I’ve taken photography up again for the sake of my fictional avatar. She’s about to start university in Dublin and, unbeknownst to her, she will buy a camera in her second term in an attempt to digest, dissect, and process the world around her – a world that has become intensely disorientating, a world she is struggling to understand.
I can remember going to buy my first proper camera, when I was at university in Dublin myself. I don’t remember its make or its name, but it was a manual 35mm SLR – single-lens reflex – camera, ‘suitable for beginners’ the man in the shop said.
On rare weekends home in Somerset, I’d leave the house before sunrise and walk to the foot of the valley with my camera over my shoulder. I’d lie in the dew-drenched grass to take photographs of the sunlight playing on the fine lines of spider webs; of Mabel, my brindle whippet running over the hills; of the cows chewing; of the small lake that was the local farmer’s folly; and of Mabel and me in the rowing boat.
Then I’d return to Dublin on the Sunday night, and wonder where the magic had gone. I’d take photos of worn grey house fronts, of black iron railings, and of the small pond in the local park. I’d spend my food money on rolls of film and on getting them developed, and spend my weekends sitting alone in that small park, studying the pond’s water and the play of light.
It seems now, looking back, that the camera was a way for me to feel close to things when there loomed a distance, like a vacuum, between me and my skin and other people, and everything; a way to process the light and the shadow, and to choose my own focus perhaps.
I had three rubber ducks in my bathroom at uni (they’d come free with a bottle of Herbal Essences shampoo). I took them to the park one day, set them afloat on the pond, and took 24 photos of them, as if restricting my field of focus would somehow allow things to settle and condense.
But when I reached the end of the film and tried to gather the ducks in, the smallest one blew out of reach and I had to leave it there, doing endless pirouettes in the centre of the pond – a spinning neon yellow against a pool of greenish black.
Perceptions can be overwhelming, and, as such, they can make us feel dizzy and afraid. As the 20th-century Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rinpoché said, ‘… we are so afraid of the brilliance coming at us, and the sharp experience of our life, that we can’t even focus our eyes’.
He continued ‘The Tibetan Book of Dead talks about how we shy away from brilliant and penetrating visions, but when we see something subdued and pleasant, we are magnetized… But [it] also says that if you go along with the bright and penetrating visions, you might be saved; whereas if you are fascinated by the [pleasant] ones, you might be trapped in the samsaric rebirth cycle again and again’.
I didn’t want to be trapped any longer, so I left university in Dublin for a Buddhist seminary in Kathmandu, where I studied for twelve years, and continue to study, and where I was introduced to the paradigm of paradox. More on that later.
In the process of this transition though, a sense of loneliness spread through me: not the still lucid kind, but a hollow jarring kind, as if several internal parts of my body had come loose and were rattling around. It seems to me, in hindsight, that I drew this jarring loneliness into the marrow of my bones and sealed my bones with silver plating.
This conveyed a clean appearance, and it cooled my blood and made it flow more slowly, which helped for a while, I think, like giving someone calming herbs to create within them a quiet space so they can think things through and start healing small parts of themselves.
When I departed for the seminary, which was in the valley of Kathmandu, I put my camera in my cupboard at home, a place that was now my mother’s house, and left it there with the dust. Years later, when my mother sold the house and downsized to a London flat, I asked her to give it away to a charity shop.
My fictional avatar (my novel’s protagonist) is named Bella, short for Annabelle which means ‘yielding to prayer’.
She’s named after Bella Swan of The Twilight Saga. Do not laugh! Whatever you might think about Twilight, you can’t deny that Bella Swan is a courageous girl. I admire her strength of character, and her spirited submission to love, and the way she struggles, but perseveres, to discover who she is.
In any case, there’s something about vampires, and about willingly transforming into one. It’s as if, by ingesting her vampire-lover’s venom, she’s embracing the death of separateness, the death of duality. And though I don’t believe in the eternal love that the Twilight books talk about, I do believe in eternal impermanence, you could say, in an eternal cycle of birthless birth and deathless death – a cycle potently illustrated by the Ouroboros snake.
The Ouroboros snake is one of the oldest symbols in the world. It’s a circular image of a snake devouring its own tail. According to Gnosticism, alchemy, and other ancient wisdom traditions, it symbolises the cyclical nature of time; the fusion of seeming opposites; the transcendence of duality; continuous renewal; and the eternal unity of all things.
The Ouroboros snake is an illustration of paradox – a paradox being a seeming contradiction, which once understood need no longer be a paradox but just the basic nature of things.
I love Bella so much, and as I write her onto the page I come to understand her more and more, and the more I love and understand her, the more I understand and love myself.
This love is a warm ball of light glowing in my chest. It shines out like the rays of the morning sun and caresses the decaying world with a hesitant but earnest love.
It’s melting the silver plating encasing the soft marrow of my bones, and moulding the molten silver into a pendant that I will soon be able to wear around my neck.
Impermanence is at the very heart of the Buddhist path. Buddha said that there is no thought more powerful than ‘All conditioned things are impermanent’. (Impermanence in this context refers not just to the inevitability of death, but to the ever-shifting, transient nature of every single phenomenon.)
It’s taught that the contemplation of impermanence opens the gateway to realising ultimate truth. Because when you see – really see – that everything relative is conditioned, and everything conditioned is impermanent, the flipside of that is their ultimate nature – emptiness.
Emptiness is something like space, in that it’s the backdrop of everything. It’s the groundless ground of all, you could say, in that it’s nothing in and of itself but it’s that which allows things to come about and be experienced.
Another thing about impermanence (and by extension, about emptiness) is that the more you take it to heart, the softer your mind becomes. You grow more open, and less defensive. Rigid states like hatred and resentment that obstruct the glow of essence love are slowly worn away, like ice melting in the sun. Because the foundation of hatred and all its sketchy friends is a mistaken belief, conscious or unconscious, in the real and permanent.
It’s ironic that this cold rigidity springs from the warmth and tenderness of our hearts. I mean, take any instance of anger and ask where it came from. If you’re able to look honestly, I think you’ll see that, fundamentally, it came from a sense of upset, of being wounded, or offended, or not acknowledged, or something similar – and all these feelings are only possible because of the raw tenderness of our hearts.
Joseph Beuys was my first teacher, the first artist to lay his hand on my bare heart. I’ll never forget the moment when, in a History of Art class at school, a slide of his How to Explain Art to a Dead Hare lit up the screen. My classmates started laughing, but I sat up, as if lightning had shattered the sky – my sky – and woken me up.
When Joseph Beuys travelled through Scotland in the ‘70s, he visited the boggy wilderness of Rannoch Moor where he carved a heart out of gelatine and, with his arm raised to the sky, set it beating with his hand. Then he dug a small hole in the ground and buried the heart there, as if returning the ancient land’s life-force to itself.
The gorse-strewn moors of Scotland are where Bella finally takes herself, to live bravely and brightly in a small bungalow with Casper, her heart-friend with auburn hair.
I too aspire to go there, to merge with Beuys’ beating heart.
My second teacher was the abbot of the seminary in Kathmandu. His name, translated from Tibetan into English, is Precious Dharma Sun. Some people say he was George Lucas’s inspiration for Yoda in Star Wars. He lives at the centre of the seminary, filling it with a lucid warmth like the light of the summer sun.
The seminary is in an area called Boudhanath that’s home to an ancient wish-fulfilling stupa, one of the largest in the world. The compound is ringed with high, white-washed walls that you enter through a metal gate. You then ascend a dozen steps, pass under a tall archway and step onto a wide red-brick path. The path is lined with terracotta pots of multi-coloured flowers. On either side are lawns adorned with camellia bushes and magnolia trees, and bordered by flowerbeds filled with saffron marigolds and lined with Indian grass.
The monastery wakes at 4.30 each morning and goes to sleep at 10pm. Following in Buddha’s footsteps, we wear maroon robes with a saffron shirt and we shave our heads every two weeks. This way, our own bodies become a fresh reminder of him and of all that he represents.
The seminary vibe is strict and earnest, but also funny and laid back. We strive for perfection, but this means seeing the perfection in imperfection, embracing imperfection – something like that. And this allows a sense of humour to percolate, like a constant stream of tiny bubbles rising up through a fish tank.
We study dozens of ancient scriptures and perform a range of meditations each day. It looks very complicated from the outside, but it’s quite simple from the inside.
Because although Buddha’s teachings are so deep and so vast – the Tibetan canon alone of Buddha’s words is 108 volumes large – they’re all concerned with the same thing: freeing your mind from confusion, and all the afflictions that confusion creates, by coming to understand the way things really are, the way they appear, their seeming disparity, and how to reconcile this.
In The Heart of Wisdom, one of Buddha’s most essential discourses, it is taught, ‘Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness. Thus, Shariputra, all dharmas are emptiness….’.
This is the paradigm of paradox I mentioned before. It’s a circle that is both a trap and a release: a trap when misconstrued, a release when realised.
‘Realised’ in the sense of directly seeing things as they truly are, free of modification, free of duality, so that your entire being is re-united with reality.
This direct seeing is called clear seeing, or in Sanskrit vipashana. Traditionally it’s cultivated, or uncovered, through study, reflection, and meditation, a gradual process through which you are gradually transformed.
Clear seeing is like the focus of a camera lens. The potential for clarity is there from the beginning, but whether the image is clear or distorted depends on how you align the lens.
So you could say, I think, that the Buddhist path is a process of simply re-aligning yourself with reality.
Bella was conceived in the seminary, but she wasn’t born until I left its walls in 2019. She is an interdependent phenomenon, born from the causes and conditions of reflection, turmoil, aspiration, confusion, and some small degree of clarity.
When I took up photography again last winter, it was solely to create images seen through her fresh and fragile eyes.
But now, six months on, I find myself taking photos just for the sake of it.
At the same time, I find myself perceiving everything as round. Round like a camera lens. I have become fascinated by roundness, preoccupied by roundness. I have started seeing roundness everywhere.
A few months ago, I made a list of round things to photograph (though some of them might not be considered round in the conventional sense). Things like:
- the lens of my new camera
- the barrel of my pen
- I Ching (Book of Changes) coins
- a small round fossil my friend found that looks strangely like a yin-yang symbol, half-light and half-dark
- a tipi, like the one I lived in after finishing school and the one that Bella lives in too
- irises and swelling pupils
- flower pots
- mugs, bowls, plates, forks, spoons, and knives
- reflections of bridges on rivers
- the sun
- balls of wool
- balls of wool coming undone
- knitting needles
- tree trunks and tree rings
- swans’ bellies
- light bulbs
- people’s faces
- the Vesica Pisces
- rocks worn round by the wind and rain
- sea glass
- shunyata (0, zero) (the starting and ending point)
- and bicycles
My bicycle is called Beatrice, which means ‘she who brings happiness’. Beatrice is dark blue and has seven gears and her big round wheels take me everywhere. She has brought me a curious freedom by alerting me to the power present in my feet.
Did you know that in Tibet, up until the Chinese Occupation in 1950, they never made use of the wheel for transport or convenience? Never. They had no bicycles or carriages or chariots. This wasn’t out of ignorance, but out of respect, because the wheel is the symbol of Buddha’s teachings and they honoured Buddha’s teachings over everything else. So for centuries they were content to travel on foot or on horseback. The slow pace of their lives gave those inclined the time to observe movement instead of chasing it, and as a result hundreds of thousands of Tibetans were able to free themselves from the cycle of birth and death.
Recently I was re-reading some of Trungpa Rinpoché’s teachings and found a passage that made sense of my seeing roundness everywhere. He was talking about a meditative approach to creativity and its connection to basic goodness – the genuine and sacred nature of all things:
‘Basic goodness combines the qualities of heaven, earth, and human…. Basic goodness includes generosity and bravery. There is also a notion that all things are round. It is like the mandala principle, in that every single thing is working together with all the other elements, which is why the whole thing hangs together so well. And we begin to feel that way ourselves, that basic goodness exists in us. Therefore, we are not afraid of our world, and we are not depressed about our world. We feel so good.’
I found this passage both timely and encouraging.
There are four actions, or karmas taught in relation to the mandala principle. The first of these is the action of pacifying, which is related to the circle. Trungpa Rinpoché explains, ‘The round shape of the circle represents gentleness and innate goodness, which is absent of neurosis. … Being without sharp edges [it] has a sense of seeing the world at its best’.
In terms of colour, the circle relates to the colour blue. In terms of elements, it relates to the sky.
The artist Kandinsky described the circle as a symbol of perfect form, the embodiment of harmony. About the colour blue, he said, ‘The power of profound meaning is found in blue…. Blue is the typical heavenly colour’. He also described blue as ‘turning in upon its own centre’.
Blue is the name Bella gives her journal in her last year of school. (Her journal is red, but blue and red are complementary. Plus, the name turns out to be apt because she soon starts turning in upon herself).
Trungpa Rinpoché said, ‘The basic principle of photography is viewing things as they are in their own ordinary nature’.
Similarly, Alfred Stieglitz said photography is ‘to form the equivalent’.
A camera is blind to conceptuality, so it can act as a window into the way things really are. A window into the raw brilliance of life – the same brilliance that overwhelmed me in Dublin, seventeen years ago.
And so, taking photos can bring you closer to reality. It can evoke clear seeing, in a very practical and immediate way.
As practical as holding the weight of the camera in your hands, as pressing the release button, and the shutter opening and light entering and an image being imprinted on the empty canvas of the film.
An image of a meadow of wild flowers lined by blossom trees and the wind blowing the blossoms apart.
An image of two men on a long boat grounded during low tide in the middle of the River Thames. Their boat lying at an angle, and them sitting in the sun with bare arms and mugs in their hands.
An image of four ducks sitting in shallow water, reflections washing over them.
A pair of swans at the foot of an abandoned ship, afloat in green water beneath a cloudy sky.
My own hand on the camera.
My own foot on the concrete path.
A purple tulip arching open, and a petal falling onto the grass.
These snapshots of experience, stripped bare of an obfuscating narrative, carry a piercing intimacy. Like standing naked before the person you love, them stepping forward, and caressing you, and you caressing them.
As Alfred Stieglitz said, ‘When I photograph I make love’.
My days are growing full of love-making, full of moments of vivid presence that penetrate, that cut through everything.
Sometimes the strength of this presence threatens to overwhelm me again. I feel, for brief moments, as if a wild bird is trying to break out from my heart.
But I’m not afraid of it like I used to be. I don’t try to turn away from it.
Instead, I’m learning to face it, to lean in and open up, and let the cold fresh air tickle my raw red heart.
Laura Swan grew up in England between London and Somerset. Shortly after finishing school, she moved to Kathmandu to study at a Buddhist university and continued to live in Nepal and India until last year. She began writing creatively around 2019 and is currently working on her first novel.
Quotes by Trungpa Rinpoché are from Trungpa, C. (2010) True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art, Shambhala: Boston & London.
The Heart of Wisdom excerpt is from a translation by Nalanda Translation Committee, made freely available at https://www.nalandatranslation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Heart-Sutra-for-website.pdf