I was born in China in 1938 when my family were refugees from the Japanese invasion. My parents tried to abort me but I didn’t want to come out, so they said,”never mind, we’ll just have him!” From the very beginning, the gift of my parents' compassion that secured my life during the dire circumstances of war and the foundation-shaking trauma of the attempted abortion, which I had re-experienced and recognized in a breath therapy training in my forties, this imbuned me with a visceral sense of “impermanence”, the impending threat of it, the attempts to overcome it, and much later, the wisdom and truth of it. Zen master Dogen, summarized it in this startling way -- “Impermanence is Buddha Nature!”
In 1950 we came to the United States, as refugees again, this time from the Chinese civil war. My father, a physics professor, died from a stroke a few months after. Led by my courageous mother, we did our best to secure our life in America. To be a functioning adult able to make a living, I embarked on the well-travelled route for Confucian scholars— a good academic education!
With many scholarships and fellowships, I attended Mount Hermon School, Wesleyan University in mathematics, Yale Divinity School in theology and pastoral care, and The Graduate Theological Union with UC Berkeley in sociology and psychology of religion. Being sensitive and thoughtful, in much turmoil and at times had glimpses of clarity, I yearned to realize the truth of being human! The Christian fundamentalism I took on at age 12 from my brother, 13 years older, at the time of our father’s death, nevertheless began slowly to lose its fear-filled domination over my body, mind and spirit. And with the loosening, I also began to recognize and sort out the alienation and disorientation of being uprooted from one dominant culture (China) and plopped into another dominant culture (America). In the midst of my strong rebellion against any perceived domination or interference, I also slowly began to appreciate the pathos of my brother, in grasping and hoping for certainty in the realm of belief when life and death can never be certain! I slowly began to have compassion for my brother and for myself.
I started to teach briefly in academia. But even with the richness and excellence of my formal education and my refined ability to think intellectually, I yearned for something more real, more embodied, more intelligent and wise, that would ground me in the truth of my, our, existence! I was restless, stubborn, and persistent in my pursuit! I left academia and travelled the world to learn and mature in more vital ways. My greatest external adventure was riding a motorcycle by myself to Tibet from my hometown in China. My most "dangerous" internal adventure was my practicing “guru yoga” from 1975 to 2000 with Osho, as I really needed the stability and wisdom of a male external guide. With him, I began to experience true freedom, including the radical freedom from the self, not excluding the self that was devoted to a guru! For this freedom I am deeply committed and grateful!
So, “loyalty” that traditionally has defined and held together clan, family, religion, country, and self, I had to fight to acquire “space” around it, and hold it with good humor, a willingness to risk it all, and an undeniable awareness of the many different ways of the human construction of reality. A phrase by Norman O Brown, whom I took a course from at Wesleyan, persists to inspire, guide, and soften me, “Instead of religion, poetry!”
In 1978, out of the blue I discovered I could see images above people’s heads. Coming out of a trance, my psychic friend Ruth told me, “The reason you are able to do this is because in a past life you used to take brush and rice paper and paint people’s ‘psychic images!” Hmmm, what an interesting and expansive idea to explore! But I was a Marxist at the time and being a psychic with past lives just didn’t fit into my ideology! But a few days earlier, I had brought a $5 Chinese calligraphy set at a garage sale. I tried it, and it seemed to work! Without an art teacher and having never studied art, my art career immediately started by my sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk of Telegraph Avenue in front of Moe's Book Store in Berkeley, California, with my $5 calligraphy set and a little sign with an enigmatic squiggle on it and the words, “psychic image”! I had fun, I played. Out of that innocence and sense of adventure, some startling and meaningful calligraphic paintings came forth. I didn’t know anything about how to paint. I just tried to empty myself and when I felt a readiness, allowed the brush I was holding to move. In Shanghai, I had a little seal stone (a “chop”) carved that said, “Playfulness as art!”
In 1998, when the authorities in China closed down my work of translating and publishing books on meditation, I felt strangely liberated, bought a round-the-world ticket, and embarked on my new adventure to go around the world and paint! I had no idea how this new adventure would turn out, but I liked it!.
The first exhibition of my calligraphic art happened at the National Ethnographic Museum in Sweden. I had never even thought of going to Sweden! What I began to acknowledge and appreciate as my "methodless method of resting in presence and moving from emptiness" began to bear fruit! The third painting I ever sold, consisting of one horizontal stroke, done to the haiku, "Just sitting, not doing, the Spring comes and the grass grows by itself" sold for $10,000! I've exhibited at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, the Great Hall of Exhibition in Shanghai, the Water Harp Temple in Pune, India, Exposures Gallery and Goldenstein Gallery in Sedona, Arizona, where I now live and work.
My first painting workshop, “The Creativity of Non-doing”, happened at the Seattle Art Museum. I’ve taught workshops also at Naropa University, Omega Institute, 1440 Multiversity, Sedona Arts Center and other venues that invited me.
In 2014, when I turned 75, my student Shaeri Richards and her husband Jerry Hartleben, who had been a veteran Hollywood director and cinematographer, called me up and volunteered to make “a little art film” about me. However, they got caught up in the energy of Zen creativity, 33 hours of shooting later, without any financial or editorial input on my part, they created a stunning 69 minute feature documentary, “Moving from Emptiness, the Life and Art of a Zen Dude”! The first 3 times I saw the film, I cried! Thank you both, Shaeri and Jerry!
And now, in 2022, at age 84, I continue to offer one workshop a year at the Sedona Arts center. After a pause of two and a half years on account of the Covid pandemic, I am available again for one on one tutorial retreats for select experienced individual artists who wish to study with me in depth. On occasion, after having done 2000 of these around the world, I am again available to paint, in person or over Zoom, “Zen Calligraphic Portraits”, an evolution of the original “psychic images”, for individuals, couples, families or organizations. We then explore the painting together for the subjects to “come home to themselves” with a renewed freshness to live, play, and work in the world.
This life has been a great ride! From the fear of death that came together with the gift of birth to my continuing practice of healing and awakening into life and death. From the insecurity of being a child refugee to taking Zen refuge in making art and being the art, with freedom and playfulness and the adventure and perennial wisdom of “not-knowing”. This Alok continues to embody, evolve and teach “the method-less method of resting in presence and moving from emptiness!”
Bowing to you with love, smiles and blessings,
Alok Hsu Kwang-han