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.

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 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
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 neoconceptual 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 the details of nature that surround you. 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. Zen understands that limits of the human mind to pay attention to multiple things at once. It does not embrace multitasking. Mindfulness has more to do with stripping away and letting go of our conceptual filters that not only keep us from knowing are 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 intension to be present in the moment, but rather a recognition that the present moment is all that there is. Some of the confusion 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 mindful 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. Mindfulness practices in nature photography will be those that get us out of the mode of trying to use our discursive thought to try and 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, and intuitive way of experiencing the world, unfiltered and unplugged. In photography these practices will include daily walks in nature, meditation, 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. I 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?

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.

Erwin Buske Photography (c) 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 Dogn, 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

Mystery: The Holy Grail of Nature Photography


“We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden

The mystery of nature has inspired poets, artists, and song writers from the beginning of recorded time. But the mystery of nature often moves in ways that go beyond our common understanding of mystery. Much of our conventional understanding of mystery starts with the notion that if we could just find out more about the mystery, more information and more clues, we will eventually solve the mystery. But the mystery of nature ultimately cannot be solved.

I wish I was an island in the Fog

With nature we are not just talking about figuring out what lies just beyond the edge of the frame, even though that may help convey a sense of mystery in a landscape photograph. With nature we are also not just talking about concealing important details in darkness and shadows, even though that might also contribute to the sense of mystery in a landscape photograph. With nature, we stand in awe of its mystery in both the light of day and darkness of night. To those who welcome the message of nature, they sense her mysteries throughout the day and in all environments and places, in the brightest highlights and the deepest shadows and everything in-between. We welcome the mystery of nature both where nature reaches the pinnacle of beauty and in her more widespread and typical humble abodes.

Early Spring Snowdrop

What is Mystery?

The poets likely come closest to describing at least verbally the mystery of nature through their use of evocative language. One passage that immediately comes to my mind is this one from Dylan Thomas’s Fern Hill:

“The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill.

Dylan Thomas’s words in Fern Hill are full of feeling and rich symbolism to describe the mysterious forces associated with new growth and energy of spring which brings to us an appreciation of the mystery of nature. It is impossible to rationally describe what the mystery of nature means in a manner that gives justice to the wonder and awe one feels in the midst of the mystery of nature. For the writer, this is why the use of evocative language is so important, and in the visual space this is also why it is so important for the photographer in pursuit of the art and craft of photography to bring to the viewer an ability to sense the mystery nature.

Twin Falls in the Mist

A standard dictionary definition of mystery goes something like this:

” Anything that is kept secret or remains unexplained or unknown”.

But are the mysteries of nature really secret or unknown? Some scenes certainly convey the feeling in the physical sense of something secret and unknown, for example in the above image I titled Twin Falls in the Mist. But when we utter the words “I am in awe of the mysteries and wonder of nature” are we just taking about certain manifestations of nature, lets say dark and foggy scenes punctuated with light? I think not. We are talking about a sense of mystery that pervades all of nature. It may be impossible to describe through rational means or represent through an unedited raw image the mystery of nature, but we all have the capacity to directly experience the mystery of nature. We all also have at least the potential to share this experience through evocative writing and through the art and craft of evocative photography. Evocative photography moves us beyond the visual representation of the scene and evokes emotions, feelings and moods that are associated with the experience of the mystery of nature.

Access to the Mysteries of Nature through Direct Experience

In the current debate over how much is enough in processing images, several photographers who I know and respect maintain that their goal in nature and landscape photography is to create images that are true to their experience of the scene. I find this interesting because in this same discussion many of these photographers maintain there is a close linkage between their “experience of the scene” and “what was really there.” When I look at the work of these photographers, especially images of places I am very familiar with, I notice there is actually quite a gap between their “experience of the scene” and “what was really there.” Sure these photographers shy away from more aggressive manipulations of the image, but nevertheless the images are heavily edited with shifts of hue and saturation, and alterations of highlights, shadows, brightness and tonality to help direct the the viewers attention to parts of the image, along with removal or deemphasis of distractions, etc. Now this actually does not bother me in the slightest, because it is as it should be. We edit images to bring to the viewer something that can transcend a purely accurate journalistic documentation of the scene. We introduce mystery.

A purely accurate representation of the scene will rarely evoke the sense of mystery we experienced in the field . This is because our highly individualized perception impacts how we experience mystery in ways that simply cannot be recorded by our highly accurate camera sensors. Our emotional state at the time and who we are as individuals both shape our perception of reality resulting in our “experience of the scene”. This does not mean that mystery is not inherent in a purely accurate rendering of the scene, but it does acknowledge that this mystery is significantly transformed through the mechanisms of human perception. The experience of the scene to me has everything to do with expressing some of the mystery of nature that I felt at the time of capture. For more on human perception and photography I recommend the book: Perception and Imaging by John Suler and Richard D. Zakia (1).

Daffodils under the Tree of Golden Spring
Daffodils are some of the first flowers to bloom in the Spring and their arrival stirs in me a sense of wonder and mystery of the every returning cycles of the seasons.

Elements of Mystery

In the sections that follow I will discuss some steps we can take as photographers to bring to our images and the viewer the sense of mystery we felt during our our experience of the scene. These steps will help lead the viewer closer to the mystery of nature, in other words evoke moods and emotions that we felt in nature’s presence. But the results of applying these steps should not be equated with an exact visual representation of the mystery. After all, if that were the case, then the image would no longer be a mystery! Think of these steps as a tool set from which we can select to help lead the viewer to a greater appreciation of the wonders and mystery of nature. Here are the steps I will discuss.

  • Wonder
  • Imagination
  • Shadow and Light
  • Atmosphere
  • Motion and Blur
  • Bokeh
  • Subtraction
  • Seasonal Transitions
  • Use of Metaphors
  • Transcendence


“If you really want to know what Middle-earth is based on, it’s my wonder and delight in the earth as it is, particularly the natural earth.” J.R.R. Tolkien

In the review of the elements of mystery I am putting wonder in the first position. A sense of wonder is the common denominator of all of nature and the starting point for mystery. There are many factors that contribute to the feeling of wonder: nature in seasonal transitions, changing light and weather, patterns, colors and shapes. As photographers we want to feature elements that help instill in the viewer the same sense of wonder that we experienced at the scene. In the above images I feature a lone leaf, flower, or tree as elements that bring a sense of wonder. The first image is titled Aqua Leaf. How did this single almost tropical leaf rise from the water in front of this waterfall at Mt. Rainier? Nature knows the answer. The second image is a lone Trillium in the Forest. How did such a beautiful flower establish itself in such a shady environment devoid of lower story life other than moss and ferns? Nature know the answer. The third image is titled Lone Larch. It is not common to see a lone larch in the open meadow as larches are a communal tree. One wonders how this tree established itself in this meadow when no others were able to do so? Nature knows the answer. All of nature is filled with wonder. Find the element or elements that bring to you a sense of wonder to be featured in your image and you will also communicate mystery.


Spider Man

When I’m ready to make a photograph… I quite obviously see in my mind’s eye something that is not literally there… I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.” Ansel Adams

Through the imaginative use of perspective and angles the photographer can bring to the image some of the mystery of nature that might otherwise go unnoticed. The above image I titled “Spider Man” because the branch extending from the lower right appears to be reaching out in several directions in a manner that looks both human and spider like. With the wide angle lens I used, this perspective would have been lost if I stood further back and attempted to capture the entire tree. Imagination and composition are often closely related. The composition approach can magically transform a scene which stirs the imagination to marvel at the mysteries of nature. In the image below titled “Spirit Angels in the Forest”, this view would not at all be apparent looking out from the top of Tiger Mountain where I took the image. A long 500 telephoto lens allowed me to isolate a small portion of the forest emerging out of the clouds at the transition point of the cool light of dawn and the warm light of the rising sun. Diagonal layers of clouds and forest lift the eyes up and out to the light spreading inwards from the upper right portion of the image. For more on the Imagination see my blog post: Forest in the Mist: Windows into the Active Imagination.

Spirit Angels in the Forest

Shadow and Light


Everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see.”  Martin Luther King

The large sensors on our modern cameras often allow us to open up our shadows to a degree that we can see all details in even the deepest shadows of the image. But in doing so we may be unwittingly also removing the chance for mystery. Mystery often demands some areas be kept dark. Highlights only stand out and draw our attention when there are contrasting shadows. But just as a good mystery novel offers the reader some clues, the darker areas of our image should not be devoid of all clues. We should still be able to see some subtle texture and detail, however dim, in some of the shadowy areas-this will help build a little suspense and tension into our images that will keep the viewer interested. The one exception to this would be in high contrast usually black and white images where we are concentrating on the form of the subject.

Snoqualmie Falls December Moods

Letting shadows be shadows helps preserve the mystery of the scene where there are strong and contrasting highlights and shadows in the original scene. This is especially true for backlit landscapes and seascapes when looking right into the rising or setting sum. I however do not advocate exposing for the highlights and letting the shadow go pure black. This made sense in the film days because with a high dynamic range scene, the photographer could either expose properly for the highlights or shadows, but not both. With digital photography it is possible to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene in a natural and believable way without overplaying the deepness of the shadows or the brilliance of highlights.

Shadows almost always look best when they kept looking somewhat airy and natural with some areas remaining almost but not entirely opaque. With natural shadows some detail will be evident in at least some of the shadowy areas, but this detail will be dim and only barely visible. Aggressive exaggeration of the difference between shadows and highlights almost always looks overdone and preserving the sense of mystery will require a more subtle treatment. Proper treatment of shadows and highlights represents a fine line that is easy to cross and is one of the biggest challenges in photo processing even today. Few of us, including myself, get this right 100% of the time, but effectively conveying a sense of mystery in our images demands that we do the best job possible.


Twin Peaks

“To me dreams are part of nature, which harbors no intention to deceive but expresses something as best it can.” –Carl Jung

Images with atmosphere especially with fog, mist, low clouds, haze, sand, and rain can all evoke a sense of dream like mystery. What all of these atmospheric conditions have in common are particles in the air interacting with sources of light. This awakens our feelings and emotions to cultivate the sense mystery. Particles in the air soften the scene, and with the interaction of light this helps direct our attention to essential forms while hiding others which deepens the mood.

Morning Fog

It would be a mistake however to reduce our reaction to the scene’s atmosphere to just feelings and emotions. The mystery also points to something beyond even what we are feeling at the time, to a sense of wonder at the experience of being in nature. With the softer rendering of the scene made possible through atmosphere, the scene can often seem dream like and a little other worldly. In post processing, contrast must be carefully and selectively controlled to preserve this dream like mood. We may need to actually lower contrast in some areas to capture the mood and only strengthen the contrast in selective areas where we want to attract some added attention.

Young Tree in the Forest

Motion and Blur

Dream Time Stepping Stones

“The job of the artist is always to deepen the mystery” – Francis Bacon

When it comes to still imagery photography there is no illustrative way to capture motion that is truly realistic. When taking still images we have a couple of choices, we can either arrest motion or blur motion. Both of these are departures from reality, but therein also lies their strength and ability to tease the viewer with mystery and stir the imagination. Just as the use of shadows and particles in the atmosphere have the ability to hide details, simplify compositions and focus our attention on forms, patterns and or the primary subject, blurring motion can do the same. This is evident in the image above titled “Dream Time Stepping Stones”. The blur smooths out the movement of the ocean and focuses attention to the seaweed covered rocks leading out into the vast ocean under a cloud filled horizon just after sunset.

The effect of blurring motion is often all the more mysterious when the effect is subtle and perhaps not even detectable. Such an image can leave the viewer with a sense of mystery even if the viewer does not fully understand why the image is mysterious. When it comes to mystery incomplete understanding is a good thing and helps deepen the mystery and light up the imagination.

Secrets of the Forest

In the above image “Secrets of the Forest” I took several images in the early morning light at different slower shutter speeds and blended the images together accentuating the impression of cloud movement and subtly altering the shape of the cloud forms. This blending of several images with blurred movement was an important factor creating the sense of mystery in this image.

Flock of Birds

Creating a sense of mystery of course is not limited to blurring motion. A sense of mystery can also make itself apparent through arresting or freezing motion. This is evident in the above image “Flock of Birds” where one of the layers in the image are birds flying in from the right side of the church and heading out to the west into the Skagit Valley. The church, birds and Mt. Baker all catch the side lighting of the setting sun. A large flock of birds flying in a narrow directional pattern almost always seems somewhat mysterious, and the juxtaposition of the church, village and a partially visible Mt. Baker under the clouds deepens the mystery.


Jade Vines

“Every Aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe.” Carl Sagan

In some ways Bokeh is similar to the effects of motion blur, fog, haze and other atmospheric conditions. In all of these details are softened and sometimes darkened, often to the point where they are barely visible or even hidden. Bokeh, however, is somewhat unique in that it is created optically through the use of a lens and a wide open aperture to transition between areas of the image that are in focus and out of focus. I say transition because the hallmark of good bokeh is a smooth and almost undetectable transition between in focus and out of focus areas.

Bokeh can contribute to the sense of mystery in many ways. When the bokeh is darker than the main subject of the image we sense the presence of something emerging out of near darkness or the void. There may be hints at what lies beyond, but these hints are only vague and somewhat ambiguous. Blurry elements, some suggesting movement, challenge the viewer to figure out what these blurry elements might be. How might these blurry elements also shape the viewers attitude about the element/s that are in focus?

In the above image Jade Vines, we see blue green mouth like forms with spiked tongues emerging out of opaque dark bokeh patterns. Would the effect be the same if details in the background were clear-absolutely not. In the next image the use of bokeh effects our perception of the in focus areas to the point where these subjects are no longer recognizable and become almost abstractions. These are actually tiny autumn colored red leaves of a plant that grows on mountain boulders, but most people have indicated to me that they look like flowers. This is a good example of how the use of bokeh can alter our perception of reality and in doing so deepen the mystery of our experience in nature.

Its a Small World After-all


Oregon Coast Moon Set

Nature conceals her mystery by her essential grandeur.” Albert Einstein.

Subtraction is strongly related to both improving the composition and deepening the mystery. Subtraction is the notion that less is better, and there is a beauty and elegance in removing as many elements from the scene as possible. In photography, the world as it presents itself to us is often cluttered with extraneous detail. But the skilled eye using a good choice of lens and angle of view can always simplify the scene to primarily include those elements which are integral to the composition and deepening the mystery. This does not necessarily mean always using a longer focal length lens with a narrower field of view, as that would be an over simplification of the process. But it does mean a keen awareness of what attracts you to the scene and the skills to arrange as few elements as possible in a pleasing composition. What is left out strengtheners the mystery for the elements that still remain. With mystery there is almost always something concealed and held back.

Indian Paintbrush: Quiet Morning Mist
Although I used a moderate wide angle lens for this image, there are few elements other than the paint brush, a few trees and fog in the image.

There are varying degrees of subtraction, from a moderate tightening of elements and tones in the scene as in the two images above, Mystery at the Seashore and Quiet Morning Mist, to a major emphasis of just the subject and its form silhouetted in black and white, as in the image below titled: Tree Dances with Fog and Light.

Tree Dances with Fog and Light

Abstraction takes the process of subtraction to an extreme degree and can often result in images with a heightened sense of mystery, especially those images where we are in awe and wonder at the beauty of the small intimate details of nature. But some would argue that for a true abstract photo we need to have no idea whatsoever of what the larger scene from which the abstraction was derived represents. Although still possible, such images are less likely to be mysterious. With mystery some but not all clues lie hidden. It is the subtle interplay between the two that deepens the mystery.

Rock Tapestry

Using the principles of subtraction, ones composition approach itself can imaginatively transform the scene to bring into view the mysteries of nature. An example of this is the image above titled Rock Tapestry. Walking through a slot canyon I noticed some most interesting patterns over a small section of the canyon wall. It was, however, not until I got very close and studied even smaller sections of the wall did I find the strong diagonals, the X shape and patterns featured in this image. In the next image I found some beautiful Monetesque reflections on an Autumn day at a slow moving portion of the Wenatchee River. Through isolation and careful choice of area selection I was able to capture these mysterious almost brushstroke like patterns of the river’s slow moving waters.

Tumwater Reflections

Seasonal Transitions

“April is the cruelest month, breeding
lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring
dull roots with spring rain.” T.S. Elliot

The seasons are filled with mystery and symbolic meaning and often the natural world mirrors our own emotional states. With Spring there is rebirth and the sense of excitement of having one more life to live. With Summer there is a sense of comfort and maturity in having arrived at the prime of our life. With Autumn there is a sense of warmth, change and letting go. Winter is a time of reflection and detachment with the realization things have come to and end. But there is also a beauty in the silence and quiet of Winter, knowing that the seasonal cycle will repeat itself as long as the world turns. But as mysterious as the seasons are in and of themselves, the mystery is all the more deepened during the time of seasonal transitions. With seasonal changes there is a movement from one state of life to another, part of what was will now be hidden, and part of what will be has not yet come into to view. As in our previous examples throughout this article, when something remains hidden and unknown, the mystery deepens. But the mystery also comes from what is in view, as we stand in awe and wonder of the new season beginning to unfold. It is the interplay between what we see and do not see that creates the ultimate mystery of seasonal transitions.

Daffodils under the Tree of Spring’s Golden Light
In this field the Daffodils have just begun to open and the bare tree in the distance provides evidence that some of the spirit of Winter is still present.
From Ashes to Nature’s Majesty
The wildflowers at Mt. St. Helens are at peak bloom at the transition from Spring to Summer. This area is somewhat dry and as can be seen in the image the foliage of the flowers is already starting to dry out and turn to the mellow yellow-green of summer.
Autumn Passage
Peak fall color is of course beautiful, but what I find even more interesting are seasonal transitions. Seasonal transitions often make us more aware of changes in our own lives and consciousness. The passage this year from Summer to Fall has during this particular year was more beautiful than I can recall in previous years.

Early Winter Magic
There is a short window of time between when the first snow falls in the cascades and the pond freezes when there are still beautiful reflections on Gold Creek Pond.

Use of Visual Metaphors

In Landscape and Nature Photography visual metaphors are powerful means of communication because they raise the possibility of a shared vision. This shared vision moves beyond a visual message that is purely personal and finds a path that touches upon common experiences of all of humanity while in nature. Because visual metaphors invite participation through a shared vision, we often hear responses to such images like “I feel I am right there with you”. As a longtime landscape and nature photographer I can tell you that there is no greater source of inspiration and fulfillment for both the photographer and the viewer when someone feels they are right there with you, participating in your image at both a mental and emotional level.

The best way to demonstrate the concept of a visual metaphor is to provide a couple of examples.

Walking into a Dream

The above image, Walking into a Dream, was taken at Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, Mount Rainier National Park. This cabin is in as beautiful setting as I could ever imagine and is like walking into a dream. In this dream I am finding my way back to where I truly feel I am more at home, in Nature and the Wilderness. This is a common dream shared by many as was evidenced by the thousands of reactions I received from this image. Indian Henry, known as Soo-Too-Lick, early on (1883) guided several familiar names to Mt. Rainier including the Hunting Grounds, these familiar names include James Longmire Philemon Beecher Van Trump and John Muir. Indian Henry was a Cowlitz Indian, beloved by many people. For more on the metaphor of finding our home in nature see my blog post: Journey to your own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.

Mt. Baker Rising above the Cluds
The moment when something changes after a long day in the clouds and fog, Mount Baker has risen.

Not until we are lost do we understand ourselves.–Henry David Thoreau

Looking into a scene like the image above just before the image was taken, when the mountain was still lost in the clouds, to me is like soul searching and the process of self discovery. I know the mountain is out there and will eventually emerge from the fog, clouds and mist. Just as I know my authentic self, the essence who I am, has always been there just waiting to be rediscovered. When the mountain comes into view, this validates the process of self discovery. The image and story is something others can relate to, share in the vision, and participate in the metaphor of self discovery. For more on the authentic self and self discovery see my blog post: Finding your Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self.


“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery. There is always more mystery.”
― Anais Nin

The use of visual metaphors and the creation of a shared vision moves the photographer beyond the confines of his/her individual self and provides a glimpse of our larger self that is common to all of humanity. Although individually felt emotions and our own personality type help guide the creation of the transcendent vision, the transcendent reaches even beyond feelings and emotions toward something mysterious, inexplicable, evading any attempt to articulate what exactly the mystery is. Nevertheless we experience the mystery as real and the mystery is nature itself. This is no lofty woolly eyed vision, but is anchored firmly to the ground.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
William Blake

Some may refer to transcendence as pointing to the spiritual realm and for me at least it does just that, but no faith, creed or religion is required to sense its presence. One could be a spiritual person or a non believer and still sense its presence. It is the “force that guides through a green fuse a flower,” and it is what causes us “to see a world in a grain of sand”, it is nature itself.

Erwin Buske Photography, Copyright 2020

Mt. Rainier National Park: Where the Angels Roam

Thanks for reading this blog post. For more on the subject of Transcendence see my blog post: Transcendental Nature Photography and Creating images with Lasting Impact. I invite everyone to share with me their reactions to this blog post on Mystery. I would love to hear your comments, thoughts, and point of view. 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 mysteries of nature always be with you.

Erwin Buske Photography (c) 2020


(1) Perception and Imaging by John Suler and Richard D. Zakia, Fifth Addition, Copyright 2018

Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World

The image of Walden Pond, a serene place of imaginable beauty with a small cabin close to its shore, is somehow etched in most of our minds.  Few of us have actually been there or even seen a picture of the actual place.  Still Walden Pond has enduring symbolic value that finds its home deep in our personal psyche and our collective soul.  We may have recalled hearing about Walden Pond as part of our early education, but few can remember much about what they might have heard or read, and yet the image of the pond in our mind’s eye lingers and may even come into a clearer view with each passing year.

170623_walden_001 (1) John Suiter

Artist’s Sketch of Thoreau’s Cabin included on the title page of the original book, Walden or Life in the Woods, published in 1854.  

This is all consistent with Henry David Thoreau’s vision for the pond.  Although for Thoreau, Walden Pond was definitely a physical place,  Walden was also a metaphor for  an internal journey of self discovery and this metaphor has now been internalized in the hearts and minds of countless individuals.   Ultimately Walden straddles two worlds that are in reality a unity  The first world is an accurate, literal, and often highly detailed description of Thoreau’s two year stay at Walden Pond.  The second is a world of metaphor and symbols that allows us to internalize our own vision of Walden Pond as we travel with Thoreau on his internal journey of self-discovery that points to a transcendent world of soul and spirit.  In both the reader participates in this unity, making it a shared experience of transcendence.

Three Forks Dog Park Autumn0097-HDR

Walden Pond Revisited

The journey to Walden pond for each person will be different, but all of us will share in a common vision of transcendence.  This pond for me is my Walden Pond close to where I live in Washington State USA.    I believe for me that it evokes some of the same mood of  the transcendent that Thoreau felt at the shore of the actual Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. 

My personal encounter with Thoreau began in in my sophomore year of high school.  As part of our reading assignment of Walden, the class walked over to a close by wooded area.  Each of us was instructed to find our somewhat isolated area in the forest and then to just sit quiet, letting go as much as possible of any preexisting thoughts.   With paper and pencil in hand and using all five of our senses, we were then to record in as much detail as possible our observations, thoughts, and emotions-what ever came to consciousness in our newly found forest home.  This modest assignment is of course what Thoreau did on a much larger scale at Walden Pond.  He left behind what he saw as the corrosive effects of society and moved to a small cabin in the woods close to Walden Pond.  His objective:

“I went to the woods because I wished to lived deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die discover that I had not lived.”

Central Tree

Young Tree in the Forest

I thank my High School teacher for encouraging me to go into the woods for this meditative experience.  It helped sow the seeds  for my almost life-long series of meditative journey’s, some small, others large, into the wonders and beauties of nature.  This meditative experience has also been part of my photographic experience since day one.  But like most of us, I have had many detours along the way of my journey into nature-impossible work schedules, striving for material success, and periods of time where my day to day activities and relationships with others did little to help nurture my soul and spirit.  For a short period of time I attended a New Thought church based upon some of the ideas of Emerson, Thoreau and the Transcendentalists.  But I  found New Thought lacking in one very important area–nature.  Although New Thought placed a healthy emphasis on changing our minds to change our lives for the better, there was little or no emphasis on celebrating ones connection to nature that was so important in Emerson’s and especially Thoreau’s thought.  Getting married to my loving and supportive wife Julia, raising our daughter Caroline, and a renewed focus on nature and photography has done much to rekindle my spirit in the last two decades.  I am forever grateful to Julia, Caroline and living as close as possible to nature for helping reshape my life, making manifest sources of  inspiration to nurture and steadily evolve who I am as a person–my authentic self, my love for nature and ultimately the art and craft of my photography.

Secrets of the Forest Journey 2 272

Forest Carpet of Clouds

A couple of years ago I started reading and rereading Thoreau’s Walden again,  It is amazing how a book can take on new life and energy several decades later.  His message contained in the chapters of Walden Pond seemed to speak to me like never before, helping me to better communicate thoughts and impressions that have been going on in my mind for some  time.  In this blog post I will discuss my twelve takeaways from my recent reading and rereading of Walden Pond, offer some probing questions for everyone to consider, along with some questions more directed at  nature photographers.  This article, however, is intended for a wide audience of people, both photographers and non-photographers alike.  We all need the “tonic of nature”!

Before launching off on my takeaways I will lay some groundwork with  a discussion of the  following:  (1) A very brief biography of Thoreau, (2)  Thoreau and Transcendentalism, (3) and Walden Pond-a physical and spiritual place.

Henry David Thoreau a Brief Biography

Henry David Thoreau, (1817-1862) was born in Concord, Massachusetts, which was center of his life.   Thoreau studied at at Harvard University, graduating in 1837.  While still in college, in 1835 he contracted tuberculosis and suffered from recurring bouts throughout his life.  He made his living by working in the pencil factory, by doing surveying, by lecturing and teaching, and by publishing essays in newspapers and journals. His income acquired primarily through side gigs, however, was always very modest, and his main concerns were his daily afternoon walks in the Concord woods, the keeping of a private journal of his nature observations and ideas, and the writing and revision of essays for publication.  Thoreau did not identify himself with any of his lines of work and described his occupation this way  “My profession is always to be on the alert to find God in Nature, to know his lurking-places, to attend all the oratorios, the operas, of nature.”

Poo Poo Point New Years 003.jpg

A Walk in the Forest

A decisive turning point in Thoreau’s life came when he met Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard.   The older Emerson introduced Thoreau to transcendentalism and encouraged him to start recording  his experiences in a journal.  Thoreau was a member of the Emerson household from 1841 to 1843, earning his living as a handyman. In 1843 he was a tutor to William Emerson’s sons in Staten Island, New York, and in 1847-48 he again lived in Emerson’s house.

In 1845, he received permission from Emerson to use a piece of land that Emerson owned on the shore of Walden Pond. He bought building supplies and a chicken coop (for the boards), and built himself a small house there, moving in on the Fourth of July. He had two main purposes in moving to the pond: to write his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and to conduct an economic experiment to see if it were possible to live by working one day and devoting the other six to his practice of  contemplation, journaling,  reading, and walking– thus reversing the Yankee habit of working six days and resting one.   In the years after leaving Walden Pond, Thoreau published A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) but Walden itself was not published until (1854), a whopping seven years after leaving Walden pond. 

IMAGE: 37 year-old Henry Thoreau by Samuel Worcester Rowse, as he appeared in the Summer of 1854 when “Walden” was published.

Thoreau who wrote “In wildness is preservation of the world” is often credited with being the father of the American Conservation Movement, not so much because of political advocacy but because he established that nature is essential for society to thrive and for an individual’s own spiritual growth.  Thoreau is also widely known as a nature writer and Walden is often refereed to as the urtext, the place where all American nature writing starts.  In addition to being a champion of nature, Thoreau is also known for his views on civil disobedience, mainly the need to prioritize one’s conscience over the dictates of laws.   Both Gandhi and Martin Luther King referred back to Thoreau to help explain their own acts of civil disobedience associated with the Indian Independence and Civil Rights movements respectively.  Thoreau himself was an outspoken abolitionist, serving as a conductor on the underground railroad to help escaped slaves make their way to Canada.  He wrote strongly-worded attacks on the Fugitive Slave Law (“Slavery in Massachusetts”) and on the execution of John Brown.

In May 1862, Thoreau died of the tuberculosis with which he had been periodically plagued since his college years .    Thoreau’s best friend Emerson wrote and provided his eulogy (exerts):

“He was bred to no profession; he never married; he lived alone; he never went to church; he never voted; he refused to pay tax to the State; he ate no flesh, he drank no wine, he never knew the use of tobacco; and, though a naturalist, he used neither trap nor gun. He chose, wisely no doubt for himself, to be the bachelor of thought and Nature….The country knows not yet, or in the least part, how great a son it has lost. … His soul was made for the noblest society; he had in a short life exhausted the capabilities of this world; wherever there is knowledge, wherever there is virtue, wherever there is beauty, he will find a home.”

Thoreau and Transcendentalism

The the principal ideas of the American Enlightenment, the celebration of pure reason and the belief that science (at least how it was understood at the time) has an answer for just about everything, played a key role in the development of the American Republic from its founding until  the early part of the Nineteenth Century.   The elevation of reason also played a roll even in the practice of religion and this caused many transcendentalists to abandon the Unitarian Church because they perceived the denomination had an overly reasoned approach to explaining mysteries that defy rational explanation.   Toward the mid nineteenth century we see a counter movement in American culture and life based upon a Romantic notion more centered on intuition, emotion, and direct experience of nature as necessary conditions for developing an appreciation of the sublime and mysteries of life.  We see this in American Art as artists progressed from  primarily documentary portraiture to romanticized interpretations of the American Landscape.  We see this also in the literary world with the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Muir and others.


Sunset in the Rockies by Albert Bierstadt 

Emerson attributed the philosophical underpinnings of Transcendentalism to the Idealism of German Philosopher Emanuel Kant as explained in Kant’s book titled the Critique of Pure Reason. Kant divided the world into its two aspects: the phenomenal world and the noumenal world. The phenomenal world is the material world we are aware of; this is the world we construct out of the sensations that are present to our consciousness. But if we limit our understanding of the world to appearances only, in other words what we can perceive empirically through our senses, our perception of the world is not complete and may actually be a kind of an illusion, and certainly not what Kant refers to as “the thing in itself”. The noumenal world consists of things we seem compelled to believe in, but which we can never know empirically because we lack sense-evidence of it. Kant also called this noumenal world “the thing in itself”, something that is beyond space and time.

Thoreau as a transcendentalist never denied the validity of the material world, but he also did not see the material world as compete. Both Emerson and Thoreau embraced the scientific method of empirical inquiry as it was understood at the time. This is especially apparent in Thoreau’s work as a naturalist, documenting and categorizing plants. But Thoreau’s inquiry as a naturalist was not limited to the material world, to what can be objectively perceived through the senses.. The path of self awareness transported him beyond the material world and through the embrace of wild nature took him to a noumenal world of soul, spirit and the divine.

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Phlox and Sun Flowers in Paradise–Columbia River Gorge

  Nature often has the ability to lure us deep into a rapidly unfolding scene, but at the same to elevate us to a place that seems beyond the temporal.  For more on Transcendental Nature see my blog post Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact.

In Walden, Thoreau provides to us his personal story  of how in nature he reconnected with his own soul and its inherent divinity, thus fulfilling the potential for an ideal existence in the real world.  In doing this Thoreau takes us beyond theory of Kant and Emerson’s often abstract ramblings, and provides us a very accessible example of what our own transcendental journey might look like.

Walden Pond

Upon first reading Walden’s pond one may initially get the impression that Thoreau is merely providing a meticulously detailed documentary account of his experience living there for two years.  But as the book progresses it is clear that Walden Pond is more than that and is full of symbolism and metaphors for the awakening of the soul and spiritual growth.  This is clear in passages such as this one from the chapter titled, The Ponds, where Thoreau describes the water of Walden Pond like this “It is the earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature.”  It is also evident with this passage also from the chapter the Ponds:

“Though the woodchoppers have laid bare first this shore and then that, and the Irish have built their sites by it, and the railroad has infringed on its water which my youthful eyes fell on; all the changes is in me.  It has not acquired one permanent wrinkle after all its ripples.  It is perennially young.”

What I find remarkable from the above passage is that even in Thoreau’s own lifetime he witnessed the encroachment of civilization at Walden Pond, with a railroad visible from the pond, residences popping up , and the falling of most of the large trees.  But even in the midst of these physical changes, Thoreau thought that the essence of the pond had not  changed, and in a sense seemed to be outside of space and time.  Thoreau  suggests here that the spiritual aspect of Walden Pond transcends this material world and even his own perception.   It is the same pond where Thoreau discovers the depth of his own nature, that is his spiritual  self.  Ultimately Walden is both, part of this material world that is constantly changing and something eternal, beyond the material world and even sensory perception.  It is the genius of Thoreau that throughout Walden Pond  he is able to closely, inseparably, and artistically link  real and ideal worlds.  In this regard he far exceeds even his mentor Emerson and in my opinion anyone who has since appeared on the literary stage.


Artist depiction of Walden Bond, Frederick Chide Hassan

In the Chapter titled Ponds Thoreau does provide as near to a  concise summary description of Walden Pond as can be found in the book:

” The scenery of Walden is on a humble scale, and, though very beautiful, does not approach to grandeur, nor can it  much concern one who has not long frequented it or lived by its shore; yet this pond is so remarkable for its depth and purity as to merit a particular description.   It is a clear and deep green well, a half a mile long and a mile and three quarters` in circumference, and contains about sixty one and a half acres, a perennial spring in the midst of pine and oak woods, without any visible inlet or outlet except by the clouds and evaporation.”

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Cedar River Grove–This is a somewhat ordinary place along side a noisy suburban road that was completely transformed by natures gift of some special mid-morning light.

By Thoreau’s own admission, Walden was a place of understated beauty and not what we would now refer to as iconic or epic beauty.  It was very humble in its origin.  Many people are surprised to hear that Walden was only a couple of miles away from Concord Massachusetts.  This was not a remote spot even by the standards of the Nineteenth century.   But to Thoreau Walden was extraordinary in a couple of ways, its depth and purity.  Thoreau mentions that the shoreline drops so suddenly that one could take one step into the water and already loose touch with the ground and that  no none knew for sure the absolute depth of the pond.  The water is so pure that in the right light ones ability to see into the water appears almost unlimited.  Depth and purity of course are coincidentally qualities we normally associate with the spiritual world.    The Walden Thoreau has introduced us to, however, could be just about anywhere, even in our own backyards, and it is in that context I will now discuss my key takeaways from reading  and rereading several times the book.

(1)   Access to Nature is our Birthright

“Our village life would stagnate if it were not for the unexplored forests and meadows which surround it.  We need the tonic of wildness…At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be indefinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable.  We can never have enough nature.”   Thoreau Walden Chapter 17 Spring

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Primordial Forest Flowers

This quotation comes in the closing chapter of Walden titled Spring.  With Spring Thoreau experiences a kind of rebirth of his soul.  Awakening from the depths of winter, Thoreau experiences an elevation of his spirit in his experience of the wonders and mysteries of nature.  With this awakening Thoreau recognizes the importance of nature for all of humanity.  Even as science finds explanations for much of what we can observe and study through our senses, there is a part of nature that will always remain mysterious and unfathomable.    The path to self discovery and spiritual growth for everyone goes right through Nature in all of her mysteries.  This is also a major  humane reason why it is so important to protect and nurture nature.   If we do not have access to nature or due to our recklessness we cause the destruction of nature, we are in effect cutting our selves off from the source of our spiritual development.    Ultimately “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World”   Thoreau Walking. 

Drawing inspiration from Thoreau and others, I am a big champion of having wild places close to cities and suburban places.  I wrote about one such place in Waterfalls of Cougar Mountain.  Are there wild or semi wild places close to where you live?  How often do you visit these places?  For photographers, does your photography practice include frequent visits to nearby places where you can stay in touch with the pulse of nature on a near daily basis?

(2) What we need is a Breath of Fresh Air

” So thoroughly and sincerely are we compelled to live, reverencing our life and denying the possibility of change.  This is the only way, we say: but there are as many ways as there can be drawn radii from the center.  All change is a miracle to contemplate; but it is a miracle which it taking place every instant.  Walden Chapter One Economy”

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Olympics Sunset: Come Fly Away

With Thoreau’s decision to live at Walden’s Pond, we see a pattern that was also part of the journey of two other Transcendentalists.  The first is Thoreau’s teacher and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the second is the legendary conservationist John Muir.  All three of these individuals put different levels of emphasis on Nature as the source of renewal, with Emerson’s Nature being often being more abstract, Thoreau’s more internalized, and Muir’s a kind of mountaintop spirituality involving what are now iconic landscapes.  Nevertheless, a  major change that brings each of these men into a new and fresh contact with nature  plays a key  role in their journey of self discovery.  What we also see in all three of these individuals is a pivotal point in their lives when they leave an old world behind to embrace a new world where the vestiges and shackles of their old world can be discarded and left behind.


Many scholars are reluctant to count John Muir as a Transcendentalist, but any in depth reading of Muir by those familiar with Thoreau and Emerson will see a close affinity of perspective and thought between these individuals.  Muir was a student of both Thoreau and Emerson and actually met Emerson for several days in Yosemite in 1871.  According to the Sierra Club which Muir founded, “Muir’s copy of the twenty-volume, 1906 edition of The Writings of Henry David Thoreau is heavily annotated, underscored, and indexed on the blank pages with extensive commentary by Muir”.  Muir’s interpretation of the religious spirit of nature is remarkably similar to the thoughts of Emerson and Thoreau as is evident in this passage and others.  ““When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”  In June 1893, John Muir visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord and laid flowers on Thoreau’s and Emerson’s graves. ”  

With the untimely death from tuberculosis of Emerson’s first wife Ellen at the age of only nineteen, Emerson leaves the ministry and sets sail for Europe where he meets the romantic poets Coleridge and Wordsworth.  Emerson’s life is forever changed as he leaves behind established religion, and it is at this time that his new transcendentalist vision for salvation through direct experience of nature begins to take hold.  Later we also see something similar with Muir.  At age 29 Muir was blinded in  a factory accident.  Although his sight eventually came back, this was a tipping point in his life.  He left everything in his life behind, his job as an efficiency expert in the factory, his connection to the Church and his family, and embarked on a 1,000 mile march to immerse himself in nature, starting in Indiana and ending in Florida where he caught malaria.  This experience was the impetus to send him out west to California where he found mountaintop spirituality and set in motion his life long effort to conserve and protect the natural world.  Thoreau’s journey to Walden Pond,  just two miles away from Emerson’s home in Concord, Massachusetts may not seem quite as grand, but this journey also represented his turning away from a society that in the face of rapid industrialization was causing people to live a lives of  “quiet desperation”.   For Thoreau, the true frontier was not thousands of miles away across the sea or land, but within his own consciousness as he immersed himself in the natural wonders of Walden Pond.

Is there a time period in your own life where you broke away from  much of your past and turned your attention to new images and a dream of a new future?   For photographers, has a major life change been part of your photographic journey and does this change still provide to you sources of inspiration?  Sources of Inspiration for Nature and Landscape Photography: Finding Your Photographic Vision

(3) Voluntary Simplicity

“Our life is frittered away by detail.  Simplify, Simplify.”  Walden

Thoreau lets us know his original intention for coming to Walden Pond  in the second chapter of his book title of his book “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For “

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

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Window through an Old Growth Cedar Forest

This quote comes after the first chapter of the book titled Economy where Thoreau provides an elaborate explanation of how he was able to move close to the pond, build a small cabin, and largely become self sufficient with a small surplus that he could barter or turn into a small amount of money.  Adopting this kind of lifestyle for him was necessary to remove himself from what he saw as the unnecessary distractions of living life in a society that that does not nurture the development of ones soul.  These distractions also included not only employment in what was then fast becoming an industrial society,  but also the processions that often serve to complicate our life, weigh us down, making it difficult to follow or even hear the still quiet voice within.  Ultimately he wished to stand on its head the prevailing work ethic at the time of working six days and resting on the Sabbath, a goal which he successfully accomplished at Walden Pond.

Most of us realize at some point along our journey that the world we have constructed around our self, including such things as expensive homes, cars, well paying but demanding jobs, and even some of our complicated relationships with others-are adding unnecessary complexity to our life and standing in the way of living a more fulfilling life consistent with our true calling.  Unraveling this complexity and moving toward a  simplified life seems like a daunting task to most and for some maybe not even an option.  But living a more simple life will be necessary to create the time and space to move toward a life closer  to nature and getting in touch with who we truly are as a person, our authentic self.

Have you ever felt the need to simplify your life, and if so what steps have you taken to accomplish this?  For photographers, do you ever feel the life you have built around yourself including your occupation, even if nature photography, limits your access to sources of inspiration, including nature itself?

(4)  Daily Practice

A good part of the book Walden is dedicated to writing about Thoreau’s daily spiritual practice.  This practice consisted of the following: (A) contemplation, (B) journaling, (C) walking,  (D) conversations, and (E) reading.  All of these practices helped Thoreau establish a daily rhythm that helped him in the process of walking up to his true nature.  This process of waking up was not as much about finding meaning as it was about awareness and feeling fully live in the present moment.

Thoreau would spend hours in front of his cabin and along the shore of Walden Pond engaged in quiet contemplation. In doing this Thoreau was not so much seeking seeking answers, but letting nature reveal itself and speak to Thoreau on its own terms.  Thoreau also kept a daily journal for most of his life and these journal entries helped him describe what he was observing not just in a matter of fact way, but also in a more lyrical and evocative way.   Moving more toward a poetic description was necessary for those aspects of his observations which eluded a more precise description.  For example Thoreau would often feel a surging energy in nature, an experience better suited to poetry than his more scientific descriptions of nature. Walks were a regular part of his routine and these walks were meditative in nature with Thoreau immersing himself and being present in nature that surrounded him.

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Foggy Trail-One of the many trails I have close by access to for walking on a daily basis.

Although Thoreau lived a somewhat solitary existence at Walden, portions of the book are  dedicated to discussing his conversations with visitors.   In Walden Thoreau states: “I had three chairs in my house, one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”  In the chapter visitors, Thoreau introduces his admiration for a wood cutter who would occasionally drop by for conversation.  The wood cutter seemed to be living in harmony in nature, but lacked any kind of intellectual or spiritual awareness.  This helped Thoreau realize that he must go deeper in his own spiritual practice, recognizing that it is not sufficient to just be working in nature such as in his own  practice of farming,  but that a deeper immersion involving deep thought and the mind is necessary.  It is noted in his second year at Walden Pond Thoreau cut way back on his cultivation of his fields to open up more time for him to spend experiencing nature without the distraction of work and toil.

Just like many of us take our favorite book on wilderness adventures (often Walden itself!),  Thoreau was an also avid reader during his quiet hours at Walden Pond.  At Walden Thoreau mentions multiple times his reading of ancient Hindu texts including the Bhagavad Gita and the Vedas.  All of these texts came from Mr. Emerson’s library and Thoreau read them without any interpretive assistance finding in them what Aldous Huxley famously termed the “Perennial Philosophy”, common themes that ring true in wide variety of ancient texts and cultural traditions.  To get a sense of the extent to which these texts captured his imagination consider this passage from Walden:

“I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Bramin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the root of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant come to draw water for his master, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well”.

Thoreau wrote to his friend Harrison Blake in 1849:  “To some extent, and at rare intervals, even I am a yogi!”     One actually finds in  Walden a beautiful story of one man’s realization of Ātman which is a Sanskrit word that means inner self or soul.  In Hindu Philosophy,  Ātman is the first principle, the true self of an individual beyond identification with phenomena, the essence of an individual, somewhat similar to the previously mentioned numinal world of the nineteenth century German Philosopher, Emanuel Kant.  What goes around comes around!   Thoreau’s genius is that in the creation of Walden he shared his story that made much more accessible to others this idea of moving beyond ego and the material world to self realization.

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Self Realization–Eagle Cap Wilderness Area

I have found in my own life there is nothing like a regular practice focused on nature to keep life in perspective and focus on what truly is important.  My practice includes all of the practices that Thoreau discusses in Walden, but I am sure I am not nearly as devoted to these practices as the master Thoreau!  These practices have also formed the groundwork for my creative pursuits especially photography.  Does your current life include time for daily spiritual practices, especially time in nature?  For photographers, do you often spend time in nature, without camera, just observing, listening, and absorbing what nature has to offer?

(5) Follow the Beat of Your Own Drummer

“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”  Walden Conclusion

Thoreau like Emerson and all Transcendentalists puts much emphasis on the need for individualism.  But in this passage Thoreau adds his own perspective.  If  one is not keeping up their peers in what are often competitive pursuits, it may not be because one  lacks the ability to keep up, but rather one is drawn to another calling.  In other words, the feeling of the need to compete in certain endeavors—for example for jobs that convey a sense of status and for bigger and better homes — may actually be taking us further away from our true calling and who we are as a person.  It is following a script set by society that has largely lost its connection to nature.  Thoreau points to another way that shuns conformity and this way involves moving closer to rhythms and pulse of nature.

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Boulder Garden–This image was taken below Little Si, not exactly an iconic spot, and often quickly passed over on the way to the small peak.  But on this day I followed a still small voice of nature that said this is the spot for meditation (and photography!) today.

Are you currently living the life you imagined for yourself?    Are there steps you can take, some small and some large, that can lead you to a life more consistent with your calling?  For photographers, are the images you are sharing on social media those which express your own voice and calling rather than conforming to some standard, not your own, that is associated with achieving recognition or popularity at little or no risk?

(6) Solitude

“As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”  Walden Conclusion

I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude.  Walden Chapter Five Solitude

Lone Trillium in the Forest

Walking around Walden Pond, Thoreau experiences solitude in nature, but in this solitude he is not lonely, because he is part and partial of nature.  In his participation in nature Thoreau finds freedom: freedom from a societies institutions, competitive pressures, and petty gossip..  Nature prevents him from ever really being alone.  In the company of animals, plants, and the elements, Thoreau finds an inexhaustible source of spiritual nourishment.  Thoreau is careful to differentiate between solitude and loneliness, which one can feel even when one is in the company of other people.  For Thoreau in his experience at Walden Pond, it is solitude, not society, which prevents loneliness.   Even in solitude, one is connected to the natural world and web of life.

Do you frequently set time in your schedule to be alone with nature?  If not, are there some steps you can take to have what Julia Cameroon calls in her landmark book the Artist’s Way, a date with yourself, just you and nature?

(7) Inward Journey

Direct your eye right inward, and you’ll find

A thousand regions in your mind

Yet undiscovered.  Travel them, and be 

Expert in home-cosmography.  Thoreau  Walden Conclusion

In this passage where Thoreau is reflecting upon his experience at Walden’s Pond, he exhorts us to take the inward journey because this is where the true frontier of self discovery lies.  To find this final frontier, Thoreau reminds us there is no compelling reason to travel far and wide to disparate locations around the world.  The frontier lies at the intersection of nature and one’s own  consciousness where ever one may be, even at Walden Pond, less than two miles from his previous home in Concord, Massachusetts.  There is no better way to get to know oneself than through the natural world.  But it would be mistake to think one must first travel to a distant place or even a very particular place before taking the inward journey.  The right place and time to  start the inward journey is close to where you are in the here and now.   In every part of nature we can sense the interconnectedness of all of nature,  and every part of nature, however, small and humble, can lead us closer to the  heart and soul of  nature, both within us and without us.  We too are nature.  For more on the inward journey see Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self

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Inner Reflections–Henry M Jackson Wilderness Area

How much to we really know about who we are as a person, our authentic self?  What does it mean to you to direct ones eye inward and how might living a life close to nature help this process?  For photographers,  have you ever noticed that one of your images images of nature reflects both your inner and outer world?

(8) Be Here Now

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” .  Thoreau’s Journal Entry, April 24, 1859

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Bleeding Hearts of the Forest–I found this scene on one of my countless walks through a forest close to my home in a suburb of the greater Seattle area.  We need not travel far to find nature is one of Thoreau ‘s primary messages.

I believe there is no doubt that Thoreau intended Walden as a kind of spiritual guide for finding fulfillment in ordinary places, even one’s own backyard.  It is not just a coincidence that Walden’s pond was only a few miles from the Emerson home in Concord Massachusetts, and in the conclusion of Walden Thoreau specifically states one need not travel far and wide to find fulfillment.  It is a kind of irony that eternity can only  be experienced one moment at a time, but deep down inside I think we all know it cannot be any other way.  All of us must work with the life we have and stop trying to be something we are not.   Even in quite modest places and facing only the essential facts of life, great things are still possible for each of us and that is a key message of Walden Pond.

Living in the here and now at Walden Pond came easily to Thoreau, and  his daily observation of nature using all five of his senses  and documenting this experience helped establish the awareness that made this possible.  Granted Thoreau’s senses were  far more keenly developed than my own and most people reading this article, but living in the here and now is also possible for each of us if we focus on cultivating awareness through a daily practice of spending  quality time in nature.

Examine your own life and your typical daily schedule and ask yourself if you can find a regular time in  each day to be a witness to the wonders and beautifies of the natural world.  For photographers, how might cultivating a greater awareness of nature on a daily basis, employing all five of your senses, help you in continuing to develop the art and  craft of photography?

(9) Waking Up

“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.  I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.  It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through we which we look, which morally we can do.  To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.  Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.”   Walden Chapter -Where I lived and What I Lived For.

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Dawn of a New Day

For Thoreau the “infinite expectation of the dawn” is a metaphor for spiritual awakening, moving out of our often unconscious lives and living life in a much more conscious manner.  In Walden Thoreau states “to be  awake is to be alive”.  Thoreau thought most of us live lives of quiet desperation, being in a kind of semi conscious slumber, or in the words of Pink Floyd’s lyricist “comfortably numb’.  The script for our lives, however, is often not our own, but comes from a society that places more priority on material gain, status and popularity than spiritual development.  In this passage Thoreau reminds us there is another way and sounds a joyful and positive note.  Through living close to nature, simplifying,  and living a more conscious life, we have the opportunity to create and shape our own destinies.  Here Thoreau uses the examples of a sculptor or painter who are just replicating in their art the beauty that they see around them and comparing this to the sculpture or painter who carves and paints the very atmosphere and medium through which they look.  The later is not just documenting the world that they see around them but through their conscious actions as self aware individuals are creating something new.   The artist does not need to conform to the world that surrounds them.  The artist instead can become the center of his or her world and actually help shape this world making it a better place “worthy of contemplation”.

What does it mean to you “to elevate ones life through a conscious endeavor’?  Is there a relationship between our conscious awareness of each moment, where we focus our attention, and our own potential for growth?  For photographers what does it mean to you “to paint (photograph) the very atmosphere and medium through which you look” rather than just to paint (photograph) a few beautiful objects?  Is Thoreau talking about the process of artistic creation rather than just documenting a scene?

(10) Follow Your Dreams  “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours”.    He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.  In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of  the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. ”  Thoreau Walden Conclusion

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Walking Into a Dream, Mt. Rainier

Once one has embarked on a path of voluntary simplicity, living close to nature and one begins to wake up and discover his/her authentic self and divine nature– it is time to create a vision to develop ones potential for greatness.  By greatness, Thoreau of course is not talking about  material success or ego aggrandizement, but developing a larger sense of self, ones true nature, grounded in spiritual awareness. Thoreau knows from his personal experience, and admonishes us, that the important thing is to move forward in the direction of our dreams.  This is what Thoreau did with his experiment at Walden Pond and in the years following when he created the book Walden, a Life in the Woods, and this path is available to us as well.  Each individual’s journey will of course be different.  In finding our vision, however, we should not just settle for the ordinary.  The vision needs to be challenging and creative.  Once we start to move forward, what at first may have seemed impossible will seem less difficult and step by step our larger sense of self and potential will come into view.    It is as if  all the universe and all of its laws want us to succeed and we will.  Transcendence involves creating a new vision of reality and ones relationship to it.  Once one realizes this new vision, there is no turning back.  It is as though one has passed an invisible boundary and the only way lies forward.

Looking back at the successes in your life that you feel best about, were these also times where you moved in the direction of your dreams without knowing  for sure how all the pieces would come together?  For photographers, what are your dreams for the future?  Do your creative dreams put nature first ahead of plans for commercial success?

(11) Stay Grounded

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be.  Now put the foundations under them”.  Walden Conclusion

Although Thoreau encourages us to dream big and have lofty goals, he places equal emphasis on staying grounded.  In a sense with Walden,  Thoreau is ushering in the possibility of change and a new vision with nature at its center to help us reach our highest potential.  But this new vision for personal transformation needs a  solid foundation.

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Beauty at the Forest Floor

Emerson wrote in his essay the Transcendentalist   “We have yet no man who has leaned entirely on his character, and eaten angels’ food; who, trusting to his sentiments, found life made of miracles; who, working for universal aims, found himself fed, he knew not how; clothed, sheltered, and weaponed, he knew not how, and yet it was done by his own hands.”  Thoreau gave his dream a solid foundation through multiple actions discussed in Walden,  not just the building of the foundation for his small cabin in the woods and his work in his garden, but also his daily spiritual practice of contemplation, walking, conversations, writing, and reading.  Living our dream will not be a constant experience of divine ecstasy.  Beware of false new age prophets who promise this.  A good portion of our time will be spent finding a balance of tending to doing what is necessary to secure our basic needs and in our free time tending to our daily spiritual practice.  With this foundation work in place, we can direct the remaining energy to pursuing our creative vision.

What activities and pursuits in your life help you to feel grounded?  Is it possible to pursue your dreams but at the same time cultivate those activities which keep you grounded?

(12) Rebirth

“I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.  Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one”.  Thoreau Walden Conclusion  

When Thoreau decided to embark upon his experiment in simple living at Walden Pond, he did so in part because he thought that his life had become to routine.  Living at Walden Pond taught him many things not the least of which was the rhythm and cycles of nature.  Nature is constantly reinventing itself, not only with the changing seasons, but in the longer term with transformations of the landscape itself.   After two years at Walden Thoreau once again thought his life had become routine and it was time to redirect his energies.

From Ashes to Eden

In an area that in recent times was ashes and dust following the eruption of Mt. St. Helen’s, we now see beautiful fields of flowers to direct the eye to this still active volcano.

Although Thoreau kept journal entries at Walden Pond, the book itself was not yet written and it would take him another seven years to finish the creative masterpiece that now serves as a modern day myth and guide for achieving personal and spiritual transformation through immersion in nature.  Thoreau also firmly believed that personal and spiritual transformation through nature would lead one to a higher moral outlook.  Thoreau had much more work to do in gathering and writing his thoughts on the importance of civil disobedience, and his own role in supporting the abolition of slavery.  Had Thoreau lived longer we likely would have seen a lot more from this champion of nature.  His legacy however is born anew everyday in the lives of millions of people the world over, bringing them closer to nature and its protection, inspiring the quest for spiritual growth, and encouraging people to conduct themselves in a manner that is consistent with their own conscience.

Do you sometimes feel that you have many more lives to live?  Do these feelings cause you to make changes in you  life to help you to live the life/lives you imagined?


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“The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.  ”  Thoreau Walden 

Walden or Life in the Woods, is a spiritual guide for the process for each of us to wake up to our own divine nature.  Although Walden was a physical place, Thoreau wanted each of us to embark upon a journey to our own Walden Pond.  This pond, a symbol for the care of the soul and self realization,  can be anywhere and is most likely to physically exist close to where we are in the here and now.   Ultimately Walden is beyond the physical realm, and is in the hearts and minds of each of us waiting to be discovered.

Erwin Buske Photography, Copyright 2019

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References and Additional Resources:

Walden or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau, 1854

The Journal 1937-1861 Henry David Thoreau, Edited by Damion Searls

Thoreau As Spiritual Guide, Barry M. Andrews, 2000

Henry David Thoreau: A Life, By Laura Dassow Walls, 2017

Emerson, Thoreau, and the Transcendentalists, By Great Courses

The Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1842

Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1836

Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Images with Lasting Impact, Erwin Buske Photography Blog

Finding Your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self, Erwin Buske Photography Blog

Sources of Inspiration for Nature and Landscape Photographers

The Thoreau Society

The Walden Woods Project (founded by Don Henley)

The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley, 1944

A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, Donald Worster, 2008

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