'I'VE BEEN CALLED a cultural conman by my critics,' says Tan Swie Hian, painter, sculptor, calligrapher, poet, critic, translator and peace activist. 'If I wasn't a devout Buddhist, such nasty remarks would have eroded my confidence. But thankfully, I meditate, and I'm happily eating now without a care,' he says as he digs into a dish of steamed Sri Lankan crabs. Today, his works fetch hundreds of thousands of US dollars in auctions, making him one of the more recognised contemporary painters from Asia. The United Nations Museum in New York, the Academy of Fine Arts in France, the Modern Literature Museum in Beijing, the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan and the World Economic Forum in Switzerland all hold collections of his work. With his mop of wavy hair and chubby cheeks, Tan resembles a cherubic child, even though he's 61. Flexing toned calf muscles - the result of climbing 1,000 steps in the park daily while chanting Buddhist mantras - Tan says: 'Being fit is very important for my work, which can get extremely strenuous.' At last year's Venice Biennale, he used a giant brush to fill a four-storey canvas with Chinese calligraphic verse without a break. In Qingdao, on mainland China, where he's helping to build the world's first Earth Art Museum, he directed a crew of carvers as they inscribed his calligraphy across two kilometres of mountain. For the Singapore Arts Festival last year, he etched an entire poem of 140 Chinese characters with great speed and strength across a four-metre-long sheet of rice paper in under five minutes. Now, he's involved in a charity organised by Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela. South Africa's first black president, and the man credited with ending apartheid, has drawn a series of six hand gestures that represent his hopes and life experiences. Tan plans to pair images of Mandela's shackled hands - symbolising the 18 years he was imprisoned on Robben Island as a political prisoner - with a Buddhist 'No fear' hand-sign. The two hands, shaped like outstretched bird's wings, will complement Mandela's sketch of two clenched fists breaking their chains. Tan is the only Southeast Asian among 20 renowned artists invited to collaborate with Mandela. Their works, which will be auctioned for charity, will be exhibited at the World Economic Forum Summit in Davos, Switzerland, in January. Tan first burst onto the Singapore scene in 1968 as a writer, with his first collection of poetry, The Giant - a landmark achievement for modern Chinese literature in the history of Singapore and Malaysia. Tan (who is proficient in English, French, Malay and several Chinese dialects) has written 35 collections of poetry, essays, stories and criticisms, and translated works from English, French and Malay into Chinese. He earned a French Knighthood of the Order of the Arts and Letters for his translation of Samuel Beckett's works into Mandarin. It wasn't until 1973, though, that Tan made his visual arts debut, at a solo exhibition in Singapore. The same year, he experienced a spiritual awakening - a turning point in his life. As a young man, Tan always felt he was on the brink of losing himself. 'I was in my late 20s, full of ego,' he says. 'I thought myself a genius. I had no idea who I was. I was at a museum in Singapore, staring absently at a painting when, suddenly, a tingle filled my whole body. A white light consumed me and I felt transparent. Everything became clear. It was scary, but I felt connected with the universe. I later realised what I experienced was samadhi [Sanskrit for 'religious experience'].' For the next four years, Tan didn't produce a single artistic work. Instead, he kept a day job at the French embassy, studied and practised Buddhist meditation. 'I sat every day by the pool at the home of my French embassy colleague Michel Deverge, who was cultural attache, to meditate after work. Finally, Michel was fed up and threatened to terminate our friendship if I didn't paint again. He announced that he was organising a solo exhibition of my works at the Gauguin Museum in Tahiti, and told me that, by hook or by crook, I'd better produce something that could fill the empty walls by the date.' What friends considered a waste of four years was a critical process for Tan. 'Through my daily meditations, I understood that my creations before were not art but only shadows of art. To be free to create, I must let go of my desires, vanity and prejudices. The way I create art now shows it comes from a state of mind where there is total silence and all conventions are cast aside. Unfettered, everything is possible. The artist becomes a hummingbird capable of flying in all directions. His mind is a window through which the universe manifests itself in various forms, lines, colour. There's no limit to the artistic and spiritual liberty.' During the past three decades, Tan has experimented with an eclectic selection of mediums: oil, acrylic, Chinese ink, clay, enamel and stone. The self-taught artist often uses humble tools. With the bamboo brushes hawkers use to clean their woks, Tan carved a 300 squaremetre calligraphy of 262 characters on wet cement. The essay, executed over three consecutive days and nights, is now the floor of a private museum in Singapore dedicated to his work. Although Tan creates art with Chinese, Indian, Southeast Asian and western ingredients, the essence of his work is Buddhist. The result could be a staircase leading to a cosmic void, or a boy clasping an ox, indicating the individual must destroy his pride and selfishness to reach enlightenment. Like a Dharmapala (Buddhist deity of teaching) with a thousand hands, Tan juggles his eclectic talents with the smoothness of a Zen master. For Tan, art and Buddhism are escapes. 'Without spiritual life, I'd feel suffocated in Singapore,' he says. 'But now, no prison exists in my mind. So, whether in Paris or Singapore, it's the same for me. When you can share your life, which I'm doing through my art, death is meaningless.'