The Master of Water

In 1988 and 89 I studied traditional Chinese ink painting with a man named Cong ZhiYuan. This art felt very similar to Tai Chi and was just as subtle and deep. In the time that I studied with him I learned to paint Lotus, Wisteria, and Pine Trees. It's funny, but it was very much like learning katas for these skills. The teacher would start by painting a picture and we would copy it for the next couple hours.

Cong ZhiYuan's masters were VERY famous. One was named Liu Hai Tse and he was 96 years old. He still climbed the Yellow Mountains (Huang Shan) in China every year because he loved to paint them. His only exercise for health was painting for two hours every morning (you stood to paint).

His even more famous master was named Qi BaiShi. Qi BaiShi is undoubtedly the most well-recognized painter in all of recent Chinese history. If you say his name it is like saying Picasso or Monet in the West. He is famous for his plain, direct and flowing expression of emotion and Qi (chi) power in his paintings. His most famous subject matter was water scenes with shrimp. The school of painting he used (and that my teacher taught) was called the 'no bone' method. It meant that the paintings had less detail and were done quickly and with strong emotion and reflected the inner state of the artist. If you look in my office at the North Austin school you can see a painting of mine that is done in this method. It looks superficially similar to paintings of lotus by Qi BaiShi.

My teacher said that during festivals, Qi BaiShi and his students would collaborate on a large painting to commemorate the event. At one such event the students were each contributing a part of the picture. The third student to contribute took up all the entire canvas with a huge mountain scene. There were other students and Qi BaiShi himself still to go. The other students passed their turn for lack of space and deferred to Qi BaiShi. They nervously watched the Master wondering what his reaction would be. He stood in front of the painting and began grinding his ink stick. You usually meditate about the composition as you do this. He then picked up the largest brush and dipped it in the thick black ink. He 'blasted' a huge strong pine tree right overtop the center of the mountain. It went from the bottom to the top of the paper. Everybody looked confused as the composition now looked really silly. Then he picked up the bowl of water everyone used to dilute the ink and dumped the entire thing on the painting. All the ink diluted into a hazy mist except for the pine tree, which stood untouched by the water. Qi BaiShi's ink was so strong and his mastery so complete that he knew exactly how thick to mix it so it would survive the water. In fact, with the mountain in the hazy background the painting was perfect.

It always seems that mastery lies in controlling the external (the ink), when it requires equal knowledge of the internal (the water and paper). These elements are the yielding and passive elements of painting, but here we see them capable of overcoming the aggressive and external properties of the ink. I have always enjoyed this story. It reminds me of the many martial art stories in our history and confirms that mastery is the same in every discipline. Mastery of self is the most difficult and yet the highest achievement. It reinforces the principles of Tai Chi for those of us following the internal path.

Joseph Schaefer

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