Many people have asked me to explain the techniques of Zen Brush painting. There are a few basic techniques I can share. Zen Brush painting is a very old tradition going back over a thousand years. It is not as much about making beautiful paintings as it as about understanding your True Nature and that of all of life. In this way Zen Brush Painting is both a practice of and expression of Enlightenment. The paintings are secondary.
1. It’s Not About You
Zen Brush painting is not about your talent, knowledge or skill. It’s not about you. It is about your True Universal Self, not the separate being you think and believe you are. Let all of that go. Empty yourself of yourself. Let the universe use this empty vessel to express itself through the brush, ink and paper. Let the painting unfold by itself. Learn to trust the brush, ink, and paper. Learn to trust life. Hold the brush over the paper and let it move by itself. Watch it dance free of all expectations, opinions and goals. It will surprise and delight you.
2. Clear Your Mind
You must clear your mind of all thoughts, expectations, opinions, knowledge and goals. Only a truly empty mind can be aware of life as it is and allow it to express itself. If you know what you want to paint, you interfere with the direct flow of life. Your opinions, concepts and beliefs stand in the way of life expressing itself through your body, brush, ink and paper. Think of the practice of Zen Brush as you would the practice of meditation. It is only different in that you have a painting at the end.
3. Become One
When the mind is clear of the self centered thoughts of I, me and mine, then body, mind, brush, paper, ink and life all become one. This is the most important practice of Zen Brush painting and Zen in general. There was a Zen Master who was also a well-known artist in China. A student wanted to learn how to paint the beautiful bamboo paintings like the Master. When the student asked for instruction, the Master simply said, “You must become the bamboo.” He was asking the student to realize that he already is the bamboo and all of life. This is his True Nature. When the student realizes his True Nature, then he will be able to paint anything. But it will not be the student as an individual person that is painting. The bamboo will paint the bamboo. The mountain will paint the mountain. When the student’s self image as an artist is out of the way, he will not longer be limited and inhibited by thoughts of I, me and mine. The paintings will flow effortlessly by themselves.
4. Practice Non-Practicing
When we practice we think of getting somewhere. We think of a future goal we are practicing to attain. Zen Brush practice is not that. Each moment of painting is already fully complete in itself. There is no future moment or attainment our mind is fixed in. We are fully present with each brush stroke. All there is is this very moment. We do not practice for any future goal. In this way, the practice of Zen Brush painting is always extremely enjoyable. If we practice to get better at Zen Brush painting, then we miss the whole point of Zen Brush painting. Each moment of Zen Brush painting is always fully complete in and of itself. Nothing more is needed. Nothing more is sought.
5. Paint Quickly
Most paintings are done with a single continuous stroke of the brush. For this reason they are often called “one stroke” paintings. Usually the entire stroke, the entire painting, is finished in no more than a single breath, about one second. The brush moves so fast that your eye can barely see it. This has the advantage of not giving your mind time to interfere.
Or paint so slowly that a single stroke takes longer than one year.
6. Use Your Entire Body Freely
Learn to free your body so that life can use this body as a vehicle for expression. The painting ends at the tip of the brush, but it begins in your feet. If you have practiced martial arts, you know how to use your entire body. Let the energy of the brush stroke begin in your feet, travel up through your legs, into your hips up through your shoulders and down your arm into your hand and brush. Think of the brush as an extension of your entire body. This is how the great energy expressed in the painting happens. It is a whole body experience. The practice of martial arts can help you learn how to create a brush stroke with energy and aliveness.
7. True Creativity
Although Zen Brush painting is not about you, your skills, talents, knowledge and experience (although this will be used as well), when you step out of the way, life expresses through you in a completely unique way. This is true creativity and originality. The paintings that flow through you will be unlike paintings you have ever seen before. Imitating others may be flattering, but it is not creativity or originality. Life is creative. It will express through you creatively. Don’t let this lead to pride. It’s not about you. Be grateful. Be humble. You will be amazed at the inspiration that emerges. It will inspire all areas of your life. Your writing, cooking, music, meditations, conversations all will take on a new aliveness, spontaneity and endless, effortless flow of creativity. Zen Brush painting will teach you how to be fully alive.
You can find examples of Zen Brush paintings on this website as well as instructions and practices. Zen Art Practice