Disarming the Image Arsenal

REMBRANT ROOSTERThe world is presented with some big questions these days when, almost exclusively, the corporate domain determines the answers and and defines the nature of globalism. More than goods, data and international finance are involved, however. This is a defining moment for humankind and the history of civilization. How can our rapidly accelerating world adopt a more compassionate and sustainable view embracing diverse ethic, cultural and religious differences, as well as commercial self-interest? How can globalism be more attentive to the interdependence of eco-systems and economies? How can we collectively cultivate a deeper sense of immediacy and connection with one another? All valid and important questions.

We need simple, down-to-earth practices to open our minds and attune our hearts to a subtler and more rewarding reality beyond simply being compulsive consumers. As a Thai monk recently put it, “What is the value of merely being born, then eating sleeping and shopping whilst awaiting death?”  Mystery Painting, the 8th Toy in the Out-of-the-Box Curriculum, engages the collective unconscious in a process of disarming our image arsenals. Working at both personal and transpersonal levels it opens a window onto the ancient dream of ancestors, but in a playful, spontateous way. It is enlightening and enriching for people from different backgrounds to experience this simple practice together.

One thing becomes clear when we engage with the art of Mystery Painting: we have entered the realm of pure imagination. In doing so with detachment we demystify this vast and often threatening territory, the middle ground between the spiritual and material realms. We see reflected in our paintings everything we fear, love, loathe and embrace as we might in dream states, not as a manufactured construct such as we witness in contemporary cinema, but in a personal, organic, unexpected way.

In Mystery Painting we explore the sacred ground of imagination. It is a practice wherein we empty our minds of thought following the flow of paint onto canvas. This emptiness has the power to merge with the heart, thus yielding an image that tells a story. The story ends in silence. Mystery Painting helps us to circumvent the rolling commentary that characterizes compulsive rational thinking in order to abide in the present moment. It helps us recognize the feeling of silence, an increasingly rare experience in today’s world.

12.1  New Paradigm Painting

 Mystery Painting is a contemplative practice that combines silent meditation with art, story creation and dialogue. It allows us to give form to the unconscious energies and impulses that direct (or misdirect) our lives. Through cultivation of intuition and imagination it allows us to better see what we care about and leave behind that which smothers and ensnares us. It is usually practiced within a group setting but can also be done as a solitary contemplative exercise.There are four stages in the process: Cloud Seeding, Cloud Watching, Cloud Riding and and a closing ritual called Cloud Ceding.

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1. With Cloud Seeding we center and calm ourselves using concentration and body wisdom practices such as quiet sitting, yoga and qigong. These kinds of exercises help us empty the mind, open the heart and become fully present in the moment.
2. There are three steps involved in Cloud Watching :

  • We inscribe flowing lines of black paint on paper or canvas following our breath, eyes closed. This is the 1st Impression.     
  • Hidden in the tangle of ‘breathlines’ of our 1st Impression we uncover a black and white cartoon. This is the 2nd Impression.          
  • The 3rd Impression is the same cartoon coloured in and elaborated with shading and decorative motifs.

3. With Cloud Riding we enter a narrative phase. We explore our painting by creating a story from it and sharing that tale with others who have been painting with us.
4. With Cloud Ceding we return our image and imagination to its source through silence in much the same way as we began. Sharing image and story with our community  is a purification and offering for peace.

IMGP6085We can describe Mystery Painting as a form of imaginative induction by which we turn a problem into symbol. It provides a means of connecting inner and outer worlds: the world of our daily life with the world of the spirit. We become more comfortable with uncertainty and confident in our ability to deal with common what passes for reality through the arts of concentration, visualization and meditation.

12.2  Benefits and Beneficiaries

In its various forms, Mystery Painting combines active and contemplative components in a simple, accessible practice. Discovering stillness through this process opens the door to more meaningful dialogue between members of different ethnic groups and religious affiliations. It can benefit any community in crisis by cultivating fertile ground for:

  • Reconciliation and wellbeing through collaborative art exercises, story creation and dialogue;
  • Originality in problem-solving through the use of intuitive, image-based learning, planning and story-creation techniques;
  • Cultivation of cross-ethnic and ecumenical ties through contemplative /creative encounters.

In a playful and potent way Mystery Painting help endangered communities (and individuals) to recognize untapped potential, recoup creative energy and renew themselves from the inside out – as has proven to be the case not only in Sri Lanka but also in Cambodia and among homeless people and immigrant women in Canada. There are many possible beneficiaries for Mystery Painting and the Peace Puzzle, a collective art encounter derived from it. These include:

  • Youth in zones of (i) conflict, (ii) post-conflict, (iii) occupation, (iii) high unemployment;
  • Youth at risk in inner city ghettos in both developed and underdeveloped world;
  • Youth affected by dementia (OCD) associated with digital and electronic media;
  • Internally displaced people and returnee migrants;
  • Survivors of domestic violence;
  • Prisoners in youth detention centres;
  • Disabled veterans consigned for life to state rehabilitation facilities;
  • Addicts / alcoholics in recovery – in conjunction with other therapeutic interventions;
  • Elderly people living isolated and alone in huge cities;
  • Clergy, teachers, healthcare, legal and social workers.

Our fifth focus group at the Monkey’s Tale Centre, featuring Mystery Painting and accompanying story creation, took place over three mornings from 12- 14th of September. Joining us were nine students from the Swami Vipulananada Institute of Aesthetic Studies and Eastern University: Fathima Najimiya, Vinoja, Maryniruba, Kalarangini, Yaseera Sakeenath, Nadira Begam, Jacinth Sharmali, Gaffar Husna and Jesudasan Johnson. Vigneshwary provided us with tea, sweets and savouries sparking our flagging energy while, our translator, Madame Rajes Kandiah, helped make the whole thing make sense, at least to me. She even found time to produce a painting and story herself without compromising the translation of participant narrations. What follows below is a selection of stories from these translations as best I could understand and render them, as well as the images that inspired the stories.

12.3  Parables of the Painted Word

Can’t Eat Phooey
(painting and story by Maryniruba )      

IMGP6129Geetha, a poor peasant’s daughter, and Kingsley, a kingfisher, grew up together from birth. For many years they were the closest of friends but as time went by they drifted apart. Up till then they had shared everything they possessed, meager as it was, but now each had problems too big to share. Out of kindness to one another they kept them secret for as long as possible. Then it was no longer possible.

Kingsley’s problem was fish. The ponds were drying up one by one so that over the years there was no water left anywhere. And for Priya the problem was similar. Her father’s small swathe of bone dry land no longer produced anything but sticks and stones and lizards. How was anyone going to eat that?

One evening Kingley sat alone in a leafless tree and cried out to the setting sun. “Oh please don’t rise again tomorrow, Father Sun, I can’t bear one more day of this.” Sitting under the tree was Priya praying for the same thing. She heard Kingsley’s cry of anguish and a tear rolled down her cheek and fell to the ground. Then she remembered. There was water! And a fish! But just one: in her fish bowl.

“Kingsley! Don’t despair! I have a fish for you.” But Kingsley would have none of it for he knew how much Geetha doted on Phooey, the little goldfish. He’d eat paripoo and rice before he’d eat Phooey. So that didn’t settle the matter but at least they started to talk about their problems and admitted they were going through a bit of a rough patch. Somehow they’d find a way, together.

“We mustn’t let the end of the world spoil our lifelong friendship,” Geetha said. And Kingsley laughed aloud as the sun plunged beneath the blood red horizon.

“There’s a star rising,” said Geetha, pointing north. “Let’s make a wish.”                                                                                                                                 

Get Back Raj
(painting and story by  Fathima Najimiya)

 Raj had a wife and three kids he loved very much but, day-by-day, he grew more desperate since he could not find work to support them. He began to feel impotent and useless. It got so bad he couldn’t face them anymore. Worse, he couldn’t face himself. One day he set off in the morning to look for work but a weird compulsion came over him. With the last few rupees he possessed he jumped the first bus he saw and rode as far away as he could get from the ones he loved most in this world.

In another town, in another life, he found a job with a fleabag circus taking care of a tired old elephant named Jungala Mama. At last he found someone he could talk to. Jungala had big floppy ears and took in everything he said without a word of judgment. He told the elephant everything as he fed and bathed her, freeing her from her chains once a day to go for a walk down by the river where she loved to bathe and bask in the sun.

IMGP6146As they walked and talked their way through the forest Raj confessed how ashamed he felt for abandoning his family – so ashamed he wanted to find a way to disappear forever from this world. That wasn’t as easy as it seemed, he said, but at least he could hide behind an elephant until he found a better place to disappear. That is, if Jungala didn’t mind him hiding there.

Jungala didn’t mind. She noticed how Raj took comfort in caring for her, as though she was his little child, or his wife perhaps. She couldn’t imagine that, though he was a kind and loving man compared to most she’d met. She put up with his whining about wanting to disappear from the world and let him come and go, taking care of her as he wished. She knew she could crumple him with one swing of her trunk if he began to get on her nerves too much, but she didn’t do that. She was getting very old and had been enslaved her whole life to the whims of cruel masters all of them human, from mahouts to monks to maharajahs. Raj was gift from heaven sent for her last days on earth.

So when Raj told her one day that the worst of all possible lives to be destined to live on earth was that of a human being and how he wished just for a moment he were an elephant like her, Jungala stopped dead in her tracks, raised her trunk to the sky, considered her options, then gave Raj a blast in the ear that deafened him for the next two days. When his hearing returned the translation was clear.

“Are you out of your mind! Elephants are chained and tortured and mocked and belittled by humans every single day of their lives, while humans are free to do whatever they want in the world.”

A small voice from out of nowhere chimed in. “And to it! They do whatever they want to our world!” A yellow bird no bigger than a buttercup had landed on Jungula’s trunk and was eavesdropping on their conversation. “They just burned down the forest where I live and I lost everything. My family. Three little ones. My loving husband. Such a beautiful nest we had! Split-level. Verandas. Terraces. In such a beautiful tamarind tree by a lily pond. So peaceful.” She trilled mindlessly away as Raj began to grow faint.

His heart beat faster. He began to sob. He had to walk away. That night he dreamed of his family. They were all there in the dream. The little one was crying for him. Thatha. Thatha. Next morning he got up, bathed in the river and said goodbye to Jungala. The little bird had made a nest in her ear. Jungala Mama shrugged and winked a very slow wink. She looked into Raj’s eyes with the gentle gaze of an old grandmother. There was a smile in there somewhere.

“We all need to find a home somewhere in this world,” she seemed to be saying, “and you already have one, Raj. Get back where you belong.”                    

No More Waiting
(painting and story by Jesuthasan Johnson)

Thasan lived alone. He neither liked nor disliked living alone, he thought, or maybe he liked and disliked both equally. It depended very much on the day. To be honest, the question of living itself perplexed him more deeply, likes and dislikes aside. Some days he very much enjoyed his life alone. He could dream without interruption, and that is what he liked most of all. For between all the business of thoughts coming and going there was a luminous empty space, untrammeled by intention or desire, and there in that space he became aware of someone watching him. He wasn’t quite sure who exactly was watching, but he wanted to know that who more than anyone else.

IMGP6119Then there were days he could not abide himself, his restlessness, his philosophical philandering. He wanted to flee the mysterious who abiding between thoughts and get as far away as possible from abstraction. He wanted to find someone to talk to, to walk with, someone full-fleshed to sleep next to him through the nightfall of the world as it disappeared in senility, someone to have and to hold as he came and went from this body he to which he felt he’d been temporarily, and somewhat arbitrarily, assigned. He wanted the assurance of another that he wasn’t hallucinating all the places where, for better or worse, his mind brought him, if he let it. Sometimes, it seemed, he had no choice but to let it take him wherever it pleased. Places of darkness. Places of light. He was young and confused. He wanted it to know the whole territory so that someday he might chose the best way for himself.

Then he met Jesus. Yes, Jesus, on the cross breathing his last. Jesus had only one word for Thasan: “Wait”. That’s all. Wait. There will be someone for you, he thought he heard him murmur, but he was so far gone in his suffering at that point he couldn’t be sure whether that’s what Jesus said or not. So he prayed and asked again, “Did you say there would be someone, Lord?” And the Lord said, “Wait”.

Thasan eventually discovered the main thing about waiting: when you wait that’s all you do. You’re just waiting no matter how much you try to distract yourself. But he also discovered that when you wait well, with perfect concentration on every moment, you begin to surface from the dream you mistook for your life.

While waiting like this one day, Thasan woke up. It was late in the year. Autumn. There was one leaf left on the tree where he leaned pondering away his confusion. A butterfly deftly alighted upon that leaf. The leaf broke off, spiralling softly toward the ground. The butterfly ascended, spiralling aloft into the blue.

After that there was no more waiting.             

Daisy Does Her Duty
(painting and story by Rajes Kandiah)

 Daisy Paravai was an old duck sitting out on a rocky ledge in the middle of nowhere getting ready to lay her last egg. There would be no more after this one she was sure. Too old to ovulate, they said. Of course they’d been saying that since she turned forty and she was now eighty-three. Daisy was a bit different, as ducks go.

Her time was close and she was getting nervous. She looked around. There was no place to lay the egg, not comfortably anyway, for this was the far end of the world and it was barren: not a shade tree where she could make a nest, nor even a leaf to speak of. Pitiful place to bring new life into the world, she thought, but one thing’s sure: they sure need could use some life around here!

When nature calls, Daisy does her duty!

She waddled up and down the ledge, scrambling restlessly this way and that, letting her feet take her from one ideal nesting spot to the next but really, there was nothing, just her mad dance. She was way out in the middle of nowhere on a desolate outcropping pivoted starkly against sky and sea, and she was getting hysterical. Grandmother ducks call this condition ‘egg angst’, not unrelated to menopause but not the same either. It was indeed a classic case of egg angst. Her time was nigh, this was her final act, and there she was with no place to bring her last little one into the world.

A hot dry wind gusted in from the interior bringing with it an unexpected gift: a Styrofoam box someone had used for their rice and curry and then tossed by the roadside.
“Shame on them!” Daisy thought, “but thanks just the same. Just what I’m looking for!”
She did a pirouette or two around the box and sat down in it before it could blow away again. Then she fell asleep.

IMGP6193In the middle of the night she woke up feeling like she was going to pass out from the pain in her belly. The world spun round with stars falling around her like a cascade of fireworks. She blacked out and when she came to, behold…an egg. She stood up to admire it, feeble but trembling with a great sense of relief.
“Odd,” she thought, “it’s green. They’re usually a cream color, but not this one. Maybe I can’t see properly in this light but it looks green. I’ll take that as a good sign!” and sat down on the egg resuming her maternal duty.

Around daybreak she felt a second earthquake in her tummy and, lo… another egg appeared. She stood up to take a look in a state of utter bewilderment. This time the egg was brown.
“Brown!” she thought. “Well, I guess that’s OK. At least it’s not purple. And I have a feeling these little these chicks of mine are not going to be a big problem to raise.”
After a few weeks of brooding, out of the green egg came a little sapling full fledged with green leaves. Out of the brown egg spilled a handful of rich dark loam.

“What does this all mean?” Daisy mused as she pulled herself together one morning after Tree and Earth arrived. “And what will I do with these kids? I’ve never had two quite the likes of these!”
She gazed around and saw nothing but a barren world. She may have had the last tree left in creation. Her hysteria hit a high note.
“What will I do? What will I do? What will I do?” She quacked around all day in a daze, her heart filling, almost exploding, with sadness and joy. Toward dusk her head began to spin and the cramps started all over again in her belly.“Oh my goodness!” she thought, “not another one! I hope it’s not the Big Purple.”

This time the cramp wasn’t an egg at all, but something like a prayer. She took the little sapling from one egg and planted it in the rich dark soil of the other in a sheltered niche on the cove, out of the wind and open to the sky. She quacked happily and flailed about, as the sun set yet again in the great blue sea of eternity.

After the sun set and just as the moon rose Daisy fell quiet and lowered her gaze, her heart full with humility but also with pride. She looked up in awe at the little baby tree. Reaching out she held it gently  between her scrawny old duck wings and kissed it’s slender trunk. Then she bent over and laid her head on the beautiful black loam.

“Grow,” she whispered to them both. “Grow!” She began to experience hallucinations. She was happy, well overwhelmed really, with the sadness of parting. The Queen of Night, robed in purple light, was calling her home.

“I must go, my lovelies,” she whispered, “and you must grow. It’s the way of our world.”

12.3  The Art of Mystery Painting in Community Development

Focus Group No. 5 – MONKEY’S TALE CENTRE Batticaloa

Facilitators: E. Kularaj, K. Thevakanthan,
Translator: Rajes Kandiah
Cook: Vigneshwary
Guest: Paul Hogan

Participants: 9 students from Swami Vipulananada Institute of Aesthetic Studies / Eastern University

1st Day Saturday, 12 September – Ist / 2nd Impression Mystery Painting – 9 AM – 12:30 PM
2nd Day Sunday, 13 September – Completion of the 2nd Impressions – 9 AM – 04:00 PM
3rd Day, Monday, 14 September – Story Creation – 9 AM -1:00 PM

Mystery Painting (1st Day – September 12)

  • Painting hall, ritual areas front and back prepared before students arrive
  • Kurumpeti Circle and Ticklurgy at 9 AM in front of Monkey’s Tale Centre (MTC)
  • Water Labyrinth walk in back of MTC
  • Introduction to Mystery Painting by Master Kuluraj in painting hall
  • With sound of bell painting of 1st impressions begins in silence
  • Painting hall monitors help students when required
  • Tea break 11:00 AM for 15 minutes
  • 2nd impressions consolidated as images to be developed in subsequent session
  • Closing bell and period of silent reflection for 5 minutes at 12:55 PM

Mystery Painting (2nd Day – September 13)

  • Kurumpeti Circle /Ticklurgy under mango tree in front of MTC – 9 AM
  • Air Labyrinth walk in back of MTC
  • Student continue to refine work from previous day
  • Painting continues in designated painting around MTC front and back
  • Tea break at 11:00 AM for 15 minutes
  • Butterfly Yoga (Part I and Part II) in back yard ritual area 11:15 -11:30 PM
  • Painting continues – black / white outlines only till complete
  • Colour backgrounds in one colour selected from a palette of four colours
  • Lunch -1 PM – 1:45 PM
  • Completion of paintings
  • 3:30 closing with period of silent reflection for 5 minutes

 Mystery Painting (3nd Day – September 14)

  •  Kurumpeti Circle / Ticklurgy under mango tree in front of MTC – 9AMAir Labyrinth walk in back of MTC
  • Participants assemble for story creation in back yard ritual area
  • One by one each participant tells her/his tale inspired by their painting
  • A scribe writes the stories down
  • 11:00 AM tea break for 15 minutes
  • 11:15 discussion on the overall experience of Mystery Painting
  • 1:00 closing with period of silent reflection for 5 minutes.



This is a completely different approach to art from what we learn at the Vipulananda Institute of Aesthetic Studies. There we are taught to know. Here we are taught to not know.
 Yaseera Sakeenath

 This is definitely an experience that more art students should have. It is a gentle and indirect way to find out what other people are thinking – people quite different from oneself – without being intrusive or confrontational.
Fatima Najimiya                                                                                                                                         

There is tremendous freedom in creating these images, an experience which is, by turn, exhilarating and threatening. In school it is all a matter of control. But here it is a matter of imagination. In as much as the imagination is free, there is no control.
Jesuthasan Johnson

Everyone can do this. It’s easy. And everyone can experience that s/he is an artist. This is what we want to evoke in students. This is the main thing: the sense of creativity. There’s really no mystery to Mystery Painting at all.
Gaffar Huzna   

Vignesh makes very good tea and her short eats are superb!

Chiang Mai
October 16, 2015






Written by Paul Hogan