There was once a priest who served in a temple in the west. Nobody knew where he came from. Though he spoke rarely, he was always polite. Monks and wealthy patrons complained that his sermons were too traditional, abstract, enigmatic, and ethereal. The poor and afflicted thought him unrealistic. Everyone thought him rather irrelevant to real life, and wished that he would pursue more connections in the towns, the countryside, and the court. Not only his speech but also his paintings and calligraphy radiated the same effervescence of nothingness, as if his whole life were soaring through clouds of silver and gold. The scrolls he inscribed and the screens he painted reeked of an obsolete and useless paradise. Moreover, the mystery of his origins continued to haunt them. Some even accused him of having converted to the ways of the southern barbarians. One day, an abbot determined to solve the mystery and expose the fraudster as nothing more than a headless idiot. To this end, he gathered a mystical herb that would force its consumer to tell the truth. He brewed a thick tea and delivered it to the priest, who was about to begin working on a new screen. The priest warmly thanked the abbot for this surprising act of kindness, and for a moment he thought that he had finally earned a single friend. As he gazed into the abbot’s eyes, however, he read the treachery therein and felt sad. Nevertheless, he drank the tea and set to work. Day after day, he drank the tea that the abbot brought and painted, but no one was allowed to see the work in progress. On the last day, the priest prayed, laid down his brush, and died. Afterwards, they found his body, death poem and the completed screen. The pictures were unlike anything they had ever seen before, full of paradoxes, horrors, beauty and reality, of this world and of other worlds. There were forests of rusted iron rebar and scaffolding, buildings crushed in earthquakes, shattered clocks, beaches littered with charred, empty soda cans, pits of ash, wastelands of abandoned machinery, ruins haunted by tattooed thugs, smoking fires, walls and citadels of propane bombs and stacked rubber tires where dark waves licked the oil-gray sand. They could recognize some of the landmarks. All of these scenes could only be made out through a veil of leaping, curling flames in expert brushwork of crimson, vermillion, orange, copper and gold. And yet, through these flames one could see the walker, a pale figure who suffered and survived, recurring in numerous scenes and vaguely resembling the dead priest. In some scenes, he communed with angels and boddhisattvas, in other scenes he dragged the poor and sorrowful from smoking tar pits. In the final scene, he held out a handful of shiny washers. What was really frightening is that if you walked along the screen, or viewed it from various angles, the flames seemed to leap out from the screen in radiant threats. It is a hell screen, the abbot muttered to the others. The work of a twisted, self-absorbed mind. No, it is not a hell screen, said one penitent monk. It is the landscape of the heart; it is a confession.
In the coffin-black night once more he would dream the wooden table and its shroud-white cloth covered with roasted lambs and carafes of wine, slices of watermelon, and rounds of ghost-white cheese. Pomegranates and olives would build pyramids. In the coffin-black night, the painter would close his eyes to the blurring belfries and blue mountains of pines to view a barmecide banquet like a magic, colourful carpet rolling out in the endless, candle-lit night heavy with nectar, smoke and ambrosia. And he dreamt the walls of formidable churches where faded apostles, timeless and flat, broke breads devoid of the greenness of time and sipped inexhaustible cups of new wine.
The calligrapher loved to write and paint and make books. When he was not conducting official business, he read books of philosophy, thought about the world, and wrote or painted in his quiet house, sipping endless cups of tea. White mountains, black trees, worlds of snow, clouds of words, dragons of mist, and phoenixes of light covered the pages of many books alongside texts of parables and poems. The city sometimes summoned his texts for printing with great expectation; at other times, the city forgot him and his manuscripts. One day, the wind and rain rushed down upon the city, scattering rooftiles, breaking down walls and flooding homes. All of his books soaked up the dirty water and then bled out streams of rust and ink. The citizens wondered what he would do. Most thought that he would hang himself from his own willow tree. Instead, the calligrapher repaired roofs and walls wherever he could. Then he dried out his books and sorted them. While burning some, he examined the others that were disfigured but not burnable. With new soot from his fire, he made new ink and painted on the dried but disfigured pages that he had not burnt. When he ran out of these, he returned to buying new paper, but something had forever changed. Once again, he was painting, but always with blotting papers below the pages he painted on and with extra blotting papers at hand to place on top of his paintings. On certain days he would remove a blotting paper from beneath, and affixed his seal to it, to the unfinished poem or landscape of blots and marks. On other days, he would press a blotting paper to the top of a wet page and seal it after taking it off again, its dampness bearing the ghosts of brush strokes. Through abstractions of dark raindrops and pale silences, the calligrapher rebuilt the lost landscape.