Picture this: a group of young monks and nuns in brown robes, grinning wide, holding slices of watermelon as they sit in the shade outside the Ocean of Peace Meditation Hall. This was one of many beautiful photographs I took during a two-week stay Deer Park Monastery. It was one of the photographs that mysteriously disappeared from my camera, leaving me with only memories and a new understanding about loss and attachment.
During the first week at Deer Park, I took dozens of pictures. I photographed the unperturbed, radiant smile of the white marble Buddha statue on the plateau above the hamlets. The wavelike copper roof, elegant face, and richly colored stained glass windows of the meditation hall. Cream-white lotus blossoms in the pond. Honeybees nestled in flaring pink flowers. Thich Nhat Hanh’s curvy calligraphy on wooden signs nailed to oak trees (“Enjoy your steps, enjoy the Kingdom, try not to use your car”). Also stored on my camera were fun shots of my road trip to the monastery, a friend’s birthday dinner, and my twin nieces on their first day of preschool.
On a sunny Sunday morning, before the community gathered for our Day of Mindfulness, I walked around the monastery grounds taking photos. I visited a little pomegranate tree decorated with fruits. While we were walking past this tree a few days earlier, a sister had pointed at the red fruit, saying: “Look! They’re like lanterns.” My fellow visitor remarked, “They will be delicious.” The sister replied, “They are delicious right now.” After taking a few shots of the plump pomegranates, a gazebo, and a statue, I stopped, disturbed by an odd feeling that it was not a good time for photography. I joined the monastics and lay friends for walking meditation.
Later that day I turned on my camera to peruse the scores of photos. But most of them had disappeared. The striking images of Buddha, lotus flowers, my dear nieces – all erased. The only remaining pictures were those I’d snapped that morning. I searched through menu options, changed the batteries, turned the camera off and on. They were gone. I was disappointed, but couldn’t help feeling a little amused. What better way to learn nonattachment than to lose one’s mementoes from a Buddhist monastery?
The next day, I ambitiously retraced my steps to re-take the photos I’d lost. The light was different, shadows crossed the Buddha statue’s face, but I was determined. I thought I’d learned my lesson: I should enjoy picture-taking for its own sake, instead of mindlessly collecting images only to look at them later with nostalgia. I tried to really see the subjects of my photos, and enjoy the act of squaring them in the frame and clicking the button.
After only 22 shots, the camera rebelled: “CARD FULL!” How could it be full? The card should hold 100 photos. The camera was obviously broken. Disgruntled, I thought about all the photos I’d hoped to post on a blog, share with friends, and provide to the monastery. All gone. And I couldn’t recapture them. It felt like a bitter loss. I sat on a bench beside the lotus pond and looked at the algae-green water and round lotus leaves. Across the pond, four turtles rested on a flat rock. Their shells were like raku bowls, webbed with cracks. There had been a photo of them on my camera before; I couldn’t take another one to look at later. I couldn’t take the turtles with me. I could only experience them here and now, never again.
It occurred to me that everything I owned, everyone I loved, would eventually disappear as my photos had. My mom, my dad, my brothers and nieces, every friend, and all my belongings – each of them would be irrevocably gone someday. I felt a deep sense of loss, as if my loved ones had already died. Even my own body would disappear. Then what would be left of me?
It was too much to think about. I tried to distract myself with the book in my backpack, Thay’s “Old Path White Clouds,” the life story of the Buddha. I read:
“The hermit Gautama focused all of his formidable powers of concentration to look deeply at his body. He saw that each cell of his body was like a drop of water in an endlessly flowing river of birth, existence, and death, and he could not find anything in the body that remained unchanged or that could be said to contain a separate self. Intermingled with the river of his body was the river of feelings in which every feeling was a drop of water. These drops also jostled with each other in a process of birth, existence, and death. Some feelings were pleasant, some unpleasant, and some neutral, but all of his feelings were impermanent: they appeared and disappeared just like the cells of his body.”
Feelings, cells, body, everything around the body – all a moving river, appearing and dissolving, impermanent. Everything arises and goes away, just like my photos. I’d wanted to hold on to my Deer Park experience by holding on to the images. But the experience was gone. I was forced to release the photos and my attachment to them, just as we need to let go of the past in order to be present now.
In front of me, a turtle climbed out of the water onto a rock. Its neck was striped yellow. Its diamond-shaped head pointed toward the sky. A black eyelid blinked sleepily. If the past hadn’t disappeared to make way for the present, I realized, I wouldn’t be here, marveling at this turtle. I wouldn’t see reflections of water wavering on the undersides of green leaves overhead. There would be no warm sun on my neck. All the moments of the past, all the feelings, all the pictures, had to give way in order for this moment to appear. And this moment is an amazing moment. If I’m thinking about the past, I’m missing it. If we are preoccupied with memories and made-up futures, we’re depriving ourselves of the rich sensory feast that is happening right now. But if we open up to the ever-changing kaleidoscope of the present moment, soak in its sounds and tastes, we don’t need the past or the future. When we’re aware of the real-time, 3-D, surround-sound moving picture of now, maybe we don’t need photographs.
Plunk! The turtle dove into the pond. And I lay down under the sunlit green leaves for a nap.