'From the visual to the visible and back again': re-formations of the subject in Japanese Zen practice
Rupert Cox (Manchester University)
Paper short abstract:
This paper concerns the use of visual and aural technologies by Zen communities in Japan as part of their attempts to create a structured yet sensuous environment as well as pictorial models for learning through the body.
Paper long abstract:
This paper will use a short documentary film made by the author, to reflect upon the limits and possibilities of a practice based visual anthropology for investigating questions of representation. The issue to be addressed concerns the use of visual and aural technologies by Zen communities in Japan as part of their attempts to create a structured yet sensuous environment as well as pictorial models for learning through the body. The modern and popular assertion that practice and appreciation of Zen in Japan should ideally culminate in a physical state that is beyond representation, the spiritually enlightened condition of 'nothingness', (mu-shin) raises epistemological and ontological questions about the role of the body in the use of these visual technologies and their relation to the rich pictorial traditions of Zen art. The paradox is that while in philosophical terms, emptiness is a condition that cannot properly be visibly or audibly represented, which is defined precisely by a total absence of formal or material properties and the negation of the self, nevertheless, image making practices and the creation of a space of and for the body are for participants a central aspect of the teaching and learning of Zen. I attempt to understand this image world through a related but distinct embodied practice, that is by actively participating in it and turning a sensuous engagement into representational forms that aim to show how visual media such as film and photography can be used in creative ways, as more than a subject of study or as a visible documentary record; to respond to and critically reflect upon the visual and aural conventions of a complex process of subject formation.