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.…