Posts Tagged ‘thich nhat hanh’

Caroline Littell Photo edited

“If you are truly present for an orange,” Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh once remarked, “the orange will be present for you.”

I was reminded of that remark when viewing the recent exhibition of sixty black-and-white photographs by the photojournalist Caroline Littell (1939-2015) at Alfred University’s Herrick Memorial Library. Entitled “Camera without Borders: The World of Caroline Littell,” this wide-ranging exhibition was curated by her husband, the travel writer Alan Littell, and their son Harry Littell, Associate Professor of Photography at Tompkins Cortland Community College.

As variegated as it is accomplished, Caroline Littell’s work spans several decades and the multiple continents she visited during her lifetime. Her beautifully rendered photographs, nearly all of them predating the digital era, were taken in countries as diverse in character and terrain as Burma, Botswana, Thailand, Colombia, Scotland, Turkey, Canada, and the United States. Many portray indigenous inhabitants, singly or in groups. Others depict landscapes, public squares, churches, monuments, and wild animals in their natural habitats. Diverse as they are in subject, however, the photos evince two consistent qualities, which together convey a strong sense of presence, whether the subject is a rhino in Tanzania or two young men astride their motorbikes on a street corner in Bangkok.

On the one hand, the photos achieve, time and again, an effect of spontaneous immediacy, akin to that of a snapshot. Unstaged and uncontrived, they capture a fleeting moment just as it was. In one stark but subtle photo, taken in Metsovo, Greece, two elderly women in black headscarves and long black dresses climb a sidewalk against the backdrop of a white stone wall. OneĀ  follows the other, but although they are in step, each appears engrossed in her own thoughts. Here as elsewhere, the photo creates the sense of the moment unfolding, unhindered by the medium or the will of the photojournalist to control what she is encountering.

At the same time, Littell’s composition is artfully balanced. And even in her most kinetic images, a sense of the transitory moment is countered by a feeling of sustained attention. That is particularly true of her panoramic renditions of unpopulated landscapes, which range from the Scottish Highlands to the Sussex Downs to a snowy field in Alfred, New York. Viewing these tranquil images, their quietude enhanced by their monochromatic medium, I am left with an impression of steady, unhurried observation.

Of the many photos that join a sense of the world in continuous motion with that of poised, relaxed attention, one of the most memorable is a picture of fishermen in a boat on Inle Lake in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. I first viewed this photograph in the late 1980s, when it appeared in print in conjunction with a travel article by Alan Littell. The image impressed me at the time, and viewing it again, nearly thirty years later, I find it no less compelling.

Against a faintly discernible horizon obscured by a dense mist, three Burmese fishermen are at work on a narrow boat resembling a dugout canoe. Two are attending to large conical fishing nets. On their left stands the oarsman, his left foot planted on the stern and his right leg curled around a tall wooden oar. He appears to be rowing–or about to row–the long boat with his leg, as is the custom on Inle Lake, where the heavy vegetation on the water makes a seated rowing position impractical. The oarsman’s dark reflection shimmers in the slightly rippling water. Although the boat appears to be in motion, and the men are busy with their labors, this symmetrical, unruffled image is imbued with a mood of contemplative calm, reminiscent of Asian minimalist painting. Though firmly embedded in time, it has the timeless character of a haiku.

“What you look hard at,” wrote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in his journal in 1871, “seems to look hard at you.” As her choice of subjects indicates–she was an explorer and documentarian, not an investigative journalist–and as her posthumous exhibition amply demonstrated, Caroline Littell’s approach to her subjects was more intuitive than hard, more empathic than interrogatory. But in her unending curiosity, her openness to experience, and especially her capacity to wait for the instant when the character of a person, place, or thing might disclose itself, she allowed her subjects to speak for themselves. Patiently present for the world’s ephemeral forms, she made them vividly present for her viewers.


* Molly Steere, summer assistant at Herrick Library, helped to install the exhibition, which ended on July 16. The photos will eventually be available in a book compiled and edited by Alan and Harry Littell.

Photo: “Inle Lake,” by Caroline Littell.

Read Full Post »

Fragrance_Garden_-_Brooklyn_Botanic_Garden_-_Brooklyn,_NY_-_DSC07926In contemporary public discourse, it has become common to speak of “dying with dignity,” especially in discussions of assisted suicide. By contrast, it is rare to find a reference to living with dignity, except when it pertains to the elderly or disabled or infirm. Yet what could be more important to our well-being, one might ask, than living with dignity, whether one is healthy or sick, youthful or advanced in years? (more…)

Read Full Post »

Wooden monkReading a brochure from the Laz-y-Boy company the other day, I came upon the claim that Laz-y-Boy, Inc. is “being mindful” with respect to the environment. I was heartened to find that reassurance, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the company was voicing an authentic concern or merely striking a fashionable attitude.

Over the past two decades, the practice of mindfulness has assumed a prominent place in American life. In the vernacular of our times, mindfulness has gone mainstream. American corporations, particularly those situated in Silicon Valley, have embraced the practice, chiefly as a means of reducing stress and increasing productivity. So have the military academies, the health-care system, the prison system, and, more gradually, public schools and higher education. Yet, as the practice has gained in acceptance, it has sometimes lost sight of its origins in Buddhist meditation, and a central component has often been left behind. (more…)

Read Full Post »

ASC trackHere in the village of Alfred, New York, those of us who like to walk can often be found on the Alfred State College track. Situated on a high elevation , the track affords a panoramic view of the surrounding wooded hills. Designed though it was for athletic competition, the track is also an excellent venue for walking meditation.

On a windy day last summer, I took a walk on that firm but forgiving track. Above the line of trees, the blades of the college’s wind turbine were revolving briskly. And on the tall flagpole near the entrance, the American flag was flapping audibly. I was reminded of an old Zen story, which features a pair of quarrelsome monks and the enlightened master Eno, the Sixth Patriarch of Zen. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Inside_Looking_Out_-_geograph.org.uk_-_767556“Up!” implores my granddaughter, looking up at me and raising her arms. Allegra is fifteen months old. Up was one of her first words.

I gladly pick Allegra up, and for the next few minutes I take her for a walk on my shoulder, making rhythmic noises in her ear. This seems to please her, but eventually she decides that she has indulged her grandfather long enough. “Down,” says she, and I reluctantly comply.

Up and down, down and up. Over the next year and beyond, Allegra will learn other pairs of words and other dualities: left and right, inside and outside, high and low. Through the medium of language she will learn not only to speak but also to think in dualistic terms. Soon enough, I suspect, she will enlist the duality yours and mine, with a pronounced emphasis on the latter.

As do we grown-ups, every day of the year. Dualistic thinking is so familiar and so necessary for navigating the world, it goes unnoticed and unexamined much of the time. Yet, as the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh observes, our familiar dualities are relative in nature and impede our apprehension of reality: (more…)

Read Full Post »

Luca Giordano, A Cynical Philosopher

Luca Giordano, A Cynic Philosopher

“I think most people would lie to get ahead.”

“It is safer to trust nobody.”

“Most people will use somewhat unfair reasons to gain profit or an advantage rather than lose it.”

If you would tend to agree with those statements, your outlook on life and human nature might fairly be described as one of cynical distrust. And while you might be well established in that outlook–and even take pride in being a curmudgeon–a recent Finnish study might give you pause. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

We can throw away a soiled tissue. We can throw away Q-tips, outdated appliances, and countless other items in our everyday lives. But can we also discard our ill-founded thoughts and one-sided perceptions? Our cherished notions?

According to classical Buddhist teachings, many if not most of our perceptions are erroneous, and erroneous perceptions cause suffering. “Looking deeply into the wrong perceptions, ideas, and notions that are at the base of our suffering,” writes Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, “is the most important practice in Buddhist meditation.” And correspondingly, “the practice of throwing away our notions and views is so important. Liberation is not possible without this throwing away.” Yet, as Thich Nhat Hanh goes on to say, “it takes insight and courage to throw away an idea.” Views we have held for decades–or perhaps for a lifetime–are not so easily disposed of, especially when they appear to have served us well. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,116 other followers