Thursday, 25 July 2013

Aesthetics in Chinese Calligraphy

"In good calligraphy, each character is full of strength and vitality and accommodates changes within a limited space. Each section of the character is completed stroke by stroke to form a larger design. The brush, the instrument of the calligrapher, is also used by the painter, and the results produced by the use of dots and strokes are similar." - Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting (1991), p12-13.
"The Mi-Family and the Chiang-nan [Painting] Traditions
The merging of these two southern traditions into a coherent aesthetic philosophy incorporating the significant concepts of “ the natural” and of “ the plain and spontaneous” is surely one of the outstanding cultural phenomena of the Sung period." - Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting (1991), p151.
The ancient Chinese 'Sage of Calligraphy', Wang Xizhi (303-361 AD), apparently found aesthetic and technical inspiration for his famous writing style in some geese he raised; in the graceful movements of their necks, and in how they swam on the water. This is referred to in A Chinese Garden Court (1980), with reference to the following painting, p42:

"This detail of a handscroll by Qian Xuan (about 1235-1300) shows Wang Xizhi gaining inspiration for his calligraphy by studying the graceful movements of geese.."
The graceful movements of the wrist are transferred into the calligraphy work, with the flow and energy of the character resembling patterns on the surface of water. Due to the speed with which the watery ink is absorbed into the paper, such aesthetics can only be rendered with consistency if the mind and body themselves are relaxed and fluid. Since clinging on to an intention can freeze the body, and forceful efforts to control the ink will become easily apparent within a character, spontaneous and natural movements need to be allowed to manifest if one is going to create something which resembles some the most developed and artistic calligraphic forms, as is stated in Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting (1991), p147:
"...naturalness and spontaneity can be identified as key elements in both poetry and calligraphy during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries."
The calligraphy of Wang XiZhi (303-361 AD)
Each character can be viewed according to deeply philosophical aesthetics, as is explained in Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 8th-14th Century (1992), p122:
"Calligraphy for the scholar-artist was an art of paradigm, perceived as a means of partaking of the ever-dynamic field of nature’s creativity. The physical act of applying brush to paper led the Chinese artist to characterize calligraphy’s function in cosmogonic terms. The blank paper surface represents the universe, which in the beginning existed in undifferentiated oneness; the first stroke, born of the union of brush and ink, establishes on paper the primary relationship between yin and yang; and each new stroke, combining with the old, creates new yin-yang relationships, until the whole is reconciled and again united into the harmonious oneness that is the Tao of the universe."
In this way calligraphy practice took on a deeper meaning and utility in ancient Chinese society. Beyond Representation relates how this lead to calligraphy writers seeking various methods of achieving self-realization, p123:
"Since to emulate is to perform a physical act generated from within, the wise student learns not to be a slavish imitator but to seek self-realization. Learning calligraphy thus has less to do with what one studies than with the development of one’s inner resources."
The ancient Chinese Zen traditions used the writing of poems and various sutras as a method of honing skill - repeating the characters until familiarity and spontaneity were good enough to allow something deeper to pour out.

At present I am continuing to learn how to write the Heart Sutra with my Insight Calligraphy teacher Paul Wang in Beijing. Here is a recent rendering I made of the characters which translate as 'Form is just Emptiness, Emptiness is just Form', written in the old cursive style:

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Traditional Chinese Ink Painting: Chinese Wild Orchids

"As T’ang Hou stated in his Mirror of Painting (Hua-chien) :
It is said that painting the plum-flower is to “ write” the plum; painting bamboo is to “ write” the bamboo; painting the orchid is to “ write” the orchid. Why is this so? It is because of a flower’s great purity. This cannot be found in likeness." - Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting (1991),  p427.


The Chinese wild orchid (Asian cymbidium), like the snowdrop in Britain, represents the arrival of Spring and since the time of Confucius, around the 6th Century BC, has been associated with moral gentlemen. The flower became a subject for traditional Chinese painters in the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD); starting with outlined forms and then later moving on to using calligraphic style brush strokes.


During the 14th Century, Zen monks in China began to use the orchids as symbols of recluses who lived in the mountains, something referred to in the book Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 8th-14th Century (1992), p299:
"Because the orchid grows wild in inaccessible mountainous areas, it symbolizes the reclusion of the scholar-painters and poets, a trend that became significant in the last years of the Southern Sung, particularly after the Mongol conquest."

The major Tang Dynasty poet, Meng Haoran (690-740 AD), wrote a poem along such a theme before the Song Dynasty called To Zhang, Climbing Orchid Mountain on an Autumn Day, which can be translated as follows:
"The northern mountain is hidden in white cloud,
A happy place for hermits to retire.
So we can meet, I try to climb the heights,
My heart is fading like a goose in flight.
My sorrow's prompted by the creeping dusk,
But then clear autumn spurs on my desires.
At length we see the villagers return,
They walk the sand and rest at the river crossing.
The trees against the sky are like shepherd's purse,
An islet by the shore just like the moon.
I hope you have some wine to celebrate,
We'll spend the autumn festival drunk together."

Aesthetically, it seems the ink wash orchid painting lies somewhere between plum blossom and bamboo, since it depictss grass-like leaves, and elegant flowers. There is a strong feeling of traditional Chinese calligraphy in the orchid leaves in particular, and it is the depiction of these leaves which seems to be where the essence of this elegant plant is captured, as the author of Chinese Ink Painting: Techniques in Shades of Black (1984) writes, p60:
"...the elegance of a grass orchid is provided by the special overlapping of its long, thin leaves."

The relationship between orchid leaves and calligraphy is made explicit in Beyond Representation (1991), where the author writes, p218:
"Ma Ho-chih channels all his expressive energy into his fluctuating calligraphic formula, known as “orchid-leaf” drawing. [...] Turning Li’s plain drawing into the thickening-and thinning orchid-leaf manner, Ma Ho-chih creates a visual and musical poetry alive with energy."
Knowing the traditional Chinese ink and brush well, and understanding how much pressure to apply at any given moment is essential to the discipline, and I have been glad to have invested more than 1 year in practicing traditional calligraphy before beginning painting classes. Here is a traditional Chinese orchid painting I made under the guidance of my teacher, Jasmine Zhang, here in Beijing:

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Self-Compassion in Mindfulness

"The soil of deep practice requires the fertilizer of deep self-acceptance and self-compassion. For this reason, gentleness is not a luxury but a critical requirement for coming to our senses. And harshness and striving ultimately only engender unawareness and insensitivity, furthering fragmentation just when we have an opportunity to recognize that we are already OK, already whole." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming To Our Senses (2006), p303.

"...being playful and bringing to each moment, as best you can, a certain ease and lightness of touch – a gesture of kindness and self-compassion really. This lightness of touch, coupled with a steadfast and wholehearted engagement, is really a signature of mindfulness training and practice in all its various forms." - Professor Mark Williams, Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p.x.

"The opposite of self-criticism is self-compassion." - Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness (2010), p138.

If you don’t know how to treat yourself with compassion, how can you treat another person with compassion?" - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger - Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (2001), p166.
"One person noticed that his body perceives wind and creates goose bumps on his skin before his mind can register that a cool breeze is present. Our body is aware of our environment even when we aren’t, when we have gone unconscious or are asleep. It moves to protect us by raising up our hair follicles to create an insulating layer next to the skin, like a thin down jacket. Some old masters pointed to this as an example of our inherent Buddha nature, which cares for us continually."- Jan Chozan Bays, How to Train A Wild Elephant: And Other Adventures in Mindfulnes (2011), p144-145.
"An accomplished meditator has achieved a profound understanding of life, and he or she inevitably relates to the world with a deep and uncritical love."  - Mindfulness in Plain English (2002), p131.
Understanding our own feelings in the context of the feelings of others in our society is a difficult business for us these days, as Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, a former lecturer in positive psychology at Harvard, states in his book The Pursuit of Perfect (2009), p216:
"Today many of us... feel that we must suppress our emotional discomfort and be — or at the very least seem — happy. This perfectionist expectation, to display an unbroken chain of positive emotions, leads to much unhappiness. We are taught to hide our pain, fake a smile, put on a brave face. And when most of what we see are perfect smiles displayed on other people’s perfectly tanned faces, we begin to believe that we are the odd ones out—because we are sometimes sad or lonely or we don’t feel as happy or as put together as everyone else appears to be. Not wanting to be the odd one out, to ruin the festive circus and reveal our shameful feelings, we hide our unhappiness with our own clown mask, and when asked how we are, we respond, with a wink and a smile, “Just great.” [...] We join the march of folly, become accomplices in the great deception that denies humanity’s humanity."
This "great deception" Ben-Shahar refers to leads to what he terms the "great depression" of the world, p218:
"Not only do we make ourselves unhappy when we suppress emotions, when we pretend, but we make others unhappy as well. In this way, the great deception (pretending that we are really happy when we are not) contributes to the great depression (to the rising levels of unhappiness in the world). In putting on the facade, we communicate to others that everyone is doing just great, except for them, which makes them feel worse and even more determined to hide their pain. By perpetually hiding our emotions, we don’t give others permission to share their own. And in turn, their brave faces communicate to us that everyone else is doing great, and we consequently feel even worse. And so we all continue, smiling our way through the insincere dance of words and gestures, engaged in a downward spiral of deception and depression."
This facade can extend to the point whereby certain 'ultimate' idealised emotional states can be proclaimed - such as pure unending happiness, or lifelong peaceful contentment, often as a result of some external achievement, purchase or relationship. Such pretended states can be paraded in a kind of smug fashion in order to indulge in the projected misfortune of those who are not so content, as Ben-Shahar writes, p218:
"There are those who believe that the common tendency to feel better when others reveal their pain exposes our dark side. The Germans have a word for it, Schadenfreude, which Gary Coleman of Avenue Q defines as “happiness at the misfortune of others.”"
And yet, as he points out, if the capacity to meet others with an open heart is present, being emotionally honest has a more positive potential:
"But there is another, more generous interpretation of why others’ sharing of their pain can lead to our gain: we feel better because we recognize that we are normal and we are not alone."
How often can this really happen in our offices, schools, streets, shops, etc., however? The Great Depression seems to be rife in the world - happiness is measured on a material scale, leading to selfishness and greediness, with peaceful joy being measured on how far away one's house is from another person's, and how scenic one's surroundings are. In truth, nothing external can bring true lifelong peaceful joy and tranquility - it is only how one meets the world - free from clinging to big detached houses, beautiful people and scenery, and being accepting of the death of loved ones and one's own inevitable declining health and  youthful appearance - that creates the conditions for true joy to appear.

Meeting the world in such a way is a difficult state to live up to, and yet the good news is that, since true lifelong happiness is dependent on what is within one's psyche - an area one can have complete control over - it is available to everyone, and not a few fortunate individuals. Removing oneself from the great depression needs to begin with removing oneself from the great deception, however, and by looking into one's sources of happiness in life - how much of it is schadenfreude and how much of it is some faked commodity, and then understanding that one's happiness is completely dependent on oneself - one's internal state, and that everyone, no matter their situation or history, is deserving of true peaceful joy in every moment of their life. For those starting out on such a path, it can be a tough change in perception to make, as mindfulness teacher and MBSR founder Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p226:
"Many people come to the clinic with much more pain than only that caused by their physical problems and by the stress in their lives. Many find it difficult to feel much, if any, love and compassion for themselves. Many feel unworthy of love and unable to express warmth toward members of their own family, even when they want to. Many feel disconnected from their bodies. Their lives are devoid of feelings of coherence or connectedness. Many got messages from their parents or from school or from church or sometimes all three when they were children that they were bad or stupid or ugly or unworthy or selfish. And those messages were internalized, became part of their self-image and of their view of the world, and were carried into adulthood deep in their own psyches."
The more we watch and notice, the more we can become aware of the social traps we fall into, and begin to care for those parts of ourselves which have been neglected over the years, as Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book Fidelity: How to Create a Loving Relationship That Lasts (2011), p46:
"There are times when we suffer and we don’t know why. We don’t know the nature of the suffering. That suffering may have been transmitted to us by our parents or our ancestors. They may not have been able to transform their suffering, and now they have transmitted it to us. First, we just acknowledge that it is there inside us."
If one becomes locked in a self-view of considering oneself unfortunate and a victim in certain situations - of the great deception, of domineering parents, or of 'the system', and then feeling a sense of entitlement - to subversively take from others in society as compensation - either by neglecting others, or indulging in greed or theft, then there will never be any hope of finding peace. One will never be able to approach oneself compassionately because one's whole personal reward system is geared-up to feeling abused and victimised.

Setting up the conditions for peaceful joy requires one to break such inferiority complexes by seeing into their cyclical, self-perpetuating mechanisms, and by realising that one has the resource one needs to be happy available at every single moment no matter who is around or what material possessions one owns. The process is akin to bringing a whithered plant out of from a dark cupboard and bathing it in sunlight - it was what it required all along, and 'deserves' all the sunlight it can get. Regular formal mindfulness practice brings such insight very quickly it seems, and then once unnecessary behavioural cycles are recognised, the real healing can begin, as American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen (1997), p59:
"As our practice becomes more sophisticated we begin to sense our tremendous deficiencies, our tremendous cruelty. We see the things in life we’re not willing to take care of, the things we can’t let be, the things we hate, the things we just can’t stand. And if we’ve been practicing a long time there’s grief in that. But what we fail to see is the area which with practice grows—the area in which we can have compassion for life, just because it is as it is."
Kabat-Zinn also supports this in The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), p49:
"With an increasing ability to sustain mindfulness, we can explore what happens when our emotions are allowed to come and go in awareness with a non-judgmental attitude and self-compassion."
Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say in Fidelity that it is this self-compassion which ultimately heals us, p46:
"If we don’t listen to our own suffering, we won’t understand it, and we won’t have compassion for ourselves. Compassion is the element that helps heal us. Only when we have compassion for ourselves, can we truly listen to another person. So we embrace our pain, sorrow, and loneliness with the energy of mindfulness. The understanding and insight born from this practice will help transform the suffering inside us. We feel lighter; we begin to feel warmth and peace inside."
The process is not as smooth as one would hope from just reading about this, since the mind wanders as part of it's inherent nature, and critical thoughts come and go, and yet one's experience during formal mindfulness practice - no matter what it is - is always a success and never a failure, since after every meditation one knows the territory of one's mind that much better - where potential stumbling blocks lie, and therefore one will be instinctively more aware of them in future. The most important thing is to meet oneself with compassion in the knowledge that there is no failure in mindfulness practice, since there is nothing to succeed at 'doing' but to be aware, and even if that means only acknowledging the moment one sits down and then the moment one stands up, that is still a 'success', as Professor Mark Williams of Oxford Mindfulness Centre writes in Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p177:
"...remember that you are cultivating compassion for yourself. You will not ‘fail’. Every time you realise that you’re judging yourself, that realisation in itself is an indicator that you’ve come back to a fuller awareness – central to becoming more mindful day by day."
In the same book, Williams emphasises the role of compassion in breaking the inferiority complexes we have, p117:
"Compassion – particularly for yourself – is of overwhelming importance. It takes the fuel away from your endless, driving self-criticism. You will eventually be able to see more clearly that some things in life are less important than you had thought, and find it easier to let go of over-caring about them."
The author of Fully Present: The Science, Art, and Practice of Mindfulness (2010) relates the following about self-compassion, p62:
"Mark Leary at Duke University suggests that self-compassion has three components: kindness, mindfulness, and “awareness that you are part of the human condition.” Studies of self-compassion training among college students suggest that increasing self-compassion increases happiness. Unlike self-esteem, which is important in happiness but if too elevated can lead to narcissistic behavior, self-compassion in its extremes appears only to enhance a person’s health and well-being; there is no downside to it."
Meditation for Dummies (2006) states the following regarding the appearance of self-compassion within mindfulness meditation practice, p87:
"As you practice welcoming your experience just as it is, including your judgments and self-criticisms, you may also discover that your attitude toward yourself begins to change in subtle ways. Instead of impatience or contempt, you may begin to notice a certain self-acceptance creeping in as you become more familiar with the repetitive patterns of your mind. Hey, you may even develop a measure of compassion for yourself as you see how self-critical or distracted or frightened you can become."
This compassion for oneself, as it begins to blossom, can turn one's wandering mind into a kind of tool for amplifying one's compassionate abilities, as Professor Williams states in Mindfulness (2012):
" matter how many times your mind wanders, allow yourself on each occasion (without limit) to cultivate compassion for your mind as you bring it back to where you had intended it to be. See if it is possible to view the repeated wanderings of the mind as opportunities to nurture greater patience within yourself. In time, you may discover that this quality of kindliness towards the wandering mind brings a sense of compassion towards other aspects of your experience – that the wandering mind has been a great ally in your practice, and not the enemy you supposed it to be."
Dr Kabat-Zinn uses an idea of "working the edge" when approaching oneself with compassion in The Mindful Way Through Depression, p200:
"With intensely unpleasant feelings, we may find it helpful to use the strategy of "working the edge." ...this means bringing attention as far into the intensity of the experience as we can and then maintaining it with a light touch, as best we can, moment by moment. When the intensity begins to feel overwhelming, we can gently, in the spirit of self-compassion, shift our attention bit by bit toward some other, more stabilizing and benign focus."
And in his guided lake meditation in Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994) he encourages self-compassion relative to the Earth cradling water on it's surface, p141:
"When you have established a picture of the lake in your mind's eye, allow yourself to become one with the lake as you lie down on your back or sit in meditation, so that your energies are held by your awareness and by your openness and compassion for yourself in the same way as the lake's waters are held by the receptive and accepting basin of the earth herself. Breathing with the lake image moment by moment, feeling its body as your body, allow your mind and your heart to be open and receptive, to reflect whatever comes near."
Thich Nhat Hanh uses the example of a mother comforting her child, in Anger - Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (2001), p166:
"When anger comes up in us, we should begin to practice mindful breathing right away: “Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger.”We behave exactly like a mother: “Breathing in, I know that my child is crying. Breathing out, I will take good care of my child.”This is the practice of compassion."
And, in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (1998), he recommends the use of "mouth yoga", p70:
"There are more than three hundred muscles in our face, and when we know how to breath in and smile, these muscles can relax. This is "mouth yoga." We smile and we are able to release all of our feelings and emotions."
As compassion grows from within and spills out into one's community, it can be found to emerge automatically as a new habit of responding to difficulty, as the author of Mindfulness in Plain English (2011) states, p9:
"Meditation is called the Great Teacher. It is the cleansing crucible fire that works slowly but surely, through understanding. The greater your understanding, the more flexible and tolerant, the more compassionate you can be. You become like a perfect parent or an ideal teacher. You are ready to forgive and forget. You feel love toward others because you understand them, and you understand others because you have understood yourself. You have looked deeply inside and seen self-illusion and your own human failings, seen your own humanity and learned to forgive and to love. When you have learned compassion for yourself, compassion for others is automatic."
Thich Nhat Hanh reflects this stance in The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), p58-59:
"When your mind is liberated your heart floods with compassion: compassion for yourself, for having undergone countless sufferings because you were not yet able to relieve yourself of false views, hatred, ignorance, and anger; and compassion for others because they do not yet see and so are still imprisoned by false views, hatred, and ignorance and continue to create suffering for themselves and for others. Now you look at yourself and at others with the eyes of compassion..."
Kabat-Zinn writes in the introduction to the 15th Anniversary Edition of Full Catastrophe Living, pXXIX:
"...we nurture what is deepest and best in ourselves with kindness, self-compassion, and patience."

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Traditional Chinese Ink Painting: Plum Blossom

"Cold Mountain's full of strange sights.
Men who go there end by being scared.
Water glints and gleams in the moon,
Grasses sigh and sing in the wind.
The bare plum blooms again with snow,
Naked branches have clouds for leaves.
When it rains, the mountain shines -
In bad weather you'll not make this climb." - Zen Hermit Hanshan (9th Century AD), The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain (by Red Pine, 2000), p6.

" late Master might inadvertently begin to recite a melodious poem about plum blossoms, such as the following:
When Gautama lost his worldly eyes,
Only a single branch of plum blossoms appeared amidst the snow.
Now everywhere new branches have sprung up
And, laughing, I delight in the spring wind’s scattering petals in wild disarray." 
- Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen,  Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p763.

"One of my favorite lines in the Shoyo Roku says, “On the withered tree, a flower blooms.” When all human grasping and human need are ended, there is wisdom and compassion. This is the state of a Buddha." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (1997), p35.

A traditional Chinese blossom and bamboo painting by the author's painting teacher Jasmine Zhang, Beijing.
The symbolic role of natural scenery in ancient Chinese culture was often very different from that in the West. In England, the wilderness tends to be considered as a harsh, unforgiving and boring place if one remains there alone for longer than a day or two. In ancient China, however, the wilderness was often considered a paradise of sorts - loaded with 'True Nature' just waiting to be contemplated and used to amplify one's wholesome endeavours. Plum blossom trees were considered a key symbolic feature of such landcapes, as the author of Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 8th-14th Century (1992) states, p71:
"From very early times the Chinese, unlike Western Europeans, who considered untamed nature inimical to human society, imagined the mountains an earthly paradise, the abode of the immortals. Thus did the early fifth-century poet T’ao Ch’ien envision, in his famous fable of the Peach Blossom Spring, the blossom-covered mountain valley as an ancient utopia, free of warfare and social turmoil. After the breakup of the Han Empire, during the fourth and fifth centuries, the influence of Taoism and Buddhism led artists to turn to nature in their desire to express themselves in a spiritual domain."
The Buddhist symbolic use of plum blossom in the Far East is also referred to by a translator, Hubert Nearman, of Japanese Soto Zen Founder Master Eihei Dogen's book, Shobogenzo (2007), p57:
"The plum tree holds a particular place in Chinese culture, one that was transplanted into the culture of Japan. As the earliest blooming of all trees, it comes into flower in the latter part of winter and is therefore considered a harbinger of spring. In Buddhist contexts, it is used as a metaphor for Shakyamuni Buddha, who was considered the first to bring forth the blossoming of the Dharma, and whose blossoming has inspired others to seek and find the Way. [...] Further, the plum blossom is used as a metaphor for the udumbara flower which Shakyamuni held aloft, His eyes atwinkle. Upon seeing this, His disciple Makakashō broke out into a smile in response to his spiritual recognition of True Nature."

The natural beauty of the light coloured plum blossom contrasted against the dark, twisted and gnarled form of the tree branch has also been taught within Zen to represent the possibility for something positive to emerge out of something negative - like a spot of yang emerging from the extremes of yin. American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck writes of this symbolism in her book Everyday Zen (1997), p147:
"We like to think of ourselves as kind people. But often we’re not. When we experience ourselves as we are, then out of that death of the ego, out of that withering, the flower blooms. On a withered tree, the flower blooms — a wonderful line from Shoyo Roku. A flower blooms, not on a decorated tree, but on a withered tree."
This is also reflected in the Shobogenzo, p752:
"Abbot Busshō Hōtai of Mount Daii in Tanchou Province was a Dharma heir of Engo. He once said in verse:
For my sake as a monk, you, Tōzan, showed me the place beyond cold and hot,
And once again a dead tree brought forth a blossom."

As a result of such associations, plum blossom, in addition to it's obvious universal aesthetic value, became a common representation in ancient traditional Chinese painting. The author of Beyond Representation (1992) says the following of this theme, p302:
"During the late Southern Sung, a decline in moral values gave rise to several popular themes in painting, one of which was the three friends of the wintry season: the early-blossoming plum, harbinger of spring; the bamboo, which bends but does not break; and the pine, green throughout the harsh winter — all symbolic of moral steadfastness and friendship in adversity."
Indeed, it seems many artists - especially Buddhist ones, would seek isolation in nature, and especially plum trees in the mountains for inspiration, as stated in the book Words and Images: Chinese Poetry, Calligraphy, and Painting (1991), p509-510:
"For the young monk-recluse Shih-t’ao, the years in Hsuan-ch’eng were a time of artistic and intellectual maturation. Accompanied by his old family retainer, Ho-t’ao, he “lived with only the lonely clouds” in an old temple at the foot of the Ching-t’ing Mountains. A passionate lover of flowers and an inveterate rambler, the artist would trek countless miles in the mountains on “ plum-blossom walks” to look for ideas for painting and poetry."
Such pursuit of plum blossoms resulted in some recluses actively cultivating the trees and creating a specific methodology for viewing and contemplating them, as explained in Beyond Representation (1992), p271:
"Lin-an, the home of the famous Plum Recluse Lin Pu (967-1028), a scholar who retired to grow plum trees and raise cranes on Mount Ku in West Lake, was the land of flowering plum during the Southern Sung. Here, the aesthetic of the plum blossom was avidly cultivated. The early thirteenth-century hedonist Chang Tzu, for example, planted a grove of three hundred flowering plum trees at his retreat in 1185 and catalogued methods for their care and contemplation. Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight illustrates one of Chang Tzu’s “fitting moments” for viewing plum blossoms, focusing on a splendid single plum tree in moonlight, with angular branches that twist back upon themselves, rendered in a strong yet unaggressive round brushwork. The tree echoes the words of the late twelfth-century Southern Sung poet Yang Wan-li:
“The flowering plum in the grove is like the recluse, filled with the spirit of open space, free from the spirit of worldly dust.”"

Viewing Plum Blossoms by Moonlight by Ma Yuan (active ca. 1190-
The same book explains the origin of such paintings as the one above by relating how they were an attempt to create a visual poem - a visual representation of the artist's relatively abstract feeling - most often attempting to intuitively go beyond the everyday, and point at something deeper than what standard realism can convey, p58-60:
"The eighth-century scholar-artist Wang Wei (699?-761?), because he had “ [combined] poetry in painting and painting in poetry,” was, according to Su Shih, the ideal painter. The eleventh-century scholar Shen Kua praised Wang Wei for his marvelous use of invented imagery. “In painting flowers, [Wang Wei] mixed peach and apricot blossoms, hibiscus and lotus, and flowers [of different seasons] in the same scene. . . . When something came to mind, the hand responded intuitively; when ideas connected, painting instantly took shape.” To achieve full affective power, it was thought, a poet or painter should free himself from both subject and logic. Wang Wei even painted a snow scene with a banana tree in it, because the presence of that tree was true to what he was trying to say. The difference between amateur scholar-official painting and artisan, or professional, court painting is underscored by the attack waged by late Northern Sung scholar-critics on realism, a style commonly followed by artisan painters and looked down upon as something akin to Western kitsch or popular illustration. Su Shih, for instance, declared that “anyone who judges painting by form-likeness shows merely the insight of a child.” Scholar-official painting was thus infused with life not so much by the representation of reality as by evocation and reflection and the elicitation of associations that lie within the realm of feeling."
The author of Beyond Representation (1992) presents a wonderful example of traditional Chinese plum blossom painting, p393:
"Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge, a small hanging scroll on silk by Wang Mien (1287-1359), exemplifies Yuan dynasty ink plum painting at its best. The composition, which follows a formula found in the fourteenth-century ink plum manual by Wu T ’ai-su (ca. 1351), shows a splendid old branch of plum laden with flowers pendant from the top of the scroll. The plum tree is rendered in different calligraphic brushstrokes: the snow-covered boughs in rough “flying white” strokes, with streaks of white showing through a split brush; the curving branches in sweeping saberlike strokes; and the delicate blossoms and scattering petals in sharp outline strokes. Wang Mien stains the silk surface with a light ink wash, so that the snowy branches and silken blossoms stand out dramatically as in a moonlit scene. In the upper left is a poem composed and inscribed by the artist:
A plum tree in winter, with branches of white jade,
Stirred by a warm breeze, its scattering petals flutter like snowflakes.
In his heart, the Recluse of the Lonely Hill [Lin Pu, 967-1028] remains true to himself,
But someone has just passed the Broken Bridge, carrying with him the song of reed pipes."

Fragrant Snow at Broken Bridge - a small hanging scroll on silk by Wang Mien (1287-1359)
As part of my traditional Chinese painting classes, I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to learn some of the ancient discipline of plum blossom painting through my teacher here in Beijing, Jasmine Zhang.

Painting the branches requires a variety of ink shades, textures, detail, and of course, natural 'feel' - communicating the dynamic inclinations and tendencies of the plant. As one begins to paint, starting from the base of the branch, painting the full thickness in one stroke like calligraphy, and finishing with the twigs, it seems as if one actively 'grows' the tree - as if the branch is emerging linearly directly from one's mind, finishing with the blossom and buds appearing as a natural expression of the branches and twigs. In this sense the process has a kind of experience about it of intimately cultivating a plant - a very personal contact and interaction with the tree, or the general spirit of the tree and it's flowers. Here is the result of my first practice, which I liked more than the second piece I painted as part of the class:

I look forward to painting more traditional Chinese plum blossoms; ever encouraged by the words of ancient Zen masters such as Japanese Soto Zen Founder Master Eihei Dogen, in Shobogenzo (2007), p688:
"What is seen at that very instant of enlightenment is simply a Plum Blossom branch. What is expressed at that very moment is simply ‘a Plum Blossom bough in the snow’."