’re afraid you don’t have the best tools for the job, this is the kotowaza for you. Being a good illustrator isn’t a matter of having the right pens or pencils; being a good musician is a matter of dedication, not of having top-notch instruments (just ask David Grohl!). The saying also makes a good response if someone blames shoddy workmanship on bad tools instead of taking responsibility and aiming to improve.


We have a verb this time! The phrasing is, again, very compact: we start with the proper noun 弘法, followed by (fude, “writing-brush”), the object-marker particle (wo), and the verb 選ぶ (erabu; “to choose,” “to select”) in its archaic/literary negative (zu) form. A more literal rendition might read “Kuukai not-choose brush.”


選ぶ may also be written as 択ぶ without any change in meaning or pronunciation. It also seems common for people to stick the topic-marker particle (wa) in after the name.

My source gives an “opposite” saying, 下手の道具立て (or 道具調べ) (Heta no dougu-date/dougu-shirabe, “The unskilled fuss over their tools.”) While the focus of this kotowaza certainly stands in direct contrast to Kuukai’s, I feel like the basic message is similar: mastery is in focusing on your performance rather than on the tools.

All that being said… there’s a story that directly contradicts the kotowaza. Supposedly at one point Kuukai sent the emperor Saga a set of four brushes with instructions on brush choice depending on calligraphic style, causing a prince to comment that the (already extant!?) kotowaza was mistaken. The internet goes on to tell me that Kuukai was actually relatively picky about his brushes, the ability of a master to pick “the right tool for the right job” being a natural and indispensable part of mastery.

Example sentence:

「またフェンシングの試合で負けちゃった!新しいブレード買わないと」 「ブレードのせいじゃないでしょう。『弘法筆を選ばず』だよ」

(“Mata fenshingu no shiai de makechatta! Atarashii burēdo kawanai to.” “Burēdo no sei ja nai deshou. ‘Koubou fude wo erabazu‘ da yo.)

[“I lost in another fencing tournament! I have to buy a new blade.” “It’s not the blade’s fault. ‘A good craftsman doesn’t blame his tools,’ you know.”]


About Confanity

I love the written word more than anything else I've had the chance to work with. I'm back in the States from Japan for grad school, but still studying Japanese with the hope of becoming a translator -- or writer, or even teacher -- as long as it's something language-related.
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