images of the crossing over

Boundary, boundaries 境界

The monastic life is, inherently, about boundaries, either the establishing, breaking, or transcending of them. More often than not, it’s about all three in simultaneous relationship and flux, an interplay as necessary as it is problematic for the monastic institution.

An institution is both an idea and a constant experiment, the ideal colliding with the mundane. For Korean Buddhist monastics, the ideal monastic community draws on both the tradition of monastic precepts dating back to the time of the Buddha, and the tradition of the community within East Asian culture. Both aspects of this ideal exist in both fact and imagination, again simultaneously; and despite the wish to see them as ahistorical, neither our precepts nor our community has ever been without its context in time and place. More often than not, the historical examples of monastic communities transmit as much fantasy about how such an institution should function as practical advice for helping it do so.

All this relates to the ideal boundary of the monastic institution–that which defines its members as pure and enlightened, as opposed to impure and mundane–and the boundaries that are meant to help promote, foster, and protect the former against the encroachments of the non-monastic world. Despite the development of a non-monastic model of enlightenment in Mahayana Buddhism, the conception of monastic commitment as one of the best vehicles toward awakening remains deeply embedded in both the way monastics think of themselves and the way in which our various cultures perceive us.

The Korean word for “boundary” derives from two Sino-Korean characters,  境 and 界.  The word connotes physical limits: the border between two countries, a state line, the city limits. The word (pronounced gyeong-gye) is also a homophone for “warning, precaution (警戒),” which used as a verb (“to take precaution, to be vigilant”) can, when used to describe a relationship, imply the emotional or physical boundary between self and others. Returning to the characters for “boundary”,  in technical Buddhist usage they are one synonym for “phenomena,” the events and objects that arise outside the mind and interact with the six senses to give rise to the six consciousnesses. That point or moment of arising–an event in formal Buddhist scholasticism that occurs on the coordinate axes of space and time–is called a dhatu in Sanskrit, or realm, and it is translated by the single character 界 (gye).

This is not a linguistic consideration of Sino-Korean or Chinese Buddhist terminology, although language plays a part in this project.  I began to think about “boundary” as a concept at the same time I began struggling with boundary as a physical and spiritual reality. What immediately leapt to mind were these associations, more poetic than anything, between space and the division of it by demarcating lines, of self and other (or phenomena and mind), and the potentional for emotional distance in the distinction. All this ties back to the ideal and reality–and more often than not, the ideal versus the reality–of monasticism.

I am not a professional photographer, but I am sufficiently curious about the relationship between art and spirituality/religion (which are not the same, but overlap significantly) to take the unique opportunity to explore these questions in the context of the life I live with my sisters and brothers.  Many photographs of monastics are romantic, or tinged with a faint idealism that may only be evident to those who know more than what either a non-monastic photographer or viewer might when engaging the same image. On the other hand, a non-monastic viewer might not know why a certain image strikes a monastic as transgressive of boundary. This consideration of view and viewer is also part of how, and why,  I take these pictures.

I file photographs for this project in “Boundaries” category. Unlike the majority of the photographs here, I will try and keep explanation on the “Boundaries” series to a minimum. Much of what makes a boundary a boundary is perspective and interpretation; I hope to leave the viewer space to ask why and how a photograph relates to boundary and boundaries in the monastic world without pressing my own reading of it beyond the act of finding and presenting an image.


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