Miao’s Teaching Stories

High Consciousness Painting

It is no secret that I am not young any more. Medical knowledge tells us that people sleep less as they grow older, but I seem to go against the rule somewhat: I sleep for eight to ten hours. The common saying has it that a long night’s sleep brings many dreams, but here too I go against the rule somewhat, because I sleep through many long nights with no dreams. When I do dream, it is of myself “seeing” or “doing” something, and what happens at night will eventually be verified or carried further during waking hours. Thus my dreams are part of my life’s winding road.

Another “contrary to rule” phenomenon about me is that closing my eyes sometimes works better for me than opening them. With closed eyes, I can see “movies” of the multiverse—what a joy it is! With eyes open what I see is a dualistic world in three dimensions where black is black and white is white, and the flickering impermanence of things can play tricks on a person. With eyes closed I enter through my mind’s portal into the multiverse, which plays with you but does not play tricks on you. Thus the multiverse really does deserve to be called a child’s play-land, but in the real world you have to grow old, and an old person who won’t quit playing is sometimes called a naughty overgrown child.

When I came to America in 2001, I became good friends with the painter Diana Wong. I clearly remember that she used to wear different colored socks on her feet, and she had strange objects in her studio. For instance, she has a pivoting seesaw—a kind of “flying machine”—that she made herself. While hanging from it she can fly over a painting and touch down like a dragonfly to apply paint. She also has a “coffin” that looks to have been excavated from an archaeological dig, which she fills with paints. She immerses canvases in the coffin and lets the colors “ferment.”

Not only that, she sometimes dyes her hair half-purple and half-silver. Under the covering of that French hairstyle, her brain keeps itself busy thinking about the eight trigrams of the Book of Changes. She even flew across the Pacific, at her own expense, to build a labyrinth based on the Eight Trigrams and Nine Palaces: where else but on the roof of the Shangyuan Art Center in Huairou, north of Beijing!

I am telling you about her here because after all she taught me something about art. Though my paintings may not be all that impressive, now that I am going to put out a book of them, I want to repay those drops of kindness with a whole well of gratitude, if I can.

Some years ago I went to Diana and said, “How about painting light? How about painting a phoenix?” I had all kinds of ideas for things she could paint. She said, “Try to tell me what these things are like.” I tried but could not communicate a clear idea of them. Then she said, “I cannot paint those things. Go ahead and paint them for yourself.”

Later, whenever I described things I had seen in my mind’s eye, she would say, “Paint them yourself.”

In 2008 I went to her studio and said, “From today on, you are my teacher. Teach me.” She laughed and said, “I can’t imagine you studying with me for very long.” Then she placed a vase and a piece of fruit on a table and said, “For the next three days I want you to draw this.”

I picked up a pencil and stared at the vase and fruit, not knowing what to do. Diana said, “Observe their proportions and shading and structure.” She effortlessly sketched a few lines that caught their shapes.

I said, “I want to get up on your ‘flying machine’ and paint them from mid-air.” She said, “I studied in Italy for years and laid a foundation to get to where I am now. Without a foundation, how do you expect to fly?”

Looking at the vase, I felt it lacked something, so I filled it with water and put a flower in it. I looked at the piece of fruit. Then I painstakingly worked at drawing for a few hours.

Diana looked at it and said, “It looks like a pineapple with the leaves on…I cannot teach you. Let’s say you’ve graduated.”

Later I returned to China and asked my good friend Yang Yang if she had any painter friends who could teach me some essentials. Yang Yang said a classmate of hers was a painter, and she was willing to introduce me. A few days later in a dream I “saw” a middle-aged man in a suit wearing glasses. He walked towards me smiling, holding a key in his hand. It was an antique-looking key, and seemed to be made of bronze, the kind that an older generation must have used. He handed the key to me, and the dream dissolved.

After rising from bed the next morning, I got a phone call from Yang Yang saying her classmate the painter wanted to see me. Then Mr. Ran Wenji showed up—a painter (and businessman) in suit and glasses, with a genial smile on his face, but no key in his hand. He said, “I know someone who can teach people like you who have no foundation. He is my teacher…”

Before long I met Mr. Liu Gengtao. He told me to pick up an ink brush and paint whatever came into my head. I commenced painting, and the result resembled a dance done by the tiger-slayer Wu Song. Mr. Liu said, “There’s something intriguing in your way of playing.”

Later I went to Singapore and Malaysia, and on the way back to the U.S., I planned to stay for a few days in Guangzhou. Teacher Liu went to the trouble of flying to Guangzhou, just so he could spend three days teaching me some fundamentals of ink painting. His key lessons were as follows:

  • Paint even if it doesn’t look like a painting. ‘Haphazard’ painting may also have an inherent order. In your inherent order there is an inspired spontaneity.
  • Playing is also a principle of painting. Many people cannot accept this, and what they paint is lifeless.
  • Though your paintings lack technique, your childlike heart and curiosity can help you.
  • Inauthentic transmissions can fill book after book, but a single sentence can be an authentic transmission.

In a few sentences, Mr. Liu showed support for my playful spontaneity. Yet because I am sojourning in a faraway country, I have had few opportunities to see my teacher Mr. Liu, up until the time has come to show these “paintings” in public. Now that I have done these paintings under his tutelage, I asked Mr. Liu if he approved of me “selling out” on him. He said he does not mind.

The word yoga means “resonance and linkage.” In drinking tea, when you really begin to appreciate its flavor, that means you are in resonance with the tea; when you begin to taste the “Tao” in tea, it means that through it your spirit links up with the natural world.

Being born as human beings, we can naturally breathe, we can naturally smile, our bodies can naturally move about, and our mouths can naturally emit sound. But can we naturally paint a painting? Can we let our lives be filled with creativity and beauty?

Painting is yet another form in which we show our interest in nature, our curiosity about life! A spiritual state that lacks curiosity and fascination is senescence. A child’s vitality and exuberance comes from his curiosity and interest in things. Practicing yoga of the heart is a matter of practicing innocent authenticity: it is a rejuvenating elixir!

As we enter yoga’s realm of resonance and integration, breath becomes “wind.” When “wind” breathes itself into forms, it becomes graceful lines; when “wind” merges into pigment, then the painted surface gives off light—a kind of light that can chase away dark clouds of the heart. When “wind” merges into water, then water will assume all forms and go where it is needed; it will enable energy to integrate naturally.

Having entered such a dimension, you let images of your inner self show themselves. Such a visible form is called yoga painting. In Sanskrit it is called shakti yantra. “Shakti” is energy of the universe. “Yan-” is control or balance, and “-tra” means liberation or sublimation. Yantra refers to a symbol or picture charged with spiritual energy that can help liberate a person from constraints. It carries inherent spiritual force, just as a mantra carries spiritual vibrations. Both of them can guide your heart to a more rarefied plane, because your heart is receptive to sounds and images.

In another sense, in the realm of resonance and integration that is yoga, you can “listen” to colors and images; you can also “look at” melodies and harmonies. This is a delightful, fascinating phenomenon, or you could say it is a ravishing romantic encounter with sublime universal energies!

In the book of yoga tea paintings you will find sound and pictures. Some of the pictures have words next to them, which I hope you like. Now I would like to give a self-evaluation:

I am a free color scheme outside the circle of painters; I am a free voice outside the circle of musicians; I live in the realm of water: flowing into the eyes I am a painting; flowing into the ears I am an improvised chant; flowing into the heart I am love.

Yuan Miao
Before Christmas, 2011


A Story about Hair

I was brought into this world by my grandma Yeshe Tsuomu. Not only did she give me the name Yuan Miao (resonant with the alchemy of water), she also instilled in me a strong interest in the intangible power of hair.

Grandma loved to sing songs, but I could not understand the words. After reaching adulthood I realized that her chants included invocations to the Five Taras of the Himalayas, to the river gods of the Yarlung watershed and to the elements of earth, water, fire, wind and void. While Grandma sang her mantric chants, she would amuse herself by braiding my hair. She would plait my hair into numerous tiny braids until they hung down in a fringe. She would grind up “fingernail herb” into a paste, and then daub it between my eyebrows, making me look like a girl fresh from a Tibetan district. These distinctive marks, along with my dark skin, made me instantly recognizable in our staff residential compound. Whenever I wanted to cut my hair short, Grandma would say that my long hair was good for covering up my “print,” which was a red birthmark on the nape of my neck. According to Grandma, the significance of my mark would someday be recognized by an advanced adept. Years later when I came to America, my mark really did prove to be my means of being “verified.”

Sometimes Grandma would braid her own hair. Even though her hair grew sparse, it was still long, and gleaming from the osmanthus oil she rubbed on it. Sometimes she would plait lots of small braids, singing and laughing like a young beauty. She would say, “When I braid your hair, it is xiufa for me. Do you know what xiufa means? It doesn’t mean I’m working on my fa [发, “hair”]; it means I’m working on fa as in fofa [佛法, Buddha-dharma].” This teaching stayed with me as I sought insight into human life and travelled about transmitting joyous wisdom.

When I reached the age of eight or nine, the Cultural Revolution broke out, and my school closed down. Grandpa was hauled away to the countryside. When we weren’t scheming to get juicy tomatoes and watermelons, my little brother and I were stirring up a ruckus. The large pair of scissors kept at home was clumsy and rusty, but I took infinite delight in trimming my brother’s hair. I would start by cutting a single lock; then I would get into creative styling. His hairstyle attracted a group of our playmates, who lined up wanting a trim from me. None of these hairstyles was like any other, and the hair length was uneven, but I was delighted to do it. We would look at each other and explode into laughter…

In the evening when our parents came back from a political study session, they heard a cry of dismay from Uncle He who lived next door, followed by his Cantonese-accented exclamation: “What have you done? It looks like the child has been chewed by a dog.” That evening two of the parents came to our house with their bedraggled children in tow, complaining to my father and mother. For the next few days I was grounded. Perhaps because of the scolding I got that day, the world has been deprived of a great hairstylist.

As I matured I acquired two nicknames—“Long Legs” and “Long Braids.” During by basketball-playing years, those flailing braids were a distraction to my opponents but equally to me. The coach said “Your height gives you an advantage, but those braids aren’t doing you any good. You should cut them.” My answer was “I won’t cut them.”

When I became a program director at Central Television, I was fashion?conscious and liked to wear name brands. At the suggestion of a hairstylist who had studied in France, for a time I kept only a little pigtail at the nape of my neck, while the hair up front was combed in a bristling shag. Later upon taking up Buddhism, I became critical of my image in the mirror, and I took to heart what my Grandma had said, “Your hair will have benefits for people; you should let it grow.” So I let my hair grow out, until my daughter contracted leukemia and left this world, whereupon I cut it short and used it to cover her head when she was cremated. That evening I had a vision of her spirit cavorting and dancing with a group of white-robed immortals, ascending to the ninth level of heaven. This helped to console me in my grief. Later when I was on Lao Mountain and at other film locations, I missed her so terribly that life held no charm for me. For a time I wanted to do away with myself, but I experienced a series of encounters, each of which came at a critical moment. Many people in China and abroad have read my account of this.

Grandma passed away shortly before my daughter. One elder and one child whom I loved above all else both passed away. They had given me a great deal, but they took a great deal from me. Everything that happened in my energy field and consciousness during that period was deposited in my newly growing hair.

My hair was short when I went to America, but when I stayed several years in seclusion in the mountains of Malibu, it grew out again. Later I traveled to many places transmitting the wisdom of joyous life and meeting people of all types. Among them I met an ascetic from the Himalayas and several adepts at spiritual practices who each asked for a strand of my hair. They wanted to keep a strand of my hair in a pouch or talisman bag. Some of them even made a place for my hair on their altars. My secretary DaiDai took note of this and cleverly gathered strands fallen from my comb, collecting them in a bag. Once she said, “These strands of hair can help people. Let’s keep them in reserve.” I was struck by the similarity between her words and my Grandma’s!

According to knowledge transmitted orally in the Himalayas for thousands of years, hair can be a vehicle which carries many things. My blood carries the genes of wisdom bearers, both Tibetan and Chinese. On top of that, I have found illumination at the edge of life and death. Probably this is why there are people who treat my hair as something precious. As many people know, a chapeaux plaited from the hair of a dakini is an ecstatic vessel that belongs among the world’s storehouse of marvels. This is a material thing, yet it enshrines the spiritual attainments of one’s progenitors. It is like the Yellow River, the Yangtze or the Yarlung flowing seaward from the source.

There are others who want to grow their hair long for similar reasons. I tell them that their hair can only carry the potency of a “dharma lineage” if their spirits are loving, filled with light and open to what advanced beings have passed down through time. Hair has an inherent connection with lineage—otherwise it will just be a means of self-aggrandizement. This is all the more true in a commercialized milieu where people are impatient for short term advantage.

Long hair is part of my life and I have incorporated a single strand into my shakti paintings within a layer under the painting itself. This imparts greater healing energy to colors and lines in a painting, so it can help one to connect up with universal energies. Long hair has been made by my students into Guanyin figures and stitched into lines from the Heart Sutra, to be collected by persons of affinity. I have distilled the experiences of the generations before me and my own, to visually express how we sought the Dao, cultivated it and gained realization of it. As a lineage-bearer I use my life essence as an offering to masters and sages of all eras, while at the same time offering it to all living things.

Translated by Denis Mair


The Baja Element

By Yuan Miao

I grew up in a rural environment (our Agricultural College was like a village). Later I worked for the Central Television programs Homeland Attractions and Man in Nature, which gave me chances to visit spectacular mountains and rivers. Both in Beijing and in America I have lived in prime scenic areas. Although I did not set out to be picky, it was as if I had been “chosen” by those favorable spots to live in pristine surroundings.

Once I lived in seclusion awhile in a place called Baja. Baja is a peninsula with many islands in Mexico. There is a volcano there, and desert terrain where many kinds of cactus grow. The area where I stayed is frequented by Americans, who can easily reach it by car or private plane. Northern Baja Bay is a special place where warm waters of the Colorado River used to empty into the Pacific, and in doing so, created a fertile maritime ecosystem. The Sea of Cortes is a gathering place for blue whales, humpback whales, dolphins and giant sharks. Other noteworthy places are Moon Valley and the nearby Indian village site. The hills overlooking Moon Valley consist of calcareous deposits from marine animals, which prove that the area was once on the ocean floor. At night, moonlight causes the chalk mountains to sparkle, as if stars had descended to the earth. Because this area is off the electrical grid, it preserves many features of a primitive environment. There is no noise but the engine sounds of speedboats or helicopters as they occasionally pass by.

The Baja Peninsula is sparsely populated, and in such a setting one seldom needs to speak, so your mouth can get a taste of quietness. There is no need to decipher speech, so your auditory faculty goes back to a pristine state. At such times I observe things with three kinds of eyes. My first pair of eyes can see traces of pythons, patterned scales of iguanas and birds riding wind currents in the sky; now and then they see a porpoise or whale breaching on the ocean surface. I have another pair of eyes—binoculars—which can bring these animals close enough to inspect their detailed features. My third kind of eye is the mind’s eye, which goes beyond material things to gaze at my true home.

During the months of my spiritual retreat in Baja, what did I see in my “true home?”

Two scenes remain especially fresh in my memory…

A white-garbed young woman poled a skiff along a winding stream that led to an ancient-looking walled city. After disembarking she led me through a large door and motioned me to wait in a rear courtyard. I leaned against a high wall, craning my neck to see what was on the other side. I saw three old men in a circle, sitting cross-legged at the center of an open area. One of them was round-faced and beardless, but the other two were relatively slender and had long whiskers. They wore long robes of grayish blue and all were immersed in samadhi.

I walked into that open area, placing my feet gingerly to avoid making noise. Then I noticed that the open area was ringed by a large number of people whose eyes were closed and whose hands were positioned in mudras. I was absorbed in figuring out the mudras when the rotund old man walked over to me. He led me back to the open space and told me to sit facing the other two elders. But the two old men were in deep samadhi and seemed hidden from me. By the time I remembered what they looked like, I discovered that the rotund old man had gone away. I looked for him in all directions, and then looked down to find that I was standing on water, and the water was reflecting a golden light. I lifted my head to see the rotund old man, and his whole body was giving off beams of gold light. Towering over me in a stately pose, he looked at me with a compassionate smile. I fell down on my knees and called out “Master,” beginning to sob. He laid his hand on my head for a moment, then said, “Go back now.” So I came back.

The other vision happened like this…I returned to that grand courtyard, and again I entered through the “back door.” I saw the three old men sitting in a small circle. This time instead of being in samadhi they were amusing themselves by doing mudras with their hands. They formed a succession of mudras so adeptly that rainbow-colored light began to shine from between their fingers. Suddenly a flying phoenix appeared amid the beams of light from their fingers. The phoenix was not large, but it had splendid colors.

As the phoenix was flying in gyres through the air, the rotund old man turned to me as if to say, “Do you understand what you just saw?” In an instant I found myself back on an earthly landscape. There I saw a grand phoenix descending from the sky to alight on a mountain peak. Its long plumed tail merged into the afterglow of sunset. The phoenix extended its beautiful head across the landscape and serenely gazed at me, face to face.

For a long time I was absorbed in recalling these two visions. Whether I was viewing sunbeams through clouds with my bare eyes or spotting dolphins with binoculars, that phoenix image would keep floating up from the waters of my subconscious mind.

Whether in ancient countries from the Far East to the Middle East (China, India, Egypt) or in modern times, people have handed down legends of the phoenix. Every thousand years the phoenix consumes itself in its own flames, then rises again from its ashes. Buddhists sometimes speak of “the nirvana of a phoenix,” which refers to such an idea.

The 21st Century will be a time for the phoenix’s rebirth. Various religions have begun to show some degree of aging. People call such aging the “end times” or the “age of Declining Dharma.” However, the world never really passes through end times, and the dharma is neither born nor extinguished. What some call the “end times” is perhaps “stagnation reaching an extreme” (in the I Ching symbol). As for the “Declining Dharma,” this really signifies the death of human hearts. Everywhere you go in the world, you hear the word 忙 mang (“busy”). The word 忙 is composed of 心 (“heart”) and 亡 (“disappear/pass away”). If one’s heart passes away, isn’t that the decline of the dharma? As for self-immolation of the heart-mind, that comes about due to the five poisons. [1] When people are reduced to ash by self-immolation, this is the “end times” or the extreme of Stagnation. When one is reborn from the ashes, this is renewal or “approaching Peace” (in I Ching symbolism).

Ascension of the phoenix requires prayer and belief and acts that make renewal happen. In individual terms, your loss and pain and blows you suffer may put your faith and love through a conflagration. Perhaps some of your “wherewithal” may escape disaster, or perhaps it will all be reduced to ashes. Thus you will be plunged into despair and helplessness and fury. Perhaps you will retreat into the “Gate of Emptiness,” or a sense of futility will prey upon you. You may lose your beliefs and entertain thoughts of suicide, or you may devise all sorts of ways to maximize sensory pleasure, passing your days in a deluded fog. You may thirst to possess more, envying those who outdo you and disdaining those who cannot rival you. Your heart may be filled with fear—fear of illness, fear of aging, fear of death, fear of earthquakes, fear of poverty, fear of abandonment, fear of an airplane crash, fear of unsafe highways…all these high and low flames are licking away at your Buddhamind.

Let the phoenix of our life-force be reborn from this heap of ashes! Even now “approaching Peace” is gazing at you in the form of a lovely phoenix.

Early this year I went back to Baja. I picked up feathers that were shed by birds flying by; I picked up bits of seashell on the beach, and I gathered desert plants. I put these together with tea leaves, Japanese sumi-e ink and Korean pigments. In a shakti state of open receptivity, I let a phoenix’s energy be transformed into these paintings. I hardly used an inkbrush at all.

I hope that friends who view these paintings can resonate with blessings from the phoenix!

Translated by Denis Mair 


[1] “Five poisons”—The Buddhist idea of predispositions which cloud people’s minds during an age of decline.…