A little over 1600 years ago, the Buddhist monk Hui Yuan commissioned an artist to paint the image of Buddha's shadow on a silk scroll. This may very well be the first recorded instance of abstract art. Hui was inspired to have an artist undertake this work after hearing reports of a cave in northern Indian where Buddha's shadow could supposedly be seen flickering against the wall. This poem is the first part of an inscription that Hui Yuan wrote when the painting of Buddha's shadow was hung on the wall of a cave on Mt. Lu, where he had established his own monastic community.
Vast is the great one’s image
In essence nameless and obscure
The Buddha’s body transformed into
A shadow cast upon the wall
While sunlight glimmers on layered cliffs
And shines on the empty pavilion
In the dim cave nothing is concealed
But shrouded in gloom it’s made clearer still
Graceful as a cicada’s transformation
The disciples sit rapt and alert
Each responds differently in repose
As the shadowy image almost disappears
Almost as beautiful as the poem, Hui Yuan also wrote a short commentary or explanation of why he commissioned the painting of a shadow. Here is his explanation (as translated by Eugene Wang of Harvard University):
Even though I was enlightened by the generous teaching and immersed myself in the Buddhist sutras, every now and then I have always pictured in my mind the Buddha’s miraculous deeds to solidify my conviction. From the encounter with the itinerant monk from the Western Region, I learned about the Buddha Shadow [Image]. However, my informer was vague on this. Later, a meditation master from Kaśmīra, a vinaya monk of the south state, confirmed what I heard on the basis of his own visit to the site. I pressed them more on the matter and found that many miracles had been verified. The divine Way is unfathomable except through its lodging in images. The insight results from prolonged contemplation instead of a momentary impulse. I have thus come to believe firmly in the truthfulness of what I have been told and share the same conviction.34 I have therefore convened a group of like-minded [people], and together we shall broadcast the Buddha’s true flavor. In a worthy effort to spread the joy of inclusionary wholesome practice, we have thus made the picture.