Under the unorthodox tutelage of legendary photographer Minor White, John Daido Loori makes an unexpected discovery: between photographer and subject, there is no separation.
Halfway into the workshop, Minor began to really push us on one of the exercises. We were already raw from much work and lack of sleep, and when Minor started to press a particularly fragile student, I lost my temper. As before, I ran away, but this time I began sitting zazen as soon as I got to my cabin. Sitting had been the one constant thread in my life since the first time I met Minor. It had become as natural to me as brushing my teeth, and when I went out to photograph, I often found myself sitting quietly in the woods, my camera next to me, unused.
After an hour or so of sitting, I returned to the workshop and found that the session had been successfully concluded and the room was quiet. Everyone was meditating. I apologized to Minor and took my place with the others.
A short time after the workshop, I wrote him a letter asking him if he would be willing to show some of his photographs from the “Sound of One Hand Clapping” exhibit in the gallery I had just opened. He not only agreed, but let me offer his photographs for sale at whatever price I wanted, and only asked for $25 each to pay for materials. I didn’t understand why he was being so generous to me, when I had shown him nothing but resistance.
I began to realize then that I needed a spiritual teacher, but I didn’t know where to turn. Minor had never presumed to be anything but a photographer. He used elements of the teachings of Gurdjieff, yoga, Zen, and mysticism in his workshops, but he never called himself a spiritual teacher. Still, I called him and asked if I could visit him. He was still teaching at MIT, so a couple of weeks later, I drove to Cambridge and met him at his house. We drank a bottle of wine and talked of many things. I didn’t ask for advice and he didn’t offer any, but when I left him I was feeling confident again. As I drove back to my hotel that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about our meeting. He really hadn’t said anything to me, yet something had shifted in me again. Why?
When I entered the hotel, I noticed in the lobby a poster advertising a conference called “The Visual Dharma.” One of the speakers was Trungpa Rinpoche, who was acquiring a reputation in the West as a powerful teacher of Buddhism. I decided to go to the conference, and through a series of events met my future teachers: Eido Shimano, Soen Nakagawa, and my transmission teacher, Taizan Maezumi. Gradually, Zen became the central aspect of my life.
The questions I had carried with me through all these years began to crystallize into an urgent need to understand the nature of my self. Something had happened that day in the woods during Minor’s workshop. What was it? And why did I feel so at ease in the presence of someone like Minor? I had to know. I kept searching, and that search led me to become ordained as a Zen monk and, finally, to turn myself over entirely to the religious life.
Reflecting back, it’s clear to me that the arts provided a beacon that guided me through the dark places of my spiritual journey. It would have been impossible for me to enter Zen training through the front door of a monastery. I’m still impressed when I see people who are able to do that. Just the sight of shaved heads and robes was enough to turn me off. But, as things would have it, I was able to enter through the back door and, ultimately, to be able to engage fully in spiritual practice.
The spiritual journey is long and sometimes lonely. But some of us are fortunate enough to encounter a person of the Way along the Way. I am indebted to Minor for first opening the door, and for accompanying me during part of my journey.
John Daido Loori Roshi is abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mt. Tremper, New York, where he integrates his background as a scientist, artist, and naturalist with his spiritual teachings. He is the author of several books, including Making Love with Light: Contemplating Nature with Words and Photographs. Daido Roshi died on October 9th, 2009. Read more about him here.
Image 1: Minor White, 1974. Reproduction courtesy of the Art Museum, Princeton University, the Minor White Archive and the artist. © 1974 John Weiss
Image 2: Vicinity of Danville, New York, 1955 by Minor White. From Sequence Ten/Rural Cathedrals, 1955
Image 3: Windowsill Daydreaming, 1958 by Minor White. From Sequence Fourteen, Sound of One Hand Clapping, 1960
Image 4: Movement Studies Number 56, 1949 by Minor White
All images except the portrait of Minor White are are reproduced courtesy of the Minor White Archive, Princeton University Art Museum. Copyright © by the Trustees of Princeton University. All Rights Reserved.