The Mural and the Monastery

A Legend from China


Toward the end of the third century in China, the artist-sage Ku K'ai-Chih—who, because of his simple, even foolish, outward manner was welcomed by all princes and loved throughout the land—visited a small Buddhist monastery where he asked for shelter for the night.

The Abbot of the monastery told him that unfortunately, the monastery was in terrible debt and the buildings were in great disrepair the roof tiles were broken and the weeds that choaked the garden had been growing in the corners and cracks of the monks' austere cells. They could not offer the artist any more shelter than this, and only a meager morsel of food.

Ku K'ai-Chih thanked the abbot, stayed at the monastery overnight, and in the morning asked the abbot if he might paint a mural on a bare wall in the main shrine room. The abbot told him that the monastery needed a thousand gold coins to get out of debt, and another thousand to repair the facilities. How could they offer the artist anything for his labor if he were to paint the wall? "No," the abbot said, "Our monastery is closing, and it is futile to even whitewash a novice monk's cell. No, you may not paint the wall of the shrine room."

But Ku K'ai-Chih insisted. He told the abbot that he would ask for no money: only a favor from the abbot in return.

"What must I do for you?" asked the abbot.

"I will tell you when the painting is nearly finished, but you must promise me you will do it."

The old abbot sighed, "Very well, I will grant you your favor if it is in my power to do so. You may paint what you wish. It would be an honor to have the work of such an artist grace our shrine."

So Ku K'ai-Chih got to work painting a portrait of the famous sage, Vimalakirti, sick on his couch, speaking to an assembly of holy men. Vimalakirti, as you may know, was a householder who associated with the common people in the world—businessmen and gamblers, prostitutes and schoolchildren—but since he was unattached to his belongings, his courtesans, and his business endeavors, he enlightened beings wherever he worked or traveled. And Vimalakirti could speak of dharma and liberation as well as any bodhisattva.

When Ku K’ai-Chih had finished painting all but Vimalakirti’s eyes, he invited the abbot and all of the monks of the monastery into the shrine room to watch him finish the piece.

“Now, abbot, since you promised me a favor in exchange for my artistic labors, I insist that from this moment forth, you demand a price of two hundred silver coins from anyone who wishes to visit this shrine for the first time, and one hundred coins to anyone on their second visit. After that, they may give what they wish, but they must give something to enter this shrine. Agreed?”

“But that is preposterous, Ku K’ai-Chih! Each week the number of our visitors dwindles. Certainly if we demand such a price as this, we shall nevermore receive any pilgrims!”

Ku K’ai-Chih responded: “Did you not tell me that your monastery is closing anyway? Won’t your visitors dwindle away anyhow? Are you refusing to grant me my favor?”

Reluctantly, the abbot agreed, shaking his head. Then, before anyone had a chance to leave, the artist dipped his brush into his paint, and painted in the great sage’s eyes. As the monks all watched, the expression of compassion and empathy, suffering and joy captured in Vimalakirti’s eyes was so delicate, so sensitive, and so alive that one and all, without exception, burst out in tears. And they stayed so as they remained in the shrine room, and for hours afterward.

News of the incredible painting soon reached the village and neighboring towns, and many pilgrims paid the price to enter the shrine room to witness it themselves. All, without exception, were reduced to tears. And within a month, the monastery had paid off its debts and was back on its feet.

And the artist-fool Ku K’ai-Chih went back on his feet too, and wandered free and easy on his next adventure.

©2005 Craig Coss