Moving From Emptiness
Shaeri Richards + Jerry Hartleben

Moving From Emptiness

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MOVING FROM EMPTINESS: The Life and Art of a Zen Dude

A documentary film by Shaeri Richards and Jerry Hartleben
69 minutes, 2014. NTSC DVD

English. USA

Moving from Emptiness: The Life and Art of a Zen Dude is a feature documentary exploring the art, philosophy and personal history of Chinese born Zen master calligraphic painter Alok Hsu Kwang-Han. His art is vividly portrayed, arising from a deep source of creativity. According to Alok, creativity begins with the Zen concept of "Emptiness," that silent space that houses the intelligence prior to thought. Armed with rice paper, ink, brush, and a collection of Zen teachings and koans, Alok opens the door to a world of magical brush strokes and enchanted students. According to Alok, he teaches painting “by not teaching painting.” Instead he shows students how to get out of their way, so that “creativity happens on its own.”

Alok is truly a Zen dude and through his life and art the world of Zen is revealed. Like a performance artist, he paints in real time in front of audiences and groups. He begins by entertaining with humor and wisdom and then prepares to paint by entering a place of deep silent meditation, where he waits for the "Emptiness" to move his brush. Moments later, the crowd delights as his artwork appears before their eyes in seconds with just a few elegant strokes.

Filmed in an artistic, narrative style, the movie follows Alok, revealing his unique art and teachings as he gives workshops across the country. In them, the viewer is exposed to a deeper understanding of Zen and Zen art. The music of Deva Premal and Miten provides a thematic score for the unfolding of Alok's story. His work serves as a metaphor for a Zen approach to living and his brush strokes can be viewed as an unfolding of the path of life. His students are given Zen word puzzles called Koans to ponder and to paint. These Koans, which are short paradoxical sayings or poems are vehicles used to guide student painters into a direct perception of their own source of creativity. Alok demonstrates to his students the Chinese Zen concept of "Wu-wei," literally meaning "not knowing" and its important role in the creative process of the Zen arts. Not knowing allows the artist to find inspiration in the moment, without a preconceived idea.

Although the experience of being “fully present” is not easily put into words, Alok’s friends and fellow Zen teachers, Roko Shinge Roshi of the Zen Center of Syracuse, N.Y. and John Tarrant Roshi of the Pacific Zen Institute of Santa Rosa, CA, enrich the film with enlightening descriptions of the Zen experience. Alok is featured in an intense one-on-one session where he uses a therapeutic technique to explore deep personal issues of his subject. He then paints what he calls a "Zen Calligraphic Portrait," revealing the authentic self of his guest with beautiful, abstract brush strokes.

The film also delves into Alok’s personal history as a child in China during the Japanese invasion of World War II. He shares his own painful experience as well as the suffering of the Chinese people during that difficult time. His family’s travails in immigrating to America from war torn China during the Communist civil war have had a lasting effect on Alok’s life. He allows himself to move deeply into the pain of the past in order to bring light into the darkness of the suffering, both for himself and for those he encounters in his world and his work. Alok lives his life very much like he teaches: remaining open to both beauty and pain, bringing presence, and acceptance to whatever arises in front of him and honoring the Buddhist vow to "set endless heartaches to rest." He does it all while invoking a spunky sense of humor.

On the verge of his 75th birthday and with a new love in his life (author and fellow Zen painter Raylene Abbott) Alok employs his teachings to confront his own personal history and to navigate the challenges of a new relationship late in his life. Through his teachings, his relationship, his life, and his art, Alok shares a journey of transformation that becomes possible with the Zen idea of being "present, available, playful, and not knowing." Alok's life and art serve as a living example of the Zen concept of “Moving from Emptiness,” a way to trust and to let go of all attachments and expectations. At the conclusion of the film, as he approaches his later years, Alok finds an authentic acceptance of this present, beautifully impermanent moment of life.

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