Posts Tagged ‘ Zen Buddhism ’

Photo Technique Inspirations: Zen & Shingon Buddhism.

= I admit that the “Zen and Shingon Buddhism” angle on this didn’t occur to me until after-the-fact =

I like to take pictures.  Often I try to take an atypical approach to photographing this or that scene or moment or thing or person or group of people.  Actually, I hope to take atypical pictures most of the time, but only succeed occasionally.  I thought I’d post a few photos here — posted elsewhere on this site, either in one of the galleries or in a previous front page post — that illustrate this attitude and outlook of mine.

Street in Mirrors. Kinosaki, Japan. 2001.

Now I know that I’m not the first one to take a photo of a mirror, but it’s not something that’s commonly done by people snapping pics in Japan.  And, yet, it’s a common thing to see in Japan but which is rarely shared by those who live in or travel to Japan when they’re showing friends and family and colleagues “what I saw” when in Japan.

Perspective and Zen Buddhism.

Here’s a post I did several months ago on Josetsu’s “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd,” a 600 year old riddle and lesson in often-whimsical Zen philosophy and practices.  There’s no single answer to the riddle, but as I mention in that post, to me the most compelling — and sort of obvious — answer is bound-up in perspective.    When the moment’s right, or when I can make the moment, with a photo, I try to give a different or slightly off-center perspective on and with my photos.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that a photo will literally be “off-center” (though that’s often the case), as I like taking “straight-on” shots, too.  But I like a photo, like a good painting or film scene, to be balanced, even if asymmetric.

Sometimes I rotate or flip the photo to — literally — put a “spin” on it that was not there when the shutter clicked.  I like taking “Group Pictures” from the side, where the subjects are not looking at the camera (or, at least not my camera), either just before or just after the “primary” photo’s been taken.  Many times this perspective shift this is not overly dramatic or obvious or overt to the casual viewer . . . just a little off-beat.  See if you catch that in these.  Like a catfish.  Catching one.  With a gourd…

From the Shinagawa Prince Hotel. Tokyo. 2010.


Squid. Tsukiji Market. Tokyo. 2010.


Students. Ryoanji Temple. 2010.


Gallery. Kyoto. 2009.


Astro Boy ("Tetsuwan Atomu"). Kyoto Station. 2009.


A different perspective of and on the Taj Mahal. Agra, India. 2007.


Note:  I took this photo from about 15-20 feet away.  The mask laid in a box which itself sat on a table of brick-a-brack.  I just cropped the photo and enhanced and softened the color a bit to make this into a photo entirely different from a piece of cast-off theater-ware at a flea market.


Yamanote Line. Station. Tokyo. 2010.


One remove's one's shoes before entering. Ryoanji. Kyoto. 2010.

Note:  more traditional photos of Ryoanji Temple tend to look more like this.  Here’s my more comprehensive post on Ryoanji Temple.

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Depth of Field/Focus (and my twist on it) & Shingon Buddism.

In the commentary track to his 1998 film Ronin (a favorite film which, ironically enough, was shot in France, not Japan), late, great director John Frankenheimer talks about his use of and love for “Depth of Field,” (generally, keeping things in both the foreground and background in focus).  Quoting Frankenheimer:

[I use] a lot of wide angle  lenses that give you a great depth of focus. . . It’s particularly effective [in film] when you’re working with groups. . .  I’ve always been an advocate of depth of field.  I love what depth of field gives you.  Which is the fact that you have something going on in the shot at all times….

This also, perhaps especially, works well for still photography, providing the photo’s viewer various ways and options to see the shot.  Different little micro-stories can often be told in such a shot, various interpretations can be made in and of the photo.  Thus the viewer’s invited to be more engaged with the photo and makes a static thing —  a 2-D photo  — into a “world” in which the viewer can enter.  In Tantric/Shingon Buddhism it’s called “Entering the World of the Mandala,” to wit:  “This mandala, like the painted mandalas found on the walls of all Shingon temples, is a symbolic representation of reality. Just as a priest in meditation may “enter” a visualized mandala to venerate the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas depicted on it, priests and laypeople can visit Koyasan and enter the mandala.”

Often, though, I do a slight twist on, a variation on the theme of, Depth of Field in that I’ll leave the background (and sometimes foreground) out of focus, yet will have that scene be just as interesting or engaging to the eye, and sometimes more intriguing, as the presumptively “More Interesting Thing” in focus and in the foreground of the shot.  Again, this compels the viewer to be more engaged, which is what I’m looking and hoping for.  See what you think about “various stories” and how Depth of Field (or variations on it) is used in the following photos:

Tiennamen Square, Beijing 2006. Photo of former Ala Gov Bob Riley (being briefed by our guide, "Charlie"), or Steve in background?


Mumbai, India. 2007. Mixing foreground and background...


Priests at Kurodani Temple. Kyoto. 2009.


From the Taj Hotel Business Center. Mumbai. 2008.


Middle School Student. Hiroshima Peace Park Museum. 2008.


My homage to both dualing points of focus and to a oft-used technique of John Frankenheimer’s:

Dan Rather. Denver. August 2008.

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Josetsu’s “Catching a Catfish with a Gourd”

An Iconic Painting. . .

It’s called Catching a Catfish with a Gourd (in Japanese it’s called the Hyonenzu / 瓢鮎図). It was painted c. 1413 (during the Muromachi Period, 1336-1573 – depending on who’s counting) by Zen Priest Josetsu (如拙) of Kyoto’s Taizo-in Temple.  Its current home is the Kyoto National Museum of Art although it’s still considered temple property.

I was introduced to Catching a Catfish with a Gourd in September 1984, in a Japanese Art History class at Kansai Gaidai in Hirakata, Japan.  I’m just one of 100s and 100s of thousands (probably millions) who over the past 600 years have fallen for this painting, and its sublime and profound lessons.  Catching a Catfish with a Gourd offers what we today call a “teaching moment.”

It’s not only a beautiful painting, it’s humorous, mischievous, inspirational and offers-up a wince-making pun and perhaps even mildly scolds us when we tell ourselves something just can’t be done.  It’s sort of a pictorial koan.  Here’s a link to just the painting so you can study it and the question of how can one catch a catfish with a gourd.

. . . from an Emperor’s Riddle

The story behind Catching a Catfish with a Gourd begins with Emperor Ashikaga Yoshimochi’s enjoyment of koans and patronage of Kyoto’s monastic arts.  It was the Emperor who commissioned Josetsu to paint the somewhat nonsensical riddle, “How does one catch a catfish with a gourd?”  The result of that commission is Josetsu’s iconic work of art and spiritual punnery.

What’s more, Emperor Yoshimochi directed Josetsu’s fellow priests to weigh-in on the question, to bend their brains and imaginations to answer the question.  And the result of that directive was  31 poems from 31 Zen Buddhist priests from Kyoto’s most acclaimed Zen temples, each poem taking a stab at answering the riddle.  There’s no perfect answer.  I have my favorite one, though.  A hintperspective can make the difference in virtually everything.  Originally the painting, when presented to the Emperor, was mounted onto a small, Chinese-style standing screen, with the poems affixed to the screen’s reverse side.  Soon thereafter the painting and complementary poems were remounted onto a single hanging scroll.  


The Hyonenzu in scroll form  — 43 7/8 x 29 7/8 in (111.5 x 75.8 cm) —  with the 31 “answer poems” mounted above.  Note the red seal of each priest at the bottom of his poem:

Detail in black and white:

。     。     。

Post Script: another hint to my favorite answer to the riddle is found in a Grateful Dead song, “Scarlet Begonias” . . .

“Once in a while you can get shown the light

In the strangest of places, if you look at it right.”

True, that.