- Concept: “Why did Buddhidharma come from the West?”
- Execute: “Go to the places without hotness and coldness.”
- Finish: “Pass through the window swiftly.”
- Restart: “Step off a one-hundred-foot pole.”
The first stage is often the most challenging for me. An innocent idea can lead me astray into a meaningless task of capturing a moment like a camera, often stems from wanting to grasp on a fleeting moment. Brainstorming can paralyze me from doing anything at all. And perfection is the enemy of actions! Whenever I set out to make “great art,” every action seems to be insurmountable. Despite my skills steadily improve over the years, I am forever climbing the next hill: a new series, a new media, or a new story... At this stage, I often feel like an ant that is about to climb a one-hundred-foot pole, feeling daunted and full of self-doubt but determined to plod upward.
“Why did Budhidharma come from the West?” is an enlightening koan to turn the wheels of motion. Budhidharma came from India and started zen lineage in China about 1,500 years ago.
When I still lived in Idaho, I felt restless with my IBM job so I asked my zen teacher: “Should I leave or stay? What is the meaning of the job?” He simply replied, “Why did Budhidharma come from the West?” In other words, we are constantly divided and wrestling with meanings of this and that. In reality, meaning can only be found and given from within and by actions.
Smearing paints and composing mixed media—things that I’m so passionate about only has meaning because I give it a meaning. I can give a rational on art creations, but ultimately “whys” can only be embodies and experienced. No matter how daunted I feel about my new art, the starting point always lies within me: Perhaps it’s a phase of a Tang poem, the dancing of the orchid, or the gentle breeze on a hot summer day. They lead to an intention, a few ideas and further experiments. The first thought—not the second or third one—is often the best idea and can shed light on the darkness.
In addition, friendliness is the fire to warm and lighten the dark unknown place. Sometimes, it means to me to change my actions—walk, write, or dance—to reconnect with the original intention. Sometimes, it means to flip through the Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Painting or a Chinese literature classics to dig into my roots. When I am willing to dive into the unknown and unseen world, stories unfold and the faint message becomes unmistakably clear.
Stage two: Go to the places without hotness and coldnes
The main obstacle in the second stage deals with elements in this fleeting world—Japanese call it the “floating world” for its dream-like quality. Flowers—the frequent object of my artwork—fade so fast that sometimes it’s unbearable to witness their beauty. The mockups look absurdly different from actual painting on the canvas. The weather is getting hotter or cold. Did I forget that my full-time job and other parts of my life require my attention too?
Once a student asked his zen teacher: “How can I get away from hotness and coldness?” The teacher responded: “why not go to the place without hotness and coldness?” This means that we don’t get caught up in our wishes and preferences. I’ve lived in Montana and now live in Maine. Both places have long, bitter cold winter. Although I still dislike cold weather, I’ve learned that the winter goes by faster if I don’t resist it. If I dress properly and meet friends at a coffeehouse, it actually can be quite pleasant.
Letting go of our fixed preferences and relaxing in the creative tension require a large dose of tolerance for messiness. I create quickly most of time, but some paintings are more stubborn than others. For example, the “Fortune-Misfortune” painting took me a year to complete. While I was working on other pieces, I stared at it once a while and didn’t know what to do about its messiness: object dimensions, clashing colors, and unclear treatment on perspectives. Then, on a cold winter day, I finally found solutions to complete this painting. It’s so obvious when it’s done. Why did it take me so long? Perhaps I am not ready to meet my creation yet. But I always remember one phase from I-Ching’s first hexagram: “Perseverance brings favorable results to those who are firm and unyielding.”
At some point in the second stage, my artworks are graced by a visible break-through. Colors harmonize. Energy flows smoothly. The message of the painting speaks loudly. I feel relieved and assured about the direction.
Stage three: Pass through the window swiftly.
I may still get distracted or lose momentum before I finish the piece. Again, perfection is a seductive devil that really covers up our fear of success. The turning koan on the third stage is “Pass through the window swiftly.”
Once a zen teacher asked his student, “Why is it that the body of a buffalo can pass through the window, but its tail gets stuck?” Passing through the window here means liberation. Why does the buffalo’s last tiny body part get stuck? This koan pokes us let go of anything holding us back: fear, arrogance, or perfectionist. As soon as I can reconnect with my initial intention, the tail of my artwork passes through the window swiftly.
Eventually, my artwork speaks for itself that it needs no more dabbling. I put down the brush and step back. I have no more doubt, only peace and satisfaction. With my best effort, this artwork is deeply personal and meaningful, no matter what the critics say—not even the critic within.
Stage four: Step off a hundred-foot pole.
The fourth koan for the final stage is to step off a one-hundred-foot pole and start over again. Lingering on the top of the pole—a glorious place—attracts only arrogance. Muses live at another end of the pole: the solid ground.
When I step off a hundred-foot pole, I start integrating my experience. If I take time to reflect and renew, life reveals her innermost secret: Art is life, and life is art.
The creative process continuously challenges and humbles me. As much as I wish I had nailed down the process, life happens: I got sick; trips pop up; and the seasons change. Still, these four koans give me a framework for tackling my next art project, and the next. After all, it’s not about how much I have control over the creative process; rather, it’s about listening and following the creative voice.
I create the art, and the art equally creates me, which is the whole point of art making.