A Painter Seeks Paradise Within
by Terence Im
“YOU’VE SURRENDERED YOURSELF to the world,” Telisari said. “That is why you are unhappy, and that is why you haven’t been able to paint.” We were sitting at a coffee table on a balcony at the Academy of Self Expansion. From this miraculous view in the Academy's western wing, one could see the city below and the three moons above: Jexpari, Ashax and Tilan. Since I was a teenager, I used to paint this scenery weekly, year after year. For eight years was I dedicated to painting this same view, putting different stylistic spins and colors on it, not only improving my technique but also discovering new doors of perception. The three moons of our planet and the sight of our beautiful ancient city seemed to synchronize together into one perfect image; an image too beautiful to fathom.
But I hadn’t painted this great joy of my soul for two years. At the time of this conversation with Telisari, I was twenty three. At this time, I was a lost man who sought to regain the glow of my teenage years.
“Have I surrendered to the world?” I asked Telisari. “What makes you think that?”
“Your voice isn’t as animated as it used to be, Alexari. You used to obsess over philosophical discourse, always looking for someone at the Academy to talk about art, history, science, music and literature with. But now… I’ve noticed that ever since our nation’s been burdened by the recent economic crisis, and all these political tensions throughout the solar system have caused disturbances in most people’s minds, you’ve lost your creative innocence... no... not lost, but rather… temporarily lost touch with…
“Remember what you told me when we were both teenagers, Alexari? ‘I will never be affected by the negative energies of the world! I will always trust my art to guide my way to the future and keep me joyfully still in the light!’ Whatever happened to that passionate boy who was so excited each day to discover the secrets hidden within his art of painting?”
I didn’t want to admit it at first, but deep down, I knew he was right. I surrendered to the world. I let the world define me, I, who thought himself always true to his own way of life. I took a deep breath, being mindful not to say anything foolish that only served to prove his point in my own self-reflective eyes. I looked down at the table and suddenly, the book my friend was reading before I came here to his table had caught my attention. It was a book called, Paradise Awaits Within: You Hold the Key.
“You’re right…” I said, transfixed by the book cover. “Can I take a look at your book?”
“By all means, friend.” I took the book in my hands. On the cover was the image of a highly technological city with floating buildings, geometrically complex architecture and city goers leaning back, relaxed and carefree while levitating in the sky, surrounded by books and paintings, lanterns and potted plants. I wished to paint such a world. Such realms appeared in my dreams often, but even more often, for reasons I didn't yet understand, I’d focused on paintings whose images were inspired by the immediately accessible world we all live in.
When I'd ponder on how strange it was that I didn't look to my dreams for direct inspiration, I'd wonder, Do I simply not trust myself enough? There is a whole world already living and breathing inside my mind, inside my heart, inside my soul! Why do I hesitate to paint the worlds within? Am I just afraid that I'll lose sight of the world outside?
“May I borrow this book when you’re done with it? The title and the cover; they speak to me in a way that I can’t explain. I feel that this book could potentially clear the fog that’s been obscuring my ability to see life happen around me.”
“No problem. Keep it for as long as you’d like, and if you should decide that the book is of great benefit to your heart, you may keep it.” Telisari’s kindness was a quality of his I always appreciated. He always took friendship seriously and went out of his way to be sure that his hospitality was always steeped in an honest desire to see his friends more joyous and lively.
In Telisari, I saw both a genuinely kind friend and a man who had truly mastered the mysteries of his own heart. I’ve watched him grow year after year from a young boy who proclaimed that he would discover many new secrets of nature through his passion for philosophy, mathematics and science.
This prodigal polymath who stood before me was revered by our peers at the Academy of Self Expansion for his contributions to philosophy, higher dimensional geometry, numerous sub-fields of alchemical botany and telepathic dream meditation, all of which he’d accomplished by the age of twenty five. In their eyes, they saw an image of historical greatness and supernatural ability, but I saw him as that teenage boy who never let go of his dreams even when almost everyone around him dared say he would amount to nothing.
“May I suggest something?” Telisari asked.
“Of course. I always appreciate a friend’s suggestion and yours above all else, Telisari.”
Telisari smiled. “Take that book, and go read it at the Komatari Shrine in the Forest of Serenity. I never told this to anyone before, but on my eighteenth birthday, I took a lone trip there to reflect on my desires and ambitions.”
“Oh? So that’s why you didn’t want to celebrate your birthday that time… at least, not with others. How come? What compelled you to spend your birthday all alone?”
“I felt the pull of the future and my destiny tug at me relentlessly all the year before. It was a time in my life when I couldn’t pay attention to anyone or anything in the external world. All I could hear and see were my own thoughts which were constantly searching for clarity and self-understanding for what slumbered deep inside my heart; mysteries of imagination and curiosity which begged me to answer their call and manifest them into this world. Again and again these thoughts distracted me from the world outside myself. And so, I knew that once I had become an adult of the world, I needed that journey to the Komatari Shrine. By myself. I needed to at last understand, what is it that I am searching for? Who am I to become? And this was the scariest question of all: will my destiny lead me to happiness? Or will it lead me to despair and sorrow?”
A STATUE OF TULIMARAVELHIA, the God of Patient Discovery. As I stared at it, fixated by all its subtle and obvious splendor, I thought, I’ve only seen drawings of this statue, but never have I seen a live sculpture of this highly revered god whose teachings and myths have inspired countless painters and artists before me.
The statue depicted Tulimaravelhia in his youth. The handsome god seemed to be asking a thousand questions simultaneously. In all the myths I've read of Tulimaravelhia, he was illustrated as a natural born philosopher. Even when he was a child, he'd constantly asked questions about the mysteries of consciousness, creativity and the universe to all he'd come across, even his adversaries! The statue showed him in simple apparel, true to his mythologized personality, for he was known to all around him as a man who did not care for material pleasures. All he cared for were his loved ones, nature and the satisfaction of his curiosities.
For the first time in so long, I felt the flow of time suspend, or rather I should say for the sake of clarity… my psychological relationship with time had suddenly suspended. Yes, this statue connected me with the past but an impersonal one. I wasn’t concerned about my personal, past memories, nor was I worried about my future. This one statue, and the surrounding architecture of this beautifully built ancient place made me feel connected to all of history and the world at large.
I almost felt as if I was indeed in the presence of the gods. My eighteen year old self would have wished that such a celestial being from the heavens could come down and tell me all the things that I should do and think so that I wouldn’t have to worry about carrying the great weight of my destiny. But now, I was no longer the sort of person who sought any help from such beings. I only wished now to reconnect with the world, slow down my psychological relationship with time and see and feel the present moment again. I wanted to rediscover my happiness so that I could rediscover my art of painting again.
A voice suddenly told me, You will be gifted with something rare and sacred today because you were willing to take the long journey here alone. I looked around, trying to discover the source of the voice. I scratched my head as I looked at the statue. Surely not the statue, I thought. I shook my head and tried to ignore the phenomenon. As I walked around the Komatari Shrine, I thought, well, if that really was a god speaking to me just now, what difference does it make? I won’t be amazed until I actually unravel something permanently inspirational today. I'm fed up with being resigned to those temporary moments of spiritual euphoria I would experience while meditating at home or at the Academy’s mindfulness classes.
I need something permanent and everlasting. I’m tired of waiting for the answers to my life! I need to know why I have lost the desire to paint!
I walked around the shrine to try to find the answers through the inspirational artwork on the walls. There were many fantastic images of ancient mythology that would usually fascinate my teenage self. Even just two years ago, I would've felt so ecstatic to just stare upon an image of the gods. Now, my fascination with the mystical and grand was lost… No. As Telisari said, I had only temporarily lost touch with it. My yearning to know the mystical and feel connected with the universe was still within me. Otherwise, why would I have come to this forbidden shrine, a place whose tales of inexplicable disappearances and unpredictable happenings had scared off thousands of city locals from visiting this place?
It came to my attention then that this place wasn’t always forbidden. Was it just three hundred years ago? Or two hundred? There had been a time in our city’s history when our people would come to this shrine to connect with our cultural heritage’s gods, even if our pantheon and ancient myths were no longer on the minds of most people in this day and age.
After looking at several paintings, one had immediately pulled me in. I was transfixed as soon as I saw Kromnotos, God of the Clouds, drinking wine atop a rectangular stone platform in the cloud. On the platform were his beautiful yet modestly detailed house and fruit garden. If I recall correctly, growing persimmons and berries were one of Kromnotos's most passionate hobbies, and it was this simple fact that for some reason inspired me to sketch numerous drawings of fruits, a passion which would evolve and expand into sketching vegetables, herbs, flowers and trees. That must have been around when I was fourteen. Or was I fifteen?
Anyhow, this painting was a visual depiction of the tale known as, The Confused Archer of Darkness. Standing before Kromnotos was a warrior of Jeilousari, a demigod of Envy and Moral Corruption who was promised by his superiors that he would become a god of the underworld should he have Kromnotos killed. The unnamed Archer of Darkness was aiming an arrow at the God of the Clouds. Kromnotos, as the legends state, continued to drink his wine without a care in the world.
He didn’t care at that moment if this Archer of Darkness should strike an arrow into his heart which was what made Kromnotos my favorite god of the ancient pantheon. The archer lifted down his arrow and asked him, “Why are you just sitting there so fearlessly? Don’t you see that I have come here to dethrone you from not just your godly place in the clouds but have also come to claim your life? I mean… Your life could very well end! Don’t you see that so plain and clearly???”
Kromnotos laughed. “You can dethrone me from my godly status, take me away from these marvelous clouds and destroy my body, but you will never be able to take my soul.”
“How can you be so unafraid to lose everything that you hold dear?”
“Lose what? I possess nothing except for my ability to enjoy my solitude and my mind’s sacred gifts.”
“But if I destroy your body, you will lose those very gifts as well!”
Kromnotos smiled. From that point on, various myths and ancient cultures have different accounts of the tale. Some say that Kromnotos was merely distracting the archer of darkness while his friend aimed an arrow from behind him. Others say that Kromnotos really did mean what he said, that he was so content with his relationship with the inner realms of his mind that he did not care in the slightest bit what external misfortunes should happen to him. This is especially fascinating considering how Kromnotos was known to tell his friends and family that he did not know what should happen to him after death.
In one mythological dialogue, a mortal philosopher asked him, “But surely, you, God of the Clouds, should know what happens after death!”
To which Kromnotos replied, “Nope, not in the slightest bit. And why should I care? When I was a child and an ambitious teenager fifty eight thousand years ago, I didn’t care about death. It was but an idea, a fog, a mirage of the future. And then, at some point, I started to care about death because I saw that everyone else cared, and because everyone else cared, I started becoming emotionally ill. Physically even!
"The clouds of my domain started to become dark, darker than the shadows of the most hideous mortal souls, and it was like this for two thousand some years. And then, I came to rediscover the innocence and naivety of my youth, and I have been effortlessly joyful for fifty five thousand years now.”
“How?” the philosopher asked.
“If I were to tell you, then you’d tell the rest of the world how I, Kromnotos, God of the Clouds, have come to rediscover happiness and a fearlessness of death. I would prefer if each individual should discover for him or herself. Now, if you will excuse me, I am going to go work on a painting I’ve been working on for about thirty thousand years. Or has it been forty thousand? Well, keeping track of time was never my strong suit, especially since I mainly pay attention to the immediate second as opposed to the immediate millennium.
"Oh, and just to clear up confusion, it isn’t the same exact painting on the same exact canvas. I imagine I would need a canvas as tall as the diameter of the moon Jexpari for such an ambitious project. I finish one painting, enjoy looking at it for several centuries, and then I give it to a dear friend or family member, only to start all over again, focusing on the same image and thinking what new takes and styles I could apply to this one image which I’ve dedicated my heart to for all these millennia.
"With each painting, I’ve experienced a kind of gentle death and rebirth which no one could understand but myself. It is the purest means by which I can see the most precious elements of my soul recreating themselves and yet still somehow living and breathing with the same persistent essence.”
“Thirty to forty thousand years??? You have been working on the same image for forty thousand years??? Impossible! Aren’t you tired of working on the same thing over and over again?”
“No. There’s something new to discover every day even in the most repetitive and mundane of tasks, so why should I ever be bored of painting such a beautiful image?”
“Well, what is it that you are painting?”
“I am God of the Clouds. What do you think?”
“Not just the clouds; the sun, the sky, this beautiful planet and its beautiful people.”
I LEFT THE SHRINE, replaying the story in my head. I thought I would read the book Telisari lent to me, but I just wanted to hike and look up at the sky and the clouds after thinking about the various myths of Kromnotos. After taking a spontaneous and random hike through the woods, I stumbled upon a vast lake, a lake which I was almost certain shouldn’t belong in this place. There was no lake in this or any other part of the Forest of Serenity. What was it doing here?
The long walk down one of the several hill paths leading to the lake was physically demanding but incredibly exciting. Each step’s rhythmic joy was almost like an orchestral expression of whatever mystical fascinations were gripping my heart in that moment. At first, I thought it would be wonderful to discover this mysterious lake with a friend, a family member or a lover. Oh, how wonderful it would have been to experience something so mystical with a loved one, but soon, I realized that this moment should only be experienced by me, for it was the kind of exciting, mystical experience which had slowly reminded me that I was not here alone. My companion was my art of painting, my long lost loved one who had been urging me to reunite with her with honest to goodness passion and commitment.
I took a seat on a large rock by the lake shore. The refreshing breeze cooled my skin and revitalized my senses. I took some time to just take the whole scenery in and let go of all my thoughts: thoughts of Kromnotos, thoughts of Telisari’s wisdom, thoughts of the world, thoughts of my sorrow and confusion. Thoughts! Thoughts! All those thoughts!
As time passed, all questions ceased to echo in my mind.
Who cares why I stopped painting. I will never know the answer to that question, and I don’t have to know. It is because I keep trying to know ‘why’ that I prevent myself from living now. I feel different now, and how I feel right now holds precedence over all past feelings.
Rather than start reading the book, I took out my sketchpad and began to draw. What did I draw? This mysterious, impossible lake, the Forest of Serenity, the clouds, the sky and the sun of this beautiful world.
Published: November 16, 2022
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Copyright © 2022 by Terence Im (born Tae Joon Kim)