Buddhism's Sacred Places: Photos By Kenro Izu
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A picture may say a thousand words, but taken by Kenro Izu it is more like a thousand silent breaths. In Izu's photography, ethereal moments, sacred places and holy people are frozen in motion. His medium -- platinum prints -- has a timeless, contemplative quality. And in fact, meditation is a part of how he gets the shot. Asked how he decides it's time to snap the photo, he responded, "I try to face a monument, blank my thinking, and see if it vibrates to my heart."
Izu has traveled the world with his custom camera, but we've compiled just 10 photos that brilliantly capture the geography -- inner and outer -- of Buddhism. The photographer has included insights into how he established each frame.
Mt. Kailash in Tibet
Mt. Kailash is a holy site for four different major religions: Tibetan Buddhism, Jainism, Bon and Hinduism. A steady stream of pilgrims from India, Tibet, Nepal and other countries come to pay homage to the mountain, following a route that takes them to altitudes in excess of 5,000 meters. <br> We camped out for two days at a spot where the north face of Mt. Kailash can be seen beyond numerous piles of "Mani stones" that have been placed there by the pilgrims.<br> The snow that fell the night before had covered the "Mani stones" as well as Mt. Kailash. As the first rays of the sun touched the 6,656-meter peak, the fresh snow was blown in a gust of wind, and wrapping the sacred mountain in a white veil. It was an encounter with the "atmosphere" of the place, an atmosphere quite appropriate for such a holy place. <br> After the first exposure, I changed lenses and made another. A few minutes later, the sunlight had reached the lower mountains and the "atmosphere" of disappeared.
Jumolhari in Bhutan
Jumolhari is revered as the most sacred mountain in Bhutan. I've wanted to see it ever since I visited the holy site of Mt. Kailash in western Tibet.<br> The trek to Jumolhari takes about 10 days along a trail that starts near Palo, where I'd arrived, and ascends to an altitude of 3,000-4,000 meters (12,000 feet). There are five of us -- the guide, a cook and his helper, a porter and the mule driver in a caravan of eight pack mules laden with equipment. I've had some experience trekking in Mustang in Nepal and Tibet, but I find the steep ups and downs of the trails in Bhutan quite a challenge. Once we reach the top of a breathtaking climb, the path descends perilously -- only to rise again in another chilling ascent. We've gone only 20 kilometers but it feels like 50. At times I completely lose heart. Below, a torrent of sparkling water gushes through the valley. One of the great rewards of trekking is splashing a face drenched with sweat in the pure water of a mountain stream.<br> I've pursued this travel for many years, thinking that if there can be such a thing as even a single drop of life's essence, I want to find it, to see it, to feel it. And now it occurs to me that it might be here in my palm of sparkling water flowing down from glacier lakes in mountains far away.<br> After three days we reached the camp at the base of Jumolhari. Unlike the sharp angular contour of Mt. Kailash, the gently sloping form of Jumolhari spreads out beyond a ruin of fortress. I had the impression of a serene feminine spirit reaching out in an open embrace in contrast to the masculine thrust of the peak of Mount Kailash.<br> Early the next morning the clouds were moving from the north. It felt like everything was in motion as the clouds came flowing one after another. Glistening in the full light of morning, Jumolhari stood tranquil as though it was the center of the universe. I gave a long exposure and took two photographs of it in light and cloud. I felt I captured the sacred mountain's form in a radiant halo of light.
A Forest of Prayer Flags in Bhutan
The mountain pass of Dochu La at the highest point on the road that runs from Palo to Tienphu is always blanketed in fog. When I passed this way last year en route to Bhumtang, I stopped to rest here from time to time. <br> The first time I saw the masses of blossoming rhododendron emerging like apparitions from the mist I took photographs of that dream world. This time I've waited since dawn to photograph the small stupa that stands at the crossing of the pass. White flags holding all sorts of prayers and people's hopes stand like a forest along the road. Just when I think the mist is billowing away, they are swept away again in its tide.
Karchu Monastery in Bhutan
Karchu monastery is a fairly new monastery in Paro. Karchu is not only a place to practice Buddhism, but also serves as a school to child monks.<br> Among dozens of young monks, I saw a boy, who stood out from the others. I was informed by a Lama that he was a reincarnated Rimpoche. He stood in front of my camera, with a certain authority, unlike an ordinary child. He is destined to lead a monastery, or even a sect of the religion in this country some day, when he masters all the studies among other young monks.
Bayon Temple in Cambodia
I positioned the camera at the eastern gate of the temple of Bayon and waited for sunrise. As the sun rises over the jungle behind me, cirrocumulus clouds begin to spread across the western sky. In the moment that the Bayon temple is covered by a mysteriously pure light through the trees, the clouds cover the entire sky, creating an ethereal scene that filled me with profound inspiration. I made my first exposure in a state of ecstasy, but by the time I loaded the second plate, the vision has vanished to become just another landscape.
Mt. Meru in Indonesia
The fog shrouding the jungle fades in the first ray of the morning sun to reveal the graceful form of a distant mountain in the direction of Buddha's gaze. It is as if the legendary Mt. Meru, said to be standing in the center of Buddhism's universe, has appeared on the Earth.
Sarunath in India
It is said that Sarunath (the Deer Park) was the first place that Shakyamuni preached Buddhism after he achieved enlightenment. As the sun sets beyond the great stupa, which has watched people for more than a thousand years, this sacred place reclaims the silence it knew a 2,500 years ago. As I felt a gentle breeze, clouds drifted across the deep navy sky.
Pak Wo Cave in Laos
The journey from the ancient capital of Luang Prabang to the Pak Wo cave was supposed to take two hours by boat up the Mekong river. But before we had gone very far, the engine quit and we found ourselves drifting slowly down the Mekon. The boatman jumped into the river and dragged the boat to shore. Sock, my young Laotian guide, runs to a nearby village and charters a speedboat which resembles a race boat with very low profile, just larger.<br> It is fast -- terrifyingly fast. During the dry season the Mekong river is dotted with numerous boulders and there are others hidden close to the surface. The boat flies down the river, its hull slapping the surface of the water as we swerve to avoid the rocks. Although I shout desperately to the driver, "No Rush! No Rush!" he does not take any notice. Though I was confident with swimming, my custom-made camera is the only one in a world.<br> We arrive at the cave in 45 minutes, after a journey that normally takes two hours. For the next three days we use this boat to commute to and from Pak Wo. The cave has been considered sacred for 2,500 years, an indigenous spirit having been worshiped there long before Buddhism was introduced to the area. It is said that at one time it contained over 8,000 figures of Buddha, ranging from those that would fit in the palm of the hand to those that were larger than life, but approximately half the figures were stolen or destroyed during the Vietnam War...
In Laos' Sacred Pak Wo Cave
To photograph deep inside the cave, I have to wait for the mid-day sun to be reflected into depths through the front entrance. No wonder my guide, Sok, appeared so relaxed that morning when our boat began to drift away, while I was nervous of missing the morning light.<br> I position the camera to capture the numerous figures of Buddha in a three-section panorama. I started to expose one section at a time. Every hour a fresh boatload of pilgrims arrives to worship and when they enter during one of my 30-minute exposures, I have to close the shutter and wait for them to leave. By the time I get to the last section of the deepest and the darkest, the sun has lost its intensity and I end up exposing the film for two hours. The total exposure time for this panorama was approximately four hours.
Thailand 36, 1998 Platinum-Palladium print