Bodhi Mind Reflection

Glimpsing the Ultimate via the Lens of a Mundane Hobby

Steve Williamson (Chuan Yuan 傳遠)

Can we catch glimpses of ultimate reality via the portal of our mundane everyday activities? I believe we can, and when we do, we’ll rediscover–if we’re observant–the Dharma in every minute of each day. One method is to take our hobby or our passion and examine it for Dharma lessons so that when we dive into that passion, we dive into the refreshed waters of the Dharma. But also, our hobby–this mundane passion–can become a vehicle for sharing the Dharma. My mundane passion is photography, particularly portraiture. In portraiture, everything is a sharing, whether we’re fully aware or not! So, let’s see where it takes us.

We humans made about 1.4 trillion photographic images in 2020. Photographs have become so ubiquitous with digital technology, do we even know anymore what is real and what is illusion? Most of us recognize the photograph as an illusion of what we casually call reality. But from a Buddhist perspective, wouldn’t it be a mistake to misperceive our daily world as some kind of solid reality? Trying to truly see, I am training myself, step-by-step, to perceive photographs rather as an illusion of an illusion. Indeed, the Diamond Sutra teaches us that:

All conditioned phenomena 

Are like a dream, an illusion, a bubble, a shadow, 

Like dew or a flash of lightning; 

Thus we shall perceive them.

Therefore, when I make a photograph, it is an illusion–regardless of how much light I infuse into my image–of but a shadow only. The subject of my photo is itself just that shadow. My practice is to try to keep this illusion in mind as I release the shutter. But it is a challenging task because I constantly slip into viewing daily life as some sort of solid reality. Challenging tasks demand practice…and then more practice. 

One element of that practice is to remind myself of Dharma principles while composing a photographic image. First-time photographers often merely seek a “successful” image: one that “turns out”. As we gain skill, photographers visualize what we want in the final image (the Effect) and put into place the photographic methods (the Causes) to make that possible. If we want a very light-infused image, we open up the lens aperture and/or prolong the shutter speed to expose the film to more light (or expose the sensor to more light in digital photography). We close down the light passing through the lens if we seek a darker photo. If we desire a photo of a person’s head, we might use a longer lens to “zoom in” so that the rest of the body and background are excluded from the frame. Each of these choices–and so many more–is the selection of a cause that we put into place to give us the effect we seek. Examined closely, it is obvious that there is no effect that is not brought about by a particular set of causes. While this is obvious when making a photographic image, it’s not always so clear in our daily lives. We often default to the idea that life’s circumstances are “just the way they are”, or just willy-nilly. The more I learn about and practice photography, leading me to the clear proof that there is no effect without its commensurate causes, the more profound the principle of causality becomes for me in daily life…but only if I pay close attention and mindfully apply that causal perspective rather than that casual perspective!

The concept of perspective is one of the essential elements in photography, as it is in all the visual arts. The deeper I plunge, the more I realize that the array of perspectives from which I choose when composing a photo is, truly, infinite. That’s a huge realization. As but one example, I can point my lens looking down on my subject or looking up from below. And while these represent but two choices of perspective, neither of these or any other perspective is the correct perspective, because a “correct perspective suggests a solid reality, not the porous dew or flash of lightning. Relating to daily life, why do I so often get totally hung up on my perspective? My viewpoint, my opinion, can sometimes become so solid–I’m certain I’m right!–that it’s as if I invented Truth itself. Yikes! Photography can be an excellent teacher about perspective…again, if I only observe. A photo represents one choice of perspective on a scene that itself is only one of many conditioned phenomena.


Meditation within a Mundane Hobby?

Another Dharma exploration of photography I’m eager to try out is the insertion of meditation as a prelude to a portrait session itself. I haven’t yet done this with others due to Covid; it’s just an idea at this point. But wouldn’t it be great to begin every portrait session with a brief meditation, to call the portrait subject and call myself, the photographer, into the best mindful state for a portrait? Once Covid is contained, my intention is to call my subjects into a five minute meditation prior to their next portrait session. It calms me now just seeing it in my mind’s eye. 


Mining for Kindnesses

My grandfather was a coal miner. My mother would tell me that when she was a child, he’d come home from that mine covered in soot, head to toe. All that shone through until he’d finished with his two nightly baths were his twinkling eyes and that big, bright smile. That image has stuck with me all these years, almost like a mental photograph; it must be well-lodged in my mind’ memory bank! 

I knew him many years later as a kind man, one who had recovered from alcoholism in his early adulthood, I’d been told. He turned to faith after surviving his car being hit by a train. One of the lessons he taught me–only by observing his actions–was that one could be friendly with a stranger every time you met one. If he took me to the store, he’d always have a few kind words for the clerk, engaging each as if they’d known one another for years. Smiles all around.

I’m still working on that particular skill, but I have taken to approaching “strangers” on the street for a photographic portrait/interview exchange. I offer them a photo of themselves if they’ll only answer a question or two. It helps if I carry an obviously old or funky camera. Charmed by the quirky camera, they let down their guard a bit. I’ve tried out various interview questions, but the one I come back to over and over is: “What is an Act of Kindness that someone has done for you? It could be big or small. It could be something that happened this morning–like someone opening a door for you–or it could be a profound kindness that changed your life. Would you like to tell me about any such an Act of Kindness?”

As I advance in age, more folks are my juniors these days than not. The Second Tenet of Chung Tail is to be kind to our juniors. Slyly, I also find that being older than most of the “street strangers” I reach out to is helpful. Culturally, we tend to trust older ones, so I use that to my advantage! But, can I also comport with that Tenet of being kind to my juniors by reminding others of the very power of kindnesses. I hope so.

It seems to work if my observations of these strangers’ changing demeanors are an accurate indicator. Most folks open right up; they visibly relax when pondering kindnesses. Some relate a more minor kindness, but most have a particular one at the ready that they are especially eager to relay. One example comes to mind from just last week. Chris, a young father in his thirties, told me about how he has always had awful birthdays. I found Chris because he was hanging out with his 3-year old boy who was playing with his scooter. His son wore a helmet with a brightly-colored, plastic dinosaur ridge, or crest, along the top that was translucent, and it glowed as it caught the bright Winter sunshine. That lighted dinosaur crest is what caught my eye, but my attention turned toward Chris, my hoped-for next “victim” for a portrait/interview. Describing being plagued by awful birthdays–or was it an annual reminder of one particular birthday?–Chris revealed some hurt, even anguish. I could tell that for him birthdays represented something very palpably difficult and meaningful. 

Chris continued that a few years ago, however, a friend surprised him by taking him to Six Flags Amusement Park for his birthday, and he’d invited Chris’ best friends too. This delighted Chris for two reasons. He enjoyed the day at the park with his friends immensely, but he was even more obviously and deeply touched by his friend’s thoughtfulness and kindness. His friend had recognized that Chris needed a good birthday experience to break the bad birthday spell. Chris’ 3-year old boy listened carefully to his dad’s recounting of this Act of Kindness story as young children will do. He quietly soaked it in. I made several photographic images of Chris and his son–hopefully capturing the sunlight pouring through that translucent orange dinosaur crest atop the scooter helmet. Once I develop and print the photos, I’ll send them to Chris. 

But best of all, the Dharma lesson of our interconnectedness floods through for me in each of these minings for kindnesses. It was my grandfather that modeled for me how I could approach “strangers” in the first place. It was Chris who conveyed this beautiful story to me (and now to you!). It was Chris’ friend who started this Kindness Chain by the simple act of taking Chris to Six Flags. And when I eventually post the photo with Chris’ quote on Instagram, others too, I hope, will be opened up by this Act of Kindness. Meanwhile, Chris’ son absorbed his father’s description of suffering–bad bad birthdays–and the friend’s reopening birthdays for Chris by one Act of Kindness. I am confident that Chris’ son has been reshaped by his dad’s kindness legacy. I have been.

Firstly and finally, the First Noble Truth is the truth that Suffering is all around us. I have come to realize in mining for photographs of kindnesses that the chief condition for someone to create an Act of Kindness for another is their acknowledgement of the other’s suffering. How else could we be compelled to be kind if we do not first recognize suffering, the primacy and universality of suffering? Could Kindnesses exist without Sufferings?

The best thing about being a Miner for Kindnesses is that the ore is inexhaustible. I clearly see, and feel, that mundane photography helps me explore an understanding of ultimate reality. I believe that any hobby, really any daily activity, can do the same if we only pay attention. As the Buddha laid out in the First Noble Truth, and Grand Master Wei Chueh calls us to in the Four Tenets of Chung Tai, acknowledgment of Suffering is foremost, and from that realization we can choose Respect, Kindness, Harmony, and Truth. For me, photography is a vehicle for exploring the blessings of the Buddha and for Taking Refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.