Photography and Zen

At the request of a reader, I’m posting this edited version of an older article.

The most interesting aspect of these arts of Zen … is that they don’t exist for the sole purpose of creating a work of art, but they are rather a method for opening the creative process. They comprise means of training the mind and of living our lives.

~John Daido Loori

What I know of Zen comes primarily from the writings of D.T. Suzuki, and rather than offer my own limited understanding, I recommend his books to anyone interested in the topic. Creativity, on the other hand, is a topic I’ve been following for some time, both as an artist and as an avid reader. Many discussions linking ancient philosophies with present day practices often try to muscle the latter into the rituals and language of the former, hoping to impart an air of mysticism to ideas that oftentimes make sense (or not) independent of tradition. I believe that there is also much to be gained from going in the opposite direction: start with art, and identify valuable and applicable lessons in whatever philosophy, new or old, without becoming mired in archaic mythology, esoteric dogma, or arcane terminology.

Like many modern permutations of older traditions, Zen today is in the awkward position of being practiced by many in ways that ostensibly contradict its original tenets. Certainly, Zen is not unique in this, but its practice today is further compounded by the fact that, for historical reasons, Zen philosophy—which eschews dogma and religious belief—was bolted onto the religion of Buddhism with which it is, at least in some ways, incompatible. For the sake of this writing, I am referring to Zen as an attitude toward life, and not to the religion of Zen Buddhism.

Extrapolating from writings by John Daido Loori, the goal of art in Zen is not making things, but experiencing things. In other words, the primary reason to engage in art-making is not the end result—be it a photograph or some other artifact—but the inner, meditative, experience of the artist. This attitude contrasts with the result-oriented work ethic often accepted as given and as unequivocally good (despite some evidence to the contrary) in industrial societies. Industry tends to be more concerned with such measures as productivity, efficiency, profitability, etc., than in the inner experience of the persons producing whatever products. To wit, few people even bat an eye when hearing the term, “human resources,” placing human beings in the same category as machines, fuel, and materials.

Considered in light of recent findings in psychology (particularly the psychology of happiness and the neuropsychology of creativity), it is clear that the inner rewards of making art (or any creative activity) are indeed more powerful and enduring than short-lived spikes of happiness rooted in such things as productivity, popularity, sales, etc. Paraphrasing a quip by Richard Davidson in a recent radio interview, Eastern philosophies seem to be better than Western ones at predicting what will make us happy.

As an educator, I’m interested in the famously-unusual methods used by Zen masters in training their students. Like art, Zen defies strict definition. In both cases, the term is defined as much by what it is not, as by what it is. Zen, like art, cannot be taught entirely as just a set of facts or skills, and requires additional training in certain attitudes, perceptions, and cognitive abilities. Rather than memorizing information, the teachings of Zen require training the mind to respond to the world in natural and intuitive ways, without conscious judgment, and avoiding our natural tendency to examine intuitive perceptions by analysis and reason before assimilating their meanings. Zen masters lead by example and, other than the teaching of various Buddhist practices, they teach the essence of Zen by challenging their students, sometimes in very unexpected—even cruel—ways, to react to things without forethought or preconception.

Photographic workshops almost always take the opposite approach of Zen. Most often, such workshops involve visiting well-vetted locations at auspicious times when “good” images are practically guaranteed to be found; practicing camera and processing techniques toward specific, known, outcomes, etc. Undoubtedly, such skills are needed in order to make photographs, but beyond a certain threshold of technical proficiency, I find a Zen-like approach to be more useful and satisfying. Rather than ask students to pursue specific outcomes, I find it useful to instruct students to go beyond the obvious, even in familiar places. I also like to bring students to places they likely have never seen before, where no common or obvious compositions stand out, and instruct them to not seek photographs but to let photographs come to them—to encounter subjects and situations without preconception, and, when these encounters elicit some response, to articulate this response visually.

Borrowing from the koan approach to Zen teaching, I sometimes tell workshop attendees, the biggest down side of photographing a place like Mesa Arch at sunrise is that they likely will end up with a photograph of Mesa Arch at sunrise. If you don’t stop to consider what other options and approaches are available to you, you may not fully appreciate what you are missing—the full extent of your experience, or what it can be beyond just a photo-opportunity.

Allowing yourself the privilege of giving visual expression to your intimate and personal inspirations as part of experiencing something unexpected and emotionally moving, may open your eyes to great personal revelations, and to what I believe to be the most elevating rewards that photography has to offer. The experience of finding unexpected new knowledge or understanding is the essence of the Zen concept of Satori—defined by some as enlightenment, although in truth it has little to do with becoming enlightened in the educational sense, but becoming aware of dimensions of experience and existence beyond the expected and the obvious. To accomplish such states, think of making your photographs convey something of who you are, innately and without pretense, rather than what something or someone outside of you is, or what you believe others may wish to see in your work. You may discover that who you are is something considerably more deep and complex than just a photographer hoping to “get the shot.”

In my experience, the most effective and moving way of relating to an inner experience spurred by an encounter with some subject or scene, is to quiet and focus the mind on the experience, to reign in errant thoughts and distractions, and to not rush to preoccupy yourself with the tedious mechanics of capturing a photograph. Especially, beware of being distracted by ruminations about anything outside of what you are feeling in the present moment. This is known as mindfulness. Zen meditation, known as Zazen, is the best training I know for mindfulness.

The psychological state of flow, also associated with creativity (and more recently linked with what is known as the brain’s default mode network, which becomes active when the brain is not focused consciously on some task or on other aspects of the outside world), affects artist in much the same way as meditation does: awareness of the passing of time seems to disappear, distractions and anxieties are set aside, and the mind becomes calm and clear. Once experienced, the benefits of such states become obvious, but like Zen, it is difficult to explain them to those who do not know them from experience.

Those who practice photography in a rushed and calculated way, or according to some preconceived plan, or when distracted by other people and thoughts, may never know how much deeper and more rewarding their experience may be by letting go of such things; by not worrying about getting a “keeper” or any other outcome; by slowing down and being mindful of the experience in all its dimensions—inner and outer, emotional and physical, by allowing the concept for an image to arise intuitively before reaching for the camera, or any consideration having to do with making a photograph.

In learning to meditate and quiet the mind, one also learns to manage involuntary thoughts and distractions that arise naturally, often leading to anxiety, but that with training can be set aside consciously for a period. Beginners often attempt to silence and ignore such thoughts and to banish them from the mind, almost always unsuccessfully. More experienced meditators know to acknowledge such thoughts, rather than attempt to ignore them—to examine them, then consciously detach them from present experience and set them aside, refocus the mind and start over. This approach of acknowledge-and-let-go (sometimes known in other forms of meditation as catch-and-release) can be immensely useful in today’s world of constant distraction and multitasking. It can also make photography, or any other experience, considerably more fulfilling than just practicing it for its own sake.


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7 thoughts on “Photography and Zen

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  1. Excellent! Your essay expresses exactly where I have been for some time now. You say it so well. Thank you.

  2. Your commentary shares and verbalizes my basic experience when I photograph. I must move to that place before beginning to shoot. Thank you for providing words for that experience! I am grateful for the guidance to explore that creativity in greater depth.

  3. The comment about eastern philosophies being better at predicting happiness is striking. I find most western philosophies to be concerned with future happiness and in some cases the past. Eastern philosophies are more attuned to the present, being present, which is the only place we can actually BE happy!

  4. ”not seek photographs but to let photographs come to them” … it’s like taking dictations from the universe… you have to shut up first, then you can really ”hear”… It’s just that, once you tasted it, you want to replicate it, you want to cheat… but it doesn’t give in… and then it feels like being brutally stood up by the best, elusive, essentially, indescribable ”thing”…

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