Lotus Island - Artist’s Essay
In 1983, I had been paralyzed for more than five years. I managed to drag myself to a pond on the west side of Mount Putuo, in the ruins of a Buddhist monastery. In relief, I sat cross-legged like a monk. This was a place I had come for sustenance in my youth. From there, one can look up and see Mount Putuo. It felt strange each year, but that day, after five years of paralysis, I miraculously stood up, pushing myself up from the mountain. With a cane, I walked down the mountain and out of the monastery. No one there recognized me. When I was preparing to leave Mount Putuo, I didn’t know whether to be grateful or to really see it in its unvarnished state. I habitually gazed at a lonely little island floating in the Lotus Sea. Gradually it would become dim and blurry in the distance, as I yearned for far away places. Suddenly, the outline of the sea and sky became clear. Every day I would gaze at this strange little island, and it never seemed like this: an immense, naturally-formed sculptural work. This island looked exactly like Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, lying peacefully in the sea, between Mount Putuo and the famous fishing port of Shenjiamen. Separate from the sea and sky, with a style all her own, this impression/interpretation was not the least bit forced. One might well say that this exquisitely fine work of nature is just a vast, shapeless form. I became excited. Was this not the image in my heart and soul all those years ago? Is this not a great starting point for the "three ecologies" described in my studies of ecological restoration? "I am the Buddha! The Buddha is me! Art is Zen! Zen is art!" I couldn't help but stand up and go sit cross-legged like the Buddha on the large bluestone.
This astonishing discovery happened some ten or twenty years ago.
In 1966, the Red Guards smashed the "four olds" (ideology, culture, customs, habits). This included Mount Putuo's ancient Bodhisattva. Without a shred of respect, they smashed her into nothing. I sat absentmindedly by myself on the seaside rocks of Mount Putuo, staring East, watching the light of the sunrise sparkle in the sprays of seawater. In a split second, a riotous profusion of golden rays lit up the sky. East of Mount Putuo, the sea's surface appeared dark in the shade of Luojia Mountain. It seemed as if nothing had happened. A tranquil silence settled across the water. I took a close look, and ah! There I saw clearly and distinctly a brilliant, unparalleled Sakyamuni Buddha prostrating himself on the surface of the East China Sea.
I doubt that I really have a Buddha-like nature. How can an all-seeing mind exist entirely alone? During both of these experiences, separated by some ten odd years, I sat on the seaside, cross-legged like a Buddha, and discovered Nature’s mystical essence. Did the Creator intentionally send Sakyamuni and Guanyin to Mount Putuo, this place of Buddhist worship, creating this wondrous sight of them lying like reclining Buddhas in the Lotus Sea? Did the Creator intentionally make me Buddha-like that day? Or, for no discernible reason, make me become paralyzed, only to allow me to walk again? And allow me to discover these spectacular wonders of the world?
I have sobbed and sighed up to now.
Over the course of time, human beings have expanded their nearly boundless dominion. I'd certainly prefer to end this snuffing out of Nature's masterpieces of the wide open sea. The growing strength of the Chinese yuan cannot be stopped. This allowed me to consider how to help those who are less fortunate. I was indecisive, but after years of rushing about to no end, in 1992 I rowed out alone to the island. In 1996, I finally decided to buy it, becoming the first person in China to own an island.
I sat cross-legged by the sea. The sepia-toned rocks stared quietly at me, this commander-in-chief, their “governor.” Did they stare in eager anticipation? In doubt? Or in wordless surrender to my rule? The waves sucked on the rocks, salt staining the pebbles. A Chinese sweet gum tree, a sisal plant, and an unbending Australian laurel, embraced one another and became as one. A meditative stillness descended on the island. The Lotus Sea remained as it was before: the tide rolling in twice each day, as it has always been and will always be.
Here my heart trembled a bit. The changes to this little island will be my life's achievement. Anywhere in the world, it is a most ideal medium with which to express one's artistic talent and mentality. From then on, I had to force myself to abandon the last couple decades’ impulse and hope of becoming a “pure artist.” I had to cultivate the expansive knowledge of an architect, the deep insight of a philosopher, the precision of an engineer, the keen senses of an entrepreneur, and the imagination of an artist. I had to prepare to deal with both nature and society, and come to grips with decades of my personality. I lumped myself in with all the rest, as something useful for the island’s conservation effort, “art saves ecology.”
For me, loneliness and inspiration are inseparable. I’ve spent the second half of my life steeling myself to face the outside world. I made up my mind to exchange pain and suffering for creative pleasure. My lonely heart is like alum, causing red silt deposits. One day, I conquered the pain of this struggle. Standing on the high point of Lotus Island, I raised a banner that stated, "art saves ecology," and looked backed. I was qualified to smile —— one of those brave and wise human beings.
The plans were set. I started on this secluded island like an Henri de Saint-Simon or Charles Fourier-type, implementing my own Utopian vision. Using all of my strength, my heart fluttered at the raising of a great four-sided banner: humanism, naturalism, heroism, and a sense of calling.
Early Stages and Planning
In fact, the planning and design of Lotus Island Sculpture Garden happened as if glutinous rice wine had been in my heart for years. It seems that "one's mind has one million formidable troops." I impatiently hoped that other great ideas would pour down on me like a torrential rain. There were three or five months during which time I suspended the majority of fundraising, supervising, painting and all forms of social contact. I would study intensively at a private farmhouse on Hangzhou’s Yuhuang Mountain. There I would draw up plans and make calculations, make surveys and take samples, consult various materials, seek expert advice, and basically work in total isolation. Drafts piled up high, burying me beneath them. In the depths of the creative process, I came to realize the project’s own uniqueness and universal breadth. The designer and staff were amazed at my inexhaustible drive. My creative spirit operated around the clock, with inspired works of hand-drawn maps and sketches. I, too, was astonished: How could I have this kind of extraordinary drive? That’s the kind of nerve of Don Quixote, the pipe dream of Saint-Simon.
After more than six months, the plan was issued. I had really taken off a layer of skin and examined it in detail. In fact, the plan’s content went beyond the scope of just planning. It took into account engineering, design, and production, too.
Mr. Shi Tinghui, Chief Engineer of the Giant Buddha on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island, came to Hangzhou and talked with me over the course of several nights. He reviewed my drafts and plans, and praised them highly. I decided to hire him to help me supervise the construction, and had to lobby at home and abroad.
Carrying piles of project plans, I shuttled back and forth between Zhejiang, Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Suzhou, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, and Canada, looking up files, doing textual research, conducting on-the-spot investigations, and collecting models of Guanyin as well as project materials for the five hundred arhat molds. I went to the United States and Japan to gather information on the Statue of Liberty and the 120-meter Buddha in Tokyo. I requested Tongji University to conduct wind-driven experiments, and asked the United States to test certain materials' resistance to corrosion. I spoke with leaders at the Chenguan aerospace machinery factory about arranging a contract for the main project. I asked the State Oceanic Administration and the Beijing Institute of Geology to do geological surveys. So after about two years or so, the information and documents piled up in half of a van. I had squandered the money I’d made selling paintings, but much had been accomplished. In 1996, at the same time the site permissions for the two planned large Guanyin statues in Hangzhou and Putuo were revoked, the Zhejiang Lianhua Yang Industrial Co., Ltd. was inaugurated by Yang Tongxiang, director of the State Bureau of Religion, and was established in Hangzhou with a registered capital of ten million yuan. I smugly assumed a position there in corporate law, with plans to turn the whole thing upside down.
Because of the distinctive shape of Lotus Island, the water level absolutely must not damage the outline of the reclining Guanyin. Because the island is in the typhoon area of the East China Sea, it is simply not feasible to construct buildings on the mountain ridges or slopes. Instead, I focused on the island’s alcoves.
Generally speaking, on every island in the world, alcoves make the best place to take cover from the wind and water. These are the natural places that island peoples worldwide use to seek shelter from typhoons and storms.
On the third day of the third month in the lunar calendar, the sun, the earth and the moon seem to conspire together. At this point, the distance between them is at its maximum, and their magnetic pull is decentralized. Sea levels are at their lowest. Tidal waves recede into their farthest recesses, reserving their strength.
On the eighteenth day of the eighth month in the lunar calendar, the sun, the earth and the moon are pulled together in a straight line. The sun makes the sea levels rise about half a meter. The moon makes them rise a quarter of a meter. Together they make the sea level rise nearly an entire meter. It seems like every year a typhoon strikes sometime between the eighth and tenth months. The tide of the typhoon crashes madly with giant rough waves, surging over the entire island.
Like a loving mother, the beachside cliff alcoves embrace the storm, calming it. This cycle repeats itself again and again, over millions of years.
Altogether, Lotus Island has five alcoves. They are both valuable and beautiful. I have planned a trail around the island that connects each alcove. This project will focus on key sites around the island, linking together the center, the art museum, Hui’e Square, the lookout point, and the art studio. It will use rectangular bricks.
Tiny Lotus Island, just a bit of reef and hillside sloping into the wide open sea, reveals a wild expansiveness. I made it so that the area between the two major mountains acts as an open corridor. The command center, the art museum and the management staff are all located here. I have made full use of what the Creator has unevenly bestowed upon this land. Three buildings sit here in this roundabout. They work in tandem with their environment. The green of the cliffs and the buildings’ stone gables together suggest strength. A steep trail cuts through the center. Combined this creates a small public space that evokes an island fishing village. The expansive wilderness at the center of the island makes the incoming flow of people immediately forget the desolation of the reef. As they enter, each becomes a part of the buildings' function.
Passing through this small center region, one feels as boundless as the sea and sky. Looking into the distance at Mount Putuo, the island seems to float gracefully among white waves. This makes one feel happy and carefree. The arhats guide you forward in your journey along the cliffs. Turn around on the mountain path, and step through into the alcove. Here you will find Hui'e Square.
Hui’e Square was built in commemoration of the Japanese monk Hui’e, the first to burn incense for Guanyin on the island, some 1200 years ago (late Liang Dynasty, 907-923). In order to honor the Japanese monk Hui'e, this square uses elements of Japanese landscape architecture. The square's ground is paved with local pebbles and bluestone. The original plan was to produce a bronze casting of Hui’e in his sailing vessel, more than 1200 years ago. This was to be a magnificent sculpture in the style of a monument. However, it was impossible to find the ship’s prototype, so this plan was abandoned in favor of a more metaphorical design.
On the central axis of the square, The bronze statue of Hui’e sits on a gigantic cement-reinforced rock suggestive of the ship’s prow. One hundred Guanyin statues form a stupa that evokes the ship’s mast. An exhibition hall featuring Hui’e’s great achievements serves as the ship’s hold. Pebbles arranged in a lotus pattern mosaic pave the entire ground. The symbolism of the story “the lotus blocks the way so the ship can’t sail”, shows how the landscape and the architecture seep into and structure one another, forming a good artistic and cultural climate. It tells the story of Hui’e sailing eastward to Japan, asking Guanyin to return home, and of leaving behind on Mount Putuo a century of regretting not going to Guanyin.
In my heart, I quietly told Hui’e: today, a thousand years later, the voice of the Lotus Sea sounds the same. Someone remembers you, engraves your name on their heart, and is willing to spend their own life to complete your glorious, long-cherished dream. The white stupa behind you is made of more than one hundred statues of Guanyin, and these will always follow you east to Japan.
Like my fellow countrymen, I had no chance to take part in the scholarly debates of the past century, such as on classicism, modernism, postmodernism. I also did not have the ability to take “The Garden Treatise” methods onto this ferocious little island. The open sea never accepts the sentimental, quaint atmosphere of traditional private gardens.
Drawing on limited funds and my own creative work, how can I produce a truly comprehensive architectural style, one that is in accordance with local hydrology, geology, customs, philosophy, aesthetics, etc.? I have been thinking about this problem continuously for two years, working it out by drawing more than a hundred sketches.
The secular world has shaped me. In any case, I cannot cast off the historical inheritance of the words "architectural designer," though they mock me. This has made me ashamed for a long time. Finally that day, I shook the big oars and sailed off alone, steering a sampan to the island. A huge swell lifted me together with the sampan, and placed us on the beach. I did all I could to enter this huge, intangible figure of the reclining Buddha's sacred body. Looking towards the open sea, Mount Putuo rises just opposite. A spiritual light filled me with an intense fervor, near excitement: with Mount Putuo so close, echoes rang out. This close to Mount Putuo, how does one’s thinking not draw closer to Mount Putuo’s Zen Buddhism? I had settled into the meaning of Zen. Zen Buddhism tells us that the aesthetic tensions between mind and matter, material form and spirit, man and nature, will never change. Zen Buddhism pays particular attention to the act of shattering the void. It dares to break the shackles of the material world, and ultimately free one from all material needs. When this succeeds, form becomes formless. The law of this realm is no laws.
I have not reached some higher plane. But I do have a familiar grasp of the six laws of Chinese painting, along with an ability to understand and express myself through sculpture, gardens and folk customs. I carefully hold these together. I seek to emphasize the spirit, the function, and the artistry; pay attention to the ecology, the context, the spatial function, and the local specifics of the hydrology and meteorology. The rest are ever-changing. What schools or doctrines have kicked up a fuss? Over the past several centuries, what has relevance for me?
Once I rule out these boring disputes, the plan resolves itself.
The main building is the least defined space. Following along the alcove, an alcove as large as me--one capable of providing me with some form of a plane-- I, too, become flat in form like a plane, making full use of the shelter from the wind and waves. The scaffolding above rests gently between two cliffs. The building's outer facade is obviously its face. I used local stone as construction material to make a painting surface that can withstand stormy weather. Traditional houses in the local style combine as a whole to create a form like a mosaic in the rubble, centered in the frame of the plane. Original brick and tile work gathered from dilapidated local houses decorate the roofs. The walls on the side have been roughly painted an uninhibited, almost boorish, pink. Arhats made of brass look like Daoist priests from Shandong Province's Lao Mountain, with kindly smiles as they freely move between the walls. The atmosphere overflows with celestial exuberance.
The combination of the buildings and the mountains often creates a site where hard and soft, natural and artificial mix. To avoid an abrupt harshness, I make use of original materials found here on the mountain and in the sea, such as local grasses. That way the bronze sculptures of arhats naturally meld with the mountain, extending to the walls. Consequently, the chalk-white wall, the bronze-colored sculptures combined with the green of the mountain, create a refined yet simple, naturally unified elegance. They are both distinct from natural religion and a part of it, as in folk religious traditions, resulting in a familiar sense of artistry, Zen Buddhism, and nature.
For artistic reasons as well as in order to prevent damage from the tides and sea spray, and as a way to endow these buildings with a spiritual energy, the buildings here have been constructed overhead. I delegated the building of the steps behind the entrance to some migrant workers. In a stroke of inspiration I told them, “You do this yourselves. Treat it as if you were repairing the steps to your own home. What is economical, what is beautiful, you guys decide." I want my creative method to embody the same tension between intention and non-intention that we see in Zen Buddhist painting. History clearly warns us: after three decades during which skyscrapers have popped up across new cities, we have tons of leftover waste from construction. Today only those old local-style houses are still connected to the earth. They are timeless.
The migrant workers built steps that were downright rustic. They chiseled the rock, and built a simple, unadorned cement handrail. The eaves are striking in their local style, the entrance exhibits an unmistakable bucolic quality: humble, plain, and lovely, and in harmony with the main building. I am delighted with this. The next buildings will definitely also be based on this kind of collaboration. This kind of primitive yet spiritually profound method is something that no proprietor or designer can carry out himself.
When the first phase of the project was completed, it was obvious that the architects who spoke for me sought to defend nature, and to return to nature. They worked hard to balance function and concept. They hardly impacted the island’s natural environment. Not a blade of grass was harmed. They maintained the reef and native life. They were partial to the sea, to the natural world, and they humbly saluted the spirits of heaven and earth. Is this not my spiritual homeland?
How many months later did I try to seek the rational basis for this practice? Reviewing Western philosophy, architectural history... how silly! For how many years will buildings and architectural structures range back and forth between various Western trends of thought, like figurativism and neo-localism, etc.
I heard the snickers of Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, and Robert Venturi. I am truly poor and helpless.