Today we went to the Lama Temple.
I didn’t take my good camera, because I wanted to be able to enjoy the experience without thinking that I needed to do art at the same time. Also, because this is a working lamasery and place of prayer/worship for both the monks who live there and many tourists/pilgrams, it would be wrong to take pictures, particularly pictures of people praying inside the various shrine buildings. CONFESSION!: I did end up taking 3 iPhone photos from the outside of the temple and of the architecture in between the shrines, because I just could not help myself, but I wouldn’t think to photograph the sacred places within the temple buildings. I didn’t actually see any signs that said “no photos.” It seemed to be more of an understood human agreement. There were however, some people taking pictures, and even talking on their cell phones. It was highly inappropriate, but it’s not like 10 monks are gonna tackle some asshole for disrespecting their hood. It wasn’t crowded at all when we were there, but I can see it being very irritating during touristy and high-volume crowd times.
More to the point: Having my camera with me—and being on the lookout for interesting frames—has turned out to be the main preoccupation for me during the last couple months. I am not painting, and I’m not really writing, and I’m not really working at a job. I did have a month-long, once per week job teaching 5 periods of art classes to mostly Korean and Chinese 1st-12th graders at an underground Christian school, but that is over now. I feel a responsibility to be creating though, and I am really enjoying the things that happen when I take photos, even if they aren’t the most conventional “living abroad” photos in the world. I really really do want to share with everyone—family and friends—pictures of our adventure here in Beijing. The trouble is that I’m not capable of taking snapshots. Everything needs to be something. I can’t just take and then share a picture of a place or a thing; I need it to be artful. I am interested in composition and storytelling. I love finding interesting visuals, and my some of the photos that I’m proud of are black and white, composition heavy, and could just as easily be appreciated with blurred eyes as abstract images. I realize that this mindset does not lend itself to sharing, and I apologize for not just snapping pictures because we’re in China.
Also, I sometimes need to remind myself that this really is China. When I look at the architecture especially, my brain tries to twist the experience somehow, and I start to think something along the lines of “They did a good job on this set… It does look sort of like China.” I’m conditioned by Hollywood and Disneyworld, and I’ve been left with a cynical attitude concerning reality. I realize that this tends to happen when I go to the more “touristy” or popular areas that people visit. “I won’t fall for your tricks,” I say to myself. “I am way too hip and cool, and you can’t fool me with your 2000 year-old wanna-be Epcot World Showcase facades!”
Anyway, back to the Lama Temple (and the moral dilemma). In the second to last building there is a statue. In the second to last building there is a statue unlike anything I have ever seen. In the second to last building, there is a statue that stands 18 meters tall, (with another 8 underground), carved from a single white sandalwood tree, depicting the Maitreya, (Future Buddha), painted bright and elegant, with a huge-towering-over-you presence— just fuckin’ standing there, waiting for your tiny ass to come pay your respects. Now, I am not easily impressed. I always want to be, but for some reason my bar is set high. I am telling you that I involuntarily said “whoa” when I entered this shrine. I didn’t kneel or cry or devote my life to a big carved tree, but my spine did tingle. It was better than any sun rise or -set, and if I could sleep under those hands I know it would be more comforting than any star-filled sky.
I would like to show you or point you toward a photo on the web that could do justice to it, because I want to share. But there are very few photos that I can find, and those that exist don’t come close to artistically expressing anything about the sculpture. Obviously it is a “you have to be there” thing, but I know I could do a better job than anyone has done before at capturing… something. I have so much respect for the space, so I could never just go there and set up a photo shoot. I only need like 2 minutes. Also, I believe that if I could explain to the monks, or to an incarnate history of the place, or to the spirit and intentions of the statue, they would understand what I was trying to do and say “go for it.”
Again, the irony is that I really don’t feel like I need conventionally interesting subjects in order to take artistic photos. I went to Tiananmen Square and the only photo that I kept from that day was of a playing card in the dirt, in between the subway and our apartment. The “photo opportunity” of a place means nothing to me. I am more proud of that dirty playing card photo than I would be of postcard ready snapshots of the Forbidden City or wherever else I was. This Lama Temple Buddha statue has me confused. I am stymied. It would feel gross to be “that guy” taking a picture in a holy place, and it would feel irresponsible not to photograph something beautiful which moves me. I can do the “Be Here Now” boogie with the best of them, and I get it. Trying to figure out what to do in this situation is antithetical to the Buddhist statue in question, but here we are.
What do you think I should do?