The Way of Zen, Love of Nature, and Photography

On this cool crisp day in late November, Naomi finally found a way to escape from the nine to five drudgery of her work life in the Finance department of a major corporation. With each rhythmic step along a trail through a forest that headed toward the coast, she felt her thoughts of work and family obligations gradually dissolve into the forest canopy. She began to feel a close and intimate relation to this natural world with no separation between herself and the world around her. Naomi was fully present in this moment neither thinking about this or that or even herself. The trail emptied out to a bluff with a breathtaking view of the Lottie Bay, Lighthouse Point and beyond.

Deception Pass November Sunset

As the sun made moved ever closer to where it would dip below the horizon, Naomi’s thoughts started waiver. Although she was exited about the moment, her thoughts turned to host of distractions that pierced the stillness she experienced earlier: “How am I going to complete my work assignment by its deadline?….I cannot linger here as I need to get back to the car before darkness!…. I need to quickly take out my tripod and camera to capture this moment.”

The mindset of Naomi on her way to the scenic overlook is closely akin to what many popularly refer to as the “Zen Mindset” and what she initially experienced is a “Zen Moment.” But what later happened with her wavering mind has little to do with Zen. Zen focuses on practices including Meditation, Mindfulness and the use of Kaons (riddles) to recover a Zen Mindset that experiences nature directly–no filter, no labels, no concepts, no distractions, no wavering thoughts–just a spontaneous connection to the natural world of which we are a part. Clearly Naomi has a long way to go on her “Way of Zen”. This, however, in no way diminishes the value of her experience of her “Moment of Zen”. Long time practitioners of Zen and even well established Nature and Landscape Photographers, too easily brush off such experiences as lacking any kind of meaningful depth. But we all started somewhere. If we are honest, we all have had experiences, myself many of them, similar to Naomi’s and even long term Zen practitioners still experience wavering minds. It is a big mistake to devalue anyone’s early experiences in nature where they feel more alive and in tune with the rhythms of nature. These experiences can serve as a catalyst to a more intimate connection to nature and also a spiritual awakening.

Light in the Mossy Forest

Imagine this. What would happen to you if you dismantled all of your concepts surrounding who you are as a person; in other words how you think about yourself–your accomplishments, your education, your processions, your personality type, even your likes and dislikes to the extent that these are also product of your conceptual thought? What if all your explanations and assumptions that define your conscious self and serve as your center of identity slowly withered away until at last there was nothing left? And what if this were all to happen not in an abstract way but at the level of your immediate experience? Where would this leave you? What might you discover about yourself at level deeper than your personal history and your thoughts that define your identity? Without your conceptual filters between yourself and all that simply is, would you experience yourself and the world around you differently? Although these questions are impossible to answer because any answer would itself rely upon conceptual thought — they do point to the ultimate adventure, the adventure of Zen–where we move beyond our conceptual filters and labels, and wake up to our true nature. This is not to say that we give up thinking. Thinking is as much who we are as a person as are our hopes, passions and feelings. Nor does Zen ask us to be heartless. Zen is always focused on nature just as it is, eternally present in the here and now, and that my friends is enough for the Zen Mindset.

A Burst of Light in the Hall of Mosses

In this post I will start out with a discussion of What is Zen and the ultimate futility of defining something that can only be experienced. We will then discuss Zen as a creative synthesis of Buddhism and Taoism. This is important because many of the modern day misunderstandings of Zen are attributable to a lack of appreciation of how Zen draws upon both of these ancient traditions especially its Taoist roots. We will then discuss Zen’s unique connection to nature and how the love of nature itself is part of the full Zen experience. It is this love of nature that for many of us photographers helped establish our “Way of Zen” even if we do not label our experience as Zen. Next we will discuss Zen and Creativity and how dialoguing with our unconscious self helps fuel the creative process. Although Zen focuses upon primordial awakening and sudden enlightenment, Zen has always been associated with practices that help tame the discursive mind that stands between us and our own true nature. So in the last part of this post we will focus on practices, especially those appropriate to nature and landscape photography, that will help us on our way with the adventure and experience of Zen.

What is Zen?

This question is difficult if not impossible to answer because Zen cannot be described with rational discursive thought. It can only be experienced directly. The Philosopher and Spiritual Entertainer Alan Watts who along with DT Suzuki was instrumental in bringing Zen to the West, introduced one of his lectures on Zen this way:

A lecture on Zen is always something in the nature of a hoax, because it really does deal with a domain of experience that can’t be talked about….So anybody who says that he knows what Zen is, is a fraud. Nobody knows.

Alan Watts, Out of Your Mind, 07, The World as Just So Part 1 (1)

Well that is one heck of a way for Watts to start a lecture Zen that relies on the spoken word! But it does establish an important context for any discussion of Zen. Our mind will get very confused in any attempt to understand Zen through the written or spoken word. This very confusion, however, is instrumental in weakening our mental defenses so that ultimately we cease trying to understand Zen intellectually and instead focus on practices that help eliminate obstacles to experiencing the world more intuitively just as it is.

The most concise and the essential statement of what Zen is comes from the first Patriarch of Zen, Bodhidharma. It is said that Bodhidharma was born as the third prince of an Indian kingdom. He immigrated to China as a Buddhist missionary-monk in the late fourth or early fifth century. Here is the original statement:

Without relying on words and writings,
A Special Transmission outside of scriptures,
Pointing directly to the human mind,
See your own nature and become Buddha.  (2)

With this passage, Zen is introduced as a special transmission, something that is experienced intuitively without the use of words or concepts. This perception points directly to our human mind where we can awaken to our own true nature.


Zen itself in its mythology imagines is own beginning even earlier with this story of the first special transmission of Zen. The story is called the Flower Sermon and predates Bodhidharma by approximately one thousand years . One day the Buddha silently held up a flower before the a large group of his disciples. Buddha offered no words and as the silence ensued his disciples were confused and did not know the meaning of the sermon, all except for one of Buddha’s disciples, Maha Kasyapa who simply smiled. This was the a wordless special transmission of Zen. The vehicle for this special transmission of Zen, is nature itself, in the form of a beautiful flower.

There is one more story that I would like to tell, a story that will take us to the very heart of Zen Buddhism even as it exists today, with its unique character, different from other forms of Buddhism. This is the story of the 6th Chinese Patriarch of Zen Hui-neng (638-713). The story of Hui-neng can be found in the Platform Sutra which is in effect an autobiography of Hui-neng. It is one of the more accessible stories in Zen literature and I highly recommend reading it in is entirety (2). Hui-neng was an illiterate woodcutter who had heard from afar a reading of the Buddhist Diamond Sutra. This piqued his curiosity and he wanted to learn more. He approached the temple of the fifth patriarch who agreed to take him in as a dish washer and teach him more about Zen. The fifth patriarch some time later recognized that he himself was getting very old and needed to get on with the project of choosing a successor. He decided to hold a poetry contest for who could write the best poem that describes the nature of reality. Whoever wins the contest would become the 6th patriarch. Today we might call this a poetry slam! All of the monks except one decided not to participate in the contest because they knew the patriarch’s principle disciple, Snxiu, would most certainly win. Senxiu wrote on one of the halls of the temple the following verse:

The body is the Bodhi tree;
The mind is a clear mirror.
Always strive to polish it.
Let no dust alight. (3)
Islands in the Sun

What does this verse mean? Our body is like the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha awakened to his true nature. The tree and our body are like props that serve as a vehicle for awakening. Our mind can be like a clear mirror reflecting the nature of reality. But we must strive through our actions to keep it clean and let “no dust alight” otherwise the reflection will not be pure. The emphasis is on cultivation of a practice like polishing to keep the mirror clean. Hui-neng saw this poem and asked a monk to read it to him. Upon reflecting upon Senxiu’s poem which he thought was pretty good, Hui-neng knew he could write even a better poem. He asked the monk to write this next poem on the wall next to Senxiu’s.

Bodhi originally has no tree.
The mirror has no stand.
Buddha nature is primordially clean and pure.
Where could dust even alight. (3)

Once the the fifth patriarch read Hui-neng’s poem he knew instantly that he understood the nature of reality and pronounced him the sixth patriarch.

There are moments when my soul is a mirror to everything around me. Forms, shapes and patterns bathed in light rise out of the dark void and return again in an endless cycle. In such moments I feel I am the mountains, the sea, the setting sun, and the tree spread out over the bay. There is no me, mountains, sea, setting sun, or tree spread out over the bay–Satori.

In Hui-neng’s poem, awakening does not depend on our physical being and definitely not physical objects such as a mirror. We are all already primordially awakened. There is no where for the dust even to fall. In this story we encounter one of the principle pillars of Zen, we already have the Buddha Nature, we just do not know it. There is nothing we possibly can do in terms of cultivation to acquire our Buddha Nature, it is simply already there. In other words pay attention to direct experience, we are already clean and pure. At this point one might say, but wait a minute, do you mean I do not need to engage in meditation and other traditional Zen practices such as mindfulness and reciting and answering Koans? Well just like everything else in Zen the answer is paradoxical, yes and no. Meditation and other practices will not bring us enlightenment, we are already enlightened. But practices may, and I emphasize the word may, help weaken some of our conceptual filters that we have acquired in the course of our lives that stand in the way of us experiencing our true nature.

Zen: A Blend of Buddhism and Taoism

When Buddhism came to China it encountered a culture already steeped in a Taoist tradition and perspective on nature and life. Many of the Buddhist Sanskrit terms were translated in a way that favored Taoist Chinese equivalent words, for example the nature of emptiness and interdependence, were rendered imprecisely as the Tao, or “the Way (4)”. Everywhere one looks in the historical record of Chinese Buddhism, whether it be rituals, practices, philosophy, and even the translation and the creation of sūtras—one finds Taoist parallels with the two traditions interacting with each other, each one influencing the other, until something unique begins to emerge which is Chan Buddhism. The term Chan is derived from the Sanskrit term Dhyana meaning meditation. The term Zen is in turn derived from the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese word Chan.  While successive dynasties and authorities within Buddhist monasteries attempted to define the boundaries between the two traditions, this had little or no influence once one peered beyond the monastery walls. It is worthy of mention that we still find this same tension in both the east and the west today, where certain Zen monasteries attempt to reign in the Zen practice and move it back to something where its roots in Buddhism are more evident and connections to Taoism are downplayed or even non existent.

Light in the Forest

This merging and creative synthesis of Buddhism and Taoism is especially evident in the writings of those who figured prominently in introducing Zen to the west including Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki. Alan Watts’s landmark book “The Way of Zen” that introduced millions of westerners to Zen starting in the early sixties incorporates the interplay of Taoism and Zen right in the title to the book with a reference to “the Way” i.e., the Tao. Alan Watts actually begins his book with a lengthy discussion of Taoism. D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese Zen scholar who spent considerable time in the United States writes in his corresponding landmark book “An Introduction to Zen Buddhism”…..”If I am am asked, then, what Zen teaches, I would answer, Zen teaches nothing. Whatever teachings there are in Zen, they come out of one’s own mind. We teach ourselves: Zen merely points the way.” Here again we have a very impactful reference to “the Way” which we will soon see is a pillar of the Taoist tradition. Many modern day scholars reinforce these same themes, for example David Hinton in his book “China Root–Taoism, Chan, and Original Zen”, (c) 2020 (5). “The more Chan (Zen) is seen at the deepest levels essential for awakening the more Taoist it looks; while the more it is seen at shallow or institutional levels, the more Buddhist it looks.”

From my perspective it is likely a bit of an overreach to say that Zen has more to do with Taoism than Buddhism. A basic understanding of both are necessary for a greater appreciation of the Zen synthesis and also to better grasp what ultimately emerged which is unique and greater than just the blending of its parts. So at this point let us briefly discuss the separate traditions of Buddhism and Taoism.

The Buddha and the Four Noble Truths

Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha, lived during the 5th century B.C. The Sanskrit name, the Buddha, means the “one who is awake”, and the story of the Buddha is about the one who awoke to his true nature. Buddha’s mother died shortly after giving birth to Siddhartha and he was raised by his Father who was extremely protective of his son wanting him to only experience an idyllic life within the palace walls. The Father wanted Siddhartha to eventually succeed him as King and did not want him to take a spiritual path that some had predicted for Gautama. The Father took extraordinary measures to shield Siddhartha from any knowledge of poverty, death and suffering. The Buddha’s curiosity eventually got the best of him and he left his wife and young son and he escaped into the world outside of the palace walls living in the forest for six years. On excursions to villages, Siddhartha encountered common people who were sick and suffering along with the corpses of those who had recently died. This made the Buddha acutely aware of the impermanence of human life including his own life. Siddhartha wanted to find a way to get beyond this human suffering. He spent six years searching, worked with a couple of gurus, and engaged in various ascetic practices in search of an answer.  Siddhartha eventually abandoned his Gurus, went out on his own. While meditating in nature, under a bodhi tree, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, woke up to his true nature attaining enlightenment. (6-The Buddha Movie).

Not exactly a Bodhi Tree, but if the story of the Buddha were to unfold today in my neck of the woods, I am inclined to believe that enlightenment may just take place under a Madrone Tree!

The Buddha’s best known teaching is the Four Noble Truths. Buddha communicates Four Noble Truths in a manner that parallels the way in which a Doctor diagnoses a disease. The first question the Buddha asks is what is the problem here? The answer to this question and the First Noble Truth is, “All life is Suffering.” Recall the images that Siddhartha saw as a young man of disease, old age, and death. The second question Buddha asks is— Can this disease be cured? There is no use moving forward unless the disease can be cured. The Second Noble Truth then is yes indeed the disease can be cured! There is release from the sorrows and suffering of our lives. The third question is what is the outcome we are trying to achieve? The Third Noble Truth then is that we can be released from suffering through waking up to our true nature, or in other words through finding Nirvana. Joseph Campbell, the renowned 20th century mythologist describes nirvana this way.

“The word nirvana means “extinguished.” Literally, however, the word is translated as “where no wind blows,” or “beyond the winds.” Buddhism is the ferry way to the yonder shore, where the wind of surface duality does not blow. We leave this shore of fear, of desire, etc.; we get in the ferryboat of the Buddhist yana, the Buddhist vessel, and we come to the yonder shore where there are no pairs of opposites, so that the ultimate realization is: now we are on the yonder shore, we look back to see this shore, since we are beyond the pairs of opposites, and surprise! There is no difference. This world is nirvana; that is the point.”

Ferry Going to the Yonder Shore

So what is it that we wake up to? It is nothing other than the world as its, or as Allan Watts puts it, the “World as just So” (1). It is here that we find a close linkage between the Buddha’s message and Zen. In Zen we are not aiming for some Transcendental Reality beyond the world as it is. The aim is to awaken to the true nature of our own being and at the same time see the world of nature just as it is, nothing special. A low and behold we realize there is no separation between our own nature and that of the natural world that surrounds us.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the the Eightfold Path, the way to awakening. This is also known as the middle way between the world of desire, passions, and attachments on one side and more extreme asceticism on the other side. The eight fold path includes (1) Right View, (2) Right Intention, (3) Right Speech, (4) Right Action, (5) Right Livelihood, (6) Right Effort, (7) Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration. Zen which is more inwardly oriented does not place nearly as much emphasis on cultivation of the Eightfold Path as other forms of Buddhism that are more outwardly oriented. Recall our earlier discussion of the 6th Patriarch Hui Neng, we are already awakened, we just do not know it. Zen, however, does put significant emphasis on the practice of mindfulness and we will discuss this a greater length when we come to Zen practices. This is not to diminish the importance of the eight fold path which points to a very practical way to carry out our lives in a meaningful way. Although a full discussion of the Eightfold Path is beyond the scope of this article, I highly recommend Mark Epstein’s book, Advice Not Given, for those who want to go deeper. In this book he discusses each step of the Eight Fold Path and its importance in our lives from more of a psychoanalytic perspective.

Buddhism: Common Themes

Buddhism evolved into a number of sects including Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhism. Hinayana also known as small boat Buddhism is more traditional focusing on the ascetic life and practices of a few, those in a monastic order, to escape cycles and birth and rebirth and reach Nirvana. Mahayana, is also known as big boat Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha nature is realized, but then one goes back into the world as a Bodhisattva to share the message of compassionate Buddhism. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism arose out of the Mahayana tradition. All forms of Buddhism, however, share three philosophical themes or ideas: impermanence, interdependence and selflessness.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

The Dalai Lama

Impermanence. Although our minds may perceive our everyday world as definite events that persist in our mind over time, such as your recollection of a beautiful sunset you experienced and photographed long ago, in reality everything is constantly changing, including your recollection of past events. There really is only the eternal here and now of moment to moment experiences that only last a second and are constantly changing. Emerson incarnates this eternal now beautifully hundreds of years later on American soil in this passage from his essay, Self Reliance.

These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. Before a leaf-bud has burst, its whole life acts; in the full-blown flower, there is no more; in the leafless root, there is no less. Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. There is no time to it. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance

Interdependence. The second major idea is that of interdependence. The whole depends on the parts and the parts depend on the whole. None of us are truly independent in who we are as a person. We are not an isolated conscious person encased in a bag of skin separate from the world around us. Our identities, depend on our environments, both at a local level and at a cosmological level. Buddhism has always followed the path of ecology even before the word ecology entered into our vocabulary. Alan Watts put it this way: ““You are a function of what the whole universe is doing in the same way that a wave is a function of what the whole ocean is doing.” (8)

Let the Light be With You

Selflessness. The ideas of impermanence and interdependence are closely related to the Buddhist idea of self or perhaps more to the point no self. Because things are constantly changing, there is no identity to retain over time. What we think of as our identity–our processions, accomplishments, our view of our self and how we project ourselves to the world— is actually a kind of illusion largely derived from society. We are constantly changing and there is absolutely nothing to hold on to. Buddha’s message is that this kind of identity or sense of self is a product of our conceptual thought. It is this world of conceptual thought surrounding the creation of conceptual identities that Zen aims to break through, weaken, and eventual destroy. This is done so that the true nature of who we truly are will be more transparent. Although some take it a step further and say Zen wants to destroy our ego, this is not actually true. We need a healthy ego to get along, function and make a living in society. What we do not need, however, is an unhealthy ego that sees it self as the center of the universe. This kind of ego to Buddhism and Zen is an illusion.


The Chinese word Tao means “the way”. One might ask what kind of way? First and foremost, it is the way of nature including our own nature. It is also the way of harmony with others and the way of self understanding. Taoism is the study of the way. Its origins trace back to the philosopher-hermits, called Xian, who roamed the mountains of ancient China. It comes as no surprise that the Chinese ancient pictogram for Xian (僊) represents a person in the Mountains (1). Taoism as as a philosophy of the way appears in China about the 5 Century BCE. Its two principle sages are Lao-tse and Chuang Tzu. Lao-tse lays the ground work and principle ideas of Taoism in the Tao Te Ching. Chuang Tzu brings us often paradoxical parables in what are known as the Inner Chapters. These parables are often irreverent but also down to earth complementing what was introduced in the Tao Te Ching.

Dances with Fog and Light

The important Taoist principles from the Tao De Ching where we find equivalents in Zen include the notion of our primordial awakening, and the importance of direct experience, impermanence, emptiness, and simplicity. You can find a through discussion of Taoism in my Blog Post The Tao of Landscape Photography, but here I am going to focus upon the principles where we find close connections with Zen along with an additional story from Chuang Tzu about the paradoxical nature of reality.

To study the Way is to study the self.

To study the self is to forget the self.

To forget the self is to be enlightened by the ten thousand things.

Zen Master Dogen (18)

Primordial Awakening

A central theme in the Taoist perspective is a return to nature. At a more personal level this also means a recovery of our own nature, a kind of primordial awakening. I say recovery, because our own original nature, a sort of childlike primordial state, was always there. Lao-tse says in verse 55 of the Tao Te Ching that “The virtuous are like children” (10). As a metaphor, the child represents the eternal beginning, and the ever springing source of all life prior to adoption of our filters of conceptual thought. Taoism points to several factors that stand in the away of awareness of our true nature. Chief among them is our contemporary culture that surrounds us. Society convinces us as we grow up that the path to both success and meaning involve the acquisition of material wealth along with work accomplishments and recognition. Unfortunately this path also leads us further and further away from nature. What we need instead is a return to a life more anchored in spontaneity, passion and intuition. This idea of awakening to our own true nature and can be found in Buddhism in general but is especially prominent in Zen Buddhism. Recall the words of the sixth patriarch of Zen with Hui Neng’s poem: Buddha nature is primordially clean and pure, where could dust even alight”. The echoes of Taoism could not be more clear.

Return to Nature

Direct Experience and Impermanence

Taoism has always emphasized the importance of direct experience and has correspondingly been suspicious of any attempts to frame our experience through the lenses and filters of our conceptual thought. Our words, thoughts and concepts can literally never describe our experience of nature. The first words of the Ta Te Ching are “The Tao that can be spoken of is not the real way. ” (10). In chapter thirty-two Lao-tse goes on to say”

Naming is a necessity for order,
but naming cannot order all things.
Naming often makes things impersonal,
so we should know when naming should end.
Knowing when to stop naming,
you can avoid the pitfall it brings.
All things end in the Tao
just as the small streams and the largest rivers
flow through valleys to the sea (11).
Where Rivers Meet the Sea

Naming is part of our conceptual thought. Putting labels on things and what we believe are our experiences can prevent us from experiencing the world at a more personal, direct and immediate level . Although both Taoism and Zen place little emphasis on words associated with conceptual thought such as might be found in scriptures and texts, both do embrace a more poetic use of words. Poetry does not seek to explain the mystery through rational means. The way of the poet points us toward a more intuitive participation in the mystery and wonders of the world. This is done through the use of evocative and often rhythmic language rich in imagery and sounds closely aligned with our emotions.

In this same verse Lao Tse also connects the importance of direct experience of the Tao with the notion of flow with the metaphor of the water flowing from streams to larger rivers to the sea. The river is constantly changing, impermanent and yet also appears as an unchanging whole, connected to the Tao. Although we perceive the water in the river as a constant this water is gone the instant we perceive it only replaced with new water. The flow cannot be stopped, we can only go with the flow. This is Wu Wei, effortless action. The importance of unfiltered direct experience of course is also central to Zen which should not surprise us given the influence of Taoism on Zen. We find a focus on impermanence in both Taoism and Buddhism, but in the Zen synthesis, Zen takes the idea of impermanence to a level that goes far beyond what we see in either Taoism or Buddhism.


The importance of emptiness in Taoism is beautifully captured by Lao Tse in the following verse.

Verse 11 of the Tao Te Ching: Emptiness Translated by Sam Tarode

A wheel may have thirty spokes,
but its usefulness lies in the empty hub.

A jar is formed from clay,
but its usefulness lies in the empty center.

A room is made from four walls,
but its usefulness lies in the space between.

Matter is necessary to give form,
but the value of reality lies in its immateriality.

Everything that lives has a physical body,
but the value of a life is measured by the soul (10).

For most of us, when we approach a beautiful landscape, we immediately start picking out subjects against a background. In doing this we are experiencing nature and the landscape as discrete and separate parts. The Taoist perspective, however, informs us that this process of picking out, naming and labeling subjects in the landscape may actually be getting in the way of us experiencing the true nature of reality, in other words experiencing nature and the landscape as an interrelated seamless whole. Without the background and negative space no subject or subjects can have any form. “A wheel may have thirty spokes, but its usefulness lies in the empty hub” and “the room is made of four walls, but its usefulness lies in the space between”. When a Taoist first approaches a mountain landscape, he/she is likely to first notice the valley below and the sky above rather than the imposing mountain looming as a primary subject. Focusing first on the negative space and background can go along way toward transforming how we view nature and the landscape and it is my belief that this will be for the better. This helps move us away from our habitual way of viewing the world, glorifying certain objects in the landscape, rather than experiencing what every landscape actually is, an integrated whole. Focusing on negative space, emptiness and the void brings us back to a more primordial and intuitive way of experiencing the world, it brings us back to the source of all that is, it brings us back to the eternal Tao.

Forest Carpet of Clouds

Ray Grigg writes in the “Tao of Zen”—“The Way in both Taoism and Zen is approached by emptying, by abandoning what is not the Way, by eliminating questions rather than finding answers, by opening to what cannot be Known. Because the Way can be recognized but not explained, all concepts become obstructions that have to be cleared away. Emptiness, therefore, becomes the condition that provides maximum range of perspective, maximum flexibility and freedom to move and respond. Any conception or preconception limits by predisposing awareness and action.” Emptiness is the way to unfiltered and immediate awareness, seeing the world clearly. This emptiness is a central pillar of Zen and the gateway to creativity. Zen Buddhist Monks are known to even start their day by reciting from the “Heart Sutra” including the phrase “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form”. When one attempts to understand this abstractly these words literally make no sense at all. The meaning here, however, is not abstract but simple and concrete. Form, since it is continually changing and impermeant is essentially empty. But emptiness is form, and therefore the world is just as it is–nothing less nothing more!


In the Tao Te Ching, Lao-tse talks about the qualities of the sages of old who were examples of living a simple life in harmony with the Tao. Although these sages were alert, careful, courteous, and fluid as melting ice; they also were likened to the image of an “uncarved block. (11)” The metaphor of the uncarved block” is one of the most enduring and frequently found metaphors in all of Taoist literature. The uncarved block represents nature in its original, unchanged, and natural form. Benjamin Hoff, in the Tao of Pooh, writes “The essence of the Uncarved Block is that things in their original simplicity contain their own natural power, power that is easily spoiled and lost when that simplicity is changed (14)”. This fits in well with the previously discussed Taoist emphasis on emptiness and the importance of negative space. Living a life of the sage takes us in the direction of stripping away of much of the baggage we have collected in the process of fitting in with society and getting back to a much simpler and spontaneous life close to nature. The paradox is that when we return to the uncarved block we also unlock our potential to live a more fulfilling and meaningful life. An uncarved block has the potential to be transformed into something extraordinary and worthwhile. But this will only happen when one moves with rather than against the rhythms and flow of nature. In the words of Lao-tse: “Who can be still until their mud settles and the mud is cleared by itself, Can you remain tranquil until right action occurs by itself?”

The Zen symbol or ensō symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and emptiness. It is characterized by simplistic  minimalism born of a Taoist aesthetic. Using calligraphy, the artist creates the ensō fluidly with a single brush stroke. The circle may be open or closed. I prefer my circle open! When the circle is incomplete, this allows for movement and development as well as the perfection of all things. Japanese Zen practitioners relate this idea to wabi-sabi, the beauty of imperfection. 

The principle of simplicity has always been a part of the the Zen ascetic and it can be easily seen in its various art forms. This ascetic is also a reflection of the clarity of the Zen Mindset described so well in this passage by D.T. Suzuki.

Zen proposes its solution by directly appealing to facts of personal experience and not to book-knowledge. […] Zen must be directly and personally experienced by each of us in his inner spirit. Just as two stainless mirrors reflect each other, the fact and our own spirits must stand facing each other with no intervening agents. When this is done, we are able to seize upon the living, pulsating fact itself. Freedom is an empty word until then.” (15)

Again we have this notion, also so evident in Taoism, of “stripping away” and doing away with “intervening agents” between our our inner spirit and the facts and reality of our everyday world. Zen preserves beautifully the legacy of Taoism in way we do not find in other forms of Buddhism. Both Taoism and Zen get us back to to the simplicity and essence of nature, back to the “uncarved block”.


Taoism is full of paradox at every twist and turn. We see this in the more lofty and philosophical writings of Lao-tse, but we see it at more of a concrete level of everyday discourse in Chuang Tzu. Consider this Chuang Tzu parable:

One day Chuang Tzu and a friend were walking by a river. “Look at the fish swimming about,” said Chuang Tzu, “They are really enjoying themselves.””You are not a fish,” replied the friend, “So you can’t truly know that they are enjoying themselves.””You are not me,” said Chuang Tzu. “So how do you know that I do not know that the fish are enjoying themselves?” (16)

With Paradox, Taoism deliberately creates an insight that cannot be fully resolved through rationale thought. We enter the realm of ambivalence and confusion where our mind at some point just gives up and yields to a more intuitive and immediate way of understanding that does not rely upon words. It should come as no surprise that the Tao De Ching opens with these words, “The Tao which can be spoken, is not the real way.” Of course Lao-tse himself is relying on written discourse to communicate what cannot ultimately be communicated with words. This is the ultimate irony and paradox!

The paradoxes we also find in Zen result much more from its encounter with Taoism than its roots in Buddhism. For example on the subject of Dualism, Buddhism seems to attempt to move toward a resolution of the concept of duality with the notion of “not two, but one”. In Zen it is more like, not one, not two, but two = one and at the same time one = two”. Of course this makes no logical sense and that is the point-to move beyond logic and more into an intuitive way of grasping the true nature of our being.

Red Berries in a Mossy Forest

Nowhere is the sense of Paradox more evident than in the Zen Koan. Consider this Koan.

Two monks were arguing about the temple flag waving in the wind. One said, “The flag moves.” The other said, “The wind moves.” They argued back and forth but could not agree. Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said: “Gentlemen! It is not the flag that moves. It is not the wind that moves. It is your mind that moves.” The two monks were struck with awe. (2)

In this Koan, Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, will not even entertain a common sense explanation for the movement of the flag but instead points to the minds of the two monks as the source of movement. Although this cannot be grasped with logical thought, it is something the two monks grasp at a more immediate and intuitive level. Trying to explain what Zen is, including my own attempts here, of course is also a paradox. It simply cannot be done, because Zen can only be experienced. If at about this time you feel yourself getting a little confused in the way of Zen that is exactly as it should be! Once the mind gives up trying to figure Zen out we are ready to begin the Zen adventure!

Zen and the Love of Nature

The Candle Holder

In Zen we always find a close an intimate relationship with nature. We find this at the time the Buddha embarked upon his 6 year retreat in the forests of India to the time he awakened under the Bodhi Tree. We find this also when Maha Kasyapa received a special transmission of Zen through his smile upon seeing his own Buddha Nature in the Lotus Flower. We find this in the likes of Lao-tse and Chuang Tzu, mountain men who roamed through the peaks and valleys of China’s natural landscape. We also find the close connection to nature when we look at where many Zen monasteries are located, typically located in areas where unspoiled nature is at their doorstep. Even in our popular consciousness of Zen most of us conjure up images of peaceful and tranquil moments of serenity in nature, Zen Moments. As photographers of nature and the landscape most of us have also experienced such moments. Zen, however, does not embrace just these peaceful and tranquil moments. Zen is open to nature in its entirety–stormy seas and calm seas, the Sturm and Drang of unsettled mountain weather, as well as the calm of a beautiful reflection in a mountain lake. In this regard Zen owes much to Taoist Yin and Yang. We cannot have the calm without the storm and one implies the other. Just as we cannot climb the mountain peak if there is no valley below. Zen sees clearly into all of nature, clear skies and foggy skies, new growth and renewal as well as death and destruction. We simply cannot have one with out the other.

Sturm und Drang

No where do we find as close and intimate connection with nature as where Zen took root in Japan. This is in part due to the special relationship the Japanese culture had with nature even prior to Zen taking root on soil of Japan. This also helps explain why Zen flourished in Japan even as it lost much of its hold in China after the Song Dynasty. D.T. Suzuki talks about this Japanese love of Nature in his landmark essay, Zen and the Japanese Love of Nature.

What is the most specific characteristic of Zen asceticism in connection with the Japanese Love for Nature? It consists in paying Nature the fullest respect it deserves. By this it is meant that we may treat Nature not as an object to conquer and turn wantonly to our human service, but as a friend, as fellow being, who is destined like ourselves for Buddhahood…. Zen purposes to respect Nature, to love Nature, to live its own life; Zen recognizes that our Nature is one with objective Nature, not in the mathematical sense, but in the sense that Nature lives in us and we in Nature.

D. T. Suzuki Love of Nature (17)
The Lantern
A Japanese Maple lights up like a lantern as the morning light bursts through an opening in the canopy of the small tree by a pond. In this image you will also see a small stone Japanese Garden Lantern.  In Japanese Culture these small garden lanterns symbolize nature through the concept of finding beauty in the impermanence of the natural world.  At no time was this more evident to me than underneath this Japanese Maple Tree, with its leaves now fully turned a bright red, catching the rapidly changing light, and ever so slowly starting to fall to the ground, one by one.

When we are in love with Nature we approach the natural world in a much different way. When we set out to climb the mountain peak we do not approach it as something to be conquered, but rather we are walking with the mountain, as the mountain helps lift us up through it various layers of sublime, mysterious, and sometimes rugged beauty. The mountain is our friend, never our enemy. Nature is our friend and like a good friend we are concerned with his/her well being. Our natural feeling is to preserve, protect and conserve nature. Likewise when we as Landscape Photographers set out on a photographic expedition, we are not just checking the box through visiting a well known site all teed up for that very predictable iconic shot. We are walking with nature and with each step we stand in awe at the mystery, beauty, and wonders of nature-all of nature-both the sublime and the quite ordinary. We live and breathe in nature and nature is as much us as we nature.

Russian Butte in the Mist

In the Zen aesthetic of simplicity that is in tune with the essence of nature, the Zen mindset is most transparent when close to scenes where the impermanence of nature is most evident, a budding flower, fallen leaves, melting ice. All forms are constantly changing and and therefore devoid of any permeant essence. The Japanese have a word for this temporal beauty and it is wabi-sabi. Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect. Although it is easy for us to grasp this at a more obvious level-we see ourselves getting older and grayer and suffer the loss of loved ones, in the adventure of Zen it is also evident at the most subtle levels that encompasses all of nature including inanimate objects and especially our own thoughts.

Lilac Tears of Joy

Awareness of Nature itself leads us to a greater appreciation of its impermanence, especially when we spend time in the natural world. This awareness in turn helps breakdown our conceptual filters that prevent us from fully seeing the world as it is. As a nature and landscape photographer, I began to notice this as I spent more quality time in nature, often in quite ordinary but natural places on my walks in the forest close to home. This is also a common story and theme among other nature and landscape photographers who I know. Without necessarily even being conscious of what Zen is, many of us are already embarking upon the adventure of Zen.

Alpine Pond Autumn Moods

This Zen adventure is not unlike the adventure that Thoreau took in his two year experiment of living in the forest at Walden Pond. It was only here, in close contact with Nature, did the grip of his preconceived notions surrounding the natural world begin to evaporate as he experienced the natural world in a much more immediate and intuitive way. Thoreau did not transcend the natural world of wonder and beauty at Walden Pond. This was not a journey into some kind of transcendental reality beyond the natural world. Thoreau transcended his perception of himself as something separate from nature, a perception that was largely a function of his societal upbringing and his own conceptual thought. In transcending this false identity he embraced his true identity with nature. Thoreau lived in nature and nature in Thoreau at Walden Pond. With only cursory knowledge of Buddhism and Zen, Thoreau may have been one of America’s first Bodhisattva’s, experiencing enlightenment in his life in the woods at Walden Pond, then going back into the world to share the possibility of this experience with others through his book, Walden Pond. For more on this see my Blog Post on Thoreau and Walden Pond.

Mt. Baker Rising

The Japanese Zen Master Dogen once remarked:

Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters; after a first glimpse into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters; after enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters. (18)

Dogen 1200-1253, founder of the Soto School of Zen

What does Dogen mean by this? Before embarking upon the Zen journey when we see mountains we perceive these mountains as objects of nature separate from us. The mountains are not only separate from us, but standing against us, something to be conquered. When one first embarks upon the Zen journey, the mountains are no longer seen as something that stands against us. We may then feel as though they dissolve into the “oneness of things” and the mountain ceases to be an object of nature. But at this point, the mountains are no longer mountains, there is only this undifferentiated oneness. Later in our Zen adventure the mountains are assimilated into our very being, into the core essence of who we are and we are absorbed into them. With this experience, I am in nature and nature in me. According to D.T. Suzuki this is not mere participation in each other but fundamental identity between the two. This is Satori or enlightenment. Now mountains are mountains just as they are before me.

We do not “come into” this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean “waves,” the universe “peoples.” Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated “egos” inside bags of skin.

Allan Watts from The Book On The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (28)
One with the Ocean—When reviewing my images from a trip to Kauai a few years ago, this one surprised me the most. I did not at all see my shadow and silhouette in the spray of the wave at the moment of capture. But there I was, walking into the ocean of Kauai’s Shipwreck Beach, tripod in hand, one with the Ocean.

Zen and Creativity

The way of Zen is for us to awaken to our true nature. When we wake up we are also more creative because we loosen the hold of mental filters that not only falsely define who we are but also limit creative possibilities. The renowned Twentieth Century Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm expressed it more bluntly this way at a conference with D.T. Suzuki on Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis. “The average person’s consciousness is mainly false consciousness consisting of fictions and illusion, while precisely what he is not aware of is reality.” (19) Zen practices such as meditation and mindfulness help us to slow down and gradually weaken the fictions and illusions surrounding our false identities. In the process of this happening our expanded awareness bring us into contact with new sources of creativity that previously were largely unconscious. In the Forward to the D.T. Suzuki book An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, the founder of Depth Psychology, Carl Jung put it this way. ” The world of consciousness is inevitably a world full of restrictions, of walls blocking the way…Since the emptying and the closing down of the conscious is no easy matter, a special training (Zen) and an indefinitely long period of time is necessary to produce the maximum of tension which leads to the final breakthrough of unconscious into the conscious.” (20)

Tumwater Watercolor Reflections

This creative breakthrough leading to expanded awareness, is also the path to creativity that Artist and Jungian practitioner Julia Cameroon discusses in her book “The Artist’s Way” (21). “Although we seldom talk about it in these terms, writing is a means of prayer. It connects us to the invisible world. It gives us a gate for the other world to talk to us, whether we call it the subconscious, the unconscious, the superconscious, the imagination or the muse. ” Although Julia Cameroon is talking about writing here we can also include other practices that potentially can set in motion a dialogue with our unconscious self including nature and landscape photography, meditation and mindfulness. Cameroon goes on to say ” Inspiration may be a form of super consciousness, or perhaps of subconsciousness-I wouldn’t know. But I am sure it is the antithesis of self-consciousness”. The primary practice Cameroon recommends to help access the wellsprings of our unconscious, silence our inner critic of conceptual thoughts, and unlock creativity is the morning pages, in other words keeping a journal. We will discuss this practice in more depth when we discuss Zen practices but let me say this now that our journals will also include the daily practice of taking photos of the natural world.

Andy Karr and Michael Wood offer a description of the creative process in their book “The Practice of Contemplative Photography” that I believe is especially relevant to our discussion of Zen and Creativity. Although Contemplative Photography as outlined by Karr and Wood traces its spiritual inspiration to Tibetan Buddhism, I find it also consistent with traditional Zen practices and more importantly the spirt of Zen. I am going to discuss this contemplative process looking at it from the perspective we have established of the Way of Zen closely connected to the Love of Nature. The contemplative process involves three stage of creativity as they apply to photography.

  • Connecting with a Flash of Perception
  • Visual Discernment
  • Forming an equivalent to what we have seen
Rock Tapestry

A flash of perception comes in the gaps in the flow of our mental activity. Mental activity is often characterized by sticky attachments to our conceptual thoughts that surround what we are feeling at any given moment. Through time in nature, slowing down, meditation, and mindfulness these conceptual thoughts loose some of their grip. Then when one of these gaps in our mental activity occurs we are more ready for a flash of perception. This is also the stage where the dialogue begins with our unconscious self and we become more aware not only of our surroundings but also our inner selves.

The state of mind of the photographer while creating is a blank… But it is a very active state of mind really, a very receptive state of mind, ready at an instant to grasp an image, yet with no image pre-formed in it at any time.

Minor White

Visual Discernment involves staying with the contemplative state of mind after the initial flash of perception. Here we rest with our perception and allow the basic qualities of form, light, patterns, tones and textures to be recognized through our intuitive non-conceptual intelligence and the feelings we are experiencing. Visual discernment slows us down even more and gives us some space that allows our photographic vision to emerge.

Mushroom Huddle

Forming an Equivalent involves forming an equivalent of your perception, taking and processing the image. The image will be the equivalent of your perception and it should be obvious it will not be the same thing as this is impossible. The Contemplative Photography approach as it was originally envisioned involves a more representational style, but I do not think any such restriction is appropriate for Zen photography. Although Zen aims at clear perception and the true nature of who we are, the Zen aesthetic in the arts is seldom representational but rather a unique and creative expression of our true nature grounded in immediate experience, especially experiences in the natural world. In other words, Zen aims not so much as a documentation of our experience, but rather as a creative expression of our experience, especially our inner experience.

Spirit Angels in the Forest

The Zen aesthetic looks for the spirit and essence of nature, It is not so much interested in the exaggeration of forms or super imposing man made symmetries on an image to make nature fit ones own conceptual ideas of what nature should be. The imperfections, irregularities, and especially the temporal aspects of nature are all celebrated. The wonders of Nature are something to be admired never mastered. There is no attempt to solve the mysteries of nature. Nature and its mysteries mysteries are honored just as they are. For more on Mystery see my blog post: Mystery :The Holy Grail of Nature Photography.

“Naturalness, Spontaneity, and playfulness are all aspects of the ordinary mind that catches a glimpse of the world of things just as they are. To live this life fully means to see all of it. The doorway to experience is the creative process”.

John Daido Loori, The Zen of Crearitiby

When we are primordially awakened to our true nature we are as children who are naturally and playfully creative, only now as responsible adults no longer needing a parent to keep watch over us.

Moon Rising over the North Cascades

The Practices

In this section I am going to list some practices that will help loosen the grip of some of the barriers that keep us from experiencing the world of nature in a more intuitive, playful and spontaneous way. Some of these barriers have to do with the expectations of the society we live in, but mostly they have to do with the false identities we have created for ourselves. Our conceptual thoughts cause us to see our own selves as objects of our perception defined by such things as our jobs, material accomplishments, the great things we have done, and how we view our own personalities. As important as these things are, is this truly who we are? It is my hope these recommended practices will get us back to something much more elemental, a primordial awakening to our more authentic self. Some might call this our Buddha Nature, but this ultimately is just another name, and itself a product of conceptual thought. We are getting back to Nature itself where we no longer view ourselves or others as objects. In nature there is no separation. We live in nature and nature lives in us even as each one of us is a unique expression of nature. This is also the path of expanded awareness and new sources of creativity as the clouds of illusion dissolve and we view the world just as it is. Some in established Zen communities may not accept some of these practices as part of traditional Zen. That is a fair criticism and I accept it. My approach is focused more on getting back to the essential spirit of Zen and keeping a practical eye out for what will work in our own culture in the here and now and more specifically for nature and landscape photographers. As we have seen, Zen itself from its earliest origins has always been adaptive to the different cultures and and groups of people it has encountered, and no one should think even for a moment that process has come to its end in our current time.

1. Daily Walks in Nature

Daily walks in nature are a form of meditation and are also calming. The meditative rhythm of my walks in the woods right across the street from my house always seem to cut through the concerns and troubles of the day and put me in a more meditative state where I am more aware and receptive to a direct experience of nature. With the recent COVID-19 pandemic and associated restrictions upon our movement and the need for social distancing, it is now more apparent than ever for the need for natural areas within walking distance of our homes. In her landmark book, The Nature Fix (4), Florence Williams explains why. Based on her scientific research, Florence creates a solid case that the natural world has the power to improve health, promote reflection and innovation, and ultimately strengthen our relationships. Visiting these areas rather than alternative places far away is also better for the environment because we do not need to use fuel/stored power to get there. If you are not blessed with quick access to parks or open spaces close to your homes, just do the best you can. Just get outside daily and visit the most natural areas that are accessible to you. Although from time to time you may take images on these walks, these walks should not be purposeful or come with expectations. This time is a date with yourself and nature, and there should be nothing more to it than that.

Fern Hill Forest
Here is some local beauty across the street from my home on a north facing hillside leading down to the Cedar River. Walking to through this ravine I had the feeling of total immersion is a transparent wall of ferns.

2. Journaling

Most people visualize journaling as keeping a written daily record of their thoughts, feelings, and impressions surrounding their day to day life. Our Zen practice will certainly include that but also include a visual record through images. No one needs to see this written journal or the images. In some ways it is better that they do not, because when we take the audience away we also take away the temptation to write about what people want to hear. We also take away the temptation to take images of what we believe will be popular or that we have seen and liked on social media accounts. This helps unlock our personal creativity because we are not trying to be someone we are not. Each of us needs to live our own life. Any camera will do for the image journal. Cell phones often make possible a more fluid and spontaneous connection our world and are great for journaling. With writing, we are not so much trying to figure things out but rather engaging an unrestricted free flow of our thoughts, impressions, ideas, and emotions closely connected to our experience in the present moment.

There is something about writing down our daily experience that helps us dialogue with our unconscious which brings to greater awareness the true reality of who we are, our authentic self, and the world around us world just as it is. Although it is ok to do just writing or just images, I have found that the two together work best to dismantle some of our projections and conceptual thought that stand in the way of experiencing ourselves and nature in a more authentic way. David Ulrich in his book the Zen Camera talks about the photographic daily record this way:

“The free flow of impressions and ideas that comes through a camera can teach you about the world and yourself. Photography can help you bypass your usual conceptual filters and engage what is known as the right brain, the source of intuition, imagination, and creativity. Here the mind can flow without attachment. Zen knows this open, receptive frame of mind as no-mind”. (25)

David Ulrich, Zen Camera

Julia Cameron expresses a similar idea for writing in her landmark book on creativity, The Artist’s Way.

The morning pages (journaling) are the primary tool of creative recovery. As blocked artists, we tend to criticize ourselves mercilessly. Even if we look like functioning artists to the world, we feel we never do enough and what we do isn’t right. We are victims of our own internalized perfectionist, a nasty internal and eternal critic, the Censor, who resides in our left brain and keeps up a constant stream of subversive remarks that are often disguised as the truth. (21)

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way

Both Ulrich with images and Cameron with writing are talking about moving beyond our false identities that are often a function of our conceptual thought. In this process we recover more of our authentic self and true nature. This is done through a dialogue with unconscious parts of ourselves and seeing the world once again just as it is. With journaling we cannot help but become more aware of nature, and this greater awareness will carry forward into a more authentic and creative photography practice.

Submerged Leaves Under Water

3. Meditation

We have already introduced the subject of meditation in our discussion of daily walks in Nature. Here our focus is on sitting meditation or what is known in Zen as Zazen. The key point with meditation is to simply experience the present moment without judgement. Zen has always been associated with the practice of meditation and the word Zen itself means meditation. I am not overly prescriptive in advocating any particular kind of sitting meditation. The important thing is just to sit in a position that is comfortable to you for an extended period of time. For some this may be five minutes and for others it may be a half hour. While meditating in nature, I keep my eyes open. Inside my home I keep them closed. In Zen, the self in many ways is just a concept, and through meditation this concept and the barriers between us and nature begin to dissolve. In meditation you focus primarily on the inhalation and exhalation of the breath and just watch your thoughts as they come and go. You cannot consciously try to avoid thoughts because this will result in just the opposite, but when the distracting thoughts come you acknowledge their presence, release them without judgement, and return your focus to the breath. This takes practice and at first you may be so distracted that you question why you are even doing this, but with time it becomes much easier. With meditation you will be more aware of your inner conditions, emotions, and both the whole of nature and the details of nature that surround you.

Yoga (Meditation) is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind

PatanjaliYoga Sutra 1.2. Around 200 BC 

The calm, equanimity, clarity of mind, and expanded awareness that results from meditation travels with you once you go out into the field for nature and landscape photography. This is why when I hike to an area I want to photograph, I try to get there early and start my photographic session with sitting meditation. Some may also want to expand their Mediation practice to include meditation through movement which is what I do through a flowing series of yoga postures. I have found that once I learned these postures, and move almost effortlessly through the sequence of postures, paying attention to my breath, I enjoy all the benefits of sitting meditation, and in my case I am less subject to any distractions. I have now been doing Yoga for almost 25 years.

Zen Moment

4. Mindfulness

The use of the word mindfulness is widespread today. We hear the term every where from corporate leadership retreats to instruction material for photography workshops. Mostly the term seems to refer to some kind of hyper awareness. In Zen, however, mindfulness is not some kind of hyper awareness where we take note and label everything we possibly can see or feel. This kind focused attention divides the world into separate parts and actually can contribute to our feeling that we are somehow separate from nature.

“A scanning process that observes the world bit by bit soon persuades its user that the world is a great collection of bits, and these he calls separate things or events. We often say that you can only think of one thing at a time. The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things, and so give ourselves the problem of how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other. The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world which had chopped it up into separate bits, things, events, causes, and effects. We do not see the world is all of a piece like the head-tailed cat.”

Alan Watts: The Book on the Taboo Against knowing Who You Are (28)

Zen understands the limits of the human mind to pay attention to multiple separate things, and also knows that these things (if they can even be called that) are not actually separate. It does not embrace a largely conceptual and analytical process of dividing our attention, focusing on this and that, and creating a list of names of each thing we see; nor does it embrace any kind of multitasking. Both of these methods are distractions of the mind. Mindfulness has more to do with stripping away and letting go of our conceptual filters that not only keep us from knowing our own nature but also separate us from the natural world that surrounds us. Mindfulness is the immediate awareness that we can only experience nature in the present moment–everything else represents some conceptual understanding, not nature itself. It is not so much an intention to be present in the moment, but rather a recognition that the present moment is all that there is.

Small Stream in a Hemlock Forest
One of the most rewarding experiences of hiking, is coming across small scenes like this and being stopped in my tracks to slow down and appreciate the beauty. Sometimes these experiences can be more memorable than what I thought was the final destination. It is by now a platitude, but it still rings true-its the journey not the destination.

Some of the confusion in the contemporary understanding of mindfulness may have to do with the term mind in mindfulness. David Hinton traces the derivation of the word mind to its origins in Chan Buddhism and mind actually refers to the heart mind (5). This brings mindfulness back to a more intuitive awareness rather than a intellectual knowing involving discursive thought. David Ulrich in his book the Zen Camera defines mindfulness this way. Mindfulness is “a broad, wordless awareness that is inclusive of the self and other; that can see the outer world, witness your inner conditions with clarity and equanimity, and perceive the relatedness between your self and the world” (25). The focus is on interrelatedness. This is very different from how most of us think of the mind and mindfulness. This is because our understanding of the mind is largely based upon concepts tied to our conceptual identities, not who we truly are as a person. In this regard I would like to tell another story often called the Gateless Gate that takes us back the Bodhidharma, the first Patriarch of Zen. This story comes in the form of a Zen Koan.

After experiencing regret that he had not been successful in bringing Zen to more of China, Bodhidharma went into a cave facing a wall where he meditated for nine years. The soon to be next and second Patriarch of Zen walked in out of a winter landscape and approached him wanting to get his attention and curry his favor.

Bodhidharma sat facing the wall. The Second Patriarch, standing in snow, cut off his arm and said, “Your disciple’s mind is not at rest. I beg you, teacher, give it peace.” Bodhidharma replied, “Bring me your mind and I will give it peace.” The Second Patriarch said, “I have searched for my mind, but I cannot find it.” Bodhidharma answered, “Then I have given peace to your mind.”

Wu-men-Kuan Case Forty One (13)

The mind that the Second Patriarch is referring to is of course just a concept, nothing that in a Zen universe is anchored to reality. This is the Gateless Gate, the realization this kind of mind is already at peace as there is no mind to even to be put at peace. We are on both sides of the Gateless Gate and there is nothing to even pass through.

Mindfulness practices in nature photography will be those that get us out of the mode of trying to use our discursive thought to try to interpret the world, label and objectify experience. Mindfulness practices are those that anchor us in the present moment and connect us to a more spontaneous, immediate, unrehearsed, and intuitive way of experiencing the world, unfiltered and unplugged. In photography these practices will include daily walks in nature, meditation, experiencing nature and the landscape with all of our senses without labeling or judgment, and some others that we have eluded to including slowing down, being present in the moment, and adopting a more contemplative approach to photography.

Sand Dunes Flash of Perception

5. Photography

The art, craft and even the technical aspects of photography are all part of Zen. Some have criticized the technical aspects of photography as standing in the way of the Zen experience. This is not at all consistent with the traditional practice of Zen. Consider the Zen tea ceremony with an elaborate and detailed process that must be learned. This process, however, is learned so that it can in a sense be forgotten as it becomes second nature. Only then can the Zen tea ceremony be carried out in the present moment with fluid motions in synch with rhythms of nature. The same goes for Zen and the Art of Archery or Calligraphy and so it is also with Zen and the Art of Nature and Landscape Photography. We must learn the art, craft and techniques of photography to the point where we can forget about it because these are all just part of who are. Only then can we have a more immediate and intuitive experience with nature, work with those flashes of perception to to create unique expressions of the natural world that are a seamless blend of our inner state of consciousness, that is our heart mind, and the natural world that surrounds us. In Zen the photographic process that we experience moment by moment will be as much or more important than the end result. If this is not case, the experience and adventure of Zen will not be evident in the final image. In Zen the focus is always on the process, the here and now, not the end result.

Journey Within

6. Mentorship

In the adventure of Zen it may be helpful to have a mentor. Traditional Zen insists upon working with a Priest or Roshi from an established Zen order. This is not the route I have taken and I think many in the west are suspicious and skeptical of this approach that insists upon working with established authorities. Some of this suspicion is well founded because of the history of Zen and eastern spiritual practices in the west. Unfortunately there is too much evidence of abuse of authority once the opportunity presents itself. I have pursued Zen as part of a more perennial philosophy where I believe all of the spiritual traditions of both west and east are pointing at common truths, only going about it in somewhat different ways. In this regard I am a follower of the spirit of Zen along with other sources pointing at a common truth including Taoism, my own Judeo-Christian heritage, Vedanta, Depth Psychology and American Transcendentalism; not some monastic Zen order. Zen is compatible with all spiritual traditions including the one you may have been born into including Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam and of course Buddhism. For that matter one could even be an Atheist. There is no need to give up your spiritual heritage. I have worked with multiple mentors over time on my spiritual path and this is what I recommend for you also. At some point you will outgrow your mentor and then work with another and another only to eventually set your own course in synch with who you are as a person and the rhythms of nature. Recall our earlier story of the Ferry Boat derived from Buddhist Mythology as retold by Joseph Campbell. The Ferry Boat is taking us to the further shore. In the original story, The Ferry Boat was made through lashing together wooden logs and is a symbol of the spiritual guide we are following. Eventually we make our way through the foggy waters and reach the further shore where we start the next phase of our journey on foot. Do we pack up this heavy boat and take it with us, or do we leave the boat behind?

This is a make shift pier at a lake close to my home where someone may have launched off on their Zen adventure!


I believe that, through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us which can mold us, but which can also be affected by us. A balance must be established between these two worlds–the one inside us and the one outside us. As the result of a constant reciprocal process, both of these worlds come from a single one. And it is this world that we much communicate.

–Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, The Decisive Moment

The Adventure of Zen holds the promise for us to see into our true nature, to wake up in natural world and realize intuitively without words or concepts that there is no separation between us and nature. We are nature and nature is in us. This immediate experience also provides each of us pathways to creativity where we can offer the world unique and artistic expressions of who we are with our photographic images. There is nothing we can do to realize our true nature because we are already enlightened, we just do not know it. The adoption of the recommended Zen practices, however, will help weaken some of our conceptual thoughts surrounding our false identities, the masks we wear. Enlightenment may come suddenly or it may only come after years of practicing Zen. Most likely for most of us including myself there will only be brief moments where we see clearly our true nature and experience the world just as it is. For me, these are the moments that give life meaning and give me the feeling that I am alive in Nature. Such is the Adventure of Zen.

Lake Crescent Misty Morning

Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2021 Originally Published March 13, 2021, Last Update May 24, 2021

Thanks for reading this blog post. I invite everyone to share with me their reactions to this blog post on Zen and Nature Photography. I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on this article. Your feedback is in part what keeps me going in writing new blog posts. If you think others would be interested in this post, please share it with your friends and other acquaintances. If you like the kind of content I am creating on this blog please let me know and consider subscribing to blog. Thanks again and may the Zen and Love of nature be with you!

References and Additional Reading

  1. Out of Your Mind, Chapter 7, The World as Just So, Alan Watts, Audio Book 2005
  2. Zen Sourcebook, Stephen Addiss, 2008
  3. Meaning of Life, Great Courses Audio Book, Chapters 13-21, Jay Garfield, 2013
  4. The Essence of Chan, Guo Gu, 2012
  5. China Root-Taoism, Chan and Original Zen, David Hinton, 2020
  6. The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha, PBS Documentary, narrated by Richard Gere, 2010
  7. Myths of Light, Joseph Campbell, 2003
  8. Advice Not Given, Mark Epstein, 2019
  9. You’re It, Audio Book Alan Watts, 2009
  10. Tao Te Ching, The Book of the Way, Translated by Sam Tarode, 2013
  11. Tao Te Ching, Translated by J. H McDonald, 1996
  12. Tao of Zen, Ray Grigg, 1994
  13. Zen Sourcebook, Stephen Addiss, 2008
  14. Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff, 1983
  15. Essays in Zen Buddhism, The Zen Mindset, D.T. Suzuki 1927
  16. Chuang Tzu, Translated by David Hinton, 2014
  17. Zen and the Love of Nature, Audio Book, D.T. Suzuki, 1995
  18. The Essential Dogen, Kazuaki Tanahashi, 2013
  19. Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis, Erich Fromm, 1960
  20. An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki
  21. The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron, 1992
  22. The Practice of Contemplative Photography, Andy Karr and Michael Wood, 2011
  23. The Zen of Creativity, John Daido Loori, 2004
  24. The Nature Fix, Florence Williams, 2018
  25. Zen Camera, David Ulrich, 2018
  26. The Way of Zen, Alan Watts, 1957
  27. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse, 1922
  28. The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts, 1951

3 thoughts on “The Way of Zen, Love of Nature, and Photography

  1. WOW! Love them all … but Snow Drop was by far my favorite, then Lantern, then, Mushroom Huddle … followed maybe by the Maple Leaves/Water pictures. I realize I missed a lot by not reading all of the words, maybe someday I will go back and do that. Thank you!


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