Self-portrait in offering bowl
School confronts me with the endless challenge of living amongst many, many others; the Sino-Korean for “community” is, literally, “a great gathering (大衆).” In physical terms, this has meant three years of cramming 38 people into spaces that, by Western standards, are suitable for a small gathering of only a fraction the size. The bending of conventional physical limits, however, is not nearly as interesting as having, every day, 37 other faces to study and capture, as possible, with a camera. Even before I tried to take pictures of temple life, I knew that nothing ever really changes in the temple. Each day’s routine follows, roughly, yesterday’s; the calendar year spins on its axis, passing through the seasons much as it did the year before, with rituals and observances carrying over time, knitting the oldest and youngest in the community together by the transmission and exercise of these cycles, daily, monthly, yearly. If you want variation, you have only two places to look: the chaos inside, as you respond differently to the same things, and outside, as those around you respond differently to the same things. From an artistic standpoint, then, portraits become one of the few captivating aspects of temple life, because even when swinging through their own cycles, those around you do it in such charming, hilarious, pitiable, sympathetic, wretched, outraged, lovely, and ugly ways. In short, they are human. And we have always been fascinated by ourselves and our emotions.
But now it’s vacation, and at the home temple, we are not so many as forty. Four, often, is everyone. Additionally, of those four, half are senior nuns, and senior nuns are notoriously camera-shy. I am notoriously camera-shy. In an empty Dharma Hall after the mid-morning offering service, even the light–one of the other captivating aspects of temple life–has stopped its dramatics and the Hall is plaintive, dim, and silent. Peering at the altar objects, thinking to make a still-life, someone peered back at me.
As I said, if you want variation, you have only two things to look at: the others around you, or yourself.