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Zen with a Brush: A Zen Approach to Creativity

The teacher gives me four simple words to carry in my heart while allowing my brush to manifest before any thoughts emerge: “Just be present, available, playful, and not-knowing.” He asks me if I’m creating a particular stroke in my ink painting on paper because I know how to do it, or if I am allowing space for something fresh to manifest. I understand what he’s saying, but how do I really begin from such a place of not-knowing inside myself? So he tells me to engage in gibberish, to shake, jump, and dance until I sweat, and so I do. When I stand before the rice paper again, I touch its surface gently and feel its breath. I pick up my brush and soak it in ink; I breathe and feel my feet planted on the ground. Then he comes closer, and whispers, “I’m happy, even without a reason—please, paint this.” And before any of my thoughts have a chance to come, I rest in the fragrance of the koan he sings to me and something moves from the emptiness, just as he describes it. 

He asks his students to paint impossible things . . . no one would have an idea of how to paint them, but this is his way of helping us access the resource of “unknowing.” The first important step is to be in our bodies—grounded—so that the energy can flow. Painting with him makes it so clear that art and being an artist has very little to do with the piece one is creating, and is more about who you are, how your body carries and releases energy, how light you can be about your sorrows, how contemplative can you be with presence and intimate with silence. Only then can the act of painting take place. 

Chinese artist and Zen teacher Alok Hsu Kwang-Han

This is how the Chinese artist and Zen teacher Alok Hsu Kwang-Han taught me. Alok was born in Hong Kong and came to the United States as a refugee when he was 11 years old. He obtained academic degrees in mathematics, Christian theology, sociology, and the psychology of religion from American universities, before he met the Indian spiritual teacher Osho and lived with other Buddhist teachers in India. He became an artist much later in life when he began portraying and expressing the anatomy of the soul in a very poetic and Zen way that inspired many people and attracted numerous students.

My first encounter with Alok in Sedona, Arizona, in 2015 was very valuable to me. Before going to live in India, where I trained for many years in the traditional Tibetan thangka arts, I dreamed of combining art with my spiritual quest, so going there and studying thangka was very clear to me. Yet I also saw myself gaining painting skills from one teacher and the Dharma teachings from other teachers, who would often give open teachings in Dharmsala, where I lived. My deepest wish was to find a teacher who could just combine both in one unmistakable path of the Dharma through the art and who would be able to recognize my heart’s voice by a simple stroke. Someone who would not go into wordy discourse, but could improvise a movement, creature a texture on a surface, a shape, a line, and just say “like this.” Our eyes would meet and we would smile, because we both understood and spoke the artist’s language. I was really wishing to find someone who could guide me in the way my heart would listen and not suffer doubt or opinion for a moment. It took almost eight years after I left India and returned to to my home country, Brazil, to encounter the knowledge of his existence. 

Alok and the author

I first found Alok on the Internet. When I saw his picture and his paintings, I could not stop crying—I needed to meet him. My urge was great and, with beautiful support from my family, I made it to Sedona to spent a few days with Alok. It’s funny, the way our minds work—despite my initial reaction when I saw him and was so moved, the moment I decided to go to him my mind began to doubt whether he was for real or if I was merely projecting my expectations of what I wanted him to be. Later I learned how much he had taught me; to take the first step before such thoughts arise and to follow the principle, as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche also use to say: “First thought, best thought.” It was so important to let this principle become impregnated in the cells of my being and to live accordingly, to paint accordingly . . . then life and art would not have even a single thin line of division. Through painting, he was able to guide me.

Creating from emptiness is not only about painting—painting itself is the tip of the iceberg held up by an entire unseen mountain, which is the awakened and present being. To access this, we would begin our day with long walks on the rocky red mountains of Sedona, come back, prepare tea, smell the fragrant vapor, and sit silently sipping, breathing in the beauty of the moment. Our hearts would be so full of beauty from being in nature, drinking tea silently, and appreciating each other’s existence that painting came without thought.

“Joy is the simplest way of gratitude—please, paint this,” he would start by saying, offering time and space. 

Allowing oneself to express, by starting from an empty and fully vibrating place inside our inner core is a taste of incredible joy and freedom. You drop all expectations and allow what is unknown to the mind to manifest. One must trust the process and surrender to experience the vast possibilities to be creative. Anything that arises is welcomed: sadness, fear, laughter, desire, dream, joy . . . although the idea is not to get lost in the stories that these feelings are involved with, instead to allow as much space as possible between you and the dramas and to be contemplative; then it happens, your body is free of fear to express the energy of fear, one accepts and honors it as it comes on the paper, or canvas. No struggle, no repression, no preferences—just recognizing what is and moving from emptiness.

The day I decided to travel to see him, what moved me from my doubts was his own exhortation: “Between repression and expression, choose expression.” And why choose to live in repression, when love and compassion are here to embrace us? Here inside us, available, waiting to be seen and lived.

In August 2017, I had the joy of working as one of his assistants in the state of New York for a five-day “Creativity of Not-knowing” workshop. I was able to witness about 16 people being opened like flowers to the Sun, hungry for light. It reminded me that all human beings wish to experience this true essence , to move from the brilliant core inside of a pure heart. So what holds us back? None of the members of the group knew each other before the workshop, and suddenly, in these five days, they decided to open up, bring stuff up, be vulnerable, let go, celebrate, and share. That simple experience was profoundly healing, but no one experienced more than what was already inside of them—they just allowed the space for it to manifest. Moving from emptiness is available to us all the time—as Alok says, just get out of the way and let it be! Let it go now; there is no other time to do it than now. 

When you become you, Zen becomes Zen. When you are you, you see things as they are, and you become one with your surroundings. – Shunryu Suzuki.

Peace on Earth by Alok

While giving a demonstration at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, I asked the audience what I should paint. As it was during the initial phase of the Iraq War in 2003, many expressed a desire and yearning for peace. Central to this painting is “being” or “presence” (see the seal imprint) of the men and women of peace, embodying and offering peace in the midst of conflict and turmoil. The many dots of the spreading glow remind us that peace, like love, is powerful in its vulnerability; it begins and emanates from ourselves as individuals.

The “ordinary heart or mind” is able to experience the simple grace and joy of living. War, violence, domination are carried out by the parts inside us that have a desire to be “extraordinary.” When we take to heart and truly understand that “what exists comes and returns to nothing,” including our own impermanence, life becomes precious and invaluable—for each of us and for all sentient beings.

Live totally! by Alok

Meditating one sunny morning in my wonderful studio in Sedona, Arizona, I was suddenly struck by the urgency of the need to live totally. I picked up my largest brush, loaded it with intense ink and banged out the energy that rushed through me. Then, with just the few hairs sticking out from the tip of the brush, the gentle, soft, insecure, and vulnerable stroke, from right to left, from the male side to the female, wanted to come out. I allowed it, then stepped back and looked. Ah—this is also part of living totally!

Alok teaches throughout the year at his space in Sedona, Arizona, and eventually other parts of United States. You can also learn about his documentary film Moving from Emptiness: The Life and Art of a Zen Dude from the link below. Gratitude creates the eternal bond between teacher and student. You can be silent for a lifetime, but the sense of gratitude motivates each step in your life to honor his wisdom.

Images courtesy of the author.

See more

Moving from Emptiness – a zen workshop – Tiffani Gyatso and Alok Hsu Kwang-Han
Moving from Emptiness: The Life and Art of a Zen Dude

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