An ordinary woman free of religion or beliefs used her brush to paint the story of her trek through the Himalayas to Tibet’s Mount Kailash. It is more than an exhibition of art. It is more than the record of a personal journey. It is a visual account of a pilgrimage that illuminated her life.
- From the Anna Cheung Collection Program
Those who have been touched by Anna Cheung’s art and personal journey are not inclined to regard her as “ordinary” at all. She exemplifies a person whose life journey is distinguished by an unquenchable passion for learning and for adventures well lived.
Born in Beijing during the Mao Era, Anna graduated secondary school at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution – a time in which post-secondary educational opportunities were almost non-existent. With limited options to choose from, she enlisted in the Air Force. During her two and a half years of military service, a friend advised her to continue developing mathematical skills quietly and on her own.
After Mao’s death, China’s universities re-opened their doors, but were hard pressed to find qualified instructors. Anna became one of the first university students to register, and soon became an instructor herself due to her high marks. She rose to the top of this career quickly and enjoyed her prestigious job for a time, but after seven years realized that there was nothing left for her to strive for. In a surprising move, she walked away from the safety and comfort of an academic post and accepted an entrylevel job with China’s Department of National Defense.
Her primary responsibility became the declassification of technologies that could be adapted for development by China’s growing international trade industries. After several years of dedicated work for her beloved country, she would leave her position with the government and with little money in her pocket, move to Hong Kong, start her own business buying and selling factories, and contribute to the creation of China’s manufacturing empire. January 1, 2000, she retired a wealthy, self-made woman. What was next for her?
She remembered a European man who had once introduced her to something called Ramtha in the early 1990’s. Anna was compelled to call her friend and ask about what he had offered her years before. After viewing a set of videos, Anna immediately booked a flight for the United States to study at RSE (Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment) in Yelm, Washington. When questioned about learning knowledge from a channeled entity, she always replies, “I don’t care who tells me these things, the information is too good.”
During her beginning instruction, she experienced an extraordinary and profound love of god, began engaging the training “full time,” and integrated the disciplines she learned into every aspect of her life. Eventually, she helped to translate books and other materials into Mandarin and became one of the RSE Hong Kong event coordinators. After several years of study at RSE, Anna also began to paint.
“I started painting by observing life. Then, through painting, I began observing and transforming myself. One’s greatest creation is ultimately one’s own individual life. Through art, I became not only the painter, but also the brush, the colors of the palette, the resultant painting, and the realities my paintings express.”
One’s greatest creation is ultimately one’s own individual life.
Anna chooses the subjects of her paintings through the inspiration of her spiritual training and at times her choices heralded an opportunity to advance her personal truth.
“I began painting Shiva and Change on June 15, 2005. [Shiva is one of the three principle gods of Hinduism. He is celebrated in India as the Destroyer for his ability to eradicate all that is imperfect.] I first painted a blue grid to depict the quantum field, but I had difficulty visualizing the subsequent images. Then, on June 30, I had a routine medical examination. An ultrasound of my pelvis revealed a large cyst on my right ovary … the gynecologist who performed the ultrasound insisted that I needed an operation … at that moment I realized I had been given an opportunity to heal myself. I decided to do what I had learned, to heal myself.
From that day forward, I visualized the blue grid over my body and ovary as I went to sleep each night, imagining that the cyst was dissolving. Every morning … for four or five hours, I focused uninterruptedly on painting Shiva. The picture was always in front of my eyes and inside of my head, until it was inside every cell of my body … it filled my home, the air, the space and environment, until I was Shiva sitting inside of the painting looking out at my own hands.
I completed my painting on July 24, and made an appointment to see the gynecologist two days later. She used ultrasound to recheck my ovaries and found nothing wrong.
I did it! I healed myself! I made a small miracle! I proved to myself that I have the power to heal! The God within me had become completely dependable and inseparable with my reality – no matter where I was and what situation I was in.”
A few years after she healed herself, Anna made the decision to have an “individual retreat” and to once again test her knowledge. In January of 2007, Anna resigned her position as the RSE Hong Kong coordinator to devote herself entirely to preparing her body, her mind and her spirit for a month long trek into Tibet that May; a pilgrimage to circumambulate Mount Kailash, the Himalayan peak Hindus consider the abode of Shiva.
"The God within me had become completely dependable and inseparable with my reality – no matter where I was and what situation I was in.”
Anna’s group of fifteen, led by Tibetan scholar, author and renowned explorer Ian Baker, met in Kathmandu, flew in a small plane to Simikot and from there trekked six days to reach the border of Tibet. Baker enjoyed Anna’s participation.
“Anna was an extraordinary presence on our journey to Mount Kailash. As we trekked through the Himalayas, she shared some of the practices she had done during intensive [RSE] retreats. She also seemed to be aware of presences and to see patterns and energies in what, to others, might appear as thin air. Anna’s resolve to push the boundary of the known in her art and life was always evident, and it made her a natural leader, coaxing people out of their comfort zones and into a larger world.”
“Mount Kailash itself had a tremendous effect on Anna, as it has for the pilgrims who have journeyed here for millennia. Anna maintained a living dialogue with Mount Kailash, opening me to seeing it as a sentient presence, and not simply as a mountain. This was and continues to be Anna’s gift: A generosity of spirit and energy that carries others along with it until they find themselves in a richer, more vibrant, and unexpected world, a world very much like that of her paintings. Anna’s dedication to making known the unknown and lifting the horizons of our common vision makes her a true visionary. It was a delight to have her on the journey to Mount Kailash and to have a glimpse of her transcendent and multidimensional perception through the magic of her paintings.”
This was and continues to be Anna’s gift: A generosity of spirit and energy that carries others along with it until they find themselves in a richer, more vibrant, and unexpected world.
A Mount Kailash pilgrimage is considered a most sacred tradition by at least four known religious groups including both Hindus and Buddhists. The path is rich with temples and prostration sites populated by monks and yogis who fulfill their lives there in devoted prayer. Anna participated heartily in opportunities that presented themselves: an audience with a shaman in Simikot, prostration in front of a Tibetan Yogi at the sky burial site during the Saga Dawa Festival, and in the temple beside Lake Manasarovar, the lighting of yak butter lamps as recommended by the shaman at Simikot. Each action brought Anna a profound experience: “The month-long pilgrimage to Tibet’s Mount Kailash affected me far more than the mere physical and mental effort needed for climbing these high altitudes. Trekking Mount Kailash required physical strength, yes, but the yearning from my soul and the strength of my will played a much more important role in the journey. For me, the true pilgrimage is not only to accomplish the route, but also to overcome my mental and spiritual limitations so that I have more freedom for ‘self liberation.’
On a peaceful night in June 2007, at an elevation of almost 20,000 feet above sea level at a campsite within the inner sanctuary of Tibet’s Mount Kailash, I had a beautiful dream in which I completed a book and had an exhibition of paintings. The dream was so clear and lucid, I knew the experience had already happened and would manifest into my life. After returning from my pilgrimage, my joy became to see how the experiences would unfold.”
Once Anna returned to Hong Kong, an exhibition of her art began to unfold magically. Even though she possessed no qualifications, no fame, no awards, and no prestige in the art world and had only begun to paint a few years earlier, the government art promotion office subsidized the hall and her first solo exhibition was scheduled for April 9 - 15, 2009.
Due to the overwhelming response, the exhibition was extended an additional four days. Over 230 people attended the opening evening, over 250 on the first full day, over 300 on the second. The large numbers of attendees continued throughout the show – something never before seen.
“When I saw someone looking at the paintings with tears in their eyes, or to see so many come again and again … they would tell me that the exhibition changed their life forever. Often people had no words to express themselves. There was so much joy in my heart to see people’s response. I did not begin painting in order to seek a new profession or seek anyone’s praise or attention. During the one and a half years of preparation for this exhibition, I have been blessed with continuing joy. Through the act of painting, I have transformed an everyday consciousness limited by time, space, conventional language and perception to a more fulfilling, visually-based consciousness in which I am absorbed by my work and become one with it.”
Throughout Anna’s show, a spectacular interplay of light, shadow and reflections of both nature and the city of Hong Kong all converged to create extraordinary photos in and around the exhibition hall.
“When I saw the grid (in the reflection from the exhibition hall to the window and outside, in my paintings, in the surrounding nature), for the first time I understood how heaven and earth, god, the one, the great wisdom, or whatever one calls it, does everything through us. It allows us to see our inseparability with all that exists and to recognize our oneness.”
In addition to her invitation to return yearly to Hong Kong’s Visual Arts Centre, she received invitations to bring her exhibition to other locations around the world, including New York City.
In contemporary Buddhist art, the Buddha Sakyamuni is depicted at his moment of enlightenment - touching and invoking the earth as his witness.
This visual of Buddha is never intended as one for worship; instead it represents the archetype of the potential within every human. For the student of ancient knowledge, painting the Buddha Sakyamuni becomes a discipline and every brushstroke becomes an intentional act of seeing oneself as “Enlightened.”
- Special thanks to Ian Baker for his comprehensive commentary of thangka in Celestial Gallery
When I began this painting, I started from ground zero. I had never painted before and I knew almost nothing about the complex art of Tibetan scroll (thangka) painting. Similarly, I had no knowledge of established painting techniques, the effects of colors on canvas, or even the kind of brushes I should use. Next to my main canvas I set up a smaller canvaswhere I experimented with different color combinations and tried out different kinds of lines before committing anything to the main canvas.
As I created this painting, I never thought about how long it would take to finish, and I savored the inner peace and focus that painting it brought to my mind. After four weeks, I started to paint the face of the Buddha. I held my breath because I was afraid that, unless I kept my hand perfectly steady, the Buddha’s eyes or eyebrows would go askew. I finished the Buddha’s face in no time with satisfactory results. This gave me much encouragement. However, I had considerable difficulty painting the details of the flowers, animals, and other beings celebrating the Buddha’s Awakening. So I stared into the Buddha’s eyes and, at that moment, heard a voice: ‘Make every stroke as if you were painting my eyes.’
My first real lesson in thangka painting was thus given to me by Buddha Sakyamuni himself. From that moment onward, even if I am only painting a blade of grass or a grain of sand, I give it the same attention and infinite joy and care as if I am painting the eyes of the Enlightened One.
After Chinese New Year in 2007, I made a decision to join a one-month pilgrimage to Tibet’s sacred Mount Kailash. Although I had a lot of travel and camping experiences, I had never gone on a multi-day trek, especially at elevations above 5,000 meters. I knew I had to prepare myself physically, mentally, and spiritually for a journey that was only a few months away.
Physically, I started to hike at least three hours every day, in addition to forty-five minutes of Tai Chi and thirty minutes of swimming. Simultaneously, I began my mental and spiritual preparation by painting the thousand arms and thousand eyes of Guan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, for up to eight hours every day.
At least twice a week, I hiked all day. My aim was to cover all the country parks and trails in Hong Kong. I had decided to take a new trail each time I went hiking and that, whenever I came to a fork in the trail, to follow the way that I had not previously taken. I often walked along small paths that were not even really trails.
My companions were the butterflies shown in this painting. On one occasion, a butterfly accompanied me for more than five hours. Sometimes it danced around me. Sometimes it waited in front of me. I realized that every time that the butterfly reappeared like this, it was because the path in front of me was difficult and I needed to pay attention. I was amazed by this experience. For the first time I had made friends with a butterfly in the woods! The experience was so beautiful that I decided to include butterflies in my painting. When I finished this painting at the end of April , I realized what both the appearance of the butterflies and my pilgrimage to Mount Kailash the following month were really about.
I realized that my journey to Tibet was an opportunity to discover Guan Yin within myself. Butterflies show us how this kind of transformation can be achieved. A simple caterpillar gorges itself and then makes a cocoon and goes to sleep. The caterpillar then begins to dream. And in its dream, it grows beautiful wings to fly freely in the sky. The caterpillar then no longer remembers that it was a caterpillar and its body begins to melt and to reshape itself according to its dream.
As human beings, we all have the same DNA that a caterpillar possesses. If a caterpillar can transform itself into a butterfly, then why shouldn’t we human beings be able to transform ourselves into gods and goddesses? The purpose of my pilgrimage was to learn this sacred art of transformation.
How has art, either the creation of it or the perception of it, influenced you?