NCF Phoenix Rising Blog

I was brought into this world by my grandma Yeshe Tsuomu. Not only did she give me the name Yuan Miao (resonant with the alchemy of water), she also instilled in me a strong interest in the intangible power of hair.
Grandma loved to sing songs, but I could not understand the words. After reaching adulthood I realized that her chants included invocations to the Five Taras of the Himalayas, to the river gods of the Yarlung watershed and to the elements of earth, water, fire, wind and void. While Grandma sang her mantric chants, she would amuse herself by braiding my hair.

She would plait my hair into numerous tiny braids until they hung down in a fringe. She would grind up “fingernail herb” into a paste, and then daub it between my eyebrows, making me look like a girl fresh from a Tibetan district. These distinctive marks, along with my dark skin, made me instantly recognizable in our staff residential compound. Whenever I wanted to cut my hair short, Grandma would say that my long hair was good for covering up my “print,” which was a red birthmark on the nape of my neck. According to Grandma, the significance of my mark would someday be recognized by an advanced adept. Years later when I came to America, my mark really did prove to be my means of being “verified.”

Sometimes Grandma would braid her own hair. Even though her hair grew sparse, it was still long, and gleaming from the osmanthus oil she rubbed on it. Sometimes she would plait lots of small braids, singing and laughing like a young beauty. She would say, “When I braid your hair, it is xiufa for me. Do you know what xiufa means? It doesn’t mean I’m working on my fa [发, “hair”]; it means I’m working on fa as in fofa [佛法, Buddha-dharma].” This teaching stayed with me as I sought insight into human life and travelled about transmitting joyous wisdom.

When I reached the age of eight or nine, the Cultural Revolution broke out, and my school closed down. Grandpa was hauled away to the countryside. When we weren’t scheming to get juicy tomatoes and watermelons, my little brother and I were stirring up a ruckus. The large pair of scissors kept at home was clumsy and rusty, but I took infinite delight in trimming my brother’s hair. I would start by cutting a single lock; then I would get into creative styling. His hairstyle attracted a group of our playmates, who lined up wanting a trim from me. None of these hairstyles was like any other, and the hair length was uneven, but I was delighted to do it. We would look at each other and explode into laughter…

In the evening when our parents came back from a political study session, they heard a cry of dismay from Uncle He who lived next door, followed by his Cantonese-accented exclamation: “What have you done? It looks like the child has been chewed by a dog.” That evening two of the parents came to our house with their bedraggled children in tow, complaining to my father and mother. For the next few days I was grounded. Perhaps because of the scolding I got that day, the world has been deprived of a great hairstylist.

As I matured I acquired two nicknames—“Long Legs” and “Long Braids.” During by basketball-playing years, those flailing braids were a distraction to my opponents but equally to me. The coach said “Your height gives you an advantage, but those braids aren’t doing you any good. You should cut them.” My answer was “I won’t cut them.”

When I became a program director at Central Television, I was fashion conscious and liked to wear name brands. At the suggestion of a hairstylist who had studied in France, for a time I kept only a little pigtail at the nape of my neck, while the hair up front was combed in a bristling shag. Later upon taking up Buddhism, I became critical of my image in the mirror, and I took to heart what my Grandma had said, “Your hair will have benefits for people; you should let it grow.” So I let my hair grow out, until my daughter contracted leukemia and left this world, whereupon I cut it short and used it to cover her head when she was cremated. That evening I had a vision of her spirit cavorting and dancing with a group of white-robed immortals, ascending to the ninth level of heaven. This helped to console me in my grief. Later when I was on Lao Mountain and at other film locations, I missed her so terribly that life held no charm for me. For a time I wanted to do away with myself, but I experienced a series of encounters, each of which came at a critical moment. Many people in China and abroad have read my account of this.

Grandma passed away shortly before my daughter. One elder and one child whom I loved above all else both passed away. They had given me a great deal, but they took a great deal from me. Everything that happened in my energy field and consciousness during that period was deposited in my newly growing hair.

My hair was short when I went to America, but when I stayed several years in seclusion in the mountains of Malibu, it grew out again. Later I traveled to many places transmitting the wisdom of joyous life and meeting people of all types. Among them I met an ascetic from the Himalayas and several adepts at spiritual practices who each asked for a strand of my hair. They wanted to keep a strand of my hair in a pouch or talisman bag. Some of them even made a place for my hair on their altars. My secretary DaiDai took note of this and cleverly gathered strands fallen from my comb, collecting them in a bag. Once she said, “These strands of hair can help people. Let’s keep them in reserve.” I was struck by the similarity between her words and my Grandma’s!

According to knowledge transmitted orally in the Himalayas for thousands of years, hair can be a vehicle which carries many things. My blood carries the genes of wisdom bearers, both Tibetan and Chinese. On top of that, I have found illumination at the edge of life and death. Probably this is why there are people who treat my hair as something precious. As many people know, a chapeaux plaited from the hair of a dakini is an ecstatic vessel that belongs among the world’s storehouse of marvels. This is a material thing, yet it enshrines the spiritual attainments of one’s progenitors. It is like the Yellow River, the Yangtze or the Yarlung flowing seaward from the source.

There are others who want to grow their hair long for similar reasons. I tell them that their hair can only carry the potency of a “dharma lineage” if their spirits are loving, filled with light and open to what advanced beings have passed down through time. Hair has an inherent connection with lineage—otherwise it will just be a means of self-aggrandizement. This is all the more true in a commercialized milieu where people are impatient for short term advantage. Long hair is part of my life and I have incorporated a single strand into my shakti paintings within a layer under the painting itself. This imparts greater healing energy to colors and lines in a painting, so it can help one to connect up with universal energies. Long hair has been made by my students into Guanyin figures and stitched into lines from the Heart Sutra, to be collected by persons of affinity. I have distilled the experiences of the generations before me and my own, to visually express how we sought the Dao, cultivated it and gained realization of it. As a lineage-bearer I use my life essence as an offering to masters and sages of all eras, while at the same time offering it to all living things.

Written by Yuan Miao,
Translated by Denis Mair

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