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Zen and Photography: an Inquiry

Michael Chew

Introduction The ideas and practice of Zen Buddhism have generated a long standing tradition of diverse art forms from ink paintings to sculptures, and its aesthetics have permeated Japanese cultural practices such as garden design, archery, and flower arrangement to name a few. The art form which has come to dominate in the last century has been photography, encompassing a vast array of styles, genres, and philosophies. What would a Zen influenced photography mean? The photographic process is very different from traditional forms of representation and expression that were co-present with the development of Zen, and presents new fields for the application of these ideas. This essay is an brief survey of the philosophical questions that Zen brings to the medium of photography.

Philosophical background and context There are several different schools of Zen and differences abound over the correct techniques, means and scope of their practices.1 For the purposes of this inquiry, we will make do with the most basic exposition. The most important concept in Zen is buddhata, or buddha nature - reality beyond the self. Reality itself has an inherently transpersonal nature, extending beyond the subject. Buddhata is not a thing (such as a soul or the mind) rather it is the simple fact that every person, in every particular dimension and element, is a part of the cosmos as a whole. The universe is inside us as much as we are in the universe the two are coextensive. The whole cosmos is a single dynamic entity, perpetually in flux. However this realisation is seldom glimpsed. Instead it is through the individual self, superficially felt as the stable centre of all being, buttressed and

Roshi Yasutani identifies five distinct type in his introductory lectures; bompu, gedo, shojo, daijo and saijojo. See Kapleau 1989:44-49.

influenced by the conditionings of society, which is how most people percerive the world. Zen shows that this self-ego is in fact an illusion, and a damaging one, whose cravings and attachments inevitably lead to suffering. For the Zen practitioner the goal is, through a variety of techniques, to get beyond the ego; to let go of attachment, and become the very realisation that all is impermanent. Zen art has generally encompassed a didactic meaning, functioning as a story or scene that illustrates Zen ideas, or to attempt a direct transfer of a the state of mind of the painter. Most were painted by Zen monks with the act of the painting itself being a spiritual practice, the viewing audience being mostly monks as well. This context and philosophical background is vastly different to that in which photography was born, and which we must examine these before we can direction question what Zen photography means. Art forms such as drawing, painting and sculpture have generally been produced in non-secular cultural contexts - indeed by far the majority of human history has been made up of belief systems which see humans as part of a cosmological schema greater than themselves. Photography however was in the born out of Enlightenment thought, in the early19th century where the fruits of Descartes dualism and rational scientific objectivity had truly permeated western metaphysics a time when humans were being seen as increasingly occupying the centre of the cosmos. Thus the backgrounds of both Zen and photography are vastly different, and we cannot pretend to arrive at an authentic Zen photography that attempts to mirror the Zen painting and drawing of earlier times. Another difference is that Zen presents a coherent system of thought, which does not follow rationalism and goes beyond the normal subjectivity that a person perceives the world, as well as taking to viewing an artwork. In this sense it transcends the idea of photographic genre. Despite these underlying philosophical and contextual differences, the two disciplines of Zen and photography are commensurable. To explore the idea of Zen photography, we will turn to examining how Zen concepts apply to photography today. This encompasses process, technique and aesthetics.

Process In Zen it is frequently not the ends that are important but the means to achieve them. For instance, the meditative technique of zazen is not simply a means; zazen is more than a means to enlightenment it is the actualisation of your True-nature2. Thus exploring a Zen photography we should not put all the emphasis on the final actual images that are created, but rather pay attention to the material photographic process itself. Just as the Japanese tea ceremony is about perfecting a series of functional procedures so that a higher order perfection be achieved overall, the photographic process - of exposing, developing, printing, each with component stages - can be thought of as a similar material process to be perfected. The materiality and simplicity of the stages are important in Zen, and all these photographic steps would not be seen as menial chores along the way of producing the final image, but rather each is to be seen as intrinsically important. They provide the photographer with opportunities to turn away from the endlessly thinking monkey mind and lose herself in the direct experience of the tasks at hand. It could be argued that a Zen photography would be more aligned to analog photography, as digital makes the photographic process more removed. Digital photography takes the image out of the analog, material process (where it remains a whole) and converts it to a digital, informational representation; the image is fragmented into binary data, which must be co-joined again through complicated electronic algorithms before it is comprehendible to human eyes. However, all photographic processes are generally far more abstract and complicated than traditional Zen drawing or painting, so perhaps to accept any photographic process as something that can be pursued truthfully in the Zen sense is to validate them all. One part of photography that remains constant independent of the specific process is the duration of the image capture itself. It is almost always captured whether on film, glass, or electronic sensor, in a fleeting instant. In this sense it has parallels with a common trait of many Zen paintings - their rapid, seemingly brash brushstrokes. These were an iconoclastic reaction against the traditional arduously laboured fine brushstroke techniques. Instead of just trying to depict the world - which is a step of abstraction Zen painting emphasises the process and experience of the act of painting itself. The

Kapleau 1989:48.

fullness and rapidity of the spontaneous brushstroke mirrors the sudden insight of satori experienced by the devotee. Even though the satori insight may have just been a moment, it connects with the eternal; satori-realisation [is] that one is the focus of past and future time3. Similarly, the photographic instant, while freezing a moment of time, can connect us to something eternal. Take the Figure A. The figure will never strike the water he is trapped outside of time, or as Blake put it, located in the eternal.4 Cartier-Bresson suggested that within the instance moment there was the eternal rhythms of life; We work in unison with movement as though it were a presentiment of the way in which life unfolds But inside movement there is one moment at which the elements in motion are held in balance. Photography must seize upon this moment and hold immobile the equilibrium of it.5

If the photographic process is what occurs after the shutter has been released, then the technique of making photographs is what happens before; the means of selecting in which part of the world to put the photographic frame. The key difference between Zen drawing or painting and photography is that in the former the initial approach is to the empty page or canvas ideally with an empty mind - while in the latter the world is already present to be captured. Photography is an act of sensitivity and listening to the world, rather than engaging directly with the void. Zen emphasizes spontaneity and intuition over preplanning and theorising. This suggests that a Zen photography would discourage pre-visualisation of photographs before they are taken. Careful planning and manipulation play little role in the Zen production of art, though prior training in the techniques are important. To be truly sensitive to the unique visual offerings of each moment, we must avoid being lost in abstractions or attachments. Instead, we want to be able to photograph in intuitive and
3 4

Kapleau 1989:18. Blake wrote: Eternality is not the endless duration of time. It is the absence time Quoted in Jussim 1989:53. 5 Quoted in Jussim 1989:52.

spontaneous ways, responding to the beauty and wonder of life. The best work here has the quality of an accident. How can this be achieved? The photographer should forget herself, as much as possible, when taking pictures. This is a very common experience among musicians and painters, who often report "losing themselves" in their art. In a sense, the picture captures itself, just as the brush painting emerges through the artist. This contrasts with the romantic notion - prevalent at the time of photographys emergence - of the highly sensitive and brilliant mind fuelling the creativity of the artistic genius. Instead of this ego-centered view, the Zen photographer gains inspiration not from the ego but from the world itself, as on the fundamental level they are one and the same. This situation mirrors what Herrigel was told by his Master as he was learning the art of archery that it is not I who must be given credit for this shot. It shot and It made the hit6. Thus the Zen photographer should not need to rejoice at good pictures and despair and poor ones instead rise above them in easy equanimity. The direct, immediate perception of the photographer would be privelaged in Zen photography. Just as good Haiku poems communicate so crisply and with presence and specific direct suchness of the poets experience, the stamp and feeling of the photographers direct perception should be apparent in the image. We can also use certain Zen concepts such as: simplicity, focus, and mindfulness. These can be used as follows; keep the elements in the viewfinder simple, consider which element should attract the most attention and "focus" on that, and remain continuously aware of all that is around you and all that the camera sees. Ultimately though, both aspects of photography - the creative technique and the practical process must come together if the right creative conditions are to emerge, as: ..the right frame of mind for the artist is only reached when the preparing and the creating, the technical and the artistic, the material and the spiritual, the project and the object, flow together without a break7.

6 7

Herrigel 1975:83. Herrigel 1975:63.

Aesthetic Now we direct the discussion finally to the aesthetics of Zen photography. What kind of look would these photographs have? What kinds of subjects and composition? As we have seen with the photographic process, there can be many different ways that can be the correct Zen way; similarly there are multiple paths that the images aesthetic can take. We will examine two Zen aesthetic qualities, tranquillity and deep reserve and explore how these can relate to photography. Tranquillity this characteristic describes quiet and calm. One popular style within contemporary art photography that exemplifies this is the deadpan aesthetic. The latter offers a cool, detached and keenly sharp image, usually printed in epic proportions, emphasising the extreme visual clarity that photography offers. The photographer keeps an emotional distance from the subject, and presents to us a scene a seemingly detached manner; the latter is of course central to the Zen perspective. In Zen it is often the presence of unpeaceful forms in a peaceful manner which illustrates tranquillity.8 In the deadpan aesthetic, this contrast it is often manifest from the complexity of forms being presented in a harmonious and flattened manner. Deep reserve this characteristic encompasses the use of implication rather than the forthright exposure, being subtle with profundity. It is with this trait that photographys objective status as natures pencil can work against it, as the camera will record everything that is in front of it. Thus with respect to this trait care needs to be taken that images produced do not disclose too much of themselves. Many different styles of photography share this formal similarities, although the actual emphasis of the technique can be quite different to in Zen for instance the photographic genres which deal with a comfortable setting being disturbed by the subtle presence of an sinister object. With Zen paintings this characteristic often is manifest through large areas of negative space, fog, mists and clouds, which through their non-disclosure contain a degree of the infinite. The Japanese photographer Morimura has captured this essence in his horizon series, which

See Hisamatsu 1971:36 for examples.

depict the vastness of a horizon, spanning off into the infinite in both directions, the smooth gradients resisting any close up, reductive scrutiny. Something that should be noted is no matter what adherence a Zen photograph has to traditional Zen aesthetics, its status as a Zen artworks is never static. Just as the iconoclastic gesture of the Zen paintings which hid the Buddha's hands turned into a fixed style in its own right, and was then duely rebelled against, similarly photographic conventions are not fixed and will present Zen characteristics with varying means and depth as time goes on and contexts change. We must take care not to get overly fixed attachments to notions of authentic Zen, where as Zen is neither pursues or is attached to perfection, it is of the nature, as Lin-chi said, of killing the buddha, killing the patriarch9.

Conclusion Thus we have sketched some of the intersections between Zen and photography. The project of a Zen photography is an open ended one, fixed not by specific formal qualities but instead remaining authentic on measure of its adherence to the fundamental precepts of Zen. If engagement with the art of photography can centre and still the wandering mind through deep engagement with its ritualistic processes, if through the technique of the quest for the right image through the viewfinder the photographer become unaware of herself and her boundaries with the world, and if the resulting images bear the aesthetic qualities which present or gesture towards tranquillity and deep reserve (to name just two), then we can finally say that the art of the photography has become the art of zen photography.
2348 words

Hisamatsu 1971:30.

Bibliography Herrigel, E., Zen and the Art of Archery, Routledge, 1975. Hisamatsu,S., Zen and the Fine Arts, Kodansha International, 1971. Jussim, E., The Eternal Moment:Essays on the Photographic Image, Aperture Foundation, 1989. Kapleau, P., The Three Pillars of Zen, Anchor Books, 1989. Maynard, P., The Engine of Visualization:Thinking through photography,Cornerll University Press, 1997. Reps, P.[ed.], Zen Flesh, Zen Bones,Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1959.

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