Miksang, meaning ‘Good Eye’ in Tibetan, is a form of contemplative photography based on the dharma art teachings of Chögyam Trungpa, who established Shambhala Buddhism in the West.
Miksang training develops the ability to see the world as it is, in the absence of the concepts usually superimposed by the mind, and in the absence of judgement or personal preference. Instead of seeing objects we see perceptions. We don’t label them, there is no ‘beautiful’ or ‘ugly’, ‘I like’ or ‘I don’t like’, ‘this is perfect’ or ‘this is imperfect’. We stay with the moment of pure seeing, before the mind knows what anything is or comes to any conclusions about it. That direct, clear and authentic perception of the ordinary world around us is then captured in a photograph which expresses the clarity and freshness of the original perception as closely as possible.
We start from a feeling of relaxed awareness, not giving attention to anything in particular, but maintaining a gentle connection with visual experiencing as we wander around in our home, garden, out in the street or in the countryside. As we do this, we find a flash of perception arises – something stops us. We stand still and contemplate the flash of perception. There will be many other things in the visual field, but we need to see what is really part of the flash and what is not part of it. Then we determine the best way to capture this perception with our camera – how to take a photograph that represents as accurately as possible what we actually saw, what stopped us. Then we take the photograph. These three stages are the essence of the Miksang method:
- The flash of perception
- Visual discernment – what is part of the flash and what is not
- Forming the equivalent – choosing the settings on the camera to accurately represent the flash, and taking the photograph.
Application of the Miksang method by those who are skilled in it can produce images of startling beauty, simplicity and clarity. They communicate to the viewer the inherent beauty of our surroundings, whatever the weather and wherever we may be – in a built environment just as much as in nature. They illustrate and communicate the Sufi saying ‘wherever the eye falls is the face of God’.
Miksang Training Levels
The Miksang training programme established by Michael Wood comprises five levels, with a variety of assignments at each level. The descriptions below are very simplified, and are just to give an initial idea of what is involved.
Level 1 – Seeing from the Heart is about learning to connect with our visual perception in the absence of conceptualisation. We see and photograph different aspects of form: colour, pattern, texture, and light.
Level 2 – Fields of Perception is about is-ness, capturing the essence of something, its ‘never-changing’ quality. Assignments are carried out to capture the is-ness of, for example: sidewalks, sand, streets, trees and people. Not just sidewalks in general, but this particular sidewalk, this particular area of sand etc.
Level 3 – Moments and Visual Haiku is about impermanence. The earlier levels have subjects where the same perception could happen again the next day. In contrast, ‘moments’ are changing; once experienced they are never repeated in the same way. Examples include shadows, and things, people, animals that are moving. The Japanese art of Haiku is used to awaken and develop a sense of joy and wonder as we see things emerge from is-ness into action and then subside in stillness.
Level 4 – Space and Deep Looking. Instead of seeing forms we learn to see the space that is between things and the space around things. Space defines forms, and space itself is seen as form. We learn to capture the feeling of space and moments in space.
Miksang Intensive was a five-day course we did in southern Spain after Miksang Level 4. The theme was ‘Heaven, Earth, Man and Magic’ which expresses a general concept from the dharma arts. In Miksang, ‘Heaven’ is the basic space or backdrop; ‘Earth’ is the second element/principle, also spacious but not as large as ‘Heaven’; ‘Man’ is a phenomenal element, something small and temporary – a moment in the space of Heaven and Earth. ‘Magic’, according to Chögyam Trungpa, arises naturally from true perception – seeing beauty in the mundane. The course included elements from Miksang levels 2, 3, 4 and 5. The assignments in Bolonia were based on the ‘three layers’ of Heaven, Earth and Man. For the days in Tarifa and Tangier we were given a free choice among all the Miksang levels.
Miksang Masterclass was a 3½ day course we did in the Netherlands after the Miksang Intensive. The theme was ‘The Essential Instructions on Looking, Seeing, Being & Photographing’. We explored in-depth the three Miksang stages: the flash of perception; the visual discernment; forming the equivalent.
Level 5 – Infinite Unfolding is about relaxing previous restrictions and embracing layers of visual complexity.
There are some excellent Miksang books. The following three come from the Miksang Institute for Contemplative Photography, miksang.com, which was set up by Michael Wood. They are the recommended textbooks for the training programme which we are following:
The Practice of Contemplative Photography by Andy Karr and Michael Wood. ISBN 978-1-59030779-3
Opening the Good Eye by Michael Wood. ISBN 978-0-9859774-4-3
Effortless Beauty by Julie DuBose. ISBN 978-0-9859774-0-5
John McQuade, who worked with Michael Wood on the original development of the Miksang training programme has published two books, and a third volume is expected at some stage. The basic training programme he teaches under the auspices of the Nalanda Miksang Society, miksang.org, is very similar to that taught by Michael Wood, but there are some differences.
Looking and Seeing: Way of Seeing Volume I by John McQuade and Miriam Hall. ISBN 978-0692383520
Heart of Photography: Way of Seeing Volume II by John McQuade and Miriam Hall. ISBN 978-1-63393-497-9