What is Zen?
“To study Buddhism is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self.” Dogen Zenji
OK, let’s start with a definition. Or let’s not! For that’s how slippery Zen is. For there are those that suggest that defining Zen is like describing the taste of honey to someone who has not tasted it. Sure you can relate it to other things, explain its texture, its colour and so on. But to taste it is the experience. The only way to know what it tastes like is to taste it.
It’s the same for Zen, it is an experience. But perhaps a little explanation would help. Here’s one from the website Zen Buddhism.
“At the heart of the Japanese culture lies Zen. Zen is, first and foremost, a practice that was uninterruptedly transmitted from master to disciple, and that goes back to the a man named Siddhārtha Gautama – The Buddha – 2500 years ago in India.
The practice of Zen meditation or Zazen is the core of Zen Buddhism: without it, there is no Zen. Zen meditation, is a way of vigilance and self-discovery which is practised while sitting on a meditation cushion. It is the experience of living from moment to moment, in the here and now. Zazen is an attitude of awakening, which when practised, can become the source from which all the actions of daily life flow – eating, sleeping, breathing, walking, working, talking, thinking, and so on.
Zen Buddhism is not a theory, an idea, or a piece of knowledge. It is not a belief, dogma, or religion; but rather, it is a practical experience. Zen is not a moral teaching, and as it is without dogma, it does not require one to believe in anything. A true spiritual path does not tell people what to believe in; rather it shows them how to think; or, in the case of Zen – what not to think.”
All clear now? Mmmm, I know it’s slippery. But at the heart of that definition is the knowledge that it starts with just sitting and extends out to all aspects of your life. Zen is mindfulness. It is the practice.
Perhaps the real question is why am I banging on about Zen?
I will be very clear here. I am no expert, but I do believe that there is great merit in a Zen approach to photography. What do I mean? Zen is experiential. Zen is full and complete presence. Zen is paying complete attention to your present experience.
Everything I read about Zen reminds me of my mindful approach to photography. The foundation of Mindful Photography is clear seeing. Using what you see as your anchor, the thing that you return to whenever you notice that your busy mind has taken you into the past or future. In fact the 4 Stage Seeing Practice (that I share at all my workshops and courses) has as its first and second stages very Zen like features.
Stage 1 is all about anchoring yourself in the moment. It is a meditation upon your presence at your location. I encourage an awareness of the sights, sounds, smells, touches and what you can hear. This brings you into the moment. But it is Stage 2 that is most Zen like.
Stage 2 is all about the seeing. But it in the instruction that the challenge lies. I ask you to walk, to observe what you see, but not to look for a photo. It is this instruction that causes most confusion and resistance. After all why should you not look for a photo? That is what you are doing, looking for things to photograph.
Yet if you do not look, you will see more. How can that be? You will not be so limited by your mind’s interpretation of what would make a ‘good’ photo. If you keep yourself open to possibility, you may begin to dissolve that very strong drive of your mind to present you with things that you are familiar with or interested in. If you remain open and aware of this drive you may see more. You may see things that ordinarily you would have missed.
Of course what makes this practice most Zen like is that you will read this and you may not understand. It is experiential. You have to do the practice with the intention of following the instruction and an awareness of your mind’s tricks. Only then will it begin to make some sense when interesting sights present themselves, or you create a photo that in some way resonates with how you were feeling when you were there. A deeper connection develops and infuses your photos.
David Ulrich has written a fabulous sounding book Zen Camera: Creative awakening with a daily practice in photography which is due out next March. He is an active photographer and writer whose work has been published in numerous books and journals including Aperture, Parabola, MANOA, and Sierra Club publications. Ulrich’s photographs have been exhibited internationally in over seventy-five one-person and group exhibitions in museums, galleries, and universities.
Here is a little bit about the book. Mine is on order!
“A beautifully illustrated guide to developing a daily photography practice that draws on mindfulness and Zen Buddhism. ‘Zen Camera’ is a photography and mindfulness programme that guides you to the creativity at your fingertips – literally – requiring nothing more than your smartphone or any other type of camera. You’ll learn how to use the camera in your pocket to explore self-expression as a photographer and produce photographs that are both wildly beautiful and unique. Gorgeously illustrated with full-colour photographs, David Ulrich’s lessons combine mindfulness principles with concrete exercises and the basic mechanics of taking a good photograph. He guides you through a programme of taking photos every day and also offers insight into the nature of seeing, art and attention.”
PS The Photos
The photos were all created during a Mindful Photography practice that centered upon a consideration of my Point of View. As you might be able to tell I created the photos on a wet day in a children’s play park (in autumn of course!). I spent around 30 minutes slowly walking around the space stopping at each piece of equipment to consider how I could create an arresting photo. Did I succeed?