A Poem in a Brushstroke

By J. L. Walker

The ink-stone, receiving

The dew of the chrysanthemum—

The life of it!


J WalkerOn a hot afternoon some years ago, I found myself in a small museum dedicated to traditional Chinese painting. It was one of those days in Taipei when there is no air to breathe, when one feels like a fish moistly inhaling water and air together.

As I slowly revived in the cool, quiet rooms of the gallery, I stood for a long time before a simple painting of a chrysanthemum--bold strokes limned a full red blossom atop a tangle of black ink leaves and stems. I closed one eye and looked. I advanced, retreated. I tried a kind of not-looking with eyes almost closed. The space around the flower spoke as trenchantly as the form itself. I remembered suddenly, Zen began with a flower held up and a smile. After a while, my teacher appeared at my elbow. “What is it,” I asked, “that makes this beautiful?” He was silent a moment. “Ah,” he replied, “you must learn to see the poem in the brushstroke.”

What gives a painting its zen? Is it perhaps a picture created by one who practices Zen Buddhism, some Zen master or monastic? Or does its content reflect a person or place famous in the history of the Zen tradition, which spans Asia from its roots in Indian Buddhism, across the vastness of China and Southeast Asia, to Korea and Japan and now in the West? Or is a zen work of art one that arises from deep insights into the nature of self and the world--a work imbued with the quality of direct seeing, with both the fullness and emptiness characteristic of this aesthetic experience?

Many works are of the first two types. But the chrysanthemum painting was “zen” in the third sense. It was a painting that manifested this direct seeing, the essence of the poem in the brushstroke, regardless of the artist’s religious or philosophical outlook. Such immediate perception of the nature of reality begets both fear and courage.

Individual strokes of a soft brush surrounded by space may look a bit unfinished, with no elaboration of background or suggestion of a setting, just some simple marks on blank paper. In Western art we have a horror of empty space that reflects our inability to tolerate any form of solitude, of undefined spaciousness in our lives. We have been trained only to see and value objects and never the space between.

Learning to draw gave me experience in making pictures of the areas between the things I saw before me. Learning to meditate taught me to see the spaces between my thoughts, and to penetrate more and more deeply into the openness or transparency of both mind and the world. When every moment of our lives is planned and filled, then all trace of this boundless quality of our being disappears. The missing dimension of openness to the unexpected, to suggestion rather than explanation, when consigned to the shadow, becomes a barrier of fear, even panic, obscuring the confidence we might find in the profound interconnectedness of our world.

Robert Frost wrote, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride its own melting.” Most of us are terrified of this melting, and yet we recognize this quality in a great work of art--poem or painting--as a dimension of openness that reaches out to us as life itself. This melting into the spaces between vivifies thought, art, and all our relationships. It unifies and integrates all the states of our being. This openness cannot be separated from the work itself, but every such poem or painting embodies its own particular mode of melting in some mysterious way that is more a not-doing than a doing, more a gesture than a form, and the joy of it transports us beyond fear into a larger being, even if only for a moment. It is a thrill both unnerving and exhilarating, and it is above all a recognition of our genuine, if temporarily forgotten, freedom.

In Buddhist writings, the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) sutras are chiefly concerned with the emptiness or spaciousness that is the true nature of mind and everything that exists. That which exists, by definition, stands out from something, from a background. It is that dance of background and form that beckons to us here in the poetry of a Chinese ink painting. Objects are usually experienced as an obstacle between us and the bright clear light of emptiness. Yet in this form of art, objects point to it, not as symbols, but as fingers pointing at the moon.

In the Heart Sutra, the great Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara says, “Because [those who abide in the Perfection of Wisdom] are without obscurations of mind, they have no fear.” A special kind of courage is engendered in them because they know experientially that all things and this empty nature are one. A commentary to Saraha’s Dohas says, “Although one may be frightened by the voice of the ineffable, when one understands that which cannot be expressed in words one knows it is the source of everything that benefits sentient beings. . . . The sphere of that which is not a content of ordinary mind cannot be expressed in words” (Guenther 121). Perhaps a zen painting comes closest to capturing something of this feeling of the inexpressible, in that it must be experienced to be known.

In Zen meditation, feelings of fear are regarded as a good sign that some progress is being made toward an inward unfolding of the experience of openness. The transformation we long for cannot proceed without opening to the spaces in our lives. It has been said that right fright is the greatest gift we can be given. When we study and practice the Path, we reach a point when, in spite of the fact that we want to see emptiness, we become deeply afraid. Therefore, meditation must be balanced by action. That is, we cannot move beyond this fear if we do not possess the qualities that we develop by compassionate deeds in the world, making offerings of our resources and services. In this way we overcome the tendencies that contribute to disturbances in our meditative concentration or samadhi.

The Chinese Zen Master Nan Huai-chin (176) writes that if we want to cultivate the path to enlightenment, we must first “hold firm to loneliness. The highest form of cultivation in human life is to be able to hold firm to loneliness, and be able to appreciate solitude. When a person really cultivating the Path is faced with a realm of solitude, they can feel very comfortable. If you cannot bear loneliness, if you cannot hold firm in solitude, then you cannot accomplish anything. . . . If you move far beyond the fear of emptiness this is true forbearance.” This forbearance means that the power of concentration is very firm, steadfast, and patient. “Those of us without the experience of genuine cultivation of practice,” he continues (209), “do not know that when people work hard and really arrive at the realm of emptiness, they can really become afraid.” We are advised then to pursue our meditation work gradually by an intensified practice of diligent hard work. Without this persevering dedication we will not even achieve fear, much less enlightenment!

The fear of emptiness moves in and captures our minds because we are habituated to grasping whatever appears in our experience. Contemplation of a zen painting can help us to use this grasping itself to bring ourselves out of our discomfort and fear. Making paintings is even better. Many months of both painting and meditation passed before I began to understand what my old teacher meant by “the poem in the brushstroke.” I had to learn to melt my own preconceptions and to observe the way the movement of the brush reflects the passage of the painter’s mind. At first glance, every stroke looks the same. The more we look and stop our usual processes of judging and objectifying, the more the subtle variations in dryness or moisture and the speed or pressure in each stroke begin to speak.

Observing the mind in meditation, one at first feels that it is an impenetrable stream of thoughts and impressions, but with practice, one finds gaps, and through the gaps more subtle realms of thought, and then further gaps, and worlds of thought still more refined and transparent. Without removing them or doing anything to “empty” the mind, one arrives at the place of emptiness, that placeless place where the mind is perfectly at rest even in the midst of activity. This unaffected, unlabored expression is the very essence of the practice and appreciation of both Zen and traditional Chinese or Japanese ink painting. Looking at such a picture, one may observe both the content and the nature of mind together. Making a painting, we make our own nature visible.

The artist who created the particular chrysanthemum I saw in Taipei, redolent with the direct, terse fragrance of Zen, was not a Buddhist but a Confucian. Qi Baishi (1864–1957) would perhaps object to ascribing the label zen to his art, yet it is just the zen qualities that make his paintings so unforgettable. In Chinese, tao is sometimes used to describe this quality. Its power is like that of a Tang Dynasty poem or a Japanese haiku—nothing pretty about it, and yet its beauty and the self-so-ness it embodies pierce straight to the heart of things.

Qi Baishi’s pictures never suggest a call to some etherial realm far from the mundane world, but instead propel us into the very inmost truth of the ordinary. Setting is eliminated, inviting the viewer to participate in the work of art, to complete the picture within his or her mind. His chrysanthemum gives us emptiness (shunyata) as an object of knowledge, something tangible and fully present that we can put on our table, still fresh with dew.

The Ch’an monk Xugu (1823–1896) gives us the chrysanthemum with a different flavor. In his painting we have the flower of mind, or enlightenment, before our eyes. The picture gives us not an upright formal portrait of the plant, but the shaggy blooms at home in a corner of an autumn garden. Author and connoisseur Jung Ying Tsao (149) describes it in these words:

Just as the composition and configuration of the parts are taken to the extreme of informality, the brush technique in this work replaces Xugu's previous calligraphic idiom with a wholly leisurely, spontaneous method that can hardly be classified as a method or style. This painting thus presents a semi-abstract image that conveys not an illusion of concrete reality but rather a subtle suggestion of the underlying forces of growth and decay in nature. And to Xugu, an important aspect of these natural processes was the creative act itself. Here, nature, art and artist are one, and distinctions between concrete and abstract, tangible and spiritual, dissolve, with the very evanescence of the flowers evoking eternity.

Engaging the painting thoroughly, stopping and looking deeply, we can imagine the contemplative process of making the image. The artist has first carefully selected his materials and arranged the things on his table just so: a simple ink stone, fine brushes, smooth beautiful river pebbles to hold his paper in place. Perhaps someone has brought him a blossom from the garden, still fresh with the morning dew, and he shakes the petals so as to use this pure liquid to prepare his ink. With this living water moistening his ink stone, he composes his breath and begins slowly and mindfully to rub the solid ink stick round and round on the surface of the stone. This is a meditation in itself. Only when he is ready, when he cannot hold back another moment, does he pick up his bamboo brush. From the white paper, suddenly objects appear, unhurried and effortless, their form and inherent spirit perfectly integrated.

It is in this “spirit resonance” that the poetry of the brushstrokes resides. It is the invisible painting within the visible one that reveals itself in the momentum that unites the various components into a living, harmonious whole, and in the dynamism of the surrounding space. Each stroke of Qi Baishi's brush moves like the chisel of a sculptor, carving the strokes into the paper. Xugu's brush dances with a firm but fleeting touch over the paper, revealing the qualities of impermanence and illusion that make the appearances we know as life.

“The object, which is back of every true work of art, is the attainment of a state of being, a state of high functioning, a more than ordinary moment of existence....We make our discoveries while in that state because then we are clear sighted” (Henri quoted by Edwards 163). This is as true for the maker as for the observer. To portray truthfully the inner nature of a flower or any thing requires that an artist confront that thing without concept, with our being extended to it just as it offers itself simply and plainly to us. Only so can one enter into the picture, experiencing it not as a sentimental commentary but directly, just as it is. Each object, every brushstroke, recognizes and affirms its universal, intrinsic nature.

When a work of art brings us into this state of clarity, of direct contact with its subject in such a way that we disappear for a time, we approach the clear light of emptiness, or what Master Nan calls “holding firm to loneliness.” It may seem a thing in the realm of impossibility to cultivate, yet we all know these moments--fearless, delighted, vibrant, and free. It brings us up into the present moment, the genuineness of now. The Sixth Patriarch of Zen said, “The Buddha Dharma is in the world. Awakening is not apart from the world.”

The poem in the brushstroke points the way, not to another reality, but as a true mirror of our own. The mirror is not its reflections, yet both are necessary and by nature inseparable. This chrysanthemum offers us a path both simple and straightforward into this very moment where alone we face our fears of our own intrinsically indefinable nature, our own unwritten page of possibilities. The empty space of the picture, the moment when there is no step ahead of our feet to take, is the moment of life.


  • Edwards, Betty. Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Putnam’s, 1989.

  • Guenther, Herbert V., trans. The Royal Song of Saraha: A Study in the History of Buddhist Thought. Berkeley: Shambhala, 1973.

  • Henri, Robert. The Art Spirit. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincot, 1923.

  • Jung Ying Tsao. The Paintings of Xugu and Qi Baishi. San Francisco and Seattle: Far East Fine Arts and University of Washington Press, 1994.

  • Nan Huai-chin. To Realize Enlightenment: Practice of the Cultivation Path. York Beach, ME: Weiser, 1994.

J. L. Walker has done Chinese ink painting in Taiwan and America for twenty-five years. Her paintings are in collections in Taiwan, the United States, and Europe. She is co-translator of Grass Mountain by Master Nan (Weiser, 1986) and assistant editor of The Paintings of Xugu and Qi Baishi by Jung Ying Tsao (University of Washington Press, 1994). She is currently in her sixth year of solitary retreat in the Tibetan Drikung Kagyud tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism. Her writings have previously appeared in Parabola magazine.

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