At first, I decided to go to the archives of Buddhadasa Intapanyo at the Railway Park in order to look through the works of K. Rabil Boonnak, a master teacher of photography who passed away a long time ago. This honorable gentleman was well known for the beautiful pictures he took, very sharply defined, especially pictures of archaeological sites. He also had opportunities to travel with the Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa to take photos of ancient ruins and the art of India which he studied for the building of the Mahorasop ‘theatre of the soul’ at Wat Suan Mokkh in Chaiya.
In fact, the surviving works of K. Rabil were few. Mostly there were simple images of plaster or cement copies of Indian figures. There were no images of architecture or views of sprawling ancient sites at all, so I came back empty-handed. (I figured I would have to go to the files of the Fine Arts Dept. or to the National Archives.) Just at this time, however, I received from K. Karoonpol Panich, the nephew of the Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa, three impressive pocketbook-sized volumes entitled บทพระธรรม ประจำภาพ (boat’-pra-tam’ / pra-jum-parp’, ‘illustrated dharma teachings’). The books have been published in honor of the centenary of the Venerable Ajahn Buddhadasa.
That was it! When I went through the photos, which were mostly black and white, I found they were all pictures of the Venerable Ajahn himself – no one else. You could call them ‘self portrait’ photos, and you wouldn’t be wrong. The pictures had Dharma poems, almost all of which he composed himself. If one considers the matter carefully, the author of these photographs is no ordinary person. He would have to have been someone who understood very well media or the power of photographs. Importantly, this person was not just anyone; he was a monk who was truly ‘enlightened’ – a rather amazing term!
Before I consider the matter more deeply, I would like to present the interview from my chat with Phra Maha Boonchu Jit-Banyo, of the Office of the Sangkha, Tahn Wandee Charoensuk, Thakam District, Bang Khun Tien, who was Tahn Buddhadasa’s photographer when he was still alive. Tahn Maha Boonchu had a very important role in creating the photographs which illustrate this set of books. (The interview took place on 23 Oct., 2012.)
Answer: In January, 1970, as I remember.
Question: Regarding this photography, what did the Venerable Buddhadasa do? How did he invite you to come?
Answer: It was in my second year in the monkhood in 1971. There was a newly ordained monk, Phra Nuaka from Wat Chonprathan (Nontaburi) there. In one year 10 monks stay at Suan Mokkh; the center has a quota. One monk had brought a camera with him. He asked for help, wanted someone to take pictures of him when he left the monkhood. At that time Tahn Buddhadasa was there: that was the start of it. I just pressed the shutter – only that. That monk would set up the tripod and just asked me to press the shutter when he was in the ceremony in which he left the monkhood. But that sparked the fire of my interest in photography. However, just after that there was another monk working in Tahn’s cell (kuti). By trade, he worked in construction. He was interested in cameras, and he had heard that Tahn Buddhasa used to take pictures. He suggested in passing that we ought to borrow that camera. We talked about it because we didn’t think anyone would dare to borrow it. So we agreed [that we would try].
Tahn Prasit was a monk; I myself was only a novice. We agreed that Luang P’ Prasit would be the one to go and borrow Tahn’s camera because he had helped Than in the work of building a fishpond around the monks’ cells, and I would go and borrow the tripod from Tahn Acharn. As it turned out, we were wrong [to be afraid]. When Tahn Prasit asked to borrow the camera, Than Acharn said not a word. The camera he loaned us was a twin lens Shinoflex, not an Ikoflex. They were similar brands. I borrowed Tahn’s tripod, but it was broken. It couldn’t be raised up properly because that part of the tripod that managed it didn’t work. Tahn said that if I had the wit to fix it, I was welcome to use it. Well, I had some small skill and sense to make simple repairs on little things. So I took it and worked to make it right, till at last it was serviceable again. Then I borrowed Tahn’s camera and took a few pictures with it.
In those days, the film was 120 and rather expensive, and you only got 12 pictures. When the pictures had been taken, I returned the camera to Tahn Acharn. If you are asking was he interested in the business of taking photographs, I would say [yes] he was. Tahn said that he had been keeping an eye out all the time since I had come to borrow the camera. He had thought it was just nonsense. But he now suggested that I take pictures of Tahn himself. That would be better and more useful. He said he would teach me how to develop the pictures, too, so that money would not be wasted on the cost of developing. That was how it started.
About three days later, Tahn called me to his cell and opened a cabinet. At the time I was at Suan Mokkh, Tahn had stopped taking pictures. Some of the monks who formerly had acted as Tahn’s ‘ assistants had left the monkhood already. Some had gone back to Bangkok. There had been monks helping Tahn with his work before I came along. He said. ‘Oh! Go into that room.’ In the room I found equipment for enlarging photos safely wrapped up in plastic. The monk who had been doing the work, before he left, covered it all very securely. When I uncovered it and brought it out, Tahn took me to see his equipment cabinet where he kept the various necessary chemicals. At first, he wouldn’t let me take pictures: he had me mix the chemicals beforehand. Tahn Acharn had developing fluid for black and white film. It turns out that he had good relations with a photography shop in Amphoe Chaiya. The owner from the shop came to visit him often. Tahn Acharn taught me to mix the developing chemicals. I can remember three of them very well: sodium sulfide, sodium carbonate and hydroquinone. The man from that shop in Chaiya had said with a laugh, ‘Master, these three chemicals aren’t likely to produce any images for you. You’ll need four or five other chemicals. The standard mix usually requires eight chemical ingredients. You only have three!’
Then Tahn told me, ‘You just watch now. These three are more than enough already for developing the film.’ He taught me how to mix the chemicals properly. It was not pre-mixed developing fluid. He mixed it just by using a measuring spoon from a can of Bear Brand powdered milk. He said that kind of spoon gave just the right amount, but the rate varied: about two spoonfuls of sulfide; three of sodium carbonate; and one spoonful of hydroquinone, if my memory is right. (It was a long time ago!) After that, Tahn would take up his camera, the camera which he always used. It was a Yashica Mat, another twin lens. He would take his camera and shoot. Then he would wait till 6 in the evening,and then teach me how to develop the film. About Tahn Acharn’s method of developing film when he was teaching: he didn’t soak the film in a covered container. He would mix the chemicals in an enamel pot. That’s how he did it, then drawing the film through the fluid, back and forth, up and down.
Question: Then what?
Answer: At first, I practiced with an enameled dish, gripping the photo top or bottom with some tweezers. The darkroom was in the front cell, where Tahn stored his things. It was not a special darkroom in any sense. It was dark because it was night: I could only do developing at night. Tahn taught me how to do it, pulling the images back and forth and then putting them into plain water. The stages the Acharn followed didn’t include a stop bath (i.e. in chemicals to halt the process). He just went ahead and put in the hypo (which fixed the image). The owner of the photography studio at Amphoe Chaiya regarded all this as incredible. He said he went through more stages than this! But Tahn Acharn did it in this abbreviated way. It was quite amazing.
After bathing the images, Tahn would bring them for me to see. The man from the photography shop was surprised, never having known that just this minimal mix of chemicals could bring the images forth. And Tahn Acharn’s film worked well, too. The film size was just right, not too thick, because if it was too thick, it would cause too much contrast in the image. But Tahn Acharn’s pictures came out just right. That was the reason he was able to teach me how to do it.
The next day he taught me how to print and enlarge the film. He used the same set of chemicals to bathe the film and to wash the images. Being rather brusque, he taught me only one time. The room set aside as a darkroom for printing the pictures was rather hot. Tahn Acharn would teach me there for about half an hour: open a light about like this; turn down the diaphragm of the enlarger about like this; set the timer. Don’t use a watch – just estimate. When the first example was finished, he said that black and white film could be seen under two kinds of lights – red light and green light. I can’t remember if Panchromatic used green or red. There was another kind – ‘autochromatic.’ I can’t remember if it needed red or green light, but that was what one needed to know to be able to use light to check the images that would appear. When the image appeared to a certain degree, then you would put it into the chemical bath. Tahn taught us for about 30 minutes.
After that, Than had practice lessons for me with some old film that he used to take. So I tried my hand at it. Then he would critique the results, for example, saying that one had got too much light, another not enough light. Before I was able to get it right, I went through whole boxes of paper, but Tahn Acharn knew, and he knew that I was burning to learn how to do it. I used up all the paper which had been bought in Chaiya. He tested me on 10 pictures each night. Then he would critique: the light is too strong here; for this one, you didn’t adjust the diaphragm down enough; this one was too long in the chemical bath, etc.
Question: When did Tahn Acharn Buddhadasa first become interested in photography?
Answer: That, I don’t know. But I heard that Tahn had been interested in this sort of thing for quite a long time – since the old Suan Mokkh at Tambol Poomreuang. The Master was always experimenting, trying out some pictures or taking pictures using this or that film. He couldn’t get professional services, so he had to do it himself. That’s how it started – ever since the time when I started practicing with Tahn. Many pictures I took to the shops in Amphoe Chaiya to get printed and they wouldn’t print them. They said they couldn’t. They were spoiled. The film was too thick. They wouldn’t take the job. And another thing, in those days, it was very slow at a shop to get your own pictures developed. The fastest time would be seven days before you could get black and white, but most of the time it took 15 days! Not that they were slow in their developing process, but those upcountry shops had to wait till they had enough orders like that to make it worth their while to develop the whole lot. That was the reason that Tahn had to manage it himself. That was how it got started.
Question: As far as you knew Tahn Acharn Buddhadasa, what was his attitude toward photography and the new technology?
Answer: He said that every means of spreading Dharma could be useful. So he used them all. Suan Mokkh had rooms and equipment. In those days, for me, staying there in my first year, (…???) Wat Suan Mokkh back then had no highway passing in front of it. There was just one little road coming from the Amphoe Chaiya station. You could say it was as if it was a very raw sort of wilderness. Once inside Suan Mokkh, however, there was the Mahorasop Building (which we referred to as the ‘theatre’). He had a movie projector and a slide projector. We had a tape recorder. We had an overhead projector. This was quite incredible in those days. Very modern indeed. I heard that all the equipment had come from the Ministry of Education.
Question: About what year was that?
Answer: The Mahorasop Building was about 2505 / 1962. I think these things were donated at that time. They had everything: they even installed air conditioning!
Answer: OOee! Tahn Acharn had been comfortable with technology for a long time, long since he came to the old Suan Mokkh (Poomreuang). He felt that it was helpful in the work [of teaching Dharma]. It reduced the distances over which explanation was required. As when Tahn Acharn explained Batija Samu Pada* . You can show slides which explain [the concept] to the people watching. Then he didn’t need to go there himself to give the explanation (which tired him). (* The 12 linked causes of existence / suffering.)
Tahn used to explain that preaching Dharma using mixed means with pictures was a longstanding practice, since the Ayudthya period, when they did mural paintings. But Tahn Acharn could do better than that. [Suan Mokkh] provided little booklets with pictures copied off those mural paintings. Tahn Acharn was an example: he was way ahead of his time. [Suan Mokkh] turned Dharma teaching into pictures. They were representations, characters in a play. They gave pleasure to those who looked at them, even as they were giving knowledge and understanding.
For example, telephones: he didn’t use them. While I was there, some people came forward to offer many telephones and intercoms for Tahn Acharn to use in calling the monks, because the monks at Suan Mokkh are quite scattered. But Tahn Acharn didn’t use them. He preferred to send a novice to contact other monks. That’s what he said. So that particular set of donations which came when Tahn was there went to waste. They all just rusted away. He didn’t use them. He was happy to use novices for those errands instead. Things went as he preferred. There were no calls by intercom. Tahn didn’t go along with the age of telephones.
Question: And about the book, บทพระธรรมประจำภาพ ? (boat’-pra-tam / pra-jum-parp’, ‘illustrated dharma teachings’).
Answer: In those days, Suan Mokkh generated our own electricity. We didn’t get power from outside. We had power from 6pm to 10 pm. [Then] I would be in the darkroom. When I finished what Tahn Acharn had ordered each day, the next morning I would take the pictures to him. After looking at them, Tahn would put them on show in front of his cell. At that time, Tahn Acharn’s cell was still in the front. He wasn’t in a small cell. He would put them out, telling the monks who were there that this was the work of the novice, Boonshu (chuckling). After that, when everything was clearly getting straightened out and things were beginning to take shape, Tahn Acharn began to ask me to take the kinds of pictures he needed. He was the model. We started doing that in year 15 (1972).