Interview with Phra Maha Boonchu Jitboonyo; Photographer คูบุ่ญ of Tahn Buddadasa, continued from vol.27, Fri. 22 - Thur. 28 Mar. 2013
Question: As for yourself, nowadays, do you still take pictures?
Answer: Once in a great while. Dip into it every two or three months. Afraid the camera will get broken. (heh heh) I don't do much photography now. There's no one to take pictures since Acharn Buddadasa. It's difficult with Luang Poh Panya (Nantapiku). When Luange Poh Panya went up to Chiengmai, I would go with him and take pictures for him.
Question: But were they of a different kind?
Answer: Luang Poh Panya wanted a record of ordinary events, for example, when he went somewhere to preach. I would go to take photos. But he didn't want me to take pictures of him.
Question: When Tahn Acharn Buddadasa carried out his duties as a monk such as going out seeking alms, preachings, things like that. Did you take photos of such things?
Answer: Sometimes. Not ever time, because later on a functionary from Surat Thani TV station came to take photos of Tahn to show on air. I wasn't involved , didn't have to do anything. It was just a few recordings of various little events.
I'd just say this: I worked for Tahn Acharn Buddadasa, taking photo for him. But do you know, if I was going to take some special pictures for Tahn, asking Tahn to come was not easy. Tahn would ask, 'Why? What do you have to take pictures for!' (heh heh)
Question: It means that whenever you took pictures, Tahn had to know the reason for it?
Answer: Tahn used it himself. If I ever thought it would be fun...oh, my. I would want Tahn Ajarn to pose with some sort of symbol or sign, and he would right away be asking, 'Why take such a photo? What's the use of it? Explain, please!' So, for most of the pictures we took, it was Tahn who called me to do it. 'OK, be ready at nine o'clock. Come along, Shu. We're going there...in front of the Rong Mahorasop. That's where we'll be shooting.'
But if you said, 'Acharn, sir, are you free today, sir? I'd like Tahn to come for a shoot, taking pictures at such-and-such place.' He would say,' Shoot what? Why? For what? Explain yourself!' (heh heh)
A few times Tahn did come. He would come sometimes. It was pretty much a fluke, though. For something special, he would agree to it, but rarely. Not like Luang Poh Panya. Tahn was considerate of monks or laymen who took photos. Sometimes they would be taking pictures and he would make a suggestion himself, 'How about this? Let's try over there...' Luang Poh Panya was fun. They were so different
Question: So, how many years did it take, this work?
Answer: I took pictures for Tahn since 1972 until 1991, one year before Tahn passed away. I was still going down to Suan Moke.
He would say, 'How many days will you be here for this trip?'
Ten days, sir.
Oh! Good! We'll get started tomorrow! (heh heh)
Tahn's projects - there were two - pictures illustrating the Dhamma - Tahn was going to publish many copies. Later, Tahn had another edition which was unfinished. Tahn had a letter sent to me. He wanted pictures of animal faces in various attitudes. He wrote the letter himself to put into the Dhamma book. I tell you, the things were rather extreme, too. He used to have me take a photo of a dog's face, just the face. He asked if I had a way of shooting the dog's face so it seemed to show mindfulness! (heh heh) A frontal view! I asked Tahn Acharn what he was going to do with such a photo. Tahn said we would put it together with the words, 'Don't be boastful: dogs are also capable of mindfulness.' In any case, the pictures didn't work out. I took almost 100 such photos. Couldn't use them. Tahn said that not one of them appeared to show 'mindfulness'. They simply looked as if they were grinning, craven or tired (heh heh). That set wasn't successful.
Question: Tahn used animals as reminders of mindfulness?
Answer: And there was another picture he wanted me to take of a water buffalo laying in a pool of mud. This one I was able to do for Tahn. He had the text all ready to go with it: 'Wallowing in the world of righteousness is like being stuck in the mud.' Something like that.
The year that Tahn passed away, in May, after his birthday, Than had begun to be ill. I came down from Wat U-mong (Chiengmai) to report to Tahn Acharn: than Acharn, sir, I have now taken almost all the photos that you ordered.
And Tahn said, 'What else is to be done? It's time to finish up now. My eyes can't see anything.'
Tahn was suffering from advanced diabetes at that time, so his vision was affected. That was his last word. We stopped from that day. As a result after that, the photos we had taken were just piled up. Not many months later, Tahn passed away. I took photos for Tahn up until that last day. The project just shut down.
There is one I haven't told about yet. Tahn Acharn Buddadasa forbade us to use the flash when taking his picture. (heh heh) He said the flash spoiled his mood. The feeling of the picture was spoiled. He didn't want it. He wouldn't let me use a flash. And he didn't want me to use a tripod either. I don't know about Tahn. When I brought the tripod, he would complain. Finish, and that's that! He was like that. The emotion he showed in photos, sometimes people just can't hold a pose for a long time. You just had to take the picture without hesitating. So, if there was fiddling with a tripod, cranking it up or down, the emotion Tahn was expressing wouldn't last very long and he would get annoyed. He would tell me to just go ahead and take the picture and not play around with the camera! If I saw it, I sometimes thought it was funny.
And Tahn said the flash made the picture look so very hard. Then the emotion needed in the photo was not there. That's what he said. The emotion in the photo was spoiled. Tahn Acharn really had the feelings of an artist. Very much so. We had a flash, but he wouldn't let me use it. Unless it was a picture of some event or other. Then he would permit it. But it had to be done as he ordered - no harsh lighting. Use natural light: Tahn was very strict indeed about things which he knew well. He was quite frank. He just told you straight out. Open the lens to 5.6, shutter speed 60 precisely. (heh, heh) In those days, the film was not ISO. It was ASA with speed of no more than 50.
Tahn Acharn Buddadasa took many pictures because Tahn went to India and Khmer. He took thousands of photos. He was quite skilled because he went to India; he went with K. Rabin Bunnag. They were both taking pictures. When Tahn went in those days it was quite tough, a real struggle. And he went for many months to take photos. It's sad, really; most of his pictures were ruined. Suan Moke tried to collect them together. Tahn told me. Tahn criticized Acharn Rabin Bunnag. Tahn said, 'K. Rabin was so fastidious. He was more patient than us. Before he could take some of his pictures, we had to wait for clouds to pass by. We had taken two rolls of pictures before K.Rabin had even taken one!' (heh heh)
Question: Really! A monk should be more patient!
Answer: Patience for Dhamma, Tahn had already. But some old habits couldn't be corrected. If we study the history of the disciples in the annals of Buddhism, it's not so strange [for monks]. One disciple, when talking with local people, would finish with '...you bastards'. (ไอ้ภ่อย) (heh heh) The people went to the Lord Buddha to complain, asking how a monk could be like that! The man was a very good disciple, but how could he use such vulgar language? The Lord Buddha said there was no ill effect for this monk because he was already enlightened. He used to be a real bum. It was a speech habit he could not break. (heh heh) Tahn Acharn was like that: it was his habit, but there was no bad effect on a monk like him because it didn't arise out of craving or desire. It was just a habit of speech.
Question: So, when you worked together, how was it?
Answer: Later on I could keep up well enough. At first, Tahn used to grumble, 'Haven't you taken the picture yet?' (heh heh) Sometimes he wanted to use an emotion as a kind of Dhamma riddle. For example, there was a tree which bent and leaned to one side. Tahn Acharn went and sad down by that tree and then leaned in the opposite direction. I was all wrapped up in focusing the camera and getting the lightng right, which annoyed Tahn Acharn. When was I going to take the picture? There he sat, leaning over till he began to ache all over, and he said as much. But the picture came out well. The tree leaned this way, but Tahn leaned the other way - as ifTahn was being hindered or impeded by something.
Question: Speaking of picture taking, Tahn was very serious about it, wasn't he.
Answer: If you looked at Tahn's equipment you wouldn't be surprised. Tahn was really very intent on this. Even with mixing chemicals. The shop owner in Amphoe Chaiya was taken aback. He used readymade chemical mixes for his pictures. But Phra Acharn mixed them himself! And the results were good. Used to hire that shop to make postcard sized pictures, but for enlarging head shots of Tahn to postcard size, the Chaiya shop said they couldn't do it. It would be too expensive, as if it were a much bigger picture. Tahn Acharn wouldn't have it, though. All he wanted was postcard size. I still didn't know what he was trying to do. But when the shop wouldn't take the assignment, Tahn told me to try to get the job done. Tahn said, 'How can it be done? Lift up the enlarger as high as you can. Just get Tahn's face to fill the postcard. The picture wasn't to be big in size. He said to enlarge it so the grain was visible. Then I understood. "Tahn explains in the CD. (heh heh) It worked. The picture that I regarded as spoiled was just what Tahn wanted. But, all the same, what I managed was not really exactly what Tahn had intended.
Question: Was Phra Acharn very strict
Answer: Phra Acharn Buddadasa was a man with a sense of humor. But people didn't know what to think about Tahn's intimidating strictness. Tahn Acharn had a sense of humor, but not like ours. Tahn was always chuckling, but he didn't double over in laughter like we do. Tahn didn't laugh as heartily as the common people do. At most it was just a chuckle - a little 'heh heh.'
There is one other thing: Tahn didn't want to be photographed full frontal face, and I don't really know why. Sometimes he would not look at the camera at all. Maybe it was because shooting frontally was placing too much emphasis on the individual.
There was a time I was at Wat U-Mong and got the idea that Wat U-Mong was a center for spreading Dhamma. So I thought that we could record Tahn's Dhamma talks and sell them in the name of the Buddha Nikom Foundation. So I went to talk to Tahn Acharn to ask permission and to ask for pictures of Tahn Acharn that I had taken to make into jacket covers for the tapes we planned to sell. Tahn said he would give permission for us to make the tapes, but, please! Tahn used that word. 'Please don't use a full face photo of me on the jacket [of the recording] ever'. That's what he said. Tahn said it wasn't appropriate. We should find another symbol as a substitute. I believed him. I looked for photos of people carrying the Wheel of Dhamma instead of a picture of Tahn Acharn. There were problems like this. There was another company selling tapes of Tahn's Dhamma talks, and they took a photo of Tahn Acharn from somewhere and put it on the jacket. As a result, it sold better than ours! We asked permission from the original, and then we couldn't sell as well because we didn't have his picture on the jacket! But Tahn said straight out: Don't! He asked us: Please! That may have been one reason that Tahn taught us not to invest too deeply in things: it is [too much] like interpreting [things generally] as if they were things to be acquired like consumer goods.
In 1972, Chao Chern Sirorote Sahaithammatarn at Chiengmai made a picture of a model he had made of Tahn at Suan Moke. He had it cast in copper in order to reverence it at the Wat U-Mong temple in Chiengmai. Tahn Sawai (Siwayano), who worked with the creation of sculptured figures at Suan Moke, had an idea that we should use this figure of Tahn Acharn. It was about 6 or 7 inches. Tahn Sawai had the monks reduce it. His model of Tahn was never displayed at Suan Moke while Tahn was still alive. Tahn wouldn't have it. He told them to pack it away in a box.
People made such images and presented them to Tahn, but he had them packed away. He did not allow them to be copied and disseminated. There was a layman - a respected elder relative of Tahn - who came for a long time asking Tahn for permission to cast from Acharn Sawai's model. It was small - only 6 or 7 inches. The image about from waist up; the face was realistic. The elder relation asked Tahn very politely and earnestly to please sign it. Than Achan said 'no'. He said that he had taught people never to get invested in things. But Tahn rejected the images of himself that they were brought to him like this; it wasn't right.
In fact,Tahn denied the likeness altogether. It was merely an image - only that. And Tahn said, 'This is not a picture of me. I won't sign it.' (heh heh) At that time, making these likenesses of revered monks was common. It was an epidemic which spread to Suan Moke. If Tahn hadn't been careful, Suan Moke would have been like every other place. At first, I had wondered if Tahn Acharn was not being too cruel. Afterwards, I thought that the practice was dangerous.
Ah...Tahn didn't teach like other monks. If he had taught like that it would be denying his own words. But nothing was needed. At Wat Cholphratahn, Luang Poh Panya resisted the making of such images, but he still had disciples who had them made secretly.
This unseemly practice of making such images has spread like an epidemic. Tahn Acharn tried to apply the brakes. Suan Moke couldn't escape it, though. Just that first picture that I was interested in making, Tahn would absolutely not allow any distribution. When he began losing strength at the end, many people were asking for such images.
Question: For this reason, "The Daily Dhamma Pictures" had to be made into books more than photos to be handed out.
Answer: That's right.
Question: Finally, we can conclude that Tahn Buddadasa Bhikku was the first Thai monk who brought the technology of photography to truly save religion.
Answer: I think he was the first. Oh! I forgot to say: I can state firmly that Tahn Acharn had been using a camera since the era of the Second World War. He was an amateur archaeologist. He used to make a book entitled 'รอบอ่าวบ้านดอน' (around bahn-dorn bay). The pictures illustrating this book,Tahn said he hadn't used fim to take the pictures because it was so hard to find and so expensive. So he used developing paper instead of film. He cut it and fit it into the camera. He would open the viewfinder space and let light in for a relatively long time. The pictures in this book were made on developing paper instead of film, because Tahn Acharn used the kind of camera they used for newspapers. It was very big. That was Tahn's sort of innovation. (heh, heh) Tahn only wrote about archaeology in the Sriwichai river basin.