Underlying Story-audio

Inner harmony is not pursued; it shows up when the noises of emotional suffering are silenced. - Gustavo Estrada, To the Buddha from the West


The Birth of a Series


In many ways, even though the first photographs for Inner Harmony… Learning from the Buddhist Spirit were not taken until 2011, the seeds for this project were planted when Vietnam opened its doors to Westerners in the early 1990’s. I was working at Da Nag General Hospital as a teaching physician through Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO).

During a weekend excursion I hiking up Marble Mountain and came across the entrance to a dark cave. As I climbed down through the opening, it suddenly widened, revealing a tranquil, majestic cavern, illuminated by beams of natural light piercing through the darkness from high above. Inside this sacred space was a diminutive Buddhist temple and, not far away, a towering statue of Buddha, carved out of the cavern’s sidewall. I was moved by the power of this expansive, yet peaceful, contemplative, and understated sanctuary. In hindsight, the climb up Marble Mountain, entrance into a dark cave and unexpected emersion into a towering, light-filled, spiritual setting represented the embryonic stages of my journey toward a deeper appreciation of Buddhist philosophy along with the birth of Inner Harmony… Learning from the Buddhist Spirit.

During 11 subsequent assignments in Vietnam, Nepal, Bhutan, China, India and Myanmar, I was often immersed in the fabric of local Buddhist communities. 2011 found me in Wenzhou, China, a frenetic city of 9 million people, rarely visited by Westerners. I had the good fortune of an audience with the headmaster at the Taiping Temple, a cloistered enclave of 100 Buddhist nuns, situated in the heart of the city. The minute I walked through the entrance to the monastery, I was struck by the tranquility, order and harmony that I sensed existed in this magical environment. In hindsight, it was reminiscent of my entrance into the cave inside Marble Mountain in Vietnam.

After numerous meetings with the Taiping Temple’s headmaster and her representative, explaining my intentions and showing images from previous work, I was given permission to return and photograph during an evening ceremony, as long as I agreed to their requirements: stay in the back of the sanctuary, no flash, no photographs of the nuns’ faces and approval by the master before using any images.

That evening I entered the sanctuary, a dimly lit, expansive space, with high ceilings, and a towering statue of Buddha. The air was filled with the faint scent of incense while nuns’ filled the chamber with the sound of their rhythmic chanting. As I moved silently through the chamber, I sensed that these devout monastics had achieved a level of inner harmony whereby they looked inward in their quest for wellbeing or “happiness” rather than expecting it to come from external sources. This concept resonated with me as I have had the good fortune of working in numerous underserved countries throughout the world, and have found no direct correlation between monetary wealth and happiness except in a circumstance where people face extreme poverty.

After careful consideration, I decided I wanted to focus on a new body of work where I would attempt to artistically capture this state-of-mind. I also felt it would be important to present Inner Harmony as black and white, Palladium prints, in an effort to create a contemplative environment that draws the viewer inward, in tune with what is going on within a person’s mind as opposed to their external appearance.

After showing the preliminary photographs to the headmaster, I was given broad access to almost the entire compound, day and night, during ceremonies and other activities. However, I made every effort to honor the preference of individual nuns, seeking permission before photographing their faces.

Since the project attempts to artistically capture a state-of-mind as opposed to a physical place or branch of Buddhism, it has given me the latitude to continue the series while repeatedly living for extended periods of time in Bhutan, Myanmar, India, China and the United States.

I am hopeful this body of work will resonate with a broad audience, as I feel the underlying message is powerful and of universal importance.

Underlying Story-audio