If Buddha taught photography

I am not religious. Spiritual yes, but not religious. If you ask this pseudo-Brahmin to recite a single mantra, he won’t be able to. But that to me means nothing. As I’ve said so myself, I am an iconoclast, but yet I believe there is a Divine Power that brings method to this madness. I’ve read a lot on religion, and deeply respect all of them. But for many reasons, too many to detail here, Buddhism has influenced me deeply, yet I don’t call myself a Buddhist. I am also a photographer. Just this morning as I was reading “In the Buddha’s words”, an anthology of discourses from the Pali canon, I concluded that if Buddha taught photography, his one and only lesson would consist of two words: “Yoniso maniskara”.

Without claiming to be an expert in theology (just as I don’t claim to be an expert in photography), if I were to distill the teachings of the Buddha, it would, in the final analysis, stem down to these two words. Buddha’s discourses begin by calling us to develop this faculty yoniso maniskara, which has many meanings and many interpretations in Pali, but the one most commonly accepted is “careful attention”. Buddha tells us to stop drifting thoughtlessly through our lives, but instead pay careful attention to the simple truths that are everywhere available to us. If I were to put this in even more simple words, I would only use the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal work on the principles of mindfulness, “Wherever you go, there you are”.

For me, this is what photography is all about – careful attention. I’ve changed with the years, evolved maybe in some way, hopefully for the better as there always was a lot of room for improvement in me. With time (a euphemism for growing old(er)), I’ve realized that the best way in life is to be is in the moment. “The Power of Now” as Eckhart Tolle called it. I have an advantage – I can’t multitask, so I have no choice. Yet that didn’t stop me in many years to live in la-la land. But now, I am more conscious. I stare in awe even at the most mundane of things, I am aware, I feel. The only solution I have found to be in the “now” is to slow down. I live that moment. If I am talking to you, I am only there, while I am saying these words aloud as I type. If I am creating photographs, I am only doing that.

But the happiest times of my life are when it’s just the Three Musketeers in blissful solitude out of “civilization” as we know it, and the camera. We have no BlackBerry, no laptop, no internet, no newspaper to distract us. It is just the three of us – I, me, and myself. And the closer we three get, the more content we are. We live that moment – it’s called the joie de vivre. And when you live that moment, you see differently. And since this is about the Buddha, the single word that comes to my mind when I think of Him and reflect on His teachings is “compassion”.  Sure I can make a photograph with His face, as I so often have (in fact, you’ll find them on here too), but compassion can even be expressed through these images, which I made at the Thiksey Gompa in Ladakh, when I saw and felt it differently.

William Blake’s words from the “Auguries of Innocence” came to mind when I made this photograph: “To See a World in a Grain of Sand, And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the Palm of Your Hand, And Eternity in an Hour.”

I love to quote because like there are many more photographers better than me, so are there many more writers. This image reminded me of some more words that I believe in deep within my heart. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “My imperfections and failures are as much a blessing from God as my successes and my talents and I lay them both at his feet.” Yes, I do. Whatever I am, is You and Yours alone.

I stared unabashedly at the obvious, the Buddha’s compassionate eyes, feeling the serenity radiate, but from there, I went lower to his lips, always curved in that all knowing half-smile, amused and bewildered at our foolishness, yearning for either the past or the future, forgetting the present.

By the way, yoniso also means, literally, “to the womb”. The meaning is, getting to the core or essence of the matter, doing something with understanding of the pith and substance, understanding cause and effect, and maniskara simply means to keep something in mind. I interpret this to see and feel everything with childlike innocence and wonder and awe. Try it. You’ll feel the difference. You’ll live that moment. And when you live, you’ll create.

Tomorrow I am again off to the Himalayas again. I live, don’t exist. I am alive, not living. I am attentive, not absent. May my epitaph never read “He lived as if he were never going to die; he died as if he never lived”. I know now what He would have said. You know now what He would have said.

If Buddha taught photography.

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  1. Roy Money May 21, 2012 at 5:48 pm #

    Hi Debesh
    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts on photography and spirituality. The lines you quote from William Blake have been a touch stone for me for decades. Another statement that has been inspirational for me is one by the American photographer Frederick Sommer – ‘With total acceptance almost anything can be a revelation’. We seem to be on parrallel trajectories and I will look forward to more exchanges in the days ahead.

  2. Laura Kaczmarek May 21, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    Debesh – you write the most interesting posts…I admire Buddhism very much and even have a refrigerator magnet that says “What Would Buddha Do?”. Myself, I try to keep things simple, which also means to live in the moment and see things clearly. “If Buddha Taught Photography”. Brilliant. Thanks for sharing your thoughts – they are always so honest (I always thought I was the only one who couldn’t multi-task!)

  3. Wayne Emde May 21, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    Thanks for this posting. I don’t often use a tripod because it adds weight to my backpack when I’m travelling, but it’s one method of slowing me down and taking the time to really focus on what I’m photographing, putting me more in the moment and more mindful of what I’m shooting.
    I’ve made several trips to Japan in the past six years, and I’ve walked the 1200 kilometer pilgrimage to the 88 temples on Shikoku, learning a little of Buddhism and its teachings. It’s complicated and simple at the same time, but the concept of mindfulness is central to everything I’ve learned.
    As for philosophy, I like the lines from one of Dylan’s songs:
    “Let me drink from the waters where the mountain streams flood
    Let the smell of wildflowers flow free through my blood
    Let me sleep in your meadows with the green grassy leaves
    Let me walk down the highway with my brother in peace
    Let me die in my footsteps
    Before I go down under the ground.”

  4. Peter Cohen May 22, 2012 at 8:46 pm #

    Superb discourse Debesh. A circular thread pointing to a singularity….seeing with focus.

    Interestingly, you will find Bhudda observing the thoughts of others on my contact page.

    A gift of art is a memory for a lifetime.
    Feed your soul and an artist too!

  5. Aj May 31, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

    Debesh Sir, when I visited this article I was surprised at the title… I had my own reasons to respect you … now you have given me some more – totally new ones! I agree that the true joys in life are in the simple things. Mindfullness is careful attention – a sensation I experienced when I read your article and foused on the pictures. They conveyed so much and in this process my belief in the simple things in life just got reaffirmed. Keep putting pen to paper and keep walking…….

  6. Debesh June 1, 2012 at 12:06 pm #

    Thanks so much Roy for taking the time to write to me. Acceptance and belief in “Thy will, not mine” is among the most difficult things in life…we fight, we contest, but can never win against that. I look forward also to more conversations ahead.

    Laura, I really appreciate your comments and thoughts. Slowly but surely, I am trying to follow the KISS principle, and it seems to be working…

    Thanks a lot Wayne for your words. Yes, I agree that perhaps the tripod is the best piece of equipment to slow down. What I do is almost force myself not to make that first image even though the attraction and desire is compelling. I wait and observe and take it all in; sure I miss many shots, but what I see within my heart never leaves me. I’ll be writing to you about your pilgrimage in Japan also sir.

    Peter, I truly appreciate your lovely words. The circular thread pointing to a singularity is difficult indeed. I’ll be seeing your page now – thank you for pointing me there.

    Most grateful Ajay for your time in reading my thoughts and commenting. It means a lot. Simplify and Zen – this is my mantra now.

  7. Matthew Pace June 1, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    One of the best things about shooting with a 4×5 and film, is the “Zen Point” the space you find under the dark cloth between you and the upside down world that you are forced to concentrate on every small detail. A one eyed moment of focus, where nothing else exists…you hear yourself breathe. Therein lies what Buddha said.

    Emerging from the dark cloth, like being reborn, you are changed by the vision that you hope to capture before you move forward, excited,elated by the private experience. Most of all you crave the next.

  8. Jill June 2, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

    Thanks so much for you words and thought. You really speak to me! And for your pictures. Have you ever considered using a little less light a little more interplay between light and dark? Positive and negative? It is an interesting exercise and you may be excited with the results. Shadows also speak!

  9. Heidger June 2, 2012 at 7:08 pm #

    Thank you for sharing this beautiful article with us, Debesh!
    As a photographer who recently got back from India with a stay in the Himalayas for over one month, including a stay in a semi-monastic environment for about two weeks, your article resonated a lot with me! After traveling in India for over two and a half months, it was this solitude and nature’s grandiosity that I needed the most to be in the NOW. Locking up my camera and focussing on Buddhist scriptures and meditation was, what I believe now, helped me tremendously in my artistic quest.
    Thanks again for taking the time to write this article and selecting this beautiful images!
    – Heidger

  10. Debesh June 4, 2012 at 1:30 am #

    Matthew, many thanks for reading my blog and commenting. I really appreciate your time my friend. I did see your website also Matthew – what beautiful images. You can be rest assured I’ll be spending time there! Thank you for such brilliant work.

    Thanks a lot Jill for your time, your lovely words and suggestion as well. I’ve mailed you also requesting for a few pointers. I appreciate your help.

    Heidger, I’ve to learn modesty from you sir. I did go across to your website and saw your photography. Absolutely stunning and vibrant. I love the way you use colors. Coincidentally the first photographs I saw were of India. I do look forward to exchanging notes with you in the days ahead.

    All the best to all you folks.

  11. Cheryl Dorskind June 4, 2012 at 8:40 am #

    I recently posted a blog listing the 10 best Buddhist books and discussed Henri Cartier Bresson’s work as the essence of Zen philosophy. http://www.cherylmachatdorskind.com/ blog – the article is in the reading corner drop down menu. Thought you’d be interested based upon this post I read in linked in and here.
    All best,

  12. Keith Woolcock June 4, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

    First off, I think your photos are superb. Like you I am an amateur photographer and for the last few years have been practicing yoga and mediation. I agree with your comments on Buddhism and photography. To wander around a city with a camera is to be firmly in the moment. Can I recommend an essay in DT Suziki’s `Zen and Japanese Culture: Zen and Swordsmanship’. Some of what samurai warriors were taught about the benefits of a fluid mind that is completely present in the moment can be applied to photography.

  13. Debesh June 8, 2012 at 11:25 am #

    Dear Cheryl and Keith,

    Thank you for your words of appreciation. Since this is about Buddhism, let me reproduce here what I posted on Cheryl’s blog for the others to read as well.

    Buddhism has always interested me because of its central tenet of mindfulness and being in the NOW. Other than the list which is on her blog, some other books come to mind rightaway: Happiness (Matthieu Ricard), Wherever you go there you are (Jon Kabat-Zinn), Book of Five Rings. Of course the list is endless…

    Keith, if you look at my comment on Cheryl’s blog, I have also suggested your recommendation. Many thanks for that and I’ll get around to reading it real soon.

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