Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Zen of dragonfly photography

The word zen, which arrived in Japan after a complex millenia-long meander through East Asia of ever-more-mispronounced Sanskrit, means meditation. I have practiced Buddhist meditation, in one way or another, for more than 30 years. I do still sit in meditation, but i prefer to bring a certain amount of zen to my ordinary life--though the preference does not necessarily imply success in the project.

I find dragonfly and butterfly photography very meditative, unlike regular attendance at my local zen meditation hall, which requires 12 miles of driving on Interstate 35, each way. The drive hones your survival skills, assuming you survive, but in general is unmeditative in either direction, regardless of whatever degree of spiritual awakening you may have arrived at in the interlude between each half of the commute.

I actually like to sit zazen (which redundantly means sitting meditation) at home, and (rarely nowadays) at my local zendo, but the drawback mentioned keeps me from doing the latter much. Before I retired, my work was in the same part of town as the zen center, so since I was already in mid-town Austin, it made sense to go pretty regularly. If I went to the evening zazen after work I could look forward to sitting crosslegged on a cushion looking at a wall for 40 minutes--not for everyone, I realize--and in recent years, not for me, because of hip stiffness, so I sit seiza instead of crosslegged, that is you sit on your ankles, ideally with the aid of a cushion or a small bench made for the purpose. Then I would drive home after rush hour, which generally involved less adrenalin than the 5 o'clock traffic itself does.

Zen Buddhists also do a kind of walking meditation called kinhin, which, for Soto Zen practitioners (my local zen center is Soto, not that that matters) is a slow motion one foot per breath deal that is vaguely silly looking, as in fact almost everything you see or hear in a meditation hall is, come to think of it. However, when I walk in the woods and spot a dragonfly I want to photograph, an unbiased observer would say that my movement at that point would look even sillier than kinhin. Certainly the movement is even slower. I have this superstition that if I manage to approach the dragon (that's what we call them) or the damsel (ditto) or the butterfly in the right state of mind, I will not scare it off. Empirically, that's probably not correct. But then, on the other hand, when I do scare it off, a moment's reflection convinces me I was in the wrong frame of mind.

That is how how superstition is maintained.

Almost as much as walking in the woods and taking pictures, I find processing the pictures to be meditative as well. The zen of photoshop.

The photo below, of a calico pennant, possibly embodies a little bit of both.

Calico pennant

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