The Art of Patience

During a recent visit to Budapest I came across a gallery of Chinese ink paintings called The Spirit of Mountains, the Fragrance of Flowers. The gallery at Kogart House features some of the most exquisite ink drawings from the 19th and 20th century I’ve ever seen. It provided a great resting point along my walk to the main city park. Having decided to only rest here, I didn’t expect to be captivated. But the calligraphy, brush strokes and minimalist watercolours I became transfixed in a state of quite joy and sparkling peace.

My attempts to walk away only preceded a gentle inward nudge to go around again. It occurred to me I wasn’t “looking”, or “seeing” anything but was actually bathing in the gallery. I was caught up, soaking up a certain light. Not seeking – not knowing, just bathing. One silk painting soaked me the most, it was called ‘Returning Home by the Full Light of the Moon’. The artist was unknown, but it took centre stage of my awareness. Before me radiated a golden moon with broad single black ink brush strokes sweeping across the lower half of the canvass. I recognised it was the moons reflection on the water, and a reflection of the water-course way rooted in the present, the now, that is found in the philosophy of Ch’an.

Likewise this painting shone down, in directness, nakedness, then gradually the moon and water immersed into my senses a sweet blissfulness arose. I stepped back from the piece and saw something else, a spirit that I had no words to describe, though I started clutching for some. I walked out and continued on my walked, trying to resist labelling the awareness I had in there, in front of this painting. But none the less it doggedly pursued me for the rest of the day. What was this awareness? Emptiness? Nothingness? or Mu as it is known in the Buddhist tradition?

I was exhausted from the walk, and from the emotional energy and after thought. What was this experience? This bathing in the light of this ink painting? I recalled a word or phrase Wu-Wei from early translated chinese books I studied on Confusianism, Taoism and Buddhism, Wu-Wei kept cropping up and I didn’t know what it meant. Descriptions I had read didn’t make a lot of sense. Phrases like non-doing in action, action without attachment and so on. These books didn’t reveal much. Or rather, my way of reading what was said did not reveal much. Once I asked my Tai-chi instructor once and he just kept on moving, one form to the next. I mistook his lack of verbal reply as disinterest, I didn’t see that he was showing me Wu-Wei in his actions.

I visualised the painting again in my mind’s eye. What is this Wu-Wei about and why is it holding me there? Is Wu-Wei looking at the image or painter? Is it a style of painting? Is it a conveyance of our essential nature?…. what is it? Then it slowly struck me, its none of these phenomena and yet it is all of these phenomena. Non-doing in action is both painter and painting, and from the point of view of the gallery, it is simultaneously the observer and the observed. Non-doing in action is not design, it is not planning, not aiming, nor is it intent or intention. It is beyond the artist and the art that is produced. Wu-Wei is the quality of patience itself required to bring the painting into existence. This patience, waiting with no intent, no expectation, just allowing the moment to unfold and to follow this moment one brush stroke at a time.

Questions then ran deeper, is the practice of Wu Wei in art the same as the practice of meditation and love? Does the practitioner need patience as an essential quality to be productive, intuitive, loving? Without patience, what can we do? What can we achieve, what can know? I’m gently reminded here of a story of the Buddha, when asked by a follower what is Buddha nature, what is enlightenment?” he simply smiled and held a flower up in between his fingers. He was demonstrating Wu Wei. The flower blossoms when the time is right, when the conditions for fruition, or opening up, are ripe.

And this teaching of patience corresponds directly to my own experience. I realised how recently I have lacked patience. Every time I lose patience, I lose Wu-Wei. Without Wu-Wei my relationship to myself, my children and other family and friends is impaired and creates disharmony and thus more impatience. Losing patience in ourselves and others we miss seeing the brush strokes on the canvas, the spirit of mountains, the fragrance of flowers. Instead we could be returning home by the full light of the moon.

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