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A Buddhist Approach to Photography at the C. G. Jung Center

Ray Eigen Ball's "Slogan"
Jeannine Swallow's "Dot in Space"

Got Miksang?

Not a new brand of yogurt or probiotic snack food, Miksang has to do with photography. “Has to do” because it is called “contemplative photography,” an approach to seeing with perception unfettered by informed context, without bias, filters, or formulas. Based on the Shambhala and Dharma Art teachings of the late meditation master, artist, and scholar Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Miksang is a Tibetan word translated as “good eye,” meaning the mind is uncluttered by preoccupation, relaxed and open, clear, brilliant, precise.

Okay, once that’s established how to actually take photographs in that way? When almost catatonically bombarded by imagery one can hold in the hand, all of it framed by some form of rectangle, one is at pains to try unbinding presumptions from established visual formats meant to create a practically un-hyphenated field of emotional distraction focused mainly on want.

Using the digital camera as a kind of portal to a higher state of consciousness, Miksang “seeing” gives the practitioner the opportunity to pay attention to visual experience before the “labeling mind” takes over perception. That sense of continuous distraction is a constant challenge to a relaxed, settled mind, prompting a feeling of being off-balanced, overwhelmed with the need to keep up with events…that somehow something needs to be done or happen.

Here is where Miksang comes into the picture, so to speak: Miksang is being deliberately open and present in the moment, value neutral, beyond like or dislike—a visual corollary to sitting meditation, which seeks to still the mind’s chatter and sound wash surrounding the teeming, careening moments of contemporary life.

Intending only to report on the practice, I arrived at the C. G. Jung Center early one Saturday morning to meet with 10 Shambhala Buddhist participants—all at least somewhat familiar with the digital camera. The session leader was a friend who insisted I participate in the Miksang practice, so after an initial period summarizing pictorial intentions, I borrowed a little camera and joined the group, now gently set loose upon the land to find beauty in “color”—hot, cool, soft, bright—a Level One exercise.

I took my first hour’s walk, my mission to see color, but not just color: its conjunction, its adjacency, its contrast, its immediacy of incident, its momentary nonce—what Miksang photographerss call the “flash,” a photographic point of reference perceived as the equivalent of the moment optically seen, once passed never the same. I squeezed one off, an image cropped to its constituent components…just color, its impact undiluted by ambient surrounds, unburdened by reference to scale or visual weight, not accessorized by comparison of whole form or architectural angularity. Still, I needed a little mantra to stay on the path of seeing color, so I hummed a Jobim tune under my breath as I walked. Walls, car’s paint jobs, variations in building surface, dumpsters, road cones, all manner of obvious and ordinary street matter began to take on specificity. After an hour of finding pictures primarily about color, gradually getting the hang of focus and light on the little red camera, I returned from my sortie. Other members began to drift back to the Jung Center. We gathered around a large table, where a savvy group member patiently fed each participant’s memory card into a laptop, scanning them for viewing sequentially. On pads and cushions we repositioned ourselves comfortably for the slide show of our hour’s efforts. At various points in our leader’s critique, Level 1 morphed into Level 2 or even Level 3, depending on the proportion of desired visuals in the image. Then too was the higher sense of “good eye,” the “absolute eye” which parsed the image to an indefinite point beyond the sum of the picture’s parts. In the course of taking pictures each of us could create a picture in the “absolute eye” category without striving for it.

In fact it was the absence of intent that I had to keep reminding myself was the point of the workshop. Each exercise level propelled me forward to a point where I began to find a locus of a moment, a sense of the image immutably present. Point and shoot point and shoot. Take a breath let out half and punch the shutter. One level was for color, one for pattern, another for light, and another for dot in space. Miksang was a kind of ego balancing act, an existential guessing game, with motivation drawn both from the work of fellow participants and the averaging of one’s aesthetic impressions—the slight competitive pressure coming from an internalized challenge—yet seeking to be in the moment of contemplation in a clear-seeing process of unrestrained awareness of surface quality, edges, reflections, the way light fastens to an object, creating depth, texture, clarity. Pride is hard to dismiss.

Currently the resulting photographs of the Miksang Level One practice are on display at the C. G. Jung Center through the month of August. On August 2, there will be an artist’s talk organized by curator Pat Pendleton. Miksang photo workshops are now being guided by Buffalo’s own Trudy Stern and Ray Ball, both of whom studied Miksang with John McQuade from Toronto. McQuade, a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche himself, brought the Shambhala Buddhist’s Miksang practice to North America in the 1970s.

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