Saturday, March 29, 2008

Original Chinese Watercolor with Tibetan Antelope and Shepherdess

The title of this painting is “The Song of the Shepherd,” as inscribed in Chinese characters along the top of the painting. The sharp detail of the inks and sparse use of vibrant colors creates an evocative scene. The animals in the painting appear to be Tibetan antelope, a threatened species widely poached for valuable skins and wool. By pairing the shepherdess with these endangered animals, the artist makes a comment on China’s disappearing traditions. This beautifully rendered painting pays tribute to the history and folklore of China’s West.

From the northern Gobi rangelands to the southern Tibetan Plateau, the western reaches of China are home to nomadic ethnicities and cultures. Geographically the area is characterized by arid grasslands, deserts and towering mountain ranges. The summer heat can be oppressive and the winter chill is routinely sub zero. For centuries, survival in the region depended on nomadic traditions of herding livestock and journeying from established homesteads to distant pastures. To this day the area has the largest sheep and goat population in the world. Even in the dark ages, before "Walkmans" and "iPods", music and song was an important part of local cultures as they traveled with their livestock. Throat singing and tunes played on a Dombra, a traditional instrument stringed with sheep intestine, were mainstays in the ears of local populations.

The style of this painting, a one of a kind original, employs a unique combination of simple “fast brush” work with isolated areas of finer detail. The grassland and animals are almost mere blotches of color fading off into the bare white background of the rice paper. In contrast the figure is created with dark defining brush strokes and brighter colors. The result is captivating. The shepherdess stares out at you from her fading environment. She is not quite pleading or desperate, but simply observing. Both the character and viewer are paying witness to a tide of progress. The painting does not seem to stage an abject protest but only seeks to make record and prompt you to ask yourself if this is the right path for civilization to take.

You can view more vintage and contemporary watercolor paintings at

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bodhidharma, Ancient Buddhist Sage and Originator of Zen

Bodhidharma, also know as Batua, Daruma or Dot Mor is credited with bringing both Kung Fu and Buddhism to China in the 5th or 6th century. He practiced a deep self-introspection that at the time was often called “wall gazing” but today we know it as meditation. He spoke of the Bodhisattva entering the minds of those who could recognize and accept the truth of self-realization, become masters of their minds and accept Buddha. In legend the figure is closely bound to ideas about spiritual, intellectual and physical wholeness, an indivisible singularity or enlightenment that is said to be the root of both Zen Buddhism in Japan and China’s Chan school of thought.

Bodhidharma practiced a kind of fighting exercise, said to represent the five animal forms of Dragon, Tiger, Leopard, Snake and Crane. The style was adopted by his disciples and refined over the centuries. There is some association with Bodhidharma at the Shaolin temple. Some say Emperor Xiaowen erected the temple in his honor. Other histories maintain that when Bodhidharma arrived in Shaolin, he was confronted by a wall, upon which he meditated for nine years. Upon his departure manuscripts were discovered including the basic descriptions for Qigong or Yì Jīn Jīng.

Without getting too specific, it is safe to say that Bodhidharma is an extremely important figure in the legends and culture of Asia. He is most often depicted with wide eyes and a bushy beard. He is a traveler, having spread the ideas of Buddhism and self-discovery/discipline from the Himalayas to Mt Fuji, from the Mekong Delta to the Gobi Desert. He is even credited with the advent of tea as one story says that during his nine years of meditation in Shaolin he cut off his eyelids to fend off sleep. From his discarded eyelids grew the first tea plants, which is why tea keeps you awake.

As with many aspects of Chinese culture, Bodhidharma represents a convergence of philosophies and history. Buddhist and Taoist ideals often merge, both seeking a certain wholeness of thought and being. The legends of Bodhidharma also bridge these two worlds as Taoism is largely incorporated into Kung Fu and Tai Chi, both draw on the meditation and self control that were cornerstones of Bodhidharma’s teachings.