Posts Tagged ‘zen’

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.

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Baltimore_Oriole_eating_orangeBrowsing the Internet one summer afternoon, I learned that Baltimore Orioles relish grape jelly. Cut an orange in half, my source instructed me, and place a dollop of grape jelly at the center of each half. Hang the halves from a branch, and you will soon have those beautiful birds in your own backyard.

Enticed by that prospect, I put grape jelly on our grocery list. And before long, I found myself in Aisle 10B at Wegman’s Supermarket, searching for that elusive product.

“What are you looking for?” asked a petite, white-haired lady standing nearby, as she deposited a jar of Bonne Maman Apricot Preserves in her cart.

“Grape jelly,” I replied. “Baltimore Orioles like it.”

“They do?” she asked, giving me a wary, quizzical look, as though I had just said something very strange. “I never heard that. I used to live in Baltimore.”

Realizing what had just occurred, I hastened to explain. “I mean the birds, not the baseball team.”

“Oh,” she sighed, visibly relieved. Meanwhile, I was imagining the Orioles in their dugout, passing around a jar of Welch’s Grape Jelly. Perhaps that image had crossed her mind as well. (more…)

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730px-Old_book_gathering_2I have a friend by the name of Janet, who regularly consults what I call the Book of Janet, especially when she’s feeling blue or vexed or insecure. If she makes some trivial error, like misplacing her car keys, the Book of Janet reminds her that she is not well-organized. If she enters a competition and receives a letter of rejection, the Book of Janet informs her that her work is not all that good. And if she’s feeling less than beautiful on any given morning, the Book of Janet confirms her worst fears. On all three counts, the Book of Janet is wide of the mark. It is out of touch with the present reality. Unfortunately, that makes little difference to Janet, who swears by her Book as if it were her Bible. (more…)

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Cortical Columns      Greg A. Dunn

Cortical Columns
Greg A. Dunn

It’s no great mystery, my friend used to say. He was a gifted mechanic and a natural handyman. How do you replace and properly gap the spark plugs on a ’63 Ford pickup? It’s no great mystery. Just read the manual. How do you fix a leaking toilet? Rewire an electrical outlet? No problem. And no great mystery either.

In practical terms, my friend may have been right, but in ultimate terms, he was wide of the mark. O Magnum Mysterium (“O Great Mystery”), a responsorial chant in the Roman Catholic Christmas Mass, celebrates the mystery of Jesus’ birth in a lowly manger. In its reverence for the ineffable, as manifest in humble environs, that sacred text shares common ground with Zen teachings, which enjoin us to hearken, in a spirit of “not-knowing,” to the hidden, unknowable, and indescribable dimension of ordinary life. (more…)

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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…)

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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…)

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       Scott Chapel    Drake University

Scott Chapel
Drake University

Four weeks ago, in anticipation of the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, we of a certain age were asked to recall where we were when the president was shot. As it happened, I was then a sophomore at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, and I listened to the announcement of the president’s death in the lobby of Goodwin-Kirk Residence Hall, where a few of us had gathered around a portable radio. In retrospect, however, the question of where I was seems less important than where I went, having just received that sad and shocking news.


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