The Floating Buddha

Hans Georg Berger is a photographer and writer. He was born in 1951 in Trier, Germany, and he presently divides his time between Germany, Italy, and Laos. Since 1988, he has produced several long-term photographic projects involving world religions, including Theravada Buddhism in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, and Shiite Islam in Iran.

These projects embody what Berger describes as an aesthetic of “community involvement,” which is inspired in part by the teachings of Joseph Beuys. As he has stated, this aesthetic “explores borderlines, plays with contradictions, and incorporates into art the flow (or even the inexistence) of what we call ‘I.’” More specifically, it posits the artist as an outsider who strives to blend in with the community he desires to represent. Toward this end, the artist strives to bracket his artistic autonomy by inviting the community to teach him where to look, what to portray, and how to portray it.

Berger has applied his aesthetic of community involvement to an ongoing collaboration with the Luang Prabang Sangha that began in the mid-1990s and has extended to the present. Of this collaboration, he has observed: “Looking at the concept of the sacred, we started with work on ceremonies, rituals, and celebrations. Work on the revival of Vipassana meditation followed in the context of The Quiet in the Land, while there has been continuous attention to documentation of everyday life in the monasteries and Buddhist teaching.”

From 1994 to 1998, before he became involved with The Quiet in the Land, Berger collaborated with the Sangha to photograph the rituals and ceremonies of Luang Prabang, as well as the everyday life of the town’s monks and novices. This project culminated with the installation of a selection of the photographs in nine of the town’s sacred sites in 1998, the publication of the book Het Bun Dai Bun: Laos, Sacred Rituals of Luang Prabang (2000), and the publication of a book on Lao rituals and ceremonies for students that is now in its fifth edition.

In 2004, at the invitation of the Sangha and The Quiet in the Land, Berger embarked on a second long-term project in Luang Prabang. Its genesis was the formal reintroduction into Laos of the teaching of Vipassana meditation through a series of annual teaching retreats for monks and novices. Vipassana meditation is a meditation practice within the Theravada Buddhist tradition in which the practitioner seeks to develop insight into the Three Marks of Existence: dukkha (suffering), anicca (impermanence), and anatta (non-self). The practitioner develops this insight in part through a variety of meditation techniques, including lying still, sitting, standing, and walking. As new restrictions were imposed on the Sangha after the 1975 Revolution, this practice declined throughout Laos, although it survived on a limited scale in Luang Prabang until about 1992, when Phra Saisamuth Sotiko, a learned monk who kept the tradition alive, died. The progressive easing of governmental restrictions on monastic practice since the 1980s, however, put in place the conditions for a revival of Vipassana meditation.

A group of elder monks who believed that the practice of Vipassana meditation was essential to the spiritual development of younger monks and novices conceived the idea of organizing the retreats. The first two took place at Vat Phone Pao, a monastery in a forest on Luang Prabang’s outskirts—a location that provided the required space and quietness—in December 2004 and December 2005 (the twelfth lunar month, waxing and waning moon of the Lao Years 2547 and 2548). The first retreat was attended by 402 monks and novices from local monasteries; the second, by 553. In addition, a handful of nuns attended each. The teaching staff, led by Phra Acharn Sali Kantasilo and Phra Acharn Veth Masenai, included about 12 monks, most from Vientiane. A group of dedicated laypeople provided material assistance.

At the retreats, elder monks taught younger ones the fundamental concepts and practices of Vipassana meditation. The participants’ rigorous daily schedule was filled with meditation exercises, chanting, and listening to sermons. As Berger has observed, because most of the participants “had no previous meditation experience, basic concepts of meditation, movements, corporeal attitudes, and behaviors, as well as ritual chanting linked to meditation, had to be taught from scratch.”

Berger participated in these retreats as an artist-documentarian. He has written that his goal “was not only to document meticulously the particularity of Luang Prabang’s meditation tradition, but also to empower all participants and their spiritual practice through the photographic process.” Accordingly, he did not take snapshots of his subjects. Instead, he produced planned black-and-white photographs using an analog Hasselblad middle-format camera, which does not lend itself to the snapshot aesthetic. For the first time in his career, he also shot a select number of color photographs with a digital camera: Meditation Color 3, for example, portrays a monk’s or novice’s orange robe drying on a clothesline in the wind, an almost abstract field of saturated color. In all of the photographs, Berger gave the individuals portrayed “the last word in a subtle, carefully orchestrated process of choice, discussion, and shared decision on the value and importance of the images produced.” His reconsideration of the relation between artist and subject can be contextualized within interpretive frameworks across a range of disciplines, including collaborative ethnography, postmodernist critiques of authorship, and Buddhist teaching on the concepts of self and non-self.

Of Berger’s photographs, one sequence, showing a novice practicing a series of meditation postures, is particularly striking. Seen side-by-side, these photographs could be frames from a film: immanent in their stillness is movement. One photograph explicitly conveys this immanence by showing the standing novice moving his body to the ground, his knees bending in an excruciatingly painful pose, his face radiating utter calmness. For Berger, this image evokes the Buddha’s conception of the body as a seemingly static but, in truth, constantly changing entity, a perspective that begs us to consider how we can pretend to maintain the illusion of the self as a unique, persisting entity with a core identity.

This perspective, in turn, provides a lens through which to examine the radicality of Berger’s reconsideration of the relation between artist and subject through his aesthetic of community involvement, which productively destabilizes these two concepts in a process that is at once liberating and disturbing, to the extent that it asks us to confront the very type of illusion of which the Buddha spoke. We are reminded of the Hegelian concept of Becoming as a process of ceasing-to-be (Being changing into Nothing) and coming-to-be (Nothing changing into Being). “Their truth,” wrote Hegel in The Science of Logic, “is therefore this movement, this immediate disappearance of the one into the other, in a word, Becoming: a movement wherein both are distinct, but in virtue of a distinction which has equally immediately dissolved itself.” Berger’s photographs embody the dynamic of Becoming: artist dissolves into subject, subject into artist; self dissolves into other, other into self. As sacrosanct concepts of identity melt away through this process, the truth of the Buddhist epigraph to the book that Berger produced documenting the project is illuminated: “Nothing whatsoever should be clung to.”

In connection with Berger’s project, The Quiet in the Land organized an exhibition of the photographs titled The Floating Buddha. The exhibition opened at the Luang Prabang National Museum on October 2, 2006, where it is now on permanent display. In addition, in 2006, The Quiet in the Land, in collaboration with the National Library of Laos, published the Lao-English book First Steps of Vipassana Meditation: A Guide for the Young People of Laos. This book, printed as a scroll that readers may unfold, is a step-by-step guide to the major postures of Vipassana meditation. Phra Acharn Onekeo Sitthivong wrote the text, and Berger shot the photographs. Ten thousand copies were distributed as dhamma gifts to students throughout Laos. That same year Berger published the book The Floating Buddha, a comprehensive documentation of the project in images and words.

To contact the artist, please email hgbberlin@hotmail.com.