A great Chinese sage, and famous painter, decided to carry out his masterpiece. Throughout months, he wandered around mountains in search for the ideal landscape. Finally, after having found a gorgeous and breath-taking view, he settled down on the surrounding village.
Every day the sage would go to this observatory, where he would engage in an intensive contemplation of the landscape, and would return to his hut to transpose his visual intakes to his canvas. He committed himself to sketch mountaintops, pine trees, rocks, clouds, and many other elements, always trying to capture the spirit of the place, and, according to the principles of the aesthetic movement in vogue, he attempted to put them in a subtly symbolic order. However, at every attempt, he failed to communicate the harmony that characterized the scenery he was observing. Day after day, the Chinese sage committed himself to his painting, not being ever able to come close to the perfection that would make him a god on Earth.
In despair, the sage looked for a master chan who lived in the land. The master was a monk skilled at the art of calligraphy as well as in painting. After checking out the sage’s sketches, the monk said:
“What’s lacking in your painting is what’s too much in it!”
Feeling even more helpless, the sage artist went back to see his landscape. While he looked at it, he remembered the monk’s phrase, which sound very much like a koan. The Chinese sage ceaselessly pondered on it, striving to grasp its meaning. Perhaps it was lacking an emptiness among the elements in order to create the mystery of an infinite space to which the observer would be driven to reverie…? Alternatively, maybe, the sage’s brushes were not good enough to take in the life, the blowing, the rhythms, and the endless dance of the cosmic energy.
He was so absorbed in his meditation, so motionless, that a bird mistook him for a rock and perched on his head without him noticing it.
The bird’s song
The silence of the mountain.
Then, eventually he understood. What was in excess in his painting was himself. The flow of thinking interrupted itself. He dismissed himself of his excess of knowledge, of references, and merged himself into the surrounding nature. Consequently, the mountain, the clouds, the rocks, all the elements made his brush dance to paint themselves. Moreover, they allow him a modest but pivotal position. He, the mirror on which all the infinite mutations of the primordial energies from the yin and yang in the emptiness were reflected. He, the man, the measure of all things, the connecting link between Heaven and Earth. He, who learned how to capture their blow and became their instrument, the bamboo flute with which the world’s secret melody was played on.
- Chan is the Chinese Buddhist subdivision.
- Koan is every enigmatic and paradoxical sentence or questions that aims at dissolving the logical reasoning and lead us to a creative enlightenment.
- FAULIOT, Pascal. L’art de la peinture. In: Contes de sages zen. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2013. p. 13-17. Translated into Portuguese by Juliana Carneiro.