On page 66 of Visions of Buddhist Life there is an amazing portrait of the Very Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, photographed shortly before his passing at age eighty-four. The transcendent wisdom of this great teacher is unmistakable; his eyes are warm, wide open and fearless. On the facing page is an equally stunning portrait taken seven years later: the reincarnated Kalu Rinpoche, photographed at the age of five. The young monk’s eyes are equally fearless—though it will take a lifetime to fill them with the same warmth.
Only a handful of photography books—monographs by the likes of Robert Frank, Sebastião Salgado, Helen Levitt and Elinor Carucci—have moved me as deeply as Farber’s, which seems less a static book than a journey through the author’s spiritual and artistic evolution. Rather than simply browse through the volume (always a temptation with coffee-table books), I read this one from cover to cover; and when I was finished, I felt that I’d been granted a glimpse of Buddhism’s human heart.
Don Farber, a freelance photographer since 1970, was introduced to Buddhism in 1977, when he composed a series of images about life at the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles. He soon adopted Buddhism as his spiritual path, studying with the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Thien-An. As the years passed, Farber’s spiritual engagement and technical expertise continued to grow. He traveled throughout the United States and the world, photographing revered rinpoches and novice monks, Japanese temples and Korean rituals, survivors of Chinese prisons and refugees from the Tibetan diaspora. By 1997 his skill and motivation were so well respected that he was invited to photograph the Dalai Lama at home engaged in private meditation and study. (His notes about these sessions, written with humor and humility, give us a pretty good substitute for the one thing missing from this book: a picture of the photographer himself.)
By the book’s conclusion, we realize that Farber has patiently carved himself unique niches in at least two worlds: visual art and dharma practice. One of the most impressive things about this book, in fact, is that his art and practice are so tightly interwoven; the photographs manage to integrate compassion and mindfulness with a wonderful aesthetic sensibility.
At least a dozen images in Visions of Buddhist Life deserve to be digitally encoded and broadcast to the stars as a counterpoint to the insanity issuing from our radios and televisions. Farber’s photograph of Japan’s Takamoru-in Temple, blanketed with snow, conveys Zen aspiration as skillfully as a brush-stroke painting, while his portrait of Ani Pachen—a Tibetan activist and nun who spent twenty years in a Chinese prison—is the most profound image of enlightenment I have ever seen. I was also deeply struck by the photographs of the noble Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, the gnomic Trulshik Rinpoche, and the stupa-shaped Joshu Sasaki Roshi, deep in meditation at the Mount Baldy Zen Center.
But the book’s most revealing portrait, to my mind, appears on page 73, where we see the Dalai Lama engaged in the simple act of throwing a handful of rice. It is rare to see a picture of the Dalai Lama in action, and Farber’s shot perfectly captures the total concentration that the great Tibetan leader brings to even the simplest act. Studying the image, I was reminded of the famous teaching where the Buddha simply held out a lotus; sometimes, perhaps, a single image can be worth a thousand sutras.