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Capturing a monk’s vision

Lin Qi
Updated: Jun 30,2015 9:54 AM     China Daily

A painting titled Spring, summer, autumn, winter by Shi Dachan.[Photo/Provided to China Daily]

Chinese paintings are enriched by the legacies of artists who were Buddhist monks. Lin Qi interviews one to know why.

Buddhist monks who were also established artists have left an impressive mark on Chinese fine art. These famed figures included Zhu Da (or Bada Shanren), Huai Su and Li Shutong, to name a few.

“It would be boring if the monks were absent from the traditional art scene. It’s like a huge garden with hundreds of flowers in full bloom, and the monks are the water lilies,” says Shi Dachan, a Buddhist monk and painter. He spoke to China Daily on the sidelines of his solo exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing.

Shi, in his late 30s, lives a monastic life in a temple in Anhui province. For more than a decade, he has been following the steps of his great predecessors. He endeavors to conduct dual practices of Buddhism and traditional ink-and-water painting and calligraphy.

At the exhibition titled A Stroke of Zen, Shi displays his latest ink paintings and calligraphic scrolls. He converses in refined sensibilities with the spirit of nature, the truth of life and the world of Zen.

Shi declines to talk much about his past before converting to Buddhism, a common attitude among monks. But he does share with great relish how he traded play time for perfecting painting and calligraphic skills and reading in his teen years in Nangong, Hebei province, where he was born.

A painting by Shi Dachan.[Photo/Provided to China Daily]

“Practicing and studying classic paintings, that was how I spent many school holidays and Spring Festivals,” he says.

“People enthuse about achieving breakthroughs in the ink-and-water art. But I don’t see a breakthrough of great significance to me. I never seek breakthroughs on purpose.

“The bottom line is, one should devote himself to the mastery of basic techniques day after day and year after year. He keeps painting what he wants to and is inspired to paint. Naturally, he will find the path that upgrades him to the highest level,” Shi says.

Shi says he has been enormously influenced by Mi Fu, the renowned Song Dynasty (960-1279) painter, whose highly personal style of misty landscapes gained him prominence in art history.

Shi adds that he came to truly understand Mi’s art philosophy on one rainy night years ago. He was in a car and captivated by the scenes outside the window.

“Where the car lights lit up, I could see the threads of rain pouring down to the road at varied angles because of the force of wind. It formed a mini landscape with peculiar beauty, which I’d never noticed before.

“I said to myself: Isn’t this what the Mi style is all about?” he says.

Shi embeds his unbonded strokes with an integrated power he absorbs from the mountains, trees and lakes - the surroundings that are part of his daily practices at the temple and while traveling.

Shi Dachan, monk and painter[Photo/Provided to China Daily]

He revisits the subject of the lotus, a symbol of Buddhism, in his paintings. He drew in simple lines and filled with vivid colors. And he infuses the visual elements of Buddhist figurines and prayer beads to create an unconventional image of the lotus. He hence presents a final touch of spirituality and luminosity.

“Shi’s imagery of the lotus doesn’t belong to the natural world but to the land of the Buddha. The painter has advanced further to simply portray the landscapes of the human world. He shows a sacred ground of purity and wisdom,” notes art critic Jia Fangzhou.

Surprisingly, Shi says he also finds inspiration in Bach’s music, which he first heard at a friend’s house. The stereo played many musical pieces and he was simply astounded by Bach.

“I felt the same respect for truth in Bach’s compositions and in Mi’s paintings. It then interests me whether I could translate the infinite power of his musical notes into the context of ink and water.”

He has invited the exhibition’s viewers to critique his paintings.