It is no secret that I am not young anymore. Medical knowledge tells us that people sleep less as they grow older, but I seem to go against the rule somewhat: I sleep for eight to ten hours. The common saying has it that a long night’s sleep brings many dreams, but here too I go against the rule somewhat, because I sleep through many long nights with no dreams.

When I do dream, it is of myself “seeing” or “doing” something, and what happens at night will eventually be verified or carried further during waking hours. Thus my dreams are part of my life’s winding road. Another “contrary to rule” phenomenon about me is that closing my eyes sometimes works better for me than opening them. With closed eyes, I can see “movies” of the multiverse—what a joy it is! With eyes open what I see is a dualistic world in three dimensions where black is black and white is white, and the flickering impermanence of things can play tricks on a person. The multiverse, which plays with you but does not play tricks on you, really does deserve to be called a child’s play-land, but in the real world you have to grow old, and an old person who won’t quit playing is sometimes called a naughty overgrown child.

When I came to America over ten years ago, I became good friends with the painter Diana Wong. I clearly remember that she used to wear different colored socks on her feet, and she had strange objects in her studio. For instance, she has a pivoting seesaw—a kind of “flying machine”—that she made herself. While hanging from it she can fly over a painting and touch down like a dragonfly to apply paint. She taught me something about art. Though my paintings may not be all that impressive, now that I published a book of them, I want to repay those drops of kindness with a whole well of gratitude, if I can. About ten years ago I went to Diana and said, “How about painting light? How about painting a phoenix?” I had all kinds of ideas for things she could paint. She said, “Try to tell me what these things are like.” I tried but could not communicate a clear idea of them. Then she said, “I cannot paint those things. Go ahead and paint them for yourself.” Later, whenever I described things I had seen in my mind’s eye, she would say, “Paint them yourself.” Four years ago I went to her studio and said, “From today on, you are my teacher. Teach me.” She laughed and said, “I can’t imagine you studying with me for very long.” Then she placed a vase and a piece of fruit on a table and said, “For the next three days I want you to draw this.” I picked up a pencil and stared at the vase and fruit, not knowing what to do. Diana said, “Observe their proportions and shading and structure.” She effortless sketched a few lines that caught their shapes. I said, “I want to get up on your ‘flying machine’ and paint them from mid-air.” She said, “I studied in Italy for years and laid a foundation to get to where I am now. Without a foundation, how do you expect to fly?” Looking at the vase, I felt it lacked something, so I filled it with water, put a flower in it. Then I painstakingly worked at drawing for a few hours. Diana looked at it and said, “It looks like a pineapple with the leaves on… I cannot teach you. Let’s say you’ve graduated.”

Later I returned to China and asked my good friend Yang Yang if she had any painter friends who could teach me some essentials. Yang Yang said a classmate of hers was a painter, and she was willing to introduce me. A few days later, in a dream, I “saw” a middle-aged man in a suit wearing glasses. He walked towards me smiling, holding a key in his hand. It was an antique-looking key, and seemed to be made of bronze, the kind that an older generation must have used. He handed the key to me, and the dream dissolved. After rising from bed in the morning, I got phone call from Yang Yang saying her classmate the painter wanted to see me. Then Mr. Ran Wenji showed up—a painter (and businessman) in suit and glasses, with a genial smile on his face, but no key in his hand. He said, “I know someone who can teach people like you who have no foundation. He is my teacher…”

Before long I met Mr. Liu Gengtao. He told me to pick up an ink brush and paint whatever came into my head. I commenced painting, and the result resembled a dance done by the tiger-slayer Wu Song. Mr. Liu said, “There’s something intriguing in your way of playing.” Later I went to Singapore and Malaysia, and on the way back to the U.S., I planned to stay for a few days in Guangzhou. Teacher Liu went to the trouble of flying to Guangzhou, just so he could spend three days teaching me some fundamentals of ink painting. His key lessons were as follows:

  • Paint even if it doesn’t look like a painting. ‘Haphazard’ painting may also have an inherent order. In your inherent order there is an inspired spontaneity.
  • Playing is also a principle of painting. Many people cannot accept this, and what they paint is lifeless.
  • Though your paintings lack technique, your childlike heart and curiosity can help you.
  • Inauthentic transmissions can fill book after book, but a single sentence can be an authentic transmission.

The word yoga means “resonance and linkage.” In drinking tea, when you really begin to appreciate its flavor, that means you are in resonance with the tea; when you begin to taste the “Tao” in tea, it means that through it your spirit links up with the natural world.Being born as human beings, we can naturally breathe, we can naturally smile, our bodies can naturally move about, and our mouths can naturally emit sound. But can we naturally paint a painting? Can we let our lives be filled with creativity and beauty?

Painting is yet another form in which we show our interest in nature, our curiosity about life! A spiritual state that lacks curiosity and fascination is senescence. A child’s vitality and exuberance comes from his curiosity and interest in things. Practicing yoga of the heart is a matter of practicing innocent authenticity: it is a rejuvenating elixir!

Now I would like to give a self-evaluation:

I am a free color scheme outside the circle of painters; I am a free voice outside the circle of musicians; I live in the realm of water: flowing into the eyes I am a painting; flowing into the ears I am an improvised chant; flowing into the heart I am love.

Yuan Miao