Middle Class Zen?

The Zen garden of Ryumontei, Kyoto, Japan

The summer writing is taking me to some interesting and unusual places, figuratively. One of them is, dare I admit it, Zen. I have friends whose eyes roll upward to the ceiling on hearing this, and one who derides the idea of applying this to photography as simply ‘middle-class Zen’. Ouch. And yes, it does have the makings of something pretentious, especially as right now the word ‘Mindfulness’ is the new buzzword.

As a result, I’m looking over my shoulder cautiously as I write the outline for a new workshop being planned for China in the autumn called (deep breath) Zen and the Art of Photography. Am I really following in the footsteps of those two old hippie tracts Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig? Both books are on my shelves, the Pirsig title in its original 1975 paperback edition. That’s when I bought it, so it must have clicked in some way, unless it was simply that it’s surely one of the best book titles ever invented.What started all this was my last two shooting trips to Taiwan for the tea project. Friends of friends introduced me to a Zen master, Fa Zang, who coincidentally is not only keen on photography but also had my book The Photographer’s Eye. We got on very well, and it ended with Master Fa Zang taking my coordinator and me around the island to the tea mountains. We had a lot of time on the road to talk about both Zen and photography, just as a matter of course, and the parallels were hard to escape. Both involve intuitive grasp. Both are ‘in the moment.’ Both have training techniques in order to reach the ‘flash of awareness.’Before you think I’m getting carried away, two things. One is that Zen is neither a religion nor even a philosophy, at least not in the Western meaning of the word. It’s a way of thinking that’s supposed to lead to a certain way of action, meaning that it’s ultimately practical. Second, there’s an interesting piece of history linking it to photography, and this goes back to that original book Zen in the Art of Archery written in 1948 by a German teacher Eugen Herrigel, who took up archery in Japan as a way of learning Zen. He learned from a somewhat maverick teacher, Awa Kenzo, who basically taught Herrigel to remove conscious control when drawing the bow. The arrow must be released not when the archer decides but when the shot itself is ready. You become one with the bow or, for that matter, with whatever you are using in any of the traditional Japanese arts associated with Zen, which include swordsmanship and flower arranging. So why not a camera and why not photography? Well, in the 1950s, the painter Georges Braque gave a copy of this short book to Henri Cartier-Bresson. After he read it, he told Braque, “It’s a manual of photography,” and later said, “I don’t take photographs. It is the photograph which has to take me.”I don’t think you have to buy into the whole Zen package to benefit from it in photography (Master Fa Zang no doubt wincing as he reads this). More than that, to use photography as way of improving one’s awareness and view of life. Among the obvious connections are Zen’s intuitive flash of awareness. A central tenet of Zen is that it’s impossible to reach full awareness by studying and analysis; it must happen through personal sudden insight. So with photography, in the changing world in front of the camera, a potential image that you are about to capture can only be seen by you yourself, not calculated. The training involves a key step beyond learning all the techniques of photography and camera-handling—making sure you keep all that learning down in your unconscious, not upfront and interfering with images that you should be able to grasp intuitively.Next, the task of Zen is to be entirely in the moment, and so is that of photography, which is fundamentally about taking a slice of time and preserving it. This is intimately related to the intuitive flash of awareness above. Capturing the moment is at the core of photography (cue plug for my last book Capturing the Moment!), and the way to get there is to be so single-minded that you can feel the finest nuances and slices of moment in a piece of action or in an unfolding scene. Total concentration on moment; not easy to do, but a very reasonable ideal.

From my book Capturing the Moment, all about getting it down to the micro-second, mindfully of course!




Another key Zen principle is to strip things back, down to the bare bones, and concentrate only on the essentials. It involves simplifying, strict limitation, elimination and not adding. This is very valuable for photographic framing and composition, forcing the eye and mind to select from the unstructured real-life scene in front of the camera. It means thinking about what is important in any subject or scene, and framing for just those essential elements and nothing more. It results in a certain kind of imagery that is uncluttered, rigorous and lean.

I can see that this is getting a bit po-faced, which isn’t really in the spirit of Zen, so I’ll end with a Zen joke. A Zen master visits New York and goes to a hot-dog stand. He asks the vendor “Make me one with everything.” No, that’s not the joke. The guy makes a hot dog with all the fixings and hands it over. The master pays with a $20 bill, and the vendor puts it in his cash box and closes it. “Excuse me’” says the master, “Where’s my change?”.

“Brother,” says the vendor, “change comes from within,”

That’s all until next month.