Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Wonder of Wandering Monks and the Lessons They Teach Aspiring Photographers

The recent passing of Zen master / photographer John D. Loori has, predictably, put me into a melancholy, contemplative state-of-mind. It also rekindled a life-long fascination with Zen Koans (go here for another list and accompanying mp3 files) that Loori so effectively used in his teachings on art and creativity. Apart from Loori's own books on Koans (see Sitting with Koans, Riding the Ox Home, and Two Arrows Meeting in Mid-Air), a favorite of mine is the classic Zen Flesh, Zen Bones by Paul Reps.

And one of my favorite stories from Reps' book is called Trading Dialog for Lodging (found on pages 46-47 of the book I've linked to above). Now, not being a Zen master myself, I humbly offer an "interpretation" of this little gem and remind the kind reader that it is just that, no more, no less; namely Andy Ilachinski's interpretation of a story found in a book of Zen and pre-Zen writings by an author named Paul reps, as revealed to Andy's consciousness on a beautiful autumn Sunday morning in October 2009. But therein lies both the rub and the truth; or, more precisely, the lesson. For "truth" is - at best - just a fleeting ephemeral approximation of ... ?

The story begins by reminding the reader of a Buddhist tradition in which a traveling monk can remain in a Zen temple provided he makes and wins an argument about Buddhism with anyone who lives there. We are then told of a temple in the northern part of Japan were there are two brother monks: one, the elder; the other, stupid and possessing but one eye. A traveling monk finds his way to this temple and - rightfully - challenges the monks to a debate. The elder brother, too tired from a long day of studying to engage in the challenge, asks his younger brother to "go and request the dialogue in silence" in his stead. The young one-eyed monk and the wandering stranger go to the shrine and sit down.

A short time later, the traveling monk goes to the elder brother to inform him that his brother has defeated him. Before leaving, the elder asks the monk to relate what had happened. The monk recounts the challenge: "At first, I held up one finger, denoting Buddha, the enlightened one. So your brother held up two fingers, signifying Buddha and his teachings. I held up three fingers, representing Buddha, his teachings, and his followers, living a harmonious life. Your brother then shook a clenched fist at me, showing me that all three come from the same - single - realization. To this insight I had no answer. I thus lost the challenge."

As the traveling monk made his way back down the road away from the temple, the elder monk's brother appeared, breathless, before his brother. "Where is that monk?" he started, "I'm going to beat him up!" Asked to explain his anger, the younger brother recounts what happened: "Why, the minute he saw me he insulted me by holding up one finger to laugh at my one eye. Since he was a stranger, and in need of a place to stay, I decided to be kind and held up two fingers, congratulating him on having two eyes. Infuriatingly, he then held up three fingers, stubbornly reminding me that - between the two of us - we still had only three eyes. I couldn't contain my anger any longer, and showed him my fist!"

One reality, or two? Or three? Or an uncountable number of "potential" realities, and interpretations? What I love about this simple story is how artfully it blends meaning, distortion, subjectivity, context, tradition, interpretation, and - with a subtle nod to an "unspoken" arbiter / truth-seer (not the elder brother, but an implied "outside observer" who is reflecting upon even the reader's interpretation of this story) - the recursive, self-referential nature of "true" objectivity; and, ultimately, the nature of "reality" itself. As space-time (so far as we know) is finite yet unbounded, so - too - this story suggests, reality is finite but unlimited in its interpretations.

This story also suggests that, despite there obviously being a reality - there are two monks engaged in a Buddhist challenge! - no one in the story experiences it fully. Certainly not the two monks, with their dramatically different recollections of what happened; and not even the elder brother, who ostensibly hears "both sides" of the "reality," but is not himself present when the "reality" occurs, and who does not reveal any of his own predilections and subjective interpretations of what he hears from two different people (one of whom is very close to him, the other a complete stranger); just what does he make of these two stories? And what does the elder believe really happened? We might, just as well, wonder about a "more complete" reality, that encompasses not just the two arguing monks but the two monks + elder. What is to be made of the single "interpretation" we have of this system (which is not, I remind you, that of the elder - who merely listens in the story - but the interpretation of the whole story that you, kind reader, have yourself to offer!)? The telescoping levels are, of course, endless and whose "end" remains perpetually out of reach; the next one starts at "two monks + elder + Andy's interpretation of the story". What of my role in this, as I've recounted a story favorite of mine from memory; and did so fairly and honestly, but certainly not verbatim, word-by-word. What intentional and/or unintentional subjectivities did I introduce into the story that altered its "true" meaning? And so it goes.

What does all of this have to do with photography (you may be forgiven for wondering)? Everything (or nothing, depending on what "part" of the story one is paying attention to;-) The experience of the wandering monk reminds us that just as all of us ("privileged observers") sit at the center of a unique - and therefore uniquely limited - reality, the "true nature" of reality remains hidden, unknown in whole, and eludes even the mindful gaze of the wisest of wise "outside observers" (for, in truth ;-), there is no such being). Our understanding of reality is fluid, imprecise, and - forever - incomplete; and owes more - much, much more - to subjective context-dependent interpretation than most of us (particularly us physicists!) feel comfortable in accepting. A "photograph" may reveal two monks arguing, and show that one monk holds up one finger or two at the other, and/or that one monk is clenching a fist. But that is all a photograph can ever show. And, once it is created - and the "reality" to which it points has ceased to be - the "truth" of a photograph is forever limited to a sort of vestigial (and ever-changing) collective memory of possible interpretations that live on in the minds of those who "look at the photograph" and the photographer who "experienced" it while it was being taken.

And the lesson for the photographer? It is simply this: forget about trying to capture "truth" with your camera. Focus instead on communicating to the rest of the world what you experienced ruthas truth (while immersed in the "reality" your camera recorded but an infinitesimally small slice of).
"When the photograph is a mirror of the man, and the man is a mirror of the world, then Spirit might take over." - Minor White


katie said...

I think the Spirit sends to each of us an understanding or interpretation that we need!!

Cedric said...

If the simplicity and clarity of your photographs could be surpassed it would only be by the pointedness of your words.

Fong Long said...

from the zen perspective it is an education that the reality was only one
- when he held up 1 finger it was only that; 1 Finger
- when he held up 2 fingers it was only that; 2 Fingers
- when he held up 3 fingers it was only that; 3 Fingers
- and a Fist is only a Fist
Any other interpretations are clearly made by the mind and not the reality, and so we are always mislead by what the mind talks

this is what it means that a finger is only finger nothing more nothing less

my interpretation; also not a zen master :-)

trace said...

feel as though I'm looking into a mirror! John Daido Loori would say: "two sides, one coin". I would say: "Light and shadow, no subject".

Daven said...

I just arrived to this blog, lead by a friend photographer and, after reading this post, I know I'm here to stay.
I've always been intrigued by the view each one has about reality and how it shapes our world. And I find photography is so powerful due to this realities entwined together.

I'm sure I'm going to learn a lot from your words and your photographs. Thank you.