The Art of Living Amidst Long-term Illness: The Creativity of Writer and Artist Helen Law

On the 29th of October, among the scenic greenery of Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centre (MCCC), on the outskirts of Tuen Mun district in Hong Kong, a painting exhibit was held in the presence of Ven. Chuan Deng. The paintings were drawn by Helen Law as contributions for a fundraising drive for MCCC. The date of the exhibit was particularly meaningful to her as the 29th of October was also her birthday, and the last day of her chemotherapy treatment eight years ago. Cancer left her a changed woman, but she never let her former condition define her life. She sees herself as a writer and artist who brings an intensely personal dimension to her service to the Dharma. She is also a student of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Studying methods of alleviating the side effects of treatment like chemotherapy or adopting alternative TCM altogether to treat cancer has deepened her empathy and insight into helping patients.

These days, she is a columnist for the periodical Ci xin yuan (慈心緣), which is published by the Tsz Shan Monastery Buddhist Spiritual Counselling Centre (TSMBSCC). She is also a volunteer visitor to cancer patients. Helen has been immersing herself in the Dharma for several years through self-study, reading and copying sutras, listening to Dharma talks, and, of course, painting Buddhist subjects. She has a close karmic connection to the Malaysian-born Buddhist nun, who carries on her teacher Ven. Hin Yeung’s mission of ministry and pastoral care to ill and dying patients across Hong Kong.

Image courtesy of Helen Law

Helen’s oil-on-canvas paintings might not be “professional” in the sense of having been drawn by a formally schooled hand. However, they are beautiful, full of pastel brightness and emotion, and cover an interesting variety of subjects, from landscapes to Buddhist subjects, especially Buddhist images. I was particularly struck by her piece “Transcending Life and Death” (which raised HK$30,000), her portrait of Ven. Hin Yeung, which is not for sale, and her painting of Tsz Shan Monastery’s immense Avalokiteshvara statue (HK$20,000).

“People know me as not just someone that prefers to dwell in positive emotions, to be optimistic rather than pessimistic, to see the good side in things and the silver linings,” she observed. “I am also known as a creative type. I wanted to paint, and initially, not even my partner understood how much it meant to me in not just my school days, but as an activity I could immerse myself in at home after I got colorectal cancer eight years ago.” Now it is different, however, as her partner now appreciates the transformative effect art has had on her lifestyle and recovery.  

Image courtesy of Helen Law

While Helen is a cancer survivor, itself a life transforming process, it was not illness that brought her to Ven. Hin Yeung. Rather, it was a difficult family situation which saw her father addicted to drugs and exploiting her love and hesitation in cutting off support for his destructive habit. “I felt so torn in regard to my father. I am sure most of us would feel this way. It was Ven. Hin Yeung  who gave me the courage to end my co-dependency with my father and end this toxic relationship,” she shared. Indeed, Helen has experienced both great happiness and immense difficulties in her family life, exposing her to the need for an appreciation of the full spectrum of human emotion, in all its messiness and paradoxes. One imagines that this fuels her creative drive.

“I first encountered Ven. Hin Yeung indirectly, on the screen of a television that hung over a vegetarian fast-food shop,” she told me. That was from about 2010 to 2011, a period when she was working full-time in a law firm. It was a busy office and frantic lifestyle, and takeaway or fast food was her go-to for lunch break. “I remember that television playing Venerable’s talks on a loop, and I would often just eat my lunch while watching with others, transfixed, Venerable speaking.” By a stroke of karmic luck, Ven. Hin Yeung contacted her personally in response to an email enquiry she wrote to the Centre for Spiritual Progress to Great Awakening, and soon they began talking and meeting. Helen’s encounter with cancer in 2013 and 2014, in turn, made her delve more deeply into painting, writing, and Buddhism. It also deepened her bond with Ven. Hin Yeung.

Image courtesy of Helen Law

The connected threads that brought Helen to host these paintings with the monastic that she sees as her teacher (she will formally take refuge this December under Ven. Hin Shuen, as directed by Ven. Chuan Deng) were quite remarkable. Two stories illustrate the point: after being diagnosed with and being treated for cancer, she began doing art and writing freelance as a medical writer for a Hong Kong-based newspaper. This column, centred on health and healing, was noticed by the editorial staff of Ci xin yuan: specifically, Jennifer Yim, the centre in-charge of TSMBSCC. This led to her present position as a columnist for Ci xin yuan even after her earlier column at the newspaper ended. “I am still amazed by how I put myself out there, compromising a great deal in regard to my remuneration to even get a platform. Yet by doing so, I came to be where I am now, and writing for my current publication means so much to me.”

In another striking twist, during her exhibit at MCCC, she ran into two connected people: the daughter of a woman who had undergone cancer surgery at the height of COVID restrictions in HK hospitals, and the doctor who had helped update this woman’s family about their mother’s post-surgery condition amidst the lockdown. Earlier on, this doctor had become part of her network thanks to her medical writing. This freelance work exposed her to many doctors, enabling her to quickly build a network of medical specialists and medical practitioners. “The family had been so anxious about their mother, especially after hearing no news after the designated number of hours of surgery. I was able to get this doctor to update them, and for them to encounter one another at my fundraising exhibition was truly special. Yet this was only one occasion among many. I wish to express just how grateful I am to all my friends in the medical profession that have worked with me or through me to assist cancer patients and caregivers.”

Image courtesy of Helen Law

As a self-confessed “right brainer,” Helen enjoys dreaming big. “I even related the idea of establishing something similar to MCCC. The difference between MCCC’s current circumstances and my vision, which I shared with Ven. Chuan Deng, is that our center could have a Buddhist emphasis while incorporating all kinds of cancer therapy, from art to music. It would also be somewhere in the heart of the city, and in this respect, I take inspiration from Venerable’s Centre for Spiritual Progress to Great Awakening in Kowloon Bay.” When relating her idea to Ven. Chuan Deng, the monastic was nothing but encouraging, advising her to trust her inner voice without too much second-guessing or rationalization. As she noted, “Ven. Chuan Deng believes that this is a necessary project of immense potential benefit to cancer patients, and hopes that this ‘dream’ can be realized as a common goal.”

Helen finds herself resonating deeply with this guidance. “I have always lived intuitively, without too much planning or scheming,” she told me. “Whatever unfolds in front of me in the future is not something I fuss too much over. What I am concerned is what I like to do and what I am good at doing, for myself, for others, and for the Dharma.” 

Image courtesy of Helen Law

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