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Zen master Phap Hanh: monk of many talents

Update: March, 31/2013 - 12:34

Portrait of the artist: Zen Master Phap Hanh

by Duc Ha

When my colleague asked me to meet a monk who had painted hundreds of paintings, I was dubious. I'm not a big fan of paintings – and I doubted how good the art of an untrained monk would be.

But when I met zen master Phap Hanh (born Nguyen Quang Thinh), I realised he was a gentle, peaceful person whose oil paintings with abstract tendencies were not amateur at all. Colours play a more important role in the monk's works than spiritual themes, but his devotion to art is practically religious.

"I first started painting about 13 years ago," he said. "I realised I could use colours to describe the movements of my mind, as well as the movement of the heavens and the earth."

Born in 1965 in Thua Thien-Hue, the monk is currently training in Thien Vien Khong forest (Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province). Ordained at age 14, he practised in Burma (now Myanmar) and India as a member of the Tibetan Tantric sect. He has never taken a single painting class.

Every painting in Phap Hanh's collection has its own story. Rather than giving the works titles, he hopes each viewer will interpret the paintings in their own way.

He told the story of a "very small child" selling lottery tickets who fell down when a man on a bicycle crashed into him. Both rushed to collect the tickets from the road. Then the child suddenly spoke: "You should go to work. I will pick up the tickets as I'm only slightly bruised."

The monk though that a picture could illustrate the message of tolerance better than a thousand pages. At that moment, he glimpsed the golden sunlight – so sunshine made its way into the picture. The monk attributes many of his paintings to such moments and often gives more credit to the subjects who inspired him than to himself. Looking at the painting, he said he felt sometimes that the child who inspired him was the artist, rather than he himself.

"The more people create art filled with kindness, whether it's drawing, poetry or music, the easier it will be for society to triumph over evil," he said.

"In the teachings of the Buddha, there is one thing that I always fully agree with: love the country despite its flaws, like how you love your parents even when they make mistakes. I think all religions have the same ultimate meaning."

Master at work: Zen Master Phap Hanh's paintings. VNS Photo Duc Nguyen

True to his description of painting as a selfless act, Phap Hanh has donated all his paintings to raise funds for charity.

"I have never thought about selling my works," he said. "I just want to give it to those who are passionate about art and who want to use my paintings for charitable purposes."

His most recent donation was 200 paintings, which he gave to the Viet Nam Union of Science and Technology Associations (VUSTA) community development fund.

"I met Do Thi Van, vice chairman of VUSTA, last June. She was impressed with my work and asked for only one picture to encourage the spirit of VUSTA members.

But after I heard the mission of the foundation – to contribute to the community and support disadvantaged children – I decided to donate 200 paintings," the monk said.

The Buddhist community also supports Phap Hanh in his charity work.

"The Buddhist ideal is to educate people to do good things, but your actions are also very important. To be a true Buddhist, you should both practise and help people in real life," he explained.

Listening to him speak, I feel a bit ashamed by his generous heart. His feeling of responsibility for others is much greater than mine. He's even capable of seeking out solitude to contemplate his own purity. I don't have that much faith.

"I do not define my paintings as abstract or realistic," the monk said. "I found peace in my painting and hope to bring peace to everyone who looks at them." — VNS

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