Liberation Through Photography
Post Reply
Site Admin
Posts: 1344
Joined: Fri May 22, 2009 7:01 pm


Post by admin »

December 17, 2016
By Michael Erlewine (

Most of us have heard of the Bardo Thodol, “Liberation though Hearing,” commonly called the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Fewer have heard of “Thongdrol,” “Liberation through Seeing.” Thongdrol is most commonly used as a term for the display of immense thangkas (Tibetan sacred paintings), where the cloth paintings are so large that unrolled they cover a hillside. They are said to alter the mind upon seeing, so here is my story and take on that.

I’ve been beating around the bush with myself about this for years. I have kind of said it in blogs, but just as often I dodge and weave about it too. And perhaps I embroider around the edges of saying it, but have not even been totally aware myself as to its importance in my life. But I just found the Tibetan word for it and it all came home to roost.

Even this is a tiny story. This morning I wrote my last blog on transmigration and the Storehouse-Consciousness, putting it in very direct language and pointing out how relatively little I know about it. In fact the last line in this blog (which I will publish tomorrow) is this:

“I have read all I can read and am practicing as best as I know how. It’s time to put the books aside, take hold of the steering wheel, and let the rubber find the road.”

Then, within a few minutes, thanks to a link from a dharma friend, I found this incredible short video of H.H. the 17th Karma (and others) talking liberation through art and seeing. Here is the link, which is a five minute watch, so do yourself a favor and experience what I did.

After seeing His Holiness the Karmapa pointing this out, it flashed in my mind and many things just came together. No sooner than I signed on the one focus, than this one opened up. Imagine that! So, here is where I am at this very minute:

The word is “Thongdrol” and it means “liberation through seeing” – simple as that. Hopefully all of us have had a few spiritual turning points in our lives, some of them (to me at least) were kind of major. Of course, there were some acid induced (and not induced) epiphanies a good 50 years ago, and they started the ball rolling.

But the one that means the most to me, that changed me utterly the most, is less than ten-years old and it was pure dharma. Of course, that’s not really fair, because the dharma practice that went before stretches back a good forty years, anyway. Still, the turning point, which is the point of no return for me, was relatively recent. And it did not happen sitting on the meditation cushion as I had always imagined. Quite the contrary, I was outside in the woods and meadows crawling around on my belly in the wet grass of spring and summer, just about dawn.

I have written about his period of change many times, so I won’t rehearse it here because, for most of my readers, it is no longer news. So what is new and why am I writing about this again?

As mentioned, it was coming across that Tibetan word “Thongdrol,” “liberation through seeing,” and instantly realizing that is exactly what happened to me and I have been trying to hide it from myself, because I didn’t know how to accept it, how to name it, much less explain it to others. Now I do.

“Liberation through seeing” is just what happened to me. Of course, I am not saying I am liberated, but rather that this event was liberating and it happened solely through seeing the beauty of what is. And of course it is hard to put into words because it is a realization and realizations, by definition, are beyond words – ineffable.

And what is noteworthy about it, and why I relate it to you, is that after about 32 years of fairly intense dharma practice, with little results (and a few complaints), this particular event resulted not on the cushion or even in the shrine room. And here is the point. It happened in the midst of what since I was a small kid I most loved, which is Mother Nature and all its critters. To make a long story short, I was raised in Lancaster, Pennsylvania outside of town in a house my family built that was wedged between two large farms. There was no other house around, at least in distance as measured by a little kid.

Since I was the oldest child of five boys, to some degree I was always on my own. I can’t say I was lonely, but I had to entertain myself. I had no one to look up to, at least around home, other than, of course, my parents. The only thing that was readily abundant was nature, and since Lancaster is nicknamed “The Garden Spot of the World,” I had natural history all around. So I did that.

My mother was a fine arts painter when she was not taking care of her kids, and she would meet with local artists as she could. When I was about six years old she took me to a meeting out on a farm, owned by a woman name Phoebe Dodge. Mrs. Dodge was a dyed-in-the-wool naturalist and she took an interest in me, and served as a catalyst (or booster rocket) for my inherent love of critters and nature. And so it went.

Now, fast forward to this particular breakthrough some years ago, which was a very difficult time for me because I had just been laid off (along with, I believe, a great many other folks) from my job as a senior consultant for NBC. Suddenly I was out of a job, which at my considerable age was no small thing. So, I drowned my sorrows not in drink, but by re-entering in true sincerity the world of nature that I knew as a child. I dove into that and did not want to think, but just immersed myself in the outdoors, initially armed with a camera, to give me an excuse to be out there doing something.

For some six months straight, if it was not raining or whatever, I was out in the meadows watching the sun come up. I was crawling through the wet grass on my hands and knees taking close-up and macro photos of small critters. Somehow, at that time, these tiny natural worlds that I could see by looking through macro lenses (in their perfection) were deeply soothing to me compared to the actual more-troubled world that, for the moment, I would just as soon forget. What I saw through the lens was awesome and I threw my everything into it, if only because I didn’t care about much else just then. I was singularly focused.

And here is the point of this story. Apparently, re-finding my natural love of nature, coupled with the intensity of my innate ability to concentrate through these pristine camera lenses, and in lieu of what was going on in my vocational life, was a kind of natural mixing of the mind and just what the dharma-doctor ordered.

Maybe something snapped, but nothing was broken, and certainly there resulted a breakthrough that took me some time to fully realize. All of my many years (decades) of fairly-diligent dharma practice responded to the love of nature, the purity of my intention, and the intensity of my focus, like freeze-dried food does to water, because something just blossomed, just as a flower opens.

In a rather short time (those six months outside), I realized (for me) the essence of Vipassana (insight meditation), and immediately all of the Shamata (tranquility meditation) I had done for over 30+ years also fell into place. It just lined up. I found a clarity and luminance that I could not even have imagined properly, and it never went away. I have it, pristine, to this day. This is what is called a realization. They don’t go away. However, there was one caveat, at least at the beginning. I could only have this clarity if I was looking through the camera lens at these miniature natural worlds – tiny dioramas.

Instead of sitting on my well-worn mediation cushion, which was at home and un-sat on during this period, the camera and lens replaced the cushion as the means through which to meditate. Is it any wonder that every next day found me heading out around dawn, armed with my camera, and spending hours concentrated and looking through a lens? If I did not do that, my mind remained just as ordinary as it always had been. I was addicted to the clarity and luminance I have found.

So, there are two thought going here. One, my advice if you are struggling with meditation, is to learn to meditate using something you love and can relax completely in. For me, it was nature. And the second thought, which is kind of just for me, is that I should stop pussy-footing around about conflating dharma with photography and just accept and declare that, for me, liberation (such as it is) has come primarily through seeing and not through more traditional means. There, I’ve said it.

And this makes me want to concentrate more on helping others like me, who may be more inclined to liberate themselves dharmically through seeing in one way or another – nature, painting, music, etc. I have been kind of hiding this realization from myself (and certainly from others), but it is like trying to put the toothpaste back in the tube. It doesn’t work.

With that said, I plan to very much organize around this particular approach to dharma, because I actually can stand behind it and declare it. I have the experience and realization to back this up. This is so much better than my trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, as I have been attempting to do. I don’t know if there is a particular lineage for liberation through seeing, but if there is, I am a member of it. So we are up-to-the minute in contact.

Main Browsing Site:

Organized Article Archive:
Post Reply

Return to “Liberation Through Seeing”

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest