High Peaks Pure Earth has translated a blogpost by Woeser, originally written for the Mandarin service of Radio Free Asia and published on her blog on May 4, 2017.
Read more about artist Liu Yi on this profile on Hyperallergic. The English translation of “A Mala that was Meant to Be” used in the article below is by Ragged Banner, taken from the still excellent poetry volume “Tibet’s True Heart”.
“Liu Yi’s Paintings: A Mala That was Meant to Be”
I remember in the summer of 1994, after I had gone to Amdo and returned to Lhasa, I wrote a long poem; it can be considered of importance: “A Mala that Was Meant to Be”. The mala, prayer beads, stood as a metaphor for belief; I wrote the following happy lines, as my heart was filled with all kinds of feelings:
“Here’s a treasure that once was yours,
Before, when you walked a winding
Road, and the dust
Caked your deep red clothing,
Lonesome but untrammeled,
Tears sparkling clear,
The fingers of one hand working unceasingly…
Have you forgotten?
What is it you’ve grasped and won’t let go?”
At the time, I received a few photos from Lanzhou, showing many colourful Buddhas and Bodhisattvas looking either serene or angry. These photos were not taken in a monastery, but actually painted by a painter whose Tibetan name is Sherab.
This person is Liu Yi. We once met in Lanzhou. I had heard that he is a Buddhist.
The next time I met Liu Yi was in Beijing, around 2001, at an art exhibition in Deshengmen. Liu Yi’s paintings stood out, they were titled “Cessation and Observation”.
“Cessation” comes from Zen Buddhism, while “observation” from Prajna. The Indian Bodhisattva Asvaghosa said: “Now, if he practices cessation only, then his mind will be sunk in self-complacency and he will be slothful; he will not delight in performing good acts but will keep himself far away from the exercise of great compassion. It is, therefore, necessary to practice observation as well.” Artists like Liu Yi are able to use colour and brushstrokes to gradually make the process of meditation come to life on an empty canvas; the audience lament maybe because they cannot see much in the paintings, but this is precisely what “cessation” is about and the so-called “observation” has nothing to do with the audience, it is only related to Liu Yi himself. After all, meditation is a personal matter.
Cessation and observation took about ten years to complete. When looking from a distance, the fine and detailed strokes appear like layers of tree leaves, from nearby they look like small script, it always reminds of Amdo’s Kumbum Monastery. That year when I went to Kumbum, I saw this tree, a tree of great merit, and I started to ponder:
“She lacks the root of wisdom.
She finds it hard to visualize
An image of the Buddha or
A letter of Tibetan
On a leaf.” until I found the mala that was meant to be —-
She makes obeisance as before,
But now more deeply moved.
Under the dazzling noonday sun,
The mala glistens white.
But at Ta’er, she sees a breeze caress
A tree that has no equal.
Inside the gem-encrusted tower, a transformation:
A hundred thousand Buddha-images,
Or one hundred thousand letters of Tibetan,
Morph into as many leaves upon a tree
As if settling on a pair of shoulders.
Maybe, Liu Yi also had a similar happy feeling before.
We live in an era characterised by “exile”. I consider myself an exiled Tibetan living in this imperial capital.
Is Liu Yi also in exile? Or to phrase it differently, the artist’s heart is always in a state of being in exile. He doesn’t live elsewhere, but his spirit is elsewhere.
The autobiography of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “Freedom in Exile”, goes beyond bitterness and is full of joy and the greatest beauty. It is the highest possible state of exile.
Cessation and observation has been a key theme of Liu Yi’s paintings for many years. Of course, meditation is a lifelong practice, it stretches and follows through lives and generations. In the complicated places of this secular world, however, when one finds oneself in exile, how can one maintain one’s karma?
There are many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in “Cessation and Observation” and the earlier works are like Tibetan thangkas.
“Thangka” is Tibetan. “Thang” has a spatial connotation and means vast and unbounded. A thangka master once told me that on one canvas one can paint hundreds, even thousands of Buddhas, but one can also paint just one. A thangka painted with respect makes people feel Buddhism’s love for all living things.
Tibetan Buddhists treasure thangkas, they carry them along with them as a movable temple, a place to worship. For people today, the thangka is used for praying, worshipping and meditation. When someone passes away, Tibetans would pick a thangka with a special meaning according to the divinatory diagram; the painting contains a deity that will protect the deceased during the bardo stage. Every monastery is full of thangkas that comfort and guide people throughout their lives. The biggest thangkas come out on auspicious days, unfolded, they can cover an entire mountain side.
Liu Yi’s “Cessation and Observation” is no longer a thangka, he has created his own school, which displays his own practice and contains personal elements of love and beauty. Two of his paintings hang at my home, which is not far from Liu Yi’s home. Often when I kowtow towards my little shrine, I feel the beautiful Buddhas and Bodhisattvas accompanying me, they comfort my often sad heart.
For me, writing poems is like searching for a memory of previous incarnations. So I hope to fulfill the following mission with my poems: I write to travel; I write to pray; I write to bear witness.
Liu Yi, in contrast, said: I love and long for a different incorruptible and fine world, but I also pity and lament this vulgar and torturous world.
And so he painted “Cessation and Observation;” he also painted “1989,” the “night in Beijing;” he also painted the national machinery of “Tiananmen;” he also painted the silent mourning and slaughter of “The Holy Land of Lhasa;” he also painted the grievance and struggle of “the Earth” (on this epic painting on which he records the Yushu earthquake, he painted how Tibetan Buddhist monks saved people who had been hit by the disaster, he also painted how devout Buddhists longed for the solicitude of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. So His Holiness’ image appeared on a Chinese painting between spring and summer of 2010). More recently, he used his brush to record and commemorate over 150 self-immolators, he used a black and white tone to paint portraits in memory of the men and women who sacrificed their lives. His most recent artwork is an extremely large colour painting called “Potala Palace”, it is 3m x 8.4m in size. The Tibetan poet Gade Tsering wrote a verse about it: “Every single step is rotting away. The world’s peak / is on the verge of cavity, it is like the sound of a last breath permeating throughout its surroundings.”
Real artists never just lock themselves in the ivory tower, real Buddhists never just leave behind the mortal world.
Perhaps, Liu Yi’s paintings are also about travelling, praying and bearing witness, in the end, everything is about—
Recognising the nirvana in everything that surrounds us
Hearing the incantation in every sound around us
Encountering Buddha in all people surrounding us….
First draft on March 4, 2009
Revised on April 16, 2017