Tolerant insights inspire monk s paintings

(No.6, Vol.3, July 2013 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

An associate of mine told me that there is a monk who painted several hundred paintings in just one night. The paintings are not for sale, but rather only to give away or to be sold for charity. As an artist, I hardly get enthusiastic about painting ‘records’, but I did have to concede that her admiration was genuine.
And then, to my true surprise, I got to meet the modest, peaceful man and to see the oil paintings, which followed an abstract orientation. Zen master Phap Hanh’s perspectives on art and liberation seemed to me to be closer to life than the mysteries and obscurities surrounding Buddhism. He sees life like a child, as for the first time. Perhaps it is because of this that his paintings convey an unrefined quality like that of a child’s dabbling with colour.
Zen master Phap Hanh’s family has four monks and he has practised Buddhism for 30 years. However, his explications of religious tenets were simple and easily understood. I asked him about the cause that led him to paint. He smiled and immediately spoke:
‘I paint with a mind that flows with the natural universe, the way the autumnal sun brushes against the dawn, the mist mingles with the earth and sky, and branches of flowers bloom only to fade.’

‘The essence of painting, according to me, is a path to seek out one’s true self rather than to arrive at Buddhism’s ‘no-self.’ Thus being, is there any contradiction between these two goals in your painting activities?’
‘There is no contradiction whatsoever. The nature of the flow of the natural universe through the currents of the mind is precisely what Zen calls “no-self,” while painting typically only captures fleeting moments of nature’s stirring. When a painter endeavors to demonstrate his personal character and the aspiration behind each work of art, that is the original nature of the self.’

‘So for you, painting is just an expedient, a “Dharma means”, by which one arrives at the state of no-self?’
‘From my perspective, the purest essence of art is none other than no-self. I don’t think that anything is an expedient, that anything is the goal. I paint like breathing.’

‘In order to reach liberation…?’
‘No, in order to reach freedom…’

‘So what’s the true nature of freedom, sir?’
‘Freedom is letting go of preconceptions that constrict and mold the mind, to open up perspectives on the interconnected world that are clouded by accordance, resistance, good, bad, gain, loss, success or failure. Generally speaking, it is to let the mind be free from all dualities in order to live fully with transient reality.’

‘And yet, you tend to do abstract painting. In painting, it takes an abstract mind to have an abstract style. And they say that you need plenty of realism before you can have an abstract mind. But for a bonze who infrequently makes contact with the realities of life and, as such, is it easy or difficult to arrive at abstract painting?’
‘I find peacefulness in painting and I convey that peacefulness to everyone. I don’t define it as abstract or realistic.’

Photos: Tran Anh Tuan

‘But at least there must be some attitude towards reality that causes many people to become unsettled, for instance, the gap between rich and poor, injustice, and evil that obviously still exists, sir?’
‘The conversion power of art is exceptionally great. If one paints, writes poetry, or composes music with all one’s sincerity towards art, then people who witness it will sense its beauty and sanctity. We should empathize in order to love, despite the ongoing existence of that which satisfies our wishes or is unrequited. That which meets our wishes we take delight in; that which falls short of our wishes we tolerate. It’s like a painting that has many hues; were it to have only one hue, then it would no longer be able to be called a painting. Thus, when we prefer this hue to the exclusion of that hue, and then compound it with correctness, erroneousness, good and bad, or even try to analyze it, the process becomes unending. The goal is to love with all your heart through tolerance, sharing, and forgiveness. I think that all religions share in this supreme meaning.’

‘And do they share a concept about heaven or Nirvāna?’
‘Heaven or Nirvāna is created for each person by their own mind.’

‘Many people hold that art or religion is none other than a path for people to flee from loneliness. I don’t really believe this because, as a painter, it is only when I am most alone that I can produce art. For you, in the spiritual world, does loneliness bear any significance?’
‘Truth is absolute solitude.’

During the interview master Phap Hanh told me the following story, ‘There was a small child, very small, who sold lottery tickets and who was hit by a rickshaw driver and knocked down. The two of them hurriedly gathered the lottery tickets, which were strewn across the street. The child suddenly uttered, “I’m fine. Go ahead and get back to work so as not to upset your work. I can pick them up myself and, anyway, I only got lightly scratched.’” Zen master Phap Hanh said that the child taught him more about a tolerant heart than a thousand book pages and that it was also at that moment that he suddenly saw an array of golden, clear sunlight. That array of sunlight followed him into his paintings.
Listening to him speak, I admired the paintings hanging all over the room where Zen Master Phap Hanh sat. Virtually all of them featured a harmonization of colours and were full of improvisation, without a visible trace of calculation or contrivance. There was also no visible sense of sadness or happiness. All of them silently flowed, just as does life. I furtively thought that one must be quite solitary to come up with such uncontrived colours. The significance of the Zen Master seems not to lie in each painting, but rather in the silent movement outside the paintings that reminds people of the impermanence of life. And that, I believe, is where art and religion converge.

Oil on canvas
Zen master Phap Hanh

Oil on canvas
Zen master Phap Hanh

Oil on canvas
Zen master Phap Hanh

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