The eye with the thousand arms

So the Canon camera was named after Chenrezig! (the latter being the Tibetan name for the Bodhisattva which has, let’s face it, a serious multiple-manifestation situation):

In 1933, when Precision Optical Instruments Laboratory was established, the name given to cameras manufactured on a trial basis at the time was Kwanon. This title reflected the benevolence of Kwanon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and embodied the Company’s vision of creating the best cameras in the world. The logo included the word with an image of “Kwanon with 1,000 Arms” and flames.

It’s an interesting assumption that “creating the best cameras in the world” is a reflection of infinite mercy.

I sometimes wonder, vaguely, about the nature of my compulsion to take photographs.

walking the dog

How the desire to capture, preserve, reproduce, hold on to something of a moment might be a form of grasping, in the sense of the second of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths:

Suffering’s Origin (Samudaya):
“Now this … is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to renewed existence, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there, that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for existence, craving for extermination.”

Is it grasping, I wonder, to remember and regret the time when there was a Tunnocks Tea Cake wrapper flattened onto the pavement in the shape of a ballerina swirling long red and white striped skirts and I didn’t have my camera? To remember and regret that I could not hold onto that moment, skewer it with a lens and pin it in the display cabinet that is flickr? Was it not a moment, like all other moments, to be lived in fully and succeeded by the next moment of the present continuous?

Then I looked at this teaching of Ajanh Sumedho on BuddhaNet, part of a series on The Four Noble Truths:

For example, I’ve always liked beautiful scenery. Once during a retreat that I led in Switzerland, I was taken to some beautiful mountains and noticed that there was always a sense of anguish in my mind because there was so much beauty, a continual flow of beautiful sights. I had the feeling of wanting to hold on to everything, that I had to keep alert all the time in order to consume everything with my eyes. It was really wearing me out! Now that was dukkha, wasn’t it?

I find that if I do things heedlessly – even something quite harmless like looking at beautiful mountains – if I’m just reaching out and trying to hold on to something, it always brings an unpleasant feeling. How can you hold on to the Jungfrau and the Eiger? The best you can do is to take a picture of it, trying to capture everything on a piece of paper. That’s dukkha; if you want to hold on to something which is beautiful because you don’t want to be separated from it – that is suffering.

And there’s also this:

When you really see the origin of suffering, you realise that the problem is the grasping of desire not the desire itself. Grasping means being deluded by it, thinking it’s really ‘me’ and ‘mine’.

Now we’re getting somewhere. This reminds me of something Tom Montag wrote recently about making music with friends:

I am playing music and sometimes the music plays me… And if we’re lucky, the songs will play us.

And, if I am luckier still, that bass will play me, and I will have found the last instrument I’ll ever need to buy.

When the music plays you, there’s nothing you can do but keep on playing, keep on playing, and hope it doesn’t end.

It is that magical limen of un/intentionality where the conscious mind seems to cease operating and a synthesis occurs between the internal and external, when with sudden sharp hot stink of fox It enters the dark hole of the head.

Or the dark hole of the camera. The boys call my camera the “black hole” because, they say, no light escapes from it. I prefer to think of it as a conduit porting light from one place to others.

That is how it is, sometimes. The world in all its infinite infinitesimal glory. “Look, look at the beauty. Love it. Rejoice, revel, revere.” That is how it is sometimes.

9 Replies to “The eye with the thousand arms”

  1. I told you you had the instinct of an artist. That’s the one true feeling: that there is something which can only come into the world through you, if youjust get yourself out of the way.

  2. Beautiful, prismatic and diamond insightful as always. Particularly loved the idea of a camera being a conduit of light from one place to another.

    Reading your post made me remember this, written in one of my journals on some retreat. It was also in response to a teaching by Ajahn Sumedho.

    ‘The opposite of attachment is compassion’ Ajahn Sumedho.
    Dhamma is everything in the universe, objects in space, people, life, death, thoughts, emotions, memories – just as it is. And swirling, whirling and mysterious as it is in totality, any single part of it is impermanent, unsatisfactory and non-intrinsic. So when you try and take a bit of it and make it permanent, try and make yourself happy with it or identify with it you’re going the samsaric route. And you’re going to suffer: minimum=dissatisfaction, maximum=real pain.

    Going the nirvanic route involves leaving it in its swirling whirling and mysterious entirity and not separating out any one bit (including your “self”). The opposite of attachment is compassion.

    I don’t think I’d couch it in quite such doctrinaire tones these days but it popped into my mind as some kind of counterpoint to your post. Perhaps because the idea of the compassionate Kanon undoes any of the suffering involved in grasping?

  3. You know one of the things that prompted these reflections was the discover that Matthieu Ricard is a photographer, but I totally failed to incorporate this into my half-formed musings. And now that I’ve actually read his entry on Wikipedia linked to above I find this:

    Ricard’s photographs of the spiritual masters, the landscape, and the people of the Himayalas have appeared in numerous books and magazines. Henri Cartier-Bresson has said of his work, “Matthieu’s spiritual life and his camera are one, from which springs these images, fleeting and eternal.”

    Nuff said 🙂

  4. What a great post.
    I’ve sometimes wondered if the compulsion to take photos isn’t grasping, especially when I’ve got behind with sorting them and they pile up as clutter.
    Something of the compulsion for me is in the tension between the sensation of perceiving the beauty and the limitations of framing it with the camera. ( Then occasionally things are more beautiful in the photograph ). The quest for more and more advanced technology to make better images is part of the striving. For me that’s limited by money, time, and having a crap head for retaining the kind of information necessary and knowing when to use it.
    I do look much more carefully than I did before I took photographs, less beauty escapes me( though perhaps speaking in terms of something escaping betrays a desire to grasp it…), even when I don’t have the camera with me. Sometimes acknowledging that something is not ‘photographable’ is part of fully accepting its beauty.
    I think I’m happier than I was before I did it, but I do wonder if one day I’ll be able to let it go, dispense with the conduit, and if I do will it be because I am frustrated with it, or because I have transcended it?
    I’ll stop blathering on now. That was a bloody good post.

  5. Something of the compulsion for me is in the tension between the sensation of perceiving the beauty and the limitations of framing it with the camera. ( Then occasionally things are more beautiful in the photograph ). The quest for more and more advanced technology to make better images is part of the striving. For me that’s limited by money, time, and having a crap head for retaining the kind of information necessary and knowing when to use it.

    That’s really interesting. My first digital camera was, even for the time, so tiny and rudimentary that one of the first things I learned from it was to try to take the pictures that the camera was capable of rather than any attempt to recreate “reality” (ie what *I* could see). I’m really grateful for that because the camera is not the unique-eye-brain-beholder and what *we* see isn’t what the camera “sees”. So to look with and through the limitations of the equipment while often frustrating was a seminal experience.

    I’m utterly guilty of subsequently being caught up in the bigger-faster-wider-longer-steadier-gorgeouser race. And whilst there is definitely something to be said for more sophisticated equipment there is a law of diminishing returns, particularly since bog-standard practice is an essential ingredient unavailable for cash. Luckily unlike say learning scales on the piano I have not the slightest objection to taking lots and lots of pictures and throwing away vast amounts of crap. That’s where the digital medium has allowed people like me (short on patience and the acquisition of theory) to attempt to acquire a skill by a scatter-gun hit-and-miss approach. Imagine going to a dark room and developing all those rolls of film and printing contact sheets only to discover that they’re total rubbish.

    I do look much more carefully than I did before I took photographs, less beauty escapes me( though perhaps speaking in terms of something escaping betrays a desire to grasp it…), even when I don’t have the camera with me. Sometimes acknowledging that something is not ‘photographable’ is part of fully accepting its beauty.

    Yes, so do I look more carefully. But I don’t think in terms of things escaping rather than in terms of opening up to potential. I think I’ve written before about how, after my breakdown, I became able to *see* in a way I never had before. Absorb the external rather than keep my eyes firmly on the ground. Photographing it was a way of exclaiming look! wow! isn’t the world just amazing! in a rather naive and child-like way.

    But also what constituted the beautiful was new. I was empowered to see as *I* saw, and often that was the damaged, the maimed, the less-than-perfect which suddenly exuded, to me, an incredible strength and power and overwhelming beauty and hope. The parallels with my own journey are obvious and probably banal but real none the less.

    I think I’m happier than I was before I did it, but I do wonder if one day I’ll be able to let it go, dispense with the conduit, and if I do will it be because I am frustrated with it, or because I have transcended it?

    I know I’m happier than before… but I’m happier, so much happier than I was before I started taking photographs. The latter action is an expression of that happiness, and also an expression of the ability to communicate with myself (even when deeply unhappy) and to acknowledge those emotions. I don’t know about dispensing with it… I can’t really imagine being either frustrated or transcending just taking pictures. It’s something that I do without accessing the thinking part of my brain. Which I suppose is sometimes why the pictures occasionally seem to take themselves.

    I take a lot of banal pictures, of dogs and children and knitting and suchlike; I write a lot of banal posts, about dogs and children and knitting and suchlike… it’s my blog and my flickr account and I do just exactly what I like with both… but it makes me very happy if sometimes others find something in any of them 🙂

  6. Hooray! Thanks for that, and BTW, it was mostly you got me started taking pictures, as well as blogging. Your pictures, and your dogs cats children knitting make me very happy.

    (I like that Phrase Finder site you left the link to… yes, the mispelling was intentional, a banal bit of wordplay but, as you say, it’s my blog, etc!)

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