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  LEFT: The Very Ven. Kalu Rinpoche in  

  Pasadena, California, in 1988, a few  

  months before he passed away at the age

  of 84; photos by Don Farber.

  Book Review

 An Affectionate Album

  By Catherine Pawasarat

  Visions of Buddhist Life By Don Farber, foreward by

  Huston Smith, University of California Press,

  Berkeley, 2002, 246 pps.


This collection of beautiful and inspired images of great Buddhist masters and practitioners from around the world is truly a work of love from photographer Don Farber. Persons with exposure to Buddhism will greatly enjoy photos of the traditions they are familiar with, and being introduced to other traditions through Farber’s photographs and heartfelt descriptions and observations. Persons interested in the world’s spiritual traditions in general or Buddhism in particular could find no more delightful exploration of Buddhism’s many faces.

It is wonderful to see so many of the great teachers of the last 35 years captured on film so beautifully, and Farber’s written introductions are brief but informative. Through Farber’s photos and captions we can learn about Buddhism’s recent historical developments in individual countries – such as how Buddhism endured the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia, or how much of Chinese Buddhism survived the Cultural Revolution by relocating to Hong Kong and Taiwan. Readers also learn about or how precious individuals have worked for harmony between different Buddhist sects worldwide. As a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner married to a Tibetan, Farber offers us exceptionally good coverage of Tibetan Buddhist masters and devotees. It is to his credit that he includes photos of Buddhism in one of its newer manifestations, in the U.S., and that he concedes there are still more Buddhist traditions that his lens has yet to capture. I look forward to his coverage of traditions in more countries, in both historically Buddhist communities and their new frontiers.

Farber’s tales of his own travels are interesting, and the reader feels that both a fun adventure and a devoted spiritual journey are being shared. The text is respectful and sincere, and the author’s years of practice are apparent in both his words and imagery.  

It’s worth noting that the book can be enjoyed as a purely visual work as well. The visually inclined will love Farber’s images. He has done an excellent job of including a wide variety of compositions and techniques; for photographers or visual artists, his versatility will impress. Technically, he shows himself to be a master of both portraiture and the impromptu photo, and the lighting he has captured in some of his portraits is breathtaking. Some of the photos make the viewer feel as though she were sitting next to the subject, and could touch them on the arm to ask a question. Emotionally and spiritually, his photos convey profound respect, humor, gratitude and empathy.

ABOVE: The young incarnate Kalu Rinpoche in San Dimas, California, in 1995.

In my copy of the book, some of the photos (fortunately, not many) have a dusty white effect – it appears that some dust particles may have been on some of the printing equipment during the publication process. It’s unfortunate that such an error snuck into a project that was obviously put together in a very painstaking fashion. Hopefully this will be avoided in future printings.

It is hard to criticize such a lovely piece of work as Visions of Buddhist Life, but I would be remiss if I didn’t note the absence of reference to the toil and suffering that all spiritual aspirants face in their training. The suffering of Tibetan Buddhists at the hands of Chinese, or (as previously mentioned) the Cambodians at the hands of the Khmer Rouge is well -- and all too justly -- covered. But even those of us who have not been overtly persecuted manage somehow to suffer considerably. Herein lays the inspiration to practice, and the seeds for future wisdom and compassion.

Farber is absolutely right in praising the great compassion and wisdom of his subjects. But if readers learn a bit about the rough (and often mundane) personal road traveled to get there, then a spiritual practitioner is less likely to place these masters on pedestals. Instead, masters become role models that we can very realistically emulate in the here and now. After all, the goal of the bodhisattva is to assist in the awakening of all beings, and Tibetan Buddhist teachings assert that awakening is possible within this lifetime.  

I feel grateful to Farber for this exquisite fruit of many years of transcendental and photographic work. It will give me and spiritual and artistic inspiration for years to come.


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