I remember vividly how my Chinese teacher kept saying “calm down, calm down” while I painted. My energy was indeed frenetic with excitement. Of course I was excited! I was honoured as research scholar, sent to China’s Tianjin University to learn first hand from an esteemed Professor of Art and Architecture, the Head of School no less, to learn the techniques of Chinese landscape painting. They set me up in Professor Dong Ya’s personal studio with his PhD scholar to work every day, all day on the subject that, until this point, I had only studied in theory. Every day I felt like the luckiest person alive and joy bubbled up in me, along with nervous excitement. It didn’t occur to me that in being pumped full of relaxing tea and being urged to calm down I was being given vital advice. That in fact, it was ‘Zen’ that was missing from my painting practice. Despite my quickly advancing technique working with the fugitive ink on rice paper, a tricky thing to master, I was only working on the surface on things. I see that now.
Just to clarify, I use the term Zen, which is a Japanese term. However, it was the Chinese Ch’an Buddhist painters from the Northern Sung period that made explicit how they used their painting practice as concentrated meditation. This was later introduced to Japan and ‘Ch’an’ became translated and appropriated as ‘Zen’. Almost a decade later I have come to understand this importance of Zen in my art practice.
I’m not suggesting that one shouldn’t experience delight and joy in the process of making art, far from it. But for the Ch’an Buddhist painters an observed distance of the experience of these and any other emotions is part of the painting process. To feel the self and hear the inner dialogue but to maintain an equilibrium of at once being present in it and simultaneously removed from it.
When approaching the creative act with Zen, there is an opportunity to deepen the benefits of making art. I have begun to glimpse these benefits and indeed my research concentrates on and orients around discovering just how far reaching the benefits of this practice can be. I can see already, and have experienced first hand how it can expand creativity, improve mental, emotional and spiritual health and really do wonders towards ignoring the scathing inner critic that can be so artistically debilitating. But even more so, and I think that the Ch’an and Zen Buddhists were in agreement, this sort of artistic practice can help us reach elevated states of being, lead us to peak experiences and over time even enlightenment.
In contemporary Western art practice, I think we are still yet to fully understand Art and its potential and necessity for us as healthy human beings. Once again, I feel I may only be touching the surface, but this mystery is what drives my research and practice.