Zen Buddhism is one of my favorite religions/philosophies/lifestyles/whatever you want to call it. It’s got everything that a religion/philosophy/lifestyle/whatever you want to call it should have. All-knowing yet disarmingly plump founder? Check. Buddha looks like an adorably wise version of Don Rickles. Quirky dogma? Check. Zen is full of catchy one-liners you’d expect Yoda to say when hitting on the ladies at the local Dagobah watering hole (“Be master of mind rather than mastered by mind. Wanna go back to my apartment?”) Awesome taste in music? Check. Zen Buddhists are big fans of Nirvana. But then again, who isn't?
Zen has some great parables, known as koans, which are meant to reveal to the unawakened the path to enlightenment. Here’s an example:
A Zen master lived a simple life in a little hut. One evening a thief entered his hut only to find there was nothing to steal. The master caught the thief, and gave his clothes to the thief as a gift. The thief was confused, but he took the clothes and fled. The master, sitting naked watching the moon, mused “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”
I can’t help but giggle when I think of the naked Zen master giving the thief the moon. Think about it for a moment.
It seems to me that mediocre Zen masters knew enough to parrot the wise, and good Zen masters were clever enough to come up with mysterious quotables such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping?” The best Zen masters declared the whole thing balderdash and spent their time drinking, chasing women, and having a whale of a good time instead. We don’t hear much about them.
Although, as a general matter, Zen Buddhism might have little applicability to nature photography, we can all learn from Zen's philosophy that one must throw oneself fully into any activity or task, regardless of how mundane it might be. This may seem obvious, but it bears saying nonetheless: to truly excel at something, you can't half-ass it. To make great photographs, you need to constantly immerse yourself in the photographic process.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying you need to quit your day job and become a camera-toting nomad in order to make great photos. I am suggesting, however, that when you do have time for photography, give it your all. I think you will find that your craft improves, and your personal vision becomes more refined. Practice makes perfect, as they say, and there's simply no substitute for rolling up your sleeves and getting down to business.
Personally, I think too much is made about the need to create “art,” or to find a higher meaning or purpose, or the vain quest to achieve immortality through one’s work. To me, it’s much simpler than that.
Do what you love, and throw yourself into it. Find your Zen, and never let go.
About the image: Some argue that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. While I don't necessarily agree, I'll do simple when it suits the scene. One morning while photographing Mesquite Flat Dunes in Death Valley National Park, I came across this elegant curve of sand lit by the rising sun. I quickly zoomed in tight to capture just the simple s-curve formed by the interaction of shadow and light. Fierce winds blew a curtain of sand across the landscape, so I dropped my ISO to its lowest setting and stopped down my aperture in order to get a shutter speed that would record the blowing sand's motion.
Technical details: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 35-70mm lens (@ 70mm), ISO 50, f/16, 1/15 second.