Category Archives: Buddha

Dewdrops and Blue Flag Iris, or, Figure with Ground

Dewdrop and Four Blue Flag Iris

These are two images made with some old Japanese (Olympus, OM) lenses that are known for the quality of their out of focus rendering. They are not “photoshopped” or manipulated. This is the way the lenses (a different lens for each image) and camera made them.

“Bokeh” is a term coined in Japan to talk about the out of focus or “blurry” area of an image. The reason the word is handy is that we can talk about the characteristics of that out-of-focus quality, and acknowledge that there are various aspects to it, and put what is normally background into something like the foreground, either when we talk about it or when we work on making an image through a lens. There is a lot of talk about “bokeh” on lens geek forums, but usually about the characteristics of particular lenses, how they manifest this quality at different apertures. But at least in the English language, in my reading, I’ve never come across much on the philosophical or even spiritual aspects of this aspect photographs created with certain wide aperture lenses in certain ways

Two Dew Drops, One Blue Flag Iris

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It’s interesting that the word “bokeh” came from Japan, a traditionally Buddhist country. While modern Japan is very westernized in many ways, there is a strong aesthetic tradition that permeates much of the culture, rooted in Zen. While many Japanese people are not practicing meditators, the philosophy based on meditation and Buddhist teachings still has a strong sway even in these modern times of technology and materialism — technology that can create consumer lenses with certain characteristics. Oddly enough, I wrote a paper on the influence of Zen on Japanese culture and aesthetics in high school, in about 1974. I had forgotten about that paper and studying this topic, until sitting at the keyboard right now. Back then I didn’t have a strong understanding of Buddhism — though I studied it for that paper — and really what it means at a deep level that can permeate everything. I was just interested in it and drawn to the aesthetic, even then as a mid-teenager. Weird.

The aesthetic I’m talking about, of course, is art that places the importance of negative space as an equal, or even more important component of the composition, as the “subject” of the artwork. One famous example of this is the Enso calligraphy of Zen though of course it shows up in countless examples of oriental art. I think it’s less obvious in the Ukiyo-e prints, but the use of negative space is often very important there as well.

I think it’s also interesting that some Japanese lenses seem to have good bokeh or amazingly excellent bokeh, as part of their design, while fewer German lenses (I’m looking at you, Zeiss) might in general be better at sharpness and contrast and in general not quite drawing the out of focus areas quite as beautifully. Though there are of course exceptions; for example this image was made with a vintage Zeiss lens that surprised me in rendering such beautiful out of focus areas. I don’t know Leica lenses, but I guess they are an exception to my cultural rule.

In high school when I studied and observed the influence of Zen on culture, I really had no idea, just a hunch. And for years and years I had no idea at a deep level. After many long meditation retreats and thousand of hours sitting in meditation, I have had some understanding of what is going on here. (I am still far short of the 10,000 hours of meditation practice that some neuroscientists, I think Richard Davidson is one, say is the threshold where the brain really changes pretty drastically, and even shows unique qualities in FMRI machines. The two “happiest men in the world,” Matthieu Ricard and Mingyur Rinpoche, have been studied extensively along with some monks associated the Dalai Lama, showing that over 10,000 hours is a real change point).

I had an experience in one long meditation retreat a decade ago, which lasted for the rest of that retreat, and then has become more reliable over the decade since then, with more retreats and more practice. That experience was in seeing “emptiness,” or Shunyata as it was called in early Buddhist languages. My Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher, a real meditation master also is prone to talk about “space” as well. He once joked, “I’m not talking about made-in-India space. I’m talking about made-in-space space!” So what I experience quite a bit of the time is a shifting allegiance, shifting between what is there, and what is not as apparently sold, between a thing, a thought, an experience — and the space around it. In the case of a mental or emotional experience, which of course is our whole life, the “space around it” is a cognizance bigger than a mere thought or emotion. In that first breakthrough retreat, I conceptualized it as being like one of those figure-ground shifting images, like this one. It is two faces. It is a vase. It all depends on whether you have perceptual allegiance to the foreground or the background, the white or the black.

Figure Ground Paradox Vase Two Faces

(I should be clear that in Buddhist teachings what I’m talking about here as “space” is not merely the negative aspect of matter or thought or whatever. It is all-encompassing, and includes all. So my two-vases/face example is to me more about a shift of allegiance rather than a literal positive/negative. “Space” in this context means an allegiance to everything, the solid, and the not solid, matter and space; all of it.)

This is most important when working with the mind, and I think meditation is the best way to develop this capacity. In the west, therapy can often also facilitate the cultivation of this kind of shift, because the therapist is hopefully helping provide a bigger view beyond what we normally think of as the “solid” aspects of our cognition, perception, and emotional experience. Experiencing nature, or perhaps religion, can also be some sort of access to a sense of space, but most of our experience in the west falls short of a Buddhist understanding of space or emptiness. This capacity is extremely important when working with emotions. When the emotional experience is all there is, then we often suffer from it, or cause others to suffer. The point is that the thought or emotion is just an isolated event, with little actual substance, like a drop of dew — an isolated not-even-really-a-thing that is surrounded by space. Like the dewdrop, it has very little actual substance, and certainly no permanence. While I think art that manifests this quality is often profound in itself, it may be more significant that it is pointing to something bigger, a truth, an experience that is more important and profound than art.

I think since I’ve been meditating more seriously, over the last 15 years, my photography has changed quite a bit, but gradually. And I think it’s only more recently that I have a lot more comfort shifting between the figure and the ground, between what is there and what is not there in a conventional sense. Though in another sense, the ground represents something that is more real than what we normally take as real. That is an exploration I will leave for the reader.

Morning Glories Dawn, Edge of Fall, Impermanence

Morning Glories Late Summer Vermont

Late this summer I got obsessed with morning glories. Part of it had something to do with a new lens, a vintage macro lens that provided very smooth out of focus areas, bokeh, which worked beautifully with the blue and other colors. Also, the daily display was an ever changing kaleidoscope. Anicca, impermanence, is always somehow an engine in my photography, as I’ve explained in other posts. I had it in spades here. Each morning glory flower lasts for just a day in cool weather. It turns out that a single blossom will last into the next day if it is quite cool, and then the flowers are more purple on the second day. On the other hand if it is quite dry and warm, these soap-bubbles of blue don’t even make it through the day. And then of course the dew, and the changing light transforms everything, whether the light is coming through them or shining on them, it’s completely different.

This image though wasn’t with that vintage new-to-me lens though, but rather one of my other vintage manual prime lenses, this one wider. I did not do some of the things I normally would have, and there are some regrets about what might have been in this exposure, but really it has turned out.

So here we have it in a nutshell. Everything changes. Sometimes we have regrets. It is what it is. These blue saucers were gone by that evening, and now the vines are brown mush. But impermanence works both ways. Gone each day, but only appearing in the first place because of change. Reappearing and transforming each day because of change. The extraordinary beauty only possible and indeed more poignant because of the transience.

We fear impermanence sometimes; we want to hang onto the good and beautiful and pleasurable, and we resist the coming of the nasty. The impermanence itself though is not to be feared. It facilitates the demise of the nastiness just as surely as it enables the blossoming of the beautiful and good. Ah annica. Simply the way things are.

This photo is available as a print, printed like last week’s image on Canson Aquarelle Watercolor paper. Buy the print here.

Bee Balm Through Siberian Iris Leaves and Dew

Monarda siberian iris leaves

“People think it’s the object of attention that’s important, like an object reflected in a mirror. But it’s actually looking toward where objects are reflected that’s important, the capacity to reflect. Look at a flower. Then look at the mind that perceives the flower.”

— Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

I typed this quote in my notes in a dharma retreat the other day, a retreat with my Buddhist teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche, who is Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche’s son.

Besides having everything to do with meditation at a certain level, that quote also has everything to do with my approach to photography. It’s not that there is some thing out there, and I’m out to capture it. It’s about perception, resonance, our capacity to reflect and be aware — and aware of our awareness.

This image is available for sale and view at higher resolution on this page

Single Lady’s Slipper, and Presence

Showy Lady's slipper Vermont after rain

Unfortunately this photo only illustrates a small part of my discussion, but that’s the way photos are. They’re a very small slice of reality.

I’ve wanted to write this for a few weeks, from the time I was on my recent meditation retreat, I wanted to write about Presence, as in being present. It’s a universal capacity, and we all think we want more of it. We at least want more of the good part. It seems to be limited, and we regret that. Or we might think it’s a simple choice, that we can simply decide to be present. Not so easy.

First, our ability to be present is quite large, we could say nearly infinite. We have good senses, and the world is right here for us. The problem, I think, is in our capacity to be present, not our ability. This capacity decreases though childhood; the decrease accelerates in adolescence; by adulthood most of us are quite dull. Our senses our good, but we can’t stand to really be present. Why?

I think it’s in large part because being present is rather a double edged sword, and we learn to back away from it. Being present means being there with pain as well as beauty and joy. In fact, without a great deal of emotional maturity and equanimity, to be present would mean being overwhelmed by a lot of anxiety, fear, grief, and general suffering. I think The Buddha pretty well nailed this a long time ago. It is of course important to immediately mention the counterpoint, what we long for: being present is the only way we can experience joy, happiness, and all of this human life. It is our life, the goodness of our life.

The good news is that we can re-develop this capacity to be present. I think the main way to do it is to meditate, but also any form of emotional courage will start on this path — really facing the facts of life. (Meditation is about being present with whatever arises with equanimity. To practice it means we see our limitations in this regard very quickly, and it means we practice, like learning scales on an instrument — we practice and develop this capacity) If we develop this capacity because we are strong enough to be present, we can experience the joy and beauty of the present, while our strength and equanimity mean that we are not overwhelmed by the more challenging aspects of it.

To take the step of emotional courage, we have to turn away from numbness and the things that we do to make us numb. Then we can start to see and feel again. For some this will be very tricky. Our defenses are strong, established, automatic, and wrapped in denial.

The other thing about presence that this photo brings to mind, is that we often project a lot into the experience of presence, the experience we all have from time to time. We are present in the moment; it is just our ordinary mind encountering itself and the world. But we think that there is something special about the world at that moment, or we might even project some sense of a deity into it, as if we are feeling some divine being in that special moment we inhabit. I don’t know about that, but I do know my own mind and senses some. We might think it’s because a special person we are with has done this — but it’s just us stepping out of our cocoon to meet the world. We might feel another person has taken this away from us and blame them for our loss — but it is just us withdrawing from what we fear. We might think the presence in the moment is a quality of the wild flower in the woods in the morning sun with raindrops on it, but that flower has just invited us to step out from behind our shields.

Go ahead. Be brave.

Meditator in Temple Garden, Lumbini Nepal 2013

meditator in garden lumbini nepal

I’m freshly back from a “ten day” meditation retreat, “Vipassana,” as taught by S.N. Goenka. Though I’ve meditated promiscuously in various traditions, and studied most Buddhist meditation traditions, this is currently the technique I’m practicing in.

If you’re a meditator I’d strongly suggest doing one of these retreats to have an opportunity for some really deep practice in silence with good technique to develop concentration, awareness, and equanimity. This center is in Massachussets, but they have them all over the world. The center I went to is here. Or check out the global Vipassana website.

The retreat was long and hard, as these things are, meditating for about 17 hours a day. I applied myself to it, working really hard, and it bore fruit. By the end of 3 days I had a level of samadhi I’d never experienced before. Into that came a torrent of thoughts and memories, also pretty much unlike anything I’d felt before. I decided to place my allegience and confidence in my equanimity. That attitude was a good shift of mind. And my equanimity held up until it didn’t. By day 8 I was pretty much exhausted.

This retreat had a no-distractions rule — no pens and paper, no books, no devices — and of course no cameras. Which is lucky; I would have distracted myself with photography for sure. As it was I thought about photography a lot, definitely one of the main currents of excitements in my life.

Of course the photo above is not from this retreat. This meditator in the photo is not of that tradition, but from all appearance he was a serious practitioner. We got back from Nepal just a little over a year ago. I still have a trove of great images unpublished from that trip. This meditator sat like a rock in the bustling garden by the Maya Devi Temple (very very close to the birthplace of Buddha) the whole time we were there. We meditated on a similar tree near him for a while, but I found myself distracted — so much going on all around me, a world of energy and color. A good meditator can practice even when distracted. I did not. But I did photograph.

Not Too Tight, Not Too Loose; Barack Obama and Kandinsky; Two New Iceland Photos

This print is for sale and in more detail here.

A short, very helpful story goes like this:

A musician asked the Buddha, “How should I meditate?”

The Buddha asked, “How do you tune your instrument?”

The musican replied, “Not too tight, not too loose.”

“Just so, you should work with your mind.”

OK, so what does that mean, and why am I writing about it on a photography blog with Iceland photos featured this week?

My take on the very simple, but not so simple, instruction by the Buddha is that he was talking about how much effort to apply to mindfulness — which is the effort we exert to contact the already existing ground of awareness. The thing that makes this infinitely interesting is that the “sweet spot,” not too tight, not too loose, will always depend on what you are working with, on the nature of your own mind. Ken McLeod has compared this very aptly to riding a bicycle, which is never a static process. You lean a little bit one way, a little the other way, always getting back to balance.

So the way this relates to my photography is that in this mental balancing in meditation, it depends on a lot of things. For one thing, it depends on how much energy you are working with.

And in the composition of a photograph, hopefully there is energy. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. It can all work, whether a lot, a little, or in between, and it’s a balancing act. Just as in meditation, photographic composition can be quite paradoxical. When there is very little energy, connection with stillness — or in a photograph maybe a minimalist composition — there can actually then be a lot of energy as a result of that. In the meditation there might be some bliss in that stillness, or a lot of energy as one suddenly contacts fear of the vastness one might sense in that stillness. A quiet photograph can soar and sing. Conversely, a lot of energy in an agitated mind — or in a wild composition — can actually lose some kind of power, but not necessarily. It’s just a question of how to work with that extra energy. It takes skill and practice.

I’m pleased with the photo above, the black and white sheep separated by a ditch. It has balance; it’s quiet, but out of that some energy pushes out. In this case I had to make the quiet tones sing and become something more than a gray day. It wasn’t easy, but maybe it was easier than working with a lot of energy.

When I was young, I used to try to put a lot of energy into a composition, and it was hard. Of course I’ve always liked Van Gogh, who puts incredible energy into relatively simple compositions. But another interesting case, I’ve mentioned before, is Vasily Kandinsky. His compositions are full of incredible energy. I was drawn to them when I was young, and even more now. Now I look at them and say, “That is mind!” But it’s hard to do that, to work with a lot of energy. When I was young I tried and failed a lot. Now I inch my way toward full-blown expressions of energy, sometimes, while more often appreciating something quiet.

Barack Obama tours the Centre Pompidou modern art museum, Vassily Kandinsky on the walls

The different streams of meditation practice that have evolved since the time of the Buddha have evolved different approaches in how to deal with a lot of energy-in-mind. The subject goes far beyond the scope of this post, or my qualifications to write on such an exhaustive subject. But one approach favored by the Tibetans is very interesting: Space. Can you get in touch with space, with vastness bigger than the tangle of energy in your mind? Be bigger than the wild energy in your mind. It takes practice, but it can work. Interestingly, part of what makes the wild paintings work in the museum context is the space around them. The room is clean, open, white, relatively vast.

So, here’s another Iceland image with maybe more energy than the two sheep by the fjord. These vibrant beached fishing floats are within a vast space. Ahh, let them be there.

Beached Fishing Floats, Iceland

This print is in more detail and for sale here.

Four Theravadan Monks Photographing in Lumbini, Nepal

Four Theravada Monks Photographing at Lumbini

This is an interesting example of how an image can change over time — change from the first impression at the time of exposure, then as it settles in, and then still more as the world changes past the still moment.

My sense while making the exposure was that this was funny. These monks had just been doing some amazing chanting in Pali under the bodhi tree at Lumbini (they were part of this group). One of them, the subject of the monks’ photography, was obviously highly venerated, maybe the head of the monastery back home, somewhere in southeast Asia. Burma? So here were these renunciates, monks of the most ancient and pure lineage of Buddhism, who had just been chanting in a 2300 year old language, and they had some expensive, high-end photography gear; they were being tourists like the rest of us. And of course with the saffron color and scene, it made for a good on- the-fly composition. I guess I thought it was funny in the way nuns on a barstool might be funny.

As time passed, out of the context, it seemed less funny to me. Somehow the plain-human quality of the monks started to shine though, and of course plain humans use cameras all the time. Also the composition started to stand up on its own, apart from concept. The origional notion faded into less significance as the photo became its own thing, as they do.

Recently, the world was shaken a little bit, at least the Buddhist world, and this photo changed with it, again. Last Sunday the 1500 year old Mahabodhi temple in Bodgaya, India, was bombed in a terror attack. That is the spot where the Buddha found the enlightened quality of his mind 2500 years ago, and now it’s being bombed with IEDs to randomly harm innocent people.

Just as I, and the monks in these photo, were tourists in Lumbini, Nepal, there were people just like us, the monks and I, at Bodgaya, who could have been hurt in the bombings. A few monks were indeed injured.

This print is for sale here.

Theravada Monks Reflected in Pool, Chanting at Buddha’s Birthplace, Lumbini Nepal 2013

Theravada Monks Reflected in Pool Lumbini Nepal

This is how I saw this image, and the first photo I took in a series was essentially this shot. Luckily I took a few more, with a larger frame, because the first one of mostly reflection wasn’t good for some reason. I cropped one of the larger frames a bit to get to the first image.

These guys (and nuns) were chanting in Pali for quite a while as we walked around the garden, and still while we meditated under a tree for a while.

These monks had traveled to be here; they were tourists as well. Or more like pilgrims, and so were we. I’ll show another image of them being tourists one of these weeks.

This print is for sale here.

Dawn Incense Offering, Bauddhanath Nepal 2013

Bauddanath Dawn Incense offering

One of the most interesting parts of the process of The Photo of The Week for me is: how do I pick one?

I have thousands of photos that at least I find quite interesting, beautiful, resonant, or chock full of some other quality. So how to pick one?

Sometimes it’s easy; it’s something new, or part of a series. Sometimes it’s really hard, and that’s true both on a day when many images look good, and on a day when everything looks like mud and I’ve never made a good image in my life.

But the main thing is, it’s a photo that rings me like a bell. As they say, “It strikes me.” So sometimes I see one and it really whacks me. Sometimes it’s more of a haunting, and an image gets in my head and just keeps popping up like a song. Sometimes in my head it’s one way, and sometimes another. It’s like that ear-worm song that you keep humming that’s always different enough to keep you interested, but multifaceted enough to keep it coming back to your mind.

So with this image. I got it in my head a couple of weeks ago and I’ve been wanting to print it. I didn’t get around to printing it today, but in the new Lightroom 5 I’ve been playing with today I did manage to export it for the web.

This print is for sale here.

Pigeons and Coffee Shop, Bauddha, Nepal 2013


Well, last week I claimed to not be afraid of a bit of chaos and energy in my photos. I’ll take that a step further with this one.

In Nepal in general, I think, and especially at sacred sites, pigeons are not reviled as they are here in the states (“rats with wings,” as they call them in New York). Instead there is some attitude that sharing with them brings good fortune. Here, early this morning, the coffee shop is not open yet, but the pigeon feeding has started in earnest.

It’s hard to convey the sense of energy and happiness I feel when I’m at this place, Bauddha, Bauddhanath, Nepal, but maybe if you imagine that the pigeons are a blessing, this will begin to convey it.

This print is for sale here.