The Contemplative Camera
A Buddhist school of photography produces arresting photos of everyday life—using the simplest mechanics of a camera.
By Dakota Sexton
Take a closer look at a rain-streaked windowpane, the drain of a kitchen sink, or the gravel underfoot. At first glance, these ordinary objects may seem to hold little aesthetic or spiritual merit. But for students of contemplative photography, or Miksang, these small slivers of perception represent a marriage between eye, mind, and heart.
Miksang, which means “good eye” in Tibetan, is a process that captures arresting moments of everyday life—and deepens our awareness of them—by using the simplest mechanics of a camera. Inspired by the dharma art and Tibetan Buddhist teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Miksang doesn’t take much heed of formal photography techniques or professional standbys like complicated lighting setups. Without manipulation and distortion, the eye and the lens are free to simply see. As famed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson once wrote, “People think far too much about techniques and not enough about seeing.”
Contemplative photography’s roots go back to 1954, when 15-year-old Chögyam Trungpa took his first photograph. The next few decades would see him flee Tibet to India in the footsteps of the Dalai Lama, study comparative religion at Oxford University, bring Tibetan Buddhism to the West, and found Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. Through it all, he continued to shoot rolls of film.
In 1979, a commercial photographer named Michael Wood took notice. Wood wouldn’t immediately praise the photography: “I had mixed reactions,” he says. “From one point of view I thought he really didn’t have his technique together. But I hadn’t seen anything like it; it stopped me in my tracks.” Wood began studying Chögyam Trungpa’s dharma art teachings and imitating his work. Eventually, he combined the philosophy with his own professional photography experience to create the methodical exercises at the heart of Miksang.
The art form has flourished over the past 25 years through trainings around the world and at the Miksang Institute for Contemplative Photography in Boulder. “We teach anywhere that is available,” says Julie DuBose, the Institute’s co-founder. “We have people who are very seriously involved in yoga, meditation, ikebana—and the common denominator is that they want to learn to see.”
Washington, DC–based yoga teacher Brian Sano completed Miksang teacher training in 2010. “Miksang is about being present and available,” Sano says. “As in yoga, we have a chance to connect to the practice as it is. There can be a sense of letting go, and a sense of joy.”
Miksang for Beginners
Interested in experimenting with contemplative photography? “Miksang takes a very current, accessible technology that everybody knows about,” says founder Michael Wood, “and utilizes it to engage, to break out of your cocoon.” Discover a new way of seeing by following these simple tips.
- Try not to look for locations that are “beautiful” or “special” or “photogenic.” This can mean stepping outside of your comfort zone and avoiding parks, gardens, and natural settings.
- Before you start shooting, take 10 or more minutes to ground your mind in the present moment and let go of any expectations. Slowly walk around and observe the sounds you hear and sensations you feel; allow the eyes to relax.
- Instead of focusing on specific objects, look for patterns of light, colors, textures.
- Put the camera down after about 45 minutes of shooting and take a restorative break. You may find that “looking” becomes “seeing” again.
- When sorting through your images, honestly assess what worked and what didn’t, without criticizing. It’s not uncommon to discard 75 percent of photos taken.
Tips adapted with permission from The Practice of Contemplative Photography: Seeing the World with Fresh Eyes by Andy Karr and Michael Wood (Shambhala, 2011).