The Buddhist monk adeptly applying the brush strokes of Chinese ink on the scroll epitomized grace and tranquility. The decisiveness of the strokes, the quick, spontaneous precision of their movements, and the monk’s deftness in executing them indicate his mastery of calligraphy as well as the deep spirituality behind his work. Within moments, the elderly monk’s brush strokes turned out various motifs. In one, a contemplative Buddha sits on a hill, deep in thought and meditation. In another, the Chinese character for lotus flower is drawn inside the round shape of the plant. The works, as well as the various Buddhist words of wisdom, held the audience spellbound by their spontaneous and natural feel.
The monk is none other than the Venerable Master Chi Chern, a practitioner of Chan, or Zen Buddhism, who won a worldwide following in countries like the United States, Switzerland and Croatia for his calligraphy and wisdom he imparts through them. Now the Indonesian public can have a chance to enjoy his work at the Grand Indonesia Mall. In cooperation with the Ekayana Arama Buddhist Center, 17 works of the Malaysian born Chi will be displayed as part of its festivities to mark the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Looking at the 59-year old’s work, it didn’t take long to see why the United Nations acknowledged him as the world’s leading Chan Master over the past decade. Works like “Chan Tea” indicates the elements that are integral in his world, namely Chan’s goal of attaining wisdom through tranquility. There’s no better indication of this than the circle and the teapot within. The teapot reflects the calming influence of green tea needed by Chan monks to do their work, as well as Chi’s adeptness as a master teapot maker and tea ceremony practitioner. His use of natural motifs in “Liberating From Illusion” and “Overcome Fear” is just as powerful as they are stark. The waterfall in the former seems to imply the liberation of the self from any inhibitions, while the wisp of clouds above the mountains in the latter seemingly indicates how one is lifted to be above fear.
“As the nature motif of my work indicates, the calligraphy is often done in retreat and isolation from the outside world. The inspiration and drive behind them is attained by constant effort,” he said. “Then and now, the primary aim of calligraphy is to spread the word on Buddhism, practice calm and spirituality, as well as guide one’s thought and feelings towards serenity. Achieving this spiritual end requires practice, which is the only way one can make their best work.”
Chi also points out that his spiritual state determines the speed of his work, with some calligraphy works made quickly if he’s in a clear state of mind, while others can take up to a day.
Master Chi’s work owes much to his mentor Zhu Mo.
“Shifu [Zhu Mo] was the premier calligrapher of contemporary Buddhism and a leading practitioner of other arts. Many people assumed that I was his protege because I was his student, but that wasn’t the case,” Chi said.
“On the contrary, Zhu never even taught us calligraphy or drawing. Instead he sought to instill Buddhist values in us, and warned us not to waste too much time on either field. Instead I was drawn to calligraphy when I saw the sheer skill of a junior high school teacher. I tried it out and found I was a natural at it, so I’ve been practicing it since.”
Aside from being an experienced calligraphist, Chi is also known for his flexibility. “Many calligraphers want nothing but the highest quality brushes, ink, mulberry paper and inkstone. I don’t impose such demands, as I can turn out characters with any implements as long as they’re functional.”
While Chi was a calligrapher for most of his life, he only shared his passion with the public relatively recently.
“I first exhibited and auctioned my work in Beijing for two years, from when I was 45 years old, at the prompting of some friends,” he said.
“The auction did better than I expected, with some pieces getting sold for more than 100,000 yuan [$16,527].
Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on January 29, 2014