Friday, August 16, 2013

'Tahn Buddadasa and the Language of Photography' Manit Sriwanichpoom in Siamrath Weekly, Yr.60, Vol.35, 17 - 23 May, 201-

Buddadasa and the Language of Photography

                If Tahn Buddadasa had not been a monk, he might have been an artist.  If it were today, we would have to call him a conceptual artist, a term for which there is no direct equivalent in Thai.  And he would be famous among the foremost in the Thailand for sure, because he was someone who, when he understood a task, would undertake it wholeheartedly, with vigor and determination.  A perfectionist, he would necessarily do things in good and perfect order; he would never do anything hastily.         

                Just imagine: when he was only 26 years old, he collected himself, calm and alone, receiving no visitors, no requests to perform priestly functions, but set himself to work.  All he did was earnestly translate the PhraTripidoke from Bali in search of the heart of Buddhism.  They referred to him as ‘that crazy monk’.

                Monks are artists are similar, from a certain perspective. They both have time each day for thinking, and are always with their thoughts, pondering this or that.  Of course, imagination goes along well in all kinds of ways – constantly chatting and arguing with oneself.  The difference is that monks try to understand life and seek a way out of their own suffering, while artists – though some of them may be like monks – don’t wear monastic robes.  Few people, in history or nowadays, think about actually putting an end to all suffering.  Quite the reverse, in fact.  People immerse themselves in oceans of suffering as if their souls were going on adventures.  They suffer terrible pain and torment.  Sometimes they even go mad.  Monks have monkish desires, Tahn Buddadasa was heard to say long ago.  And I would add, if I may, that artists have artistic desires.

                So it is not strange that the self-portrait photographs which appear in ‘Photographic Essays on Dhamma’ (published 1st edition in 2005), a collection of photos with poems by Tahn Buddadasa Bhikku, is full of black and white photos of one very fat old monk wearing glasses with heavy black rims, carrying a cane, and walking about the grounds of a monastery.  Sometimes he stands quite still, deep in thought.  Sometimes he gazes fixedly at a fully blossoming lotus.  Sometimes he sits gazing absent-mindedly away into the darkness of the woods.  And sometimes he sits on a big stone, his eyes closed, in meditation.  All of these actions tend to be boring and monotonous. There is nothing exciting or stirring in them at all.  The things monks do, the things Tahn Buddadasa was doing, all appear solitary and reclusive, and are calls to loneliness.

                In fact, in 1972, the year we began the project of the pictorial Dhamma, Novice Boonchu (Mahaboonchu Jitboonyo at present) was the assistant photographer.  He did the developing and enlarging and made ‘Pootatas’ at age 66 not a little famous, especially among pious Buddhists who venerate the real Dhamma – but not the ones who love magic and use mediums or try to predict winning lottery numbers.

  There were annoying events and activities which invited Tahn Buddadasa to take part.  In particular, they asked him to preach Dhamma: in his youth he had been famous for his preaching.  Tahn didn’t have the novice, Boonchu, take poems of him preaching for the Dhamma poems.  There are no pictures presenting him doing formal teaching of the Dhamma, no picture of him followed by lines or crowds of disciples to embellish his charisma, no pictures of him with a ceremonial fan showing his rank .(He was at that time Phra Tetewisutmethi Phraracha Kanachunthep.)  Tahn didn’t bring any such photographs to put with the poems.

                I think Tahn Acharn intended to tell our readers that human beings need to slip away to solitary places, and to separate themselves.  Being alone, they will find time to think about the lives they have been living.  In two or three pictures taken in attitudes of relationship, there is no stiffness or uniformity.  For example, in one picture Tahn stands with his back turned to the viewer while his other monk self stands further off on the opposite side of the pond.  The smaller figure turns his head and looks at the viewer.  Or two figures of Tahn Buddadasa sit on opposite sides of a tree, each his leaning back against it.  Even when Tahn Buddadasa faces and confronts himself, his figures don’t take the same pose.  They are not mirror images – they are different – as if they were two Buddadasas.

Wouldn’t it have been easier to look for a disciple to come and act out the part of the second person?   Certainly, it would have been easier to take the picture and to develop and enlarge it.  As it was,  novice Boonchu had to stand the camera carefully on a tripod and not let it wobble at all when taking a picture of Tahn Acharn.  Then Tahn would have to shift for another picture to another carefully designated position in front of the same camera.  And he would assume the position he had in mind. If there were to be three persons, three shots would be necessary.  When the film was developed, the two or three negatives had to be developed on the same sheet of photographic paper, a process that required great care indeed.  The paper had to be planned in two or three parts and the lighting could not overlap or conflict. You can see that the whole process became quite difficult.  There was always a high probability that something would go wrong and the picture wouldn’t work out.

                Making these double images was challenging, and the boldness of Tahn Buddadasa and his students was startling.  Even so, Than’s poems and pictures did get people’s attention, for example, the Dhamma teaching in Book 2, page.675, ‘Don’t Do Wrong.’

                                The elder monk says, what good have I?
                                Who knows the heart of another?  My young friends
                                Why love anyone?  You get used to them!
                                It’s more comfortable than hating.  That’s it!

                A poem which both asks and answers the question is a self-dialogue which reaffirms for us that getting to the heart of the Dhamma must be done by oneself.  Separating  a body [pictorially] into two or three persons in order to carry on such an internal conversation is no different from looking at ones own face in the mirror and asking oneself every morning: who am I?

Another set of pictures which, if you look deeply, seems to reflect in an interesting way the state of mind of Tahn Buddadasa and his ideas about  “myself” and “what is mine”.   I refer to these works as the monk Phra Maha Boonchu did: the ruined pictures.  They are the result of the humidity at Suan Moke.  The photos which were developed and left in a pile together became moldy and stuck together. Attempts to separate them caused them to tear and their surfaces to disintegrate.  Mold had eaten away the faces of Tahn Acharn till he was no longer recognizable.  Had it been anyplace or anyone else, these photos would probably have been thrown out.  But Tahn Buddadasa was able to bring them to use with his Dhamma poems.  For example, in a chapter about the emotion of meditation (Dhamma Chapter for the pictures in Book 1, Introduction):

                                These verses of Scripture, each verse, is able to specify
                                Emotion, mindfulness, conveniently.
                                One verse only, each day, step by step
                                Look closely to see the reality, the ordinary.

                Tahn very carefully selected pictures of himself which were ruined.  You can hardly recall who it is in the pictures, but they went into the Introduction, with the invitation to look closely and know the reality…in the ordinary.  Such words as these inform and give warning, not only to Tahn himself, but at the same time to the reader.

                I believe that Tahn Buddadasa was very careful indeed when he chose pictures for the Dhamma poems.  As I have noted from the start, if Tahn had been famous like some celebrity monk, the choices of photos would have gone another way.  The pictures of him would have been in color rather than in black and white.  Some special technique from those days would have been needed to create an ‘aura’ around him, and the color would have been intensified to incredible beauty so he would seem to be awesome, floating  in the sky, full of grace and totally satisfying for everyone looking at the picture!

                Tahn Buddadasa was a monk who understood art very expertly.  It’s called visual literacy’.   Tahn studied interpretation and wrote books about Thai painting found in koi longbooks, Indian sculpture, and paintings with riddles such as the Chinese and Japanese have made.  The pictures he made were controlled and were intentionally ambiguous.  He used old photos even when he was still a young monk. He was able to write poems which reflect emotion.  In those days, it was a scary thing to do, as for example, in the poem, ‘Waterfall!’ (Book 1)

  Though it is cold, icy cold, stabbing, stinging,
                                It twists in alone, the fire of desire.
                                A cold fire, a pleading, deceitful fire,
                                It tricks people , queerly and frighteningly, taking hold of us.

This is another work of Thammasilpa,  Buddadasa Bhikku, which is left behind for us to study.

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