Category Archives: Nepal

Hope, Fear, and Photography in Pandemic Time

Couple at Boudhanath, Nepal
Couple at Boudhanath Stupa, 2013

In the Tibetan Buddhist context in which I practice, hope and fear are considered to be essentially two sides of the same coin. I don’t know the original Pali Canon teachings well enough to know if the teaching goes all the way back through Buddhist history. I assume so.

From the point of view of ego clinging, hope and fear are so closely related they might as well be the same thing.

To be clear, this is not about the kind of hope that might be connected with a larger view of compassion:
May all beings have happiness and the root of happiness
May all beings be free of suffering and its causes

Compared to greater aspirations of compassion, normal hope is inextricably connected to apprehension. I want things to work out for me. I don’t want to lose what I have. The “I” in those sentences is doing a lot of work. There is a kind of an “I” that Tsoknyi Rinpoche calls the “Mere I,” but our normal “I” is more or less made out of hope and fear. The hope that I get what I want and get to keep everything together is essentially the same as the fear that I will lose it, not get what I want. Take a step back and they are the same, but get caught in them and they seem to have very different flavors. Being caught in hope or fear obliterates a greater awareness, a bigger view, whichever flavor manifests. 

So now in this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the balance has shifted from hope toward fear in general. Certainly it has for me. By now the fear is less acute — social distancing has helped a lot and in general we feel safer than we did at first, maybe, depending on where we live, our situation. 

When I’m not caught in the fear of our current time — and make no mistake, sometimes I am — I find it’s oddly a bit helpful to have shifted a little bit from hope, at least in my photography.

I may have mentioned that some of the most fruitful times in my development as a photographer have been in times when I had little hope that making exposures would yield anything, when working with a camera was more of a pure exploration, more like play. I think most of my worst pictures were from the time I was most serious, when I used a view camera and big film and worked in my own darkroom. Though I have well over a hundred pounds of silver-infused paper and film, I have few images made that way posted on my website now. By contrast I made great progress in the time when I had no darkroom and digital cameras were new and sucked so badly that there was no chance of making a great print or selling something from that work. It was freeing and fun. As digital cameras got better, and then really good, the continuum of hope-for-success has shifted with the quality. And make no mistake, with the better cameras and the better (and sometimes quite old) lenses I’m using now, better results are easier to come by. I just have to keep some sense of that freedom, stepping back from some kind of hope for fruition. Right now, with the world imploding, that hope is easier to let go of.

Hope does sometimes put wind in the sails, it keeps one going. In a pursuit like photography — a mix of the worldly and the realm of light and mind and awareness —  hope sometimes makes the whole thing possible on a long term basis. But it also blocks the light of open possibility. Hope stands in front of the lens like a big oaf. Hope gets behind you like a big oaf and gives you a shove forward. It’s up to us to keep our balance after that shove, to move so it’s not blocking our vision.

Now, in this dark time, all the galleries are closed. Who knows when they will be open, when people will feel brave enough to go in them and have money to spend on prints? And still I work on photography, more free from the burden of hope. Sometimes I spend time — lots and lots of hours these days pass uncounted — hiding from the fear in the realm of glowing pixels, looking through my lightroom catalog, seeing what potential I can tease out of images already exposed. 

I care less about the current state of art photography. I am enjoying making beautiful photos these days, though I make other kinds. But what I need, and what I’m happy to bring into the world, is something very beautiful. It’s a different emphasis for sure.

I think of “How to Cook Your Life,” the Zen book by Uchiyama and Dogen. 

In this book, after some discussion of how food might be prepared by the cook in the monastery,  Uchiyama describes the existential situation. We don’t know what will happen in the night, and yet the cook prepares for the meal the next day.

“In preparing the meal for the following day as tonight’s work, there is no goal for tomorrow being established. Yet our direction for right now is clear: prepare tomorrow’s gruel. Here is where our awakening to the impermanence of all things becomes manifest, while at the same time our activity manifests our recognition of the law of cause and effect.”

Right now we really don’t know what tomorrow will bring. We keep working if we can.

Monkey, Scene Behind Monastery, Swayambhunath 2013

Swayambunath Monastery before Earthquake

We had been at Swayambhunath since before breakfast on this morning, and we were taking a break to eat breakfast at a rooftop restaurant (which meant aggressively defending my meal from a big monkey). This is a view from that rooftop and toward the remaining secondary spire poking up over the monastery roof. Monk’s laundry is on the line, and young workmen are carrying heavy sacks — maybe concrete? — from a neat line on the roof.

In photos of Swaymbhu after the earthquake of April 2015, this building can be seen still standing while the buildings next to it have crumbled half-way or all the way to the ground. I guess it was built well enough. The main stupa itself remains intact, of course, but one of the two secondary spires is gone now.

In support of better building in Nepal, I will donate 100% of the proceeds of any and all of my Nepal photos in the month of May 2015 to National Society for Earthquake Technology – Nepal. My wife, who is very familiar with Nepal, its needs and virtues, and the NGOs operating there, tells me that this is a very effective organization. Not only do they use their resources to build more earthquake resistant buildings, but they multiply the benefit several-fold by spreading the building techniques, teaching to local communities as they build.

Of course I encourage you to donate to this organization or any of the relief organizations working in Nepal. Easier for me if you donate directly, but I’m happy to spur you by enticing you with a print. Email me if you’d like any more feedback about these choices. I will ship a copy of the receipt of the donation along with your print. If I am overwhelmed with response to this, it may take a little longer than my usual week or two to get you your print.

Prints eligible for this donation-offer can be found on the Nepal section of the blog. Or directly, with purchase buttons, on the main website on the Nepal page.

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.

This print is available 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. 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.

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 photo is no longer on the site. Email if you’d like to purchase a print.

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.

Pink Wall, Market & Umbrella

OK, we didn’t spend all our time at Buddhist sites.

(And of course we spent some great time with friends.)

There is a lot of chaos and energy in the streets of Kathmandu. Luckily I’m not afraid of a little chaos and energy in a composition.

One thing I loved so much that my heart was breaking at the thought of leaving it: the texture on the walls, everywhere. And the color.

Seriously, on the last few days I photographed a lot of walls, just to compose with the textures. My wife, who speaks Nepali, could hear people asking, “What is he doing? What is he taking a picture of?”

But here it’s obvious, the limes, the men, the wall, the kid under the umbrella. Just another tourist with a camera.

This print is for sale here.

Pilgrims by Incense, Boudanath Nepal, Losar ’13

Back to Boudha…

The old woman with the cane in the foreground walked around and around that stupa all morning, and she generally seemed to be enjoying herself on this festive day.

This is just one small facet of the huge experience of being around the circle of that stupa on that day. I’d like to post more. Stay tuned.

This print is for sale here.

Prayer Flags by Canal, Lumbini Nepal, Dawn, 2013

Another dawn, another sacred Buddhist site. This is more of a narrative thematic addition to the blog posts than an image that relates to the recent posts, though I suppose there is some relationship on more than one level. Several levels.

It’s not actually that we set out at dawn every day in our month in Nepal, as one might conclude from recent posts here. In fact it was too rare for us. We mostly stayed with Nepali friends, and the way meals work in Nepal is that “lunch,” or “breakfast” — Dal Bhat by any other name — is a delicious and somewhat elaborate meal mid-morning. Things don’t really get rolling until after that. Our hosts generously cooked some amazing meals for us at that time, and — unless we were already out wandering before that — we stayed around “home” for that. (Thanks Kamal, and all the cooks, and thanks Hari Pal for hosting us in Lumbini).

Lumbini, of course, is the Buddha’s birthplace. While I didn’t personally feel the power and presence of ages of aware intensity built up in the place — as I did in places like Sechen, Bouddha, Swayambhnath, etc — my own sense of wonder was piqued. The Buddha was here once. Here. That big wave of waking-up that exploded across the lowlands of asia, which then trickled up the mountains evolving and spreading, started right here. And this dawn was beautiful. Actually, except for the big chunk of time we spent wandering around the “wrong” part of the park, lost and hungry during the hot part of the day, it was quite lovely and we were quite happy here. I have a lot more good photos of it.

There were some amazing monasteries, monks visiting from all over and in residence. The morning chanting in the garden was beyond amazing. I will have more images from here to post, but there are also other stories to tell.

This print is for sale here.