The painting is surely not an accurate rendition of a particular scene. Yet it could not have been achieved before the artist had acquired, through accumulated apprehensions of reality, a penetrating knowledge of light, mist, the nature and structure of mountains. Perhaps it is Tao-chi himself, the tireless climber of mountains, who stands on a jutting ledge near the bottom, attended by a patient friend. An image of quiescence, he gazes not up toward the waterfall, but down into the dense vapor that flows past.
(James Cahill, Chinese Painting, ch. 10)
The Enlightening Remarks unfolds in a double movement. On the one hand, it is a stinging critique of Orthodox "methods" for which Shih-t'ao proposes his own strategy of "no-method." Concurrently, Shih-t'ao grounds the aesthetics and practice of painting in a new, transcending element, the Holistic Brushstroke. Both of these highly original concepts are means of realizing the spiritual goal of transformation, an experience which is rooted in the consciousness of the artist's authentic self. It is this self, understood as both mind and body, which employs holistic brushstrokes to attain synchronicity with the universe while using "no-method" to assert a personal vision against the limitations of Orthodox historicism. Despite its philosophical tone, Shih-t'ao's theory is closely related to his actual practice so that in cases where his concepts seem elusive, they frequently can be clarified by reference to some of his paintings.
The opening chapter of the Enlightening Remarks begins with an allusion to the Taoist myth of the age of the Uncarved Block from the Lao-tzu. The Uncarved Block symbolizes a primitive mode of existence unburdened by complex institutions, social distinctions, and dualistic thinking. It is used by Shih-t'ao here to signify an innocent state of aesthetic consciousness. In contrast to this is the history of art with its canonization of "methods," its rival ideologies, and its disunity, all of which arose when the age of the Uncarved Block degenerated into civilization. However, while the Lao-tzu advocates a return to communal life and the abandonment of knowledge, Shih- t'ao's theory seeks to recover this innocence from within the "Great Tradition" of Chinese painting. In his work, this desire to return to a pure origin is often expressed in the conscious primitivism of his style and the quality of "cho" or "artlessness" so highly prized in literati culture. He addresses the problem of historical "methods" by asserting the transcendent reality of the Holistic Brushstroke whose mysterious character has hitherto prevented artists from recognizing its fundamental existence.
In the broadest cosmological sense, the Holistic Brushstroke is later described as even beyond the dimensions of artistic practice. It has a metaphysical status which preexists painting and calligraphy and is likened to the generative role of an ancestor. The process of bringing the world into being by the marking of a single line is an early myth related to the cosmology of The Book of Changes. The legendary Sage- King Fu-hsi was often credited with drawing the first stroke from which the elements of reality emerged through a sequence of parturitions. Shih Junchang (1618-1683), a writer who was a friend of Shih-t'ao, restated this view:
The numbers all begin with one. When "one" is obtained, then the Two Primal Forces, the Four Images, and the Eight Trigrams become set. Altogether, the three-hundred and eightyfour commentaries on the lines of the Hexagrams all derive from this "one." Thus, ever since Fu-hsi drew the first line, and revealed the Changes to mankind, there was nothing more that needed to be said. This is what is meant by "in obtaining one, the ten thousand things are completed.
Described by Shih-t'ao as containing the potential to delineate all things, the Holistic Brushstroke in painting is capable of creating a landscape as a microcosm of the universe. The blank paper can be regarded as an original, undefined cosmic state which Shih-t'ao calls "Primordial Confusion ," after a Taoist creation myth. Applying the first stroke to the surface recapitulates the decisive moment of bringing things into being and setting into motion the forms of Nature.
The Holistic Brushstroke is thus a primal mark which functions both to unify and to generate. As a unifier, each Holistic Brushstroke stands forth to signify the idea of "Oneness" as the instantaneous and totalizing beat of the Tao. One can see a possible origin of this ideal in chapter 39 of the Lao-tzu where "grasping Oneness 'I enables things to achieve their full potential; without it, everything becomes subject to decay. The artist, likewise, is urged to grasp the Oneness of the Holistic Brushstroke throughout the act of painting so as to endow his work with the spiritual coherence of the universe. The Holistic Brushstroke also unifies by creating wholeness. It brings aesthetic complementarities together into a state of energized interaction which Shih-t'ao terms "fusion ," a term borrowed from The Book of Changes. For example, in the act of making a brushstroke, the duality of brush and ink interpenetrate and together unleash their power to represent form.
As a generative source, the Holistic Brushstroke may be regarded as the initial brushstroke in a sequence which ends with the completion of the painting. Here, the rhythmic element is of highest importance, for the first stroke sets into motion a series of other Holistic Brushstrokes, a dance of kinesthetic signifiers which is the movement of life. This concept of a sustained quality of a single line running throughout the work was discussed in earlier painting theory. Both the Tang critic Chang Yen-yuan (ca. 815-after 875) and the Sung critic Kuo Jo-hsü (active last half of eleventh century) praised Wang Hsien-chih for his "single-stroke calligraphy -- " and Lu Tan-wei for his "single-stroke painting ," by which they meant such a continuous rhythm in their brushwork .Shih-t'ao specifically urges that the artist be highly aware of the first stroke, inasmuch as it has a determinative effect on all those that follow.
A single brushstroke can define even that which lies beyond the borders of the universe. An infinity of brushstrokes all begin with it and are completed by it. It all depends on the artist to take control." (chap. 1)
The Holistic Brushstroke is a link between man and cosmos, for it exists hidden within the human mind, discovered by Shih-t'ao himself and now revealed to the world like the result of a religious enlightenment. This connection between a primal line and higher consciousness is indebted to Ch'an Buddhism. In Tang and Sung yü-lu, texts of "enlightening remarks," images are employed which represent the paradox of totality by a line and questions are posed by the Ch'an master to induce a mental breakthrough. Shih-t'ao's own teacher, Lü-an Pen-yueh, is recorded as having replied to the following dialogue:
One day, Hsiu-wen of the Pao-en Temple asked, "What is the character composed of a single line to which no other strokes have been added?" Lü-an answered, "Its design is already fully manifest." Hsiu-wen nodded.
In his theory, Shih-t'ao implies that the artist's recognition of the subjective mental existence of the Holistic Brushstroke is related to the apprehension of the wholeness and sufficiency of his own self apart from the distorting masks of the ancient masters. It is this discovery which is the true basis of artistic enlightenment. It becomes the means by which insignificant man, dwarfed by the magnitude of the world, can find his place in it and derive spiritual sustenance:
From a narrow point of view, even a flying Transcendent could not circumnavigate it all. But if the Holistic Brushstroke is employed to survey it, then man can participate in the nourishing transformations of Heaven and Earth. (chap. 8)
The individual brushstroke is often forefronted in Shih-t'ao's work. Some paintings, like Ten-Thousand Ugly Ink Blots, resonate between representation and a pure pattern of dots and lines on the border of abstraction. In other works, a single brushstroke in a form may be given unusually strong definition so that it stands out and becomes on its own, a highly self-referential motive. Shih-t'ao's brushwork is, in general, emphatic and impulsive, especially in his calligraphy. The viewer readily senses its unique musicality. From this temporally charged perspective, the overlay of patterns of holistic brushstrokes functions to convey the activity of universal transformation which is at the core of Shih-t'ao's goal of self-cultivation and artistic expression.
Ref: Richard E. Strassberg - Pacific Asia Museum Monographs Number 1 1989
There were no painting methods in remote antiquity, for the Uncarved Block had not yet disintegrated.
When it did, methods were established. But what is the basis of any method? They are all based on the Holistic Brushstroke.
The Holistic Brushstroke is fundamental to depicting everything in existence and is the root of all images. It is perceptible spiritually yet works mysteriously in the human mind so that my contemporaries remain unaware of it. Therefore, I, myself, established a "method" of the Holistic Brushstroke. This "method" is created out of "nomethod" to string together all other methods.
Painting is guided by the mind. Whether depicting the tapestry of landscape and people or the nature of birds, animals, and grasses and trees, or the dimensions of ponds, pavilions, towers, and terraces; if one fails to discern their natural order or is unable to represent the details of their appearance, it is because the broad rule of the Holistic Brushstroke has not been grasped. All journeys begin by traversing the shortest of distances. A single brushstroke can define even that which lies beyond the borders of the universe. An infinity of brushstrokes all begin with it and are completed by it. It only depends on the artist to take control, for if he can employ holistic brushstrokes to create a universe in miniature, then his brushwork will clearly reveal his intention.
If the wrist does not move freely, then the entire painting will seem wrong, and when a painting seems wrong it is because the movements of the wrist are uninspired. Activate it in circular motions, ease it by twisting and turning, and bring it to rest with a feeling of spaciousness. Thrust as if attacking; return as if tearing something off.
 Other translations: Chou, "Primordial Line"; Coleman, "Oneness of Brushstroke"; Contag, "Die eine, erste Linie"; Edwards, "the single stroke"; Lin, "one- stroke"; Ryckmans, "l'Unique Trait de Pinceau"; Sirén, "All-inclusive painting."
 Other translations: Coleman, "The principle of the Oneness of strokes is such that from no-method method originates, from one method, all methods harmonize"; Contag, "Zu der Linienrichtform kommt es so: aus dem Zustand, in dem es noch keine Richtform gibt, konnen sich aile anderen daran anreihen"; Lin, 'The establishment of this one stroke method creates a method out of no-method, and a method which covers all methods"; Ryckmans, "Le fondement de la règle de l'Unique Trait de Pinceau réside dans l'absence de règles qui engendre la Règle; et la Règle ainsi obtenue embrasse la multiplicitè des règles;" Sirèn, "I have established it by creating a method from no method. It pervades (includes) all other methods."
 Meng-tzu "I have heard that the disciples Tzu-hsia, Tzu-yu, and Tzu- chang each possessed an aspect of sagehood while Jan-niu, Min-tzu and Yen YUan were complete but in miniature. Which of these is preferable?" Shih-t'ao employs the term "complete but in miniature" positively, to suggest the artist's individual capacity to represent a universal scene through landscape painting.
When every movement is animated, any method can be mastered. The natural order of things will be captured and their outer appearances fully depicted. With instinctive motion, one can depict
grasses and trees,
towers, and terraces.
Whether capturing forms and their dynamic forces,
painting from life or from imagination,
expressing emotion or evoking
a particular scene;
whether clearly revealing or subtly suggesting things,
the painting is completed without the artist realizing it
yet accords completely with his mind's intention.
The Uncarved Block disintegrated so the method of the Holistic Brushstroke was established, thereby enabling all things to be depicted. Thus, I maintain, "My Tao employs Oneness to string everything together.
 Lun yii: "Confucius said, ' Shen, My Tao employs Oneness to string everything together.' Tseng-tzu responded, ' Yes.' The Master left and the disciples asked, 'What did he mean?' Tsengtzu said, 'The Master's Tao is nothing more than Loyalty and Reciprocity."' Confucius was asserting the basis of his philosophy as a moral unity. Shih-t'ao appropriates this statement to support his concept of the mystical unity of the Holistic Brushstroke as the foundation of painting.