Attaining Peace Via
 Artistic Creation

Although Li Dao-yuan has lost one forearm and can’t move on his own, he is grateful he can still breathe. He says that if he can breathe, he can draw and read—two things he greatly enjoys. By incorporating the Buddha’s teachings into his drawings, he’s found the peace and stability he needs in life.

Li draws in a corner of the living room at his home. The Buddhist images on the wall are his creations.

The drawings in front of us were neat, orderly, and precise, like architectural drawings. Li Dao-yuan (李道源), 52, said that he had created these pictures with sharp-pointed technical pens. He focuses on a small space at a time—one to five centimeters, slowly fleshing out what he wants to create dot by dot, line by line, segment by segment. A drawing on a piece of paper 10.1 x 14.3 inches takes more than two weeks to finish.

His meticulously, deftly rendered drawings have attracted even professional interest. When Foguang Cultural Enterprise, a publishing house, was creating a series of comic books on one hundred eminent Buddhist monks, he was commissioned to illustrate the issue featuring Master Seng You (僧祐, 445–518). The book was published in 2000.

The comic book is just one of many works he has created. He fell ill at age 15, after which he and his family had few visitors. That left him free to lose himself in his art. When he finishes a drawing, he carefully puts it away, so that even his family does not know how many pieces of art he has created.

“Tree of Nirvana.”

Unexpected visitors

Li’s life remained simple, quiet, and secluded until one day in 2009, when a small group of Tzu Chi volunteers showed up on his doorstep. The foundation had launched a scholarship program for disadvantaged students, and the volunteers were visiting the Li family because his niece was in school and had been referred to Tzu Chi for help.

Li’s father welcomed the group of visitors into the house. After the volunteers had finished asking about Li’s niece, the old man mentioned that he had a son whom he hoped the volunteers could also visit. With the old man’s permission, the visitors entered Li’s room.

“Hello, we’re Tzu Chi volunteers,” said Chen Wan-yu (陳婉愉) cheerfully, as she greeted Li. He felt that her warm greeting was like a ray of sunshine that brightened up his entire room; joy surged from the bottom of his heart.

He liked the volunteers and enjoyed their visit, but he didn’t dare hope that they would ever visit again. He had been sick for over 30 years, and his illness had worn him out and dragged his family down with him. He felt he was a burden that people would rather avoid if they could help it. Why would these Tzu Chi volunteers feel any different?

That’s why he was greatly surprised when Chen and several other volunteers visited him again just a few days later. With a big smile on his face, Li maneuvered his electric wheelchair from his bedroom to the living room to receive the visitors. Seven or eight volunteers had packed the room, which was no more than 70 square feet. The usually quiet room was alive with conversation and activity.

“Though my mobility is limited and I have only one hand, I’m grateful I can still breathe,” he said to the visitors. Despite his physical disabilities, he didn’t feel that life had failed him. As long as he can still breathe, he can draw and read—two things he greatly enjoys. Drawing for him is as essential as eating—he feels spiritually full as long as he can draw. When he draws, he is living out his dream.

Although Li seemed to have found his Shangri-La through his art, the volunteers felt that he was hiding an inner pain unbeknownst to others. They hoped to encourage him to step out of his seclusion, so they listed him as a care recipient. In addition to providing him with monthly financial support, they began visiting him regularly. When his wheelchair needed repair or new batteries, they helped out with that too.

More than anything else, the volunteers looked forward to looking at Li’s artwork whenever they visited the family. A volunteer once asked out of curiosity, “Why are there never any people in your drawings?” Li answered with a smile that he had noticed the same thing after he had been drawing for three or four years, but he himself couldn’t pinpoint the reason. 

“If I should decide to draw or paint people in the future, it would most likely be my mother.” Li said his mother, who was almost 80 years old, had suffered from sleep deprivation for a long time because she had to turn him over in bed and massage him every two or three hours at night. She also had to help him do physical therapy during the day so he would not be afflicted with bedsores. His gratitude to his mom was obvious as he talked about her. 

Li drew this illustration for a biography of Dharma Master Xuan Zang (602‡664), famous for his 17-year overland journey from China to India to seek Buddhist sutras. Li encourages himself to be as persevering as that eminent monk. Though in the end this illustration was not used by the publisher, Li says that looking at it fills him with emotion.

Stricken by illness

With each visit, the volunteers learned more and more about Li and his life story.

When he was 15, Li and his oldest sister went to a temple fair in their aunt’s village during the Chinese New Year holiday. Driving their motor scooter home, Li began to feel intense pain in his left hand, followed by soreness and numbness. When they had arrived back home, he found that he had no strength to walk into the house.

His father immediately took him to a hospital. Li stayed there for four days, but the doctors couldn’t determine what was wrong with him. In the end, they suspected meningitis and suggested performing a spinal tap for confirmation.

Li’s grandfather voiced strong opposition when he learned about the doctors’ suggestion. He was worried that his grandson would become paralyzed if the procedure went wrong—it involved the spine after all. Since Li was conscious and lucid and displayed no disconcerting symptoms, the family decided to take him home to recuperate.

Soon the winter break was over and school began, but while his classmates went back to school, Li continued to be bedridden. Even worse, he had developed bad bedsores.

His mother cleaned and dressed the ulcers every day, but the lesions showed no signs of healing. She cried helplessly, disconcerted by the look of the deep, black sores. She tried every herb or home remedy that was supposed to be effective on the sores, and yet the wounds were slow to heal.

Li’s father, at his wit’s end, turned to divine guidance. He visited temple after temple to seek help from their gods. Based on their directives, he pasted calligraphic charms on the lintel of every door, and he gave his son magical water that had been blessed by the gods to drink.

Lying on his bed all day, Li’s thoughts sometimes turned to his childhood. His father had foregone farming to open a store selling electric appliances and music albums. Business was brisk and he made a lot of money. He did so well that he was able to afford piano lessons for all of his five children. Li’s left hand used to be able to reach across ten keys on a piano keyboard, but now it hadn’t the strength left to even hit a single key.

Some time later, someone introduced the family to a hospital that specialized in treating uncommon disorders. Li checked into the hospital, but the doctors there couldn’t identify the cause for his illness either. They could only suggest he undergo rehabilitation at the hospital. Li’s mother said to him, “This hospital has rehabilitation equipment. If you stay here and work hard on your physical therapy, you might be able to get well enough to return to school next year.” Li derived strength from his mother’s words. He believed he would recover soon.

After he had stayed in the hospital for 11 months, his feet became strong enough to enable him to walk with crutches. Since Chinese New Year was approaching and his family thought that staying in a hospital during the holiday would induce bad luck, they checked him out.

Li uses his mouth to uncap a technical pen to draw. Being disabled, he uses his mouth to do many things a physically sound person can do with his or her hands.

More rehabilitation, reading, and drawing

More than a year had passed since he had fallen ill, and most of his classmates had left town for other cities to attend high school. Li felt very lonely and was understandably despondent. Day in and day out, he did rehabilitation exercises on the second-floor balcony at his home, looking out at the serene scenery in front of him. Unable to leave the confines of his home, he felt like a prisoner.

With no one to pour out his feelings to, he began talking to himself: “You must figure a way out for yourself. Do you want to spend your life like this?”

Refusing to bow to fate, he began reading all kinds of books and magazines to enrich his mind. He taught himself Japanese and eventually acquired a collection of several thousand Japanese books, most of which were about landscape architecture, art, and painting. Among his collection were Japanese cartoon books, which never failed to enthrall him. He especially liked comics drawn with technical pens.

He liked technical pen drawing so much that he devoured books on the subject. He dreamed of owning and using his own set of technical pens.

His father’s business had dropped off as the years went by, and he eventually had to close the store. Without their main source of income, the family began to struggle financially. Li’s oldest sister was a piano teacher, and she worked very hard to meet the family’s expenses and pay Li’s medical bills. Things being the way they were, Li couldn’t bring himself to ask for a set of expensive technical pens for himself.

Then, one day out of the blue, a phone call from a former classmate of his renewed Li’s desire. “I’m selling technical pens imported from Japan. Are you interested in buying some?” the classmate asked.

A complete set, with a full complement of sizes, cost 1,500 Taiwanese dollars (US$30). That was not a petty sum back then, over 30 years ago, but Li couldn’t resist his desire any more. “I’d like to buy a set as a favor for my classmate,” he said to his father. Much to his surprise, his dad agreed immediately. Li’s oldest sister, who had always doted on him, paid for the pens.

From that time on, along with physical therapy and reading, drawing became an essential part of Li’s life. He would draw temples, old buildings, flowers, and trees from photographs. The more he drew, the more his talent flourished. His life, which used to be monotonous, became fuller and much more interesting.

Li’s oldest sister became a Buddhist after she got married, following in the footsteps of her mother-in-law. Under the influence of his sister, Li, then 27, took refuge with a Buddhist monk and diligently studied Buddhist scriptures. It was at this time that he began drawing or painting Buddhist images too.

When he was younger, Li photographed scenery when he occasionally went out, and he drew from the photos he took. Now due to his declining physical strength, he rarely goes out, but his creative power remains as ebullient as ever.

More challenges

Another big challenge confronted Li when he was 30. The doctors diagnosed him with a condition called arterial vascular malformation. Li was born with some abnormally tangled or enlarged blood vessels. These had a higher rate of bleeding than normal vessels, which left Li paralyzed again. As a countermeasure, the doctors suggested amputating Li’s left forearm, even though the surgery might put his life in danger. Li and his mother burst out crying in each other’s arms upon hearing the bad news. After much anguish, they decided not to have the surgery.

Then, many years later, when Li was 47, the abnormal growths began protruding out of the skin of his left forearm. At first they were like a cluster of grapes, but two weeks later they were as big as eggs and exuded pus and blood. As the doctors were preparing to amputate Li’s arm, they discovered he had abdominal aortic dissection, which they had to take care of before they could carry out the amputation. After Li’s arm was amputated, he suffered a postoperative complication, and he had to go into the operating room again. He ended up having a total of eight operations.

“Mom, I’ve caused you so much suffering, I’m so sorry,” Li said to his mother. She answered lightly, “I brought you into this world, so it’s my responsibility to take good care of you even if it means I have to work like an ox.”

To take care of him, this admirable mother sleeps on a small bed next to his so that it will be easier to turn him over at regular intervals. She has done that for over 30 years.

After Li lost his left hand, he had difficulty drawing with his atrophied right hand. He was only able to form a loose fist, but a technical pen is relatively slender and he couldn’t hold it firmly enough to draw it across the paper. His mother came up with the idea of wrapping a pen with twine to increase its girth. That solved the problem and enabled Li to draw again. 


Li is pictured here with his mother (right) and Tzu Chi volunteer Chen Wan-yu. Since they entered Li’s life seven years ago, Chen and other volunteers have never stopped caring for him.





His first exhibition

When Li was 44, the year Tzu Chi volunteers entered his life, he was sent to the ICU with a collapsed lung, and he subsequently had a tracheostomy. The next year, he was hospitalized again to have his tracheostomy tube removed, and Mother’s Day happened to fall during his hospital stay. On that day, Chen Wan-yu and several other volunteers showed up in Li’s ward with presents. They gave the gifts to his mom and wished her “Happy Mother’s Day” on his behalf, since he couldn’t speak due to the tracheostomy. Then they sang her a song about a mother’s love, about how a mother makes a lot of sacrifices to raise her children.

Li was surprised when he heard the song. It was his mom’s favorite—but how did the volunteers know about it?

All kinds of emotions surged through Li’s mother as she listened to the song, and tears coursed down her cheeks nonstop. She recalled her sadness and fatigue over the long years of caring for her beloved son, but she felt comforted and affirmed by the volunteers’ singing. The volunteers stepped forward and held her in a big hug. Li was very grateful and touched by the volunteers’ mindfulness.

His weight dropped drastically to 37 kilograms (82 lbs) after his amputation surgery and other operations. During his hospital stay, which lasted for half a year, he was unable to draw and he became very depressed. Chen Wan-yu asked many volunteers to visit him and cheer him up. She also invited him to take part in an exhibition that Tzu Chi was organizing to showcase works of art created by its care recipients.

In 2015, Li, accompanied by his family, went to the exhibition venue at the Tzu Chi Taichung office. He couldn’t hide his excitement. “These drawings have been kept in a storeroom in our house for decades. Without the help of Tzu Chi, they probably would never have been seen by the public. This exhibit also gives me a chance to get out of my home and meet people.” His family said, “This is the best gift for Dao-yuan’s 50th birthday.”

Chen Wan-yu remarked, “We admire Dao-yuan for being a warrior for life. We can all learn a lot from him. That’s why we treat him like a gem.”

Li explained the importance of artistic creation to him. He said that though his illness had led him to Buddhism and that he had studied many scriptures, he couldn’t find peace of mind through Buddhism when he was having a close brush with death. It was only by incorporating the Buddha’s teachings into his drawings that he found the peace and stability he needed in his life.

His favorite work is “Tree of Nirvana.” The composition of this drawing is simple, an inconspicuous tree that could be easily overlooked by anyone. Li said that the tree was like him—even though no one might have noticed it, it quietly displayed its vitality and zest for life.

Despite the challenges he has encountered in his life, Li has never lost his smile. “I’ve developed a philosophical attitude towards life. Even if a million dollars appeared before me, I’d remain calm and unmoved. It’d be beyond me to even lean down and reach out to pick up the money, so how would I get my hands on it?”

His imagination is given free rein as he draws. Through his art, he has broken free of his immobility. Li thanks his family and Tzu Chi volunteers for valuing him like a treasure and helping him to shine, however feeble his light may be. He hopes that viewers of his drawings can see the bright side and the beauty of life in his artwork and derive strength from it.


With the help of a computer, Li can now enlarge a picture and print it out to draw from. He also stays in touch with the outside world via the internet.






November 2017