A few years ago, I attended a teaching in a monastery near the great Boudhnath shrine in Kathmandu, Nepal. Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama famous for his lively and accessible talks, was debating an ever-vexing question.
“So,” the Rinpoche began. “What is Buddhism? Is it a religion? Or science?—What I think and also true!—is that most religions are on one side; while the sciences— physics, chemistry, biology—are on another side. Buddha-dharma is in the middle. On the one hand, Buddha-dharma is a religion; but Buddhism is not really a religion! On the other hand, Buddha-dharma is a science; but it is not really a science!
“So what is Buddhism? Hmmm?” The Rinpoche scanned the room. “Buddhism is common sense: truth.”
As he concluded, a flash went off: one of the students had taken a snapshot. And I remember thinking, at that moment, that Buddhism could also be described in a less esoteric way: as a lens. The dharma represents, above all else, an objective point of view. It is a tool for viewing reality as it is, without the filters of hope or fear, aversion or attachment.
Of all the visual arts, then, photography may have the best shot at embodying Buddhist principles. The photographer’s lens, used skillfully, captures tiny parcels of truth; portraits of the present moment.
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