About two years ago, I approached Supreme Master Ching Hai's poetry (collection "Traces of a Previous Life") with a very earthly curiosity: I wished to see whether the love poems of a female renunciate would be different or off-beat when compared to the writings of other women. And I was pleasantly surprised. I found that, like the work of other poets, Supreme Master Ching Hai's love poems are replete with life's emotions: joy, anger, love, jealousy, and the passion and bliss of young love's fiery flame. Yet, Her poetry also rises above society's preconceived notions. This break with conventional beliefs is indicative of a person in search of the true spiritual path. Indeed, it is this human quality that gives the reader pleasure and delight in Master's "Traces of a Previous Life." However, I could not find these same qualities in the paintings of the renunciate in the exhibition held at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium on December 18, 1998.
Before viewing the exhibition, I thought that the paintings would merely be a medium for the poet to express Her poetry in forms and colors. I had imagined that I would encounter brush strokes with thick, uneven angles; colors clashing with one other; splashes of black reflecting romantic but sorrowful nights; crescent moons symbolizing broken romance; and deep red strokes of lust exploding amidst puffs of clouds radiating the golden brilliance of the Tao.
But no! I could not detect even a single resemblance to "Traces of a Previous Life." Without a doubt, these paintings (produced from 1990-1994) represent a new, completely fresh artistic journey by their Creator. Everything reflects complete harmony, tranquillity and peace, with the scenery "borrowed" to describe the tranquil mental state of one in a type of earthly nirvana. Everything is painted in light and entrancing colors - the various shades of the lively green leaves now and then intermingle with vibrant red or humble earth-brown hues.
I also no longer saw the "humanness," the basic human emotions of happiness, anger, love and jealousy that were essential to "Traces of a Previous Life." Even the forms of human beings, of complex sentient beings, seemed to be absent from the canvases. I only saw two paintings containing human forms. One, "The Clown," in colored chalks, depicts the subject's dual faces, reflecting "sadness within, happiness without." The second painting, "Cleaning the Pond," depicts three characters: "Brother Kuo" who is color-blind. "Brother Chen" who has a crooked spine, and "Brother Yang" who is quite short. If the subjects' true characters are retained through the brushwork of the Artist, each of these human figures, from the clown to the brothers, is actually a medium for portraying the fun, humor and irrationality of the astral world - in short, the humor and contradiction in a human being's simultaneous existence and non-existence in the mundane world, along with life's emptiness. The clown laughs, yet cries at the same time. The right half of his body is painted in bright colors, while the left half is in sad, gray hues. At the same time, the three brothers obviously feel naturally happy and humorous about their own impediments.
Regarding the inner state of the Creator, the viewer no longer detects the conflict between "human life" and "spiritual life," as seen in "Traces of a Previous Life." Instead, the Creator's inner state appears to be in complete peace and serenity. Through all the paintings, the Artist-renunciate seems to have rediscovered a childlike freedom and spontaneity, a pure, liberated, angelic innocence.
Each painting is a glorification of a kind of bliss, a state of nirvana here and now. Each natural aspect of nature, each flourishing brush stroke, is like the prancing step of a bird, its sweet, melodious song rising amidst an effulgent dawn, or like the shimmering stars around a fresh and luminous moon. Even when on the Earth it is hailing, and thundering, the brush strokes dance vibrantly as if ready to burst forth with the heroic and courageous "Song of the Sea."
Overall, Master Ching Hai's works depict a world of heartfelt tranquillity, liberating and contented, but also very alive and joyous. However, I also caught a glimpse of several paintings that appear to carry social messages. For example, in "The Stone Convention," rising above angry red and sand-like sentient beings, representing anger and frustration, are enormous impassive and boring boulders, their deep purple color representing the world's extremely insensitive leaders, the main causes of war and human corruption. The message here is perhaps a call for an open and expansive wisdom at the end of a dark tunnel, as in the painting, "Stone Cave."
If wisdom is
slow to open, could it be the fault of the "readers" - people
who read extensively yet do not understand, always debating and arguing
for the sole purpose of creating more conflict in the world. This is
perhaps the message of the painting "Argument", which presents
two enormous books opposing one another with the title "#l"
on their covers. The background of the painting is a layer of dark purple,
surrounding an unbalanced table, symbolic of human society.
However, Master Ching Hai did not convey Her main messages when She created these paintings, but rather scribbled them on rocks deep in the mountains and jungles of Formosa around the same period. These messages consist of a few short words about Jesus, Buddha, human beings, or nature. When writing the messages on the rocks, the Artist/renunciate, bringing forth the "selfless" state of human beings and combining it with the "selfless" state of the rocks, harmonized humankind with nature.
All beings are one; this perhaps is Her main message, as well as the significance of the phrases "I and my father are one," "I am God," "I am Buddha," "The World is Me", or "The Tao is Silent." Words such as "peace, love, freedom, purity, perfection, wisdom, joy and humility" truly reveal the vision of the artist about an ideal world for humanity.
When writing messages on stones in the Formosan jungle about religion, morality, and social values, the Artist/renunciate walked further on a journey that is another milestone in shattering society's preconceived beliefs, similar to "Traces of a Previous Life". This break with convention is manifested in the bringing of Jesus into Buddha, humanity into rocks, and the tranquillity of Buddhism into the nothingness of Taoism, without abandoning Chuang Tze's joy and humor in life.
Professor Tran Van An presently is director of an educational establishment
in Orange County, California, USA. Before1975, he served as Congressman
of Gia Dinh Province, and was also Speaker for the Republic of Au Lac.