2 Shitao paintings

Daoist Talks (III): The Cosmos in One Dot

Mindfulness in a dot

After a lot of theory, we want to highlight practical aspects today, but first a summary of the last post:

Everything is Dao, from the smallest dot to the universe; thus, everything is imbued with Dao, especially the counterplay of yin and yang. These are not opposing forces but depend on each other, both are created in the respective other.

The task of the painter is to make these principles visible through his work. High-level painting can only be created by painters with high thoughts, and the painter spends his life working to improve his understanding of the highest principles of Dao.
He uses xieyi painting (“freehand style”), which is heavily based on calligraphy. Another key term in Daoism is wu wei (無為) – in the sense of not interfering with nature.

Daoist painting is also strongly linked to poetry and music, which in turn are firmly based on painting and all share the same principles.

The omnipresence of the Dao as the highest principle

Picasso once said: “There are painters who turn the sun into a yellow spot. But there are others who, thanks to their art and intelligence, can turn a yellow spot into the sun.”

That’s a good approach. But we don’t want to stop there, we want to go higher. Because a spot can be more than the sun. It goes light years further because it carries the entire universe within it. What sounds like esoteric ramblings is the soul of a Taoist painting. And to the extent that we succeed in recognizing more and more principles at one dot, our understanding of the whole picture naturally increases.

Mindfulness in Daoist painting begins with the smallest in a picture – and that is a dot. In the West, a dot on a paper generally has little special meaning. (Exercise: try to mentally report on a dot and see how many sentences you can get together). To talk about a dot in Chinese painting would be a very long lecture. Much of this can already be found summarized in a previous post “What a dot can do“. (Which I recommend reading to anyone interested in the subject).

Now how can a dot be more than a speck? Let us remember again that all manifestations exist only in our consciousness. No awareness of a dot = no deeper perception of a dot, right? And further still: If we say that ALL is Dao, then this must apply to the smallest dot right down to the universe.
So today let’s try to fill the dot with awareness.


As the first practice in mindfulness, we learn to see that each dot is different (in its appearance).

chinese dots

Each of these dots not only looks different visually but mostly has a different function and essence. It can appear as a powerful beginning of long calligraphy, can bridge 2 blank spaces, can form a plane (area) with other dots or lines, can be used artistically (construction, dynamics), and much more.
But first, as a first exercise, let’s put all philosophy aside and be careful to note that none of the dots (and I could show many hundreds right now) are identical. Just perceive and save mentally.

But, as pointed out before, even a dot, no matter how small it may seem, is above all a mirror of our consciousness. If we have read Buddhist scriptures, we know that Buddha (as the supreme principle of the mind) can be found in the smallest speck of dust as well as in the universe. (Quite similar to the Western concept of God).

If we now apply this specifically in painting, then the dot is indeed the smallest element in a picture – and still carries the same power as the entire picture (cosmos). How that?

dot in Chinese calligraphy

Let’s see how to get a good dot down on paper. The tip of the brush touches the paper and forms the point like a circle.
If we look at how an Enso (圓相), which stands for the cosmos, is put on paper, we immediately notice the same technique. For many centuries, and still today, Enso, like Koan (公案), has served as an object of meditation. And thus as a mirror of our level of consciousness. What I saw 20 years ago when looking at an Enso is naturally different from what I see today.

Practice: imagine you have just one line to tell the world how far you have come in your understanding of the highest principle. No colors, no corrections, no decorations – just one single line. This is an Enso. Be assured that those in the know can very well discern how deep you have come in your understanding.

That also means that I can’t expect to suddenly understand Dao after a weekend seminar. But I may have gotten a step further.
Another mindfulness exercise could be – in the spirit of Picasso’s – turning the “yellow spot into a sun”. Look at dots and try to see more than a black spot.

As already mentioned, dots in a painting are arranged in groups that can have different purposes, and accordingly, the dots also look different. But they always reflect nature and thus are an expression of the Dao. When arranged like a horse’s hoofprints, they are powerful and bring dynamic into the picture. When arranged like petals, they are still and lyrical.
Of course, the painter does not have to think about it while painting. For years he has practiced putting dots and lines correctly and in the act of painting, he practices how the brush automatically glides over the paper – as he is in a wu wei state of mind.

Shi Tao, the master of dots

Finally, for today we want to look at a few examples, all of which come from Shi Tao (石涛 1642 – 1707), probably the most important Daoist painter, who is best known for his art of setting the right dots.

2 Shitao paintings

Now, as we look at his scrolls, we cannot help but draw our attention to his points. And of course, we are struck by how humble the viewer of the landscape was portrayed, becoming one with nature.

There is a long role by Shi Tao called 10,000 Ugly Inkblots in which he showed absolute mastery. When we have learned to enjoy it, we have arrived in the world the Dao of the point 😊

details Shi Tao painting


As a little extra today, there is only a link to a new teaser. Unfortunately, the frames do not match the pictures well…

More related articles in ART THEORY



20 responses to “Daoist Talks (III): The Cosmos in One Dot”

  1. LAWET avatar

    I don’t know why, but for the last few months whenever I want to hit the like button, I could not find it. I really love all your post. Love from India.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much for your kind words! Sorry for the like button! I do not know why but this happens quite often. Have a great weekend! Love from Austria!

    2. swabby429 avatar

      Try reloading the page. This usually works for me.

  2. diespringerin avatar

    Wunderbarer Artikel. Vielen Dank!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Oh, ich habe zu danken und freue mich! 😊

  3. Mich avatar

    A brilliant essay that gives a new perspective to the common dot that comes to a full stop in today’s handwriting and typewriting, but which transforms into a spiritual experience with one or two strokes of the calligrapher’s brush.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much 😊 Yes, BTW in classical Chinese texts there are no full stops.

  4. swabby429 avatar

    The Dao seems to suggest that we not mistake metaphor in place of being. The Dao is passive without passivity. The unfolding is an unending process. But these might only be pretentious words.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Absolutely correct 😄 That is the essence. I will write more about wu wei later.

    2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Absolutely correct 😀 That’s the essence of wu wei. I will write more about it later.

      1. swabby429 avatar

        Wu Wei is a fascinating topic.

  5. Ashley avatar

    Another wonderful post. It makes me think of a sandy beach and the millions, trillions of grains of sand and in each one of those grains of sand there is a universe! Somewhere in the back of my mind, I remember reading a description of infinity as being like the time it would take a blackbird to remove every grain of sand from a beach! Your posts have this effect on me! 🤔🙋‍♂️

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thanks! I am very happy that you see it that way. The comparison with the blackbird is very good.

  6. Hangaku Gozen avatar

    Very good explanation of Daoism in art. Back in college I took a class in Zen and Taoist art: the best I can say of it is that I muddled through and got an A- in the class. (I was good at writing papers, which in retrospect is not a good way to judge a student’s mastery of a subject.) It took many hours of visiting museums and looking at their collections of East Asian art, and listening to the odd lecture about Zen and Taoism to (sort of) get what the disciplines are trying to achieve. I’m bookmarking this post so I can refer to it in the future when I visit the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco next year. Thank you!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you for your kind words! That makes me very happy. I’ll be posting a few more articles on the subject. Yes, it takes time to get used to Zen and Dao. As simple as the underlying ideas are, they are difficult (for us Westerners) to understand.

  7. Ana Daksina avatar

    My goodness, I was so fascinated by this post that I read every word and explored some of the links as well… It’s not easy to bridge the essentially wordless Way to the receiving mind! Nice, light touch! Very zen, very tao.

    Your introductory comments about the oneness of the fine arts is so right on. Statistics show that incorporating even the most basic arts into a curriculum will raise grades on all the drier subjects to an amazing degree ~ and it doesn’t matter which art it is, they all have that effect.

    In my own poetic youth, I found myself writing only haiku for nine months, under the guidance of Ty Hadman, who’s advanced to world recognized status in his field in the time since. The result was to marvelously densify all my work from then on, having learned to incorporate every vowel, consonant, image and punctuation for the message’s purposes.

    ~ Very much, I imagine, what the study of dots will do for the visual artist.

    What a wonderfully written, thought stimulating post! Well done!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much for your kind words! In my country (Austria) it is a tradition for children (in mostly more tradition-conscious families) to learn a musical instrument. The effect is clearly visible. In principle, it is always about the same thing: practicing mindfulness. In addition, of course, to practice discipline in a more pleasant way. Paying close attention to a point in painting is like paying close attention to a note in music.

      Nice to hear that you have had such wonderful experiences with your haiku.

      1. Ana Daksina avatar

        Indeed! I don’t know how it is now, but my own musical training did indeed begin with learning how to play one note correctly…

  8. etravelersclub avatar

    Thanks for this interesting article. Indeed, a dot is the first step towards an infinite line. Bliss

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! Indeed, It is all too easy for us to forget or not pay attention to a point.

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