Because of this kind of spirit, Zhang Daqian was able to ingrain all the
wall paintings in Thousand Buddhas Cave in his mind.
Today we are going to talk about a famous painter, Upasaka Zhang Daqian. His name was Zhang Fang. So, when he wrote Chinese calligraphy for people he often signed: "Native of Shu ( Sichuan), Zhang Fang Daqian." He used and wrote both names. He was born in a literary family. In 1920, when he was twenty, his family wanted him to get married. He refused and ran away. He went to Dhyana Samadhi Monastery in Songjiang and bowed to the Venerable Abbot Yilin as teacher. Later, he went to Guanzong Monastery in Ningbuo to get ordained. However, the causes and conditions were not ripe at that time. He got into a debate with Elder Dharma Master Dixian about the issue of burning the precept marks on the top of the head with incense. He said that the left-home people in other countries did not burn precept marks, so why should the Chinese be so special and burn the precept marks? Especially since it was said that during Emperor Liang's reign, some criminals who left the home-life later grew their hair and returned to lay life. Therefore, precept marks were burned on the heads of left-home people so that they could be recognized even after they returned to lay life. The Elder Monk Dixian was also very stubborn and probably not too open-minded. So he got mad at him, and asked how a novice could make such an farfetched argument; he called him a rebel in Buddhism, and asked how could he, a mere novice, have so many theories and principles. So Zhang Daqian was probably not permitted to be ordained as a result of this.
He left the next day for a monastery which did not take novices as a rule. It didn't seem appropriate for him to stay there either. Later, he was invited to go to Shanghai by his friend there, who said that the monasteries in Shanghai might accept novices. He took the train and left Hangzhou for Shanghai. When he got off the train at the Shanghai station, his elder brother was waiting for him there, and took him home as if he were delivering a prisoner. His mother insisted that he return to lay life and get married, and that's what he did.
He wished to learn calligraphy and painting. Because he liked to paint, he later went to Dunhuang and lived in Thousand Buddhas Cave to copy all the wall paintings there. He said it was very difficult to live there. There was no food and it was difficult to even find water to drink. So he led a very simple and austere life. Sometimes there was nothing else to eat, so he ate grass roots and leaves. He toiled hard in that cave, and because of this kind of spirit, he was able to ingrain all the wall paintings in Thousand Buddhas Cave in his mind. As a result, the paintings he made later were very genuine, almost like the wall paintings. He was especially good at painting Buddha images, and people who obtained such paintings would cherish them like precious treasures. During the three years that he lived in the cave, he concentrated on copying the wall paintings and did nothing else. Thus, he was very successful. Because of this effort, his paintings became very popular and were liked by many people.
I paid him a visit while he was living in the United States, in Carmel, California. Why? Because he had eye problems. He couldn't see well and he couldn't paint. I thought I had some affinities with this person. It might be that, before his life as a monkey, he had been a cultivator and had left the home life. So after his life as a monkey ended, he was reborn as a human and he left the home life again. His basic nature was not totally deluded and lost. However, he encountered such adverse conditions as his mother dragging him back to lay life. Since I had these feelings towards him, I went to visit him.
Although I am not very good at calligraphy, I made an attempt and wrote him a verse of eight lines. The verse goes: You are foremost in Chinese painting, and you used to be my fellow cultivator. This means that before he became a monkey, he was a cultivator. We had investigated the Buddhadharma together. In the past and present, in China and abroad, your name prevails throughout the cosmos. In both ancient and present times, in both China and foreign countries, the famous painter Zhang Daqian is known by all. Therefore, I said "Your name prevails throughout the cosmos." Your popularity is universal, and everyone strives to be the first to see your work. His paintings are popular throughout the world, and people all want to gaze upon them. They consider them to be very unique and rare.
To be continued