Walking with the Buddha: a great photo opportunity?

Buddha statues in the Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand
Being there is a concept, and the Buddha that you see is a mere appearance. You cannot photograph the real Buddha, even if you have a very expensive camera’

How we love our celebrities, even those of us who profess to be aloof from all that sort of thing. Special guests are often invited to morning conference at the newspaper where I work. These newsworthy people say whatever is on their mind and answer questions – all off-the-record. We’ve had some big names, heroes to many of us – Richard Dawkins, David Attenborough, Russell Brand, Jesse Jackson – and on these occasions the meeting room overflows with discretely adoring fans.

After Russell Brand’s appearance, in which he won us over with his wit and often obscene comic genius, many stayed behind to have their picture taken with him. Even feminist journalists, who might have baulked at his unashamed objectification of women, had fallen under his spell and elbowed their way through the crowd to get a priceless “selfie” on their smartphones with him.

Selfies are the new celebrity autographs. It’s so easy to take pictures and shoot videos now, people seem to want to capture all their best moments to prove they were really there, whether on holiday, or holding aloft phones or even iPads during concerts (almost completely obstructing the view of the stage for the people behind them). People go to galleries and take pictures of the pictures. They step on to the Great Wall of China and the first thing they want to do is take pictures of themselves. It’s like a mindless epidemic.

I opened this post by boasting about the celebrities I’ve met through work. I also love taking pictures on holiday, hundreds of them. So I’m not claiming any kind of high ground here, but it does make me queasy how far some folk will go to associate themselves with famous people and places, perhaps in the hope that some of that awesomeness will rub off on them. They’re so busy proving they were really there, they’re not really there at all. So I was impressed and challenged to read this passage in a book by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh:

If you were to hear on the radio that the Buddha is going to reappear on Gridhrakuta Mountain and the public is invited to join him for walking meditation, all the seats on all the airplanes to India would be booked, and you might feel frustrated, because you want to go, also. Even if you were lucky enough to get a seat on that plane, it might not be possible for you to enjoy practicing walking meditation with the Buddha. There would be so many people, most of whom don’t know how to practice breathing in and out and dwelling in the present moment while walking. What is the use of going there?

Look deeply at your intention. Do you want to fly halfway around the world so that later you can say you were with the Buddha? Many people want to do just that. They arrive at a place of pilgrimage, unable to be in the here and now. After a few minutes of seeing the place, they rush to the next place. They take pictures to prove they were there, and they are eager to return home to show their friends. “I was there. I have proof. That is me standing beside the Buddha.” That would be the desire of many of the people who would go there. They are not able to walk with the Buddha. They are not able to be in the here and the now. They only want to say, “I was there, and this is me standing beside the Buddha.” But it is not true. They were not there. And that is not the Buddha. “Being there” is a concept, and the Buddha that you see is a mere appearance. You cannot photograph the real Buddha, even if you have a very expensive camera.

If you don’t have the opportunity to fly to India, please practice walking at home, and you can really hold the hand of the Buddha while you walk. Just walk in peace and happiness and the Buddha is there with you.

The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh

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