The Indian mind, if someone can make such a blanket statement, is certainly a fascinating thing. While Indians do not possess the other-worldliness that one likes to ascribe to them, they do possess an immense strength of spirit and an incredible flexibility when it comes to dealing with personal problems. Amusingly described as a fail-safe mechanism, Hinduism has one aspect that it shares with Buddhism and that proves immensely practical.
The concept of maya, which is the fundamental unreality and illusion of the world.
This concept does not come to bear in the way one would expect it – Indians do not consider the world in front of them, filled with all the dirt and filth and the nose-tingling and stomach churning mixture of stenches and the shocking poverty to be fundamentally unreal. They simply do not notice it because their focus is internal and completely self-absorbed. It has a completely different application in Zen and Buddhist-influenced thought, but this is material for another time.
I think we all know the state of running around completely preoccupied with something, a state of absolute exclusion of the outside world – it’s a state that some mistake with meditation or transcendence, but it is instead single-mindedness. Whatever happens outside, it is discarded because we hold a burning image in our mind. In conversations with Indians one will often find that it is almost completely impossible to interest them for anything that is outside of their immediate sphere of necessity. They are completely oblivious to anything that does not immediately concern them – distraction could mean missing an opportunity and could mean a threat to survival. To be fair, to have a chance in the churning day to day reality of India, absolute focus is a necessity. Simply to cross the road without dying requires a certain amount of focus and daring. Apparently that feeling is still deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche, even if it sometimes comes across as utter callousness in those whose survival is already secured enough to open themselves up a little bit.
So, the prevailing sense of India is not absence of the self, but complete focus on the self.
How can these two things be mistaken for each other?
Or do the selfless doctrines of Mahavira and Buddha just stand out so much more in that context to be considered all-pervasive? This is where the concept of maya comes in.
Maya is eminently useful in situations of failure. Something that would seem a soul-crushing defeat in other spiritual circumstances is simply shrugged off and the fundamental unreality of the world is evoked as suffrage. This creates an immense reservoir of strength and spirit and makes it possible for people to live in difficult or even dreadful circumstances without giving in to despair. It is the universal panacea of Buddhism and is equally valid in Hinduism.
The other concepts of Hindu faith that are applied in day-to-day life are karma and the accountability of the gods and the possibility of their personal intervention. Just like maya, karma has the potential for healing. No matter how badly one fails in one’s endeavours, the wheel of karma is unpredictable and fortune might come, unpremeditated, at any moment. If not in this life, then in the next or the one after that.
Maya comes to bear in moments of utter despair – your whole life might be in shambles and all your plans may have failed or were broken up. Don’t worry. It’s all unreal, a painted veil drawn and spun by the senses as they dance. Pick yourself up, move on. There’s still life in you.
That helps to explain the psychological resilience of people who have little to no possessions and little to no chance of succeeding in the material world and occasionally manage to succeed against those monumental odds.
Religion, in its original sense, is there to take people’s fear of death and the unknown.
For us, Westerners, this is hard to understand because Christianity works with heavy assumptions of power and guilt and is often little more than empty pomp. Hinduism and Buddhism both offer flexible and useful answers that allow a person to accept them without signing their souls away, so to speak. There is no personal contract or covenant with god as it exists in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There is no way to displease the crores upon crores of gods and if they mete out punishment it is because they follow a cosmic law not because they want to avenge personal displeasure. Guilt is not woven into the fabric of life.
Hinduism, however, offers a different concept of communality and social help. For a staunch Hindu one’s immediate and ultimate goal is always to save oneself. Another’s fate is not their concern. Various religious movements stress the ultimate acceptance of everyone, others have a strict concept of dharma or social duty, some are militant and fundamentalist, bristling with fury against everything that is not Bharat, not Hindu, not India.
It may come as no surprise that in a country where almost half the population lives in poverty many charitable organizations have sprung up. Some operate out of greed for influence or power (not unlike messianic institutions in Europe or America), but in almost all the cases the services provided far outweigh the hidden or overt intentions. If a party like the BJP, the largest right wing party, organizes meals out of political calculations, they will still have fed people for a day. This is an ill-suited point for any ideological lever.
Charity is certainly not a completely unknown concept in India, but as in any society the people who would willingly give up material rewards in order to help are few. And often, if they do, they expect spiritual rewards in turn. Christian missionaries who help with a sense of intellectual and social condescension or Buddhists who assume that the repetition of a ritual will raise their spiritual account balance. But this is another blanket statement – the history of Christian missionaries is, no doubt, as colorful and diverse as any history where, sadly, a few rotten ones stand out and for people who have no way of increasing their money, increasing spiritual currency gives them at least a sense of self-worth.
Those concepts, maya and karma aren’t considered to be particularly spiritual. They would be comparable to what we call conscience – it’s a religious concept that has found hold in day to day life in Christian areas of the world and is so much part of our lives that most would probably object to calling it a religious concept. Perhaps we are just as pragmatic when it comes to ordering day-to-day society, only we usually call the decisive factor our reason and common sense, which are results of an intellectual revolution almost religious in scope.
It’s common to assume that Asia or Africa are backward because they have never had an Age of Reason, no great revolution of thought that overthrew old structures and paved the way for industrialism and free economy. But perhaps their age of reason has come and gone long ago. Perhaps their age of reason never came because we enlightened Europeans stomped on it and cut it down with swords and shot it with Enfield rifles, so we could keep calling ourselves enlightened or industrious or advanced.
I do not believe that either East or West holds an advantage as far as the sheer volume of philosophy is concerned or that, viewed over a span of several centuries, the armies of one side have proven to be indisputably stronger. Different geological circumstances have created different social structures. Different social structures have created different psychological necessities. It is ridiculous to debate about something that boils down to the question if living near a river or near a mountain is better. Eastern thought is more flexible while Western thought has found strength in rigidity and linear progression. Those are well known commonplaces.
The challenge is – as always – to be open enough to begin to understand. Maya – illusion – and karma – consequence. The two sisters are a good enough place to begin this attempt to understand.
When I think about photography, I think about wanting to make an image seep with emotion or with a particular sense.
It’s not so much about mood, although that plays a part as well, but mood is a surface emotion, something that can be easily manipulated by moving a prop or changing a colour. I’m looking for something that is integral of a person, a landscape or a moment.
A sense is more of an undefined element. The fleeting, ephemeral notions in your or the other person’s head.
It’s not about visual elements – they are a stylistic and therefore very random element, although sometimes they are helpful in order to convey a particular emotion.
It’s strange, perhaps, but I do not think about photography in purely visual terms. It is very much a sensual experience for me.
Clean, clearly defined and well-lit images have their lure, of course, but they are also sterile and lifeless. An artificial emotion pasted onto a face because the photographer wants to convey the image directly from his own head rather than allow it to happen.
A photograph, the kind I’m looking for, is shaped by the world and not by me. It may be frustrating for models, but there is no right image for me. Sometimes an image appears, or an emotion appears that I might find appealing and attractive. That’s what I’m looking for and it’s a question of being attuned rather than being keenly, visually aware.
Of course it is entirely subjective, that is, dependent on my own ideas and perhaps mistakes, but objective photography is advertisement, surface value.
It’s not just beautiful emotions that I want to convey, but rather the enigmatic ones. Moments that have layers and make you want to puzzle them out. To simply say “Smile” means you are not aware what the other person is feeling but only what you are seeing. In order to give meaningful direction you need to be able to understand what sort of image another person holds in their heads as well as the emotion they are bringing to the table. Constant communication is a great help here. Or silence.
There is no wrong expression, no wrong emotion. This goes too much into philosophy, but I’m looking for something that is naturally arising. What this is, that’s as much of a surprise for me as for anyone.
You ought to feel something when looking at an image. This may be the beginning of a thought or the hint of an emotion, a sense of place or a sense of a person. That’s what I’m looking for.
What is meditation?
It’s a very natural state of mind.
The mind is “between things”.
It’s a state necessary for change to happen.
Common misconceptions about meditation:
It’s agitation of or work for the mind.
It isn’t. It’s learning how your mind works.
“I should meditate each day. I want to get into the habit.”
Don’t even start meditating if that’s your approach. Meditation is an antidote to habit.
I need a quiet, peaceful room for it.
In the beginning, yes. For later on I recommend the back of an open truck or a schoolyard at lunch break.
“I will become a better person if I meditate.”
No, but you might learn how to be you properly.
Never forget this:
Meditation and spiritual practice are a big scam.
Becoming addicted to meditation is about as bad as doing none at all.
There is a particular sort of conversation that can only happen in MacLeod Ganj. Here it is not considered strange when the person in front of you says things like “I used to be a practitioner of Austin Osman Spare’s tradition of magic for ten years and then I went into old solar traditions and sort of got stuck there.” You simply nod, offer a comment that could express either sympathy or admiration and turn to another group where two people describe their experiences with Ayahuasca, a South American vine distilled into a potent shamanic brew that takes the drinker on a journey through heaven and hell. Sometimes I was reminded of texts I had read about shamans who could lead conversations that moved effortlessly from a discussion of this world into a discussion of the other world, the realm of the imagination, and none of the participants would find this in the least odd or disconcerting.
In that way the place was full of neo-shamans, modern yogis and practitioners of odd and fascinating ritualistic world-views and magic. The veil between the worlds seems peculiarly thin here – meaning that one could never be entirely sure where madness lay and where reason hid. The mention of ketamine became a sort of yardstick for me. After a while the fact that at least half the people you would meet in MacLeod Ganj had tried every conceivable sort of drug and that again half of them were probably trying them right now became a little easier to accept.
Ketamine is a synthetic drug developed and applied during the Sixties and Seventies when America was dealing with the psychological aftereffects of the Vietnam War and turned to synthetic drugs both to alleviate the suffering of the returning soldiers and to fortify the minds of the soldiers in the field. Coincidentally this ushered in the short-lived experimental drug culture that, along with the social effects of a prolonged and hopeless war, gave birth to extremely liberal and alternative movements in the US. Ketamine is a strong anesthetic drug, dulling the sense to the point of disassociation or dissolution of the ego – one can no longer identify oneself. It is used as medical treatment and as illicit drug. Dissolution of the ego can lead to strong spiritual experiences – an all-inclusive identification with the world – but also to severe mental disassociation and loss of memory. There are a number of reports of people who have fallen into severe schizophrenia due to long term use or high dosages of the drug. Speaking in shamanic terms, plant drugs can potentially be used to lead oneself back to a connection with the world that is hard to describe in sober words, while synthetic drugs will take you for a ride across synthetic worlds and have little to no lasting psychological healing potential and increased risk of addiction.
Ketamine also happened to be Josh’s drug of choice. I saw him first from the distance when I visited friends in their guesthouse, just below mine on one of the many guest-house infested slopes off Jogiwara Road. He was standing alone in the guesthouse’s TV room, a look of intense concentration on his face, his body tense. He had his hair styled in a trimmed dark mohawk and was stringy and quite muscular and moved with the tension of a peculiarly annoyed predator on the prowl. I went up to chat with my friends on the balcony and suddenly a fierce shout pierced the courtyard and we saw Josh howling and pumping his fists, kissing the ground. My anthropological instincts took over and I was wondering what odd rite he was performing there. I got my answer when he sauntered up the stairs to us, still howling with joy. He flexed his biceps to show us the faux gothic letters covering his forearm. He was a die-hard supporter of FC Chelsea and they had just won a cup game decisively. He was basking in the joy of his team’s victory and the air had acquired a strange edge when he was there. He seemed quite dangerous, like a person willing to smash someone’s face in when Chelsea didn’t play as convincing as it did today. He was very sensitive, too, which is always a strange thing when combined with a temper. Soon he began talking about the Israeli who had a room on the opposite end of the courtyard and who had the nerve to make fun of him during the last match. He had mocked Josh’s shouts of joy and that was something Josh did not abide. “He tried to burst my bubble,” complained Josh repeatedly. Upon hearing that I was Austrian, he told me that my people had the right idea when it came to dealing with the bubbleburster’s sort. His racist views acquired a strange glow in the surroundings of MacLeod Ganj, where most people are what could be described as wooly liberals, at least in contrast with Josh. The women seemed quite infatuated with him, most likely because he had temporarily separated from his Yoga-loving girlfriend who had stayed in Bagsu to practice her lessons.
Josh was on a roll. He kept talking about this and that, always with a fierce intensity as if every topic had personally insulted his mother. He hated Indians, except for the guys around here who were alright. He described his passion for Chelsea, his adventures on the beaches of Brighton and other things with a compelling immediacy. At some point he started talking about Ketamine, his drug of choice. How it had helped him to keep “dark Josh” in the shadows and made him see the light because he used to be quite violent earlier. Strangely enough, as a redeemed sinner he suddenly seemed right at home in the strange world of MacLeod Ganj, where spiritual aspects of a person seemed to take on a somewhat starker quality. The dark side might have been temporarily banned by ketamine, but the wiles of the world or rather the many evil people in it still brought it back. Josh had experienced a rather unpleasant encounter. Probably being used to go for a drink with a stranger, he had accepted the invitation of two Indians for a glass of alcohol somewhere in a tourist area. This is almost always a fatal mistake and so it was in Josh’s case – the drink was drugged and he began to feel groggy and could only sway back to his room, his new friend close behind him. He tried grabbing the man, but was too weak and fell down on the bed. When he came to, he went through his things. Of course the man had taken his money and valuables, even his passport. All sorts of horrors ran through Josh’s head – how would he get his passport back? He couldn’t afford to lose it. He was on parole – if they knew that he had lost his passport…he already had two strikes against him, so he’d never be granted another passport. I couldn’t say whether this was maniacal raving or if someone who has been in prison is stripped of his passport when he’s losing it. Maybe he hadn’t been officially allowed to travel and had gone anyway, defying the mandates. Anyway, he lost his head and sprinted out of his room onto the street. He saw one of the guys sitting on his bike not far away from him. The man noticed him, certainly frightful when he was angry and lunging at him at full speed and he started fumbling with his keys, got the ignition going but was tackled by Josh. Josh (“It means strength in Hindi. Every single one of those…fuckers tells me that.”) was calmer now, calculating. He took the man calmly by the shoulder and said, in a friendly, almost sweet voice, “Come along. Let’s go to my room. I have to talk to you.”
Perhaps the man believed, confused by the sudden friendliness, that the irrational Westerner had suddenly become peaceful or that he didn’t think that it was him who had stolen his belongings. He almost smiled as he was led by Josh. Once inside, Josh grabbed the man by the throat and pulled his knife from his belt. It was a large knife, he showed us with his fingers as he talked. He put the knife to the man’s face.
“Thank god that I didn’t kill him, because at that moment I really would’ve.” Instead he explained to him that he needed his passport. Why would they want to take his passport in the first place? He didn’t give a shit about the money, but he’d be really, really pissed about losing the passport. The Indian was frightened to death and he had pulled out the passport, which had been in his pocket the whole time. Selling faked passports is, like many other things, a small but certainly lucrative business in certain circles. Perhaps he had hoped to sell the stolen Western passport for a bit of money. Josh breathed heavily as he finished telling his story. One could almost see the images that played and replayed themselves in his mind. What if he had lost the passport? What if he had killed the man? Did he kill the man and was it his memory that told him he hadn’t? He didn’t say it, but in those surroundings, with him standing close to me it was strangely apparent that he was thinking just that.
My name is Sebastian Buchner. I have occasionally called myself a photographer or an artist or whatever you want, but the truth is (which I realize again and again) that I am a storyteller who just happens to work with different media, some visual, some informative, some purely fictional.
I don’t make a living from it, for the most part, although sometimes I buy food and pay bills with money made by photography or words – this makes me very happy and makes me believe that it can and will change. I make my living by travelling, incidentally, and by the occasional class in photography, drawing and visual storytelling. I also talk about my travels, write about them and exhibit photographs. I write lots of fiction as well – and some non-fiction. I take pictures of people and of the stuff I see in my head.
Should you happen to like anything you see here, you are more than welcome to write to me. I will take photographs for you, listen to you if you have something interesting to tell and I am always willing to collaborate on interesting projects.
Ich heiße Sebastian Buchner . Gelegentlich habe ich mich als Fotografen oder Künstler beschrieben, aber am treffendsten ist es wohl zu sagen, dass ich ein Geschichtenerzähler bin, der in verschiedenen Medien arbeitet. Einige davon sind visuelle Medien, andere informative und wieder andere rein erfundene.
Hin und wieder kann ich mein Brot und meine Rechnungen mit Geld bezahlen, das ich mit Fotografie oder Worten gemacht habe – das macht mich unglaublich glücklich. Ich lebe vom Reisen und von Kursen in Fotografie, Zeichnen und visuellem Geschichtenerzählen. Ich halte auch Vorträge über meine Reisen, schreibe Artikel und zeige meine Fotografien bei Ausstellungen. Ich schreibe viel und fotografiere Menschen in ihrem Leben und Werken und hin und wieder die Bilder, die in meinem Kopf auftauchen.
Wenn Dir irgendetwas hier gefällt, kannst Du mir gerne schreiben. Ich mache gerne Auftragsfotografien, höre jedem zu der etwas Interessantes zu erzählen hat und bin immer interessiert an potentiellen Kollaborationen.
So, why do yoga? After all it has no real purpose, no goal. Enlightenment does not exist or if it does it is a brief flash and then everything is as it has been before. Eternal youth is unachievable and a flexible body grows old just as much as a stiff one. Levitation is fun the first time, but…you get the picture.
To remain healthy and whole of mind and body? Yes, that is a reason, but there are hundreds of other things you could rather do to achieve that.
To become flexible because you are a dancer, athlete, actor…? Yes, a very good reason. Yoga is a tool after all, not an end in itself.
To find inner peace? You will find that without yoga just as well. For example you could just sit down and not get up until you found it. I’m serious. Go sit down.
Because I want to meet hot flexible girls or boys? Two years back I would have scoffed, but now I think it actually is a perfectly fine reason. Go for it. With style, though.
Because I’m burnt out? Quit your job and do something you’ve always wanted to do. You’re not overworked, you’re just fed up.
So – why do it? I like the story told by Aleister Crowley about how one can practice to become a magician. It’s easy, all you have to do it stand on a chair and get down twenty times each day, preferably in public. To shout “You are azure and full of love!” at the next person you meet in the street. To do a drawing or lead a conversation without ever asking yourself what the hell it means.
Because the less meaning it has, the more potential it has to become something meaningful. And the flip side is also true, because the more meaning we are projecting into something, the more we set ourselves up to be disappointed. Allow it to have no meaning at all. You do it because you do it and that is the best possible reason. Continue doing it until even the question for meaning has disappeared. Anything you can do like that is yoga, is meditation, is zen, is magic, is nothing, is whatever you want it to be.