I was born in China in 1938 while 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 attempted abortion I had revisited in a breath therapy training, I had an embodied sense of “impermanance”, the threat of it, the attempts to overcome it, and much later, the wisdom and truth in it, as summarized by the Zen saying, “Impermanence is Buddha Nature!”
In 1950 we came to the United States as refugees again, this time from the Chinese civil war. My father died from a stroke a few months after, and led by my mother, we tried to make the best of it. To secure our life in America and myself as a functioning adult able to make a living, I embarked on the well-travelled route for Confucian refugees— 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, much confused and at times could see, I needed to come to terms with 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, began to lose its fear-filled domination on my body, mind and spirit. And with the loosening, I also began to appreciate the human pathos of my brother in grasping and hoping for certainty in the realm of belief when life and death are never certain.
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 carry a ring of truth with it. I left academia and travelled the world to learn and mature in a more vital way. With gratefulness I practiced “guru yoga” from 1975 to 2000 with Osho, because I really needed the stability and wisdom of a male external source. With him, I began to experience true freedom, including freedom from the self, even the self that was devoted to a guru! So, “loyalty” that traditionally has defined and held clan, family, religion, country together had to acquire “space” around it, and be held with good humor and an undeniable recognition 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, inspired and guided me, “Instead of religion, poetry!”
In 1978, out of the blue I discovered I could see images above people’s heads. 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 a refreshing idea, but I was a Marxist at that time and being a psychic didn’t fit into my ideology! But a few days earlier, I had brought a $5 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 with my $5 calligraphy set and a little sign with a squiggle on it and the words, “psychic image”! I had fun, I played. Out of that innocence, some really nice 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, allow my brush to move. In 1998, I had a little seal stone (a “chop”) carved in Shanghai, that said, “Playfulness as art!”
In1998, when the authorities in China closed down my translating and publishing books on meditation, I decided to travel the world and paint. The first exhibition of my calligraphic art happened at the National Ethnographic Museum in Sweden. I had never even thought of going to Sweden! My first painting workshop happened there also, titled, “The Creativity of Non-doing”. Then subsequently I had exhibitions at the Seattle 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 live now, and other venues. And I taught workshops at the Seattle Art Museum, Naropa University, Omega Institute, 1440 Multiversity, Sedona Arts Center and many other locations.
In 2014, when I turned 75, my student Shaeri Richards and her husband Jerry Hartleben, who had been a veteran Hollywood director and cinematographer, volunteered to make a little art film about me. Then 24 hours of shooting later, they produced a 69 minute feature documentary, “Moving from Emptiness, the Life and Art of a Zen Dude”. And now at age 80, with the intelligent and loving support of my students, Tiffani, Hilary and Lynn, I am finally “ready to complete a book with the title, “A Brush with Emptiness: Zen Creativity and the Art of Life and Death.”
It’s been a great ride— from the fear of death when I was born to unconditional gratefulness for all of it. From the fear and insecurity of being a child refugee, to taking Zen refuge in making art and being the art with the freedom and playfulness and the not-knowing, to what I have come to regard as ‘the methodless method of resting in presence and moving from emptiness!”