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zen & photography

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“In a society that assures us that more is better, it’s not always easy to trust that we have enough, that we are enough. We have to cut through the illusion that abundance is security, and trust that we don’t have to buffer ourselves against reality. If we have learned to trust abundance, we can learn to trust simplicity.”- John Daido Loori, ‘The Zen of creativity’  


“What lies in the periphery of simplicity is definitely not peripheral. Become a light bulb instead of a laser beam… Striving for excellence usually entails the sacrifice of everything in the background for the sake of attending to the all-important foreground. Find the meaning of everything around, instead of just what you are directly facing.” – John Maeda, ‘The laws of simplicity’ 


Many past and present photographers have talked about and shown a connection between photography and Zen. From past masters, Ralph Eugene Meatyard is such an example. Contemporary photographers who show a zen aesthetic in their work include: Gregory Colbert, Michael Kenna, Michael Levin, David Burdeny, Nathan Wirth, John Kosmopoulos, Andy Ilachinski, Marc Citret, and many more. Some more directly through their own study and intuition and others indirectly through the impression their work has on viewers.

Two sides can be considered in this regard:

- the perspective of the artist’s approach towards a zen aesthetic and

- the perspective of Zen’s approach towards the photographic act.

This article trys to bring some light to the latter and by doing so initiate a deeper dialogue among the two.


During Meatyard's time Zen was just beginning to enter into the west. Since then considerable steps have been made in further understanding this system and it’s relationship with the arts. One of the books that captures this is John Daido Loori’s ‘The Zen of creativity: cultivating your artistic life’. Loori studied chemistry but then became a student of Minor White. He received shido from Taizan Maezumi and became a Zen Buddhist roshi. He founded the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York. He has written 14 books on Zen and it’s relationship with the arts and his photographs have been exhibited in many galleries and media like NBC, CBS, CNN, Time, Newsweek.


In his book Loori explains the basic principles of the Zen aesthetic as they relate to the artistic expression:   


1. The role of the ‘still point’ in the creative process  

The still point is at the heart of the creative process. In Zen we access it through zazen meditation. To be still is to create a state of consciousness that is open and receptive. It is very natural and uncomplicated. It’s not ‘esoteric’ in any way. Yet it’s incredibly profound. The first step to access the still point is through single-pointedness of mind which builds our concentration (in Japanese Zen called ‘joriki’, the power of concentration). Joriki taps into our physical, mental and emotional reserves and opens our spiritual capacities. One way that our spiritual power begins to manifest is through the emergence of the intuitive aspect of our consciousness. Single-pointed concentration develops our intuition. We become more directly aware of the world. It’s a fruition that comes after discipline and repetitive practice just like any other learning process. It’s a way of being. All our senses become open, alert, free of tension and receptive. If this state can be cultivated in your being and in your life, then it will be present in your art. 


Suggested exercise: zazen  

Try ‘just sitting’ and concentrating on your inward and outward breath for 15’ every day and also for 15’ before creating art. 


2. Seeing with the whole body-mind 

Whole body-mind seeing is the total merging of subject and object, of seer and seen, of self and other! In that state ‘form is no other than emptiness and emptiness no other that form’. It also means the ability to experience things directly without evaluation, interpretation, intellectualization, labeling, judging, criticizing, etc. It also means paying full attention to any activity. Being in the moment. It means mindfulness in the daily activities.  


Suggested exercise: experiencing without identifying 


3. ‘Enlarging the universe’ (acknowledging the basic elements of the creative process)  

Each artist expresses through art his unique way of experiencing life. Before engaging the creative process it is helpful to understand some of the basic elements that are functioning in it: 

1. Inspiration (and intuition)- that inside us which wants to be expressed. 

2. Hara- the place within us that is still and grounded. This still point allows our inspiration and intuition to clarify itself and develop into creativity. Zazen cultivates exactly this.   

3. Chi or energy- the energy contained both in us and in the subject. Out of this connection emerges the resonance between artist and subject. Chi is the vital energy that gives life to all our creations in every sense. Chi is the communicative link between artist and subject.   

4. The act of expression. 

5. Editing (and ‘letting go’ by moving on) 


Suggested exercise: expressing things for what else they are 


4. ‘Jeweled mirror’ (creative feedback)  

Creative feedback helps us find out the impression that our work has on the audience and evaluate the extend that it relates to our intentions. But as we have seen that there is a particular state of consciousness for seeing the subject and creating art, it is emphasized here that the same is valid for the act of perception of art. 


Suggested exercise: perception from the still point  

Look with undivided manner. Let the object become your contemplation. Concentrate your whole attention on this one act of loving sight. Exclude all other objects from your conscious field. Do not intellectualize for a while what you see. Pour out your personality towards it. Let your soul be in your eyes! Merge with the subject in an act of true and unobstructed communion. This kind of feedback requires a deep sense of trust between the giver and the receiver. When established it acts as a doorway to insight. Anything we create in live can be a powerful teacher and a key element that enables this to happen is creative feedback. It is important to express feelings and not ideas, criticisms or opinions. But there is another important step after the feedback which again has to do with our own state of consciousness. We need to train ourselves to draw out the information the audience is giving us. Creative feedback is like a guided meditative way of experiencing art. 


5. Barriers 

One crucial barrier in artistic expression is that of ‘originality’. There is great difference between trying to be different and being original. The first is more goal and ego oriented and ultimately sets us apart from each other. The second is a deeper and honest commitment in discovering our inner selves and ultimately brings us closer to each other. Also the difference in this process brings the extraordinary out of the ordinary. In Zen arts and practice this is achieved by repetitive practice of simple tasks. You may be asked to photograph leaves or trees or rocks. You do that again and again many times and with this process the student develops skills, freedom and trust in themselves and without any conscious effort on their part, their own uniqueness or originality begins to appear by itself. You don’t ‘try’ to shout differently just for the sake of not being trivial. You keep on shouting until you feel your inner being has been expressed gently in this simple task. When we look at such art we immediately notice the ordinariness and the extraordinariness at the same time and this is what makes it special and unique. Another barrier can be, knowing too much or too little. Another barrier can be our attachment to our own creations. Another barrier can be, being too affected by our teachers or the great photographers that we have studied and love. In order to work with a barrier you have to become intimate with it. But usually these barriers are our blind spots and that’s why creative feedback is valuable. Art koans are a unique way of addressing our barriers. We can actively take up our barriers as art koans. 


Suggested exercise1: art koan- express your barrier 

Suggested exercise2: art koan- make love with light 

The point in this practice is to use light in such a way that it expresses your experience of love. 


6. The ‘Artless arts’- the Zen aesthetic: 

Since the 60ies when Zen started to become popular in the West, art historians and various other commentators have given various definitions to this particular aesthetic. 

The basic working experience of people doing Zen is that as meditation deepens, a particular kind of energy and awareness develops which ultimately leads to the state called ‘no-mind’ or ‘pure self’ or ‘the empty witness’. The point here as it has been stressed by all contemporary teachers, is not to remain in the ‘absolute samadhi’ state, but to practice functioning in the ‘working samadhi’. ‘No-mind’ in this case means no intent. Any activity is neither forced or strained. It happens effortlessly. That’s why it’s also called ‘the action of no-action’. This is the essence of the Taoist concept of ‘wu-wei’: a continuous stream of spontaneity that emerges from the rhythm of circumstances. In the Zen arts there is a clear sense of the presence of this quality. 

Thus Zen teaching and practice is expressed very directly and without excessive ornamentation. In the West this has been experimented in various art forms with minimalism. Black & white photography has this particular quality. Some photographers have been attracted to it subconsciously, others more consciously. 

This quality of simplicity opens up a creative space that reflects the pure dynamics that exist in the relationship between form and space (in architecture, design, painting and the like), or between sound and silence (in music, chanting, mantras), or between light and darkness (in photography), or words and the meaning between them (poetry) etc. 

Another characteristic of the Zen aesthetic is that of ‘no-rank’ or ordinariness which relates to the Zen concept of beauty. 

Another characteristic is that of limitlessness, without boundaries, open to countless possibilities, free. 

Despite the profundity, the Zen aesthetic gives special emphasis in the role of playfulness. 

‘Suchness’ or essentially being as it is, is the all inclusive reality that is manifested as a sense of presence. It’s the quality of being that is ultimately nondual. It is the isness of all things and of existence. Zen art ultimately expresses also this more intangible concept. 


7. ‘Have a cup of tea’ (explaining the Zen aesthetic from the example of the tea ceremony)

The Zen aesthetic shows us that all things are perfect and complete, just as they are. 


8. ‘Dancing brush’ (about the polarity of disciple and freedom, and spontaneity in Zen calligraphy…,)   

Spontaneity in art expresses the artist’s direct experience of reality. 


Suggested exercise: express things for what they are. 

Deepens the perception of the uniqueness of subjects and goes to the ‘isness’ of things. 


9. ‘Mystery’

Zen art is open-ended. The ‘enso’ (characteristic Zen circle) is almost always left open. The missing piece is to be completed by the viewer. In doing that the viewer gets involved and experiences a sense of completion in the art. 


10. ‘Expressing the inexpressible’ 

One of the ultimate challenges of Zen art is to express the inexpressible- the mystical essence of life, the transcendental nature of reality. ‘Mystical’ in Zen is the ultimate spiritual meaning that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intellect. Yet we’re somehow aware of its presence and it has a real impact on us. One artistic way Zen choices to do this is poetry- haikus and koans. Painting and photography has used written words in combination with their medium in order to assist the audience to go deeper. 


11. ‘Endless spring’ (intimate words): 

Intimacy is not a matter that exists in the realm of polarities. Intimacy is the place where opposites merge. In the Zen transmission of wisdom nothing is transmitted. The student already has what the teacher has. It just needs to be awakened, brought to life. 


12. Indra’s net (interdependent origination, mutual causality): 

The universe as self-creating, self-maintaining, and self-defining organism. Zen offers the process, a ‘path’. It’s up to us to walk it and manifest it in our lives and our expressions. 

It has been said that the essence of the photographic act is a contemplative relationship with our world. By exploring the connections of Zen and artistic photography we cultivate a deeper and more tangible understanding of this relationship... 


NEu Tymes, vol.51, March 2015

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