Forty years ago, in 1977, four Vietnamese boys became monks for a week under the guidance of a Malaysian brother living at the Vietnamese Buddhist temple in Koreatown in Los Angeles. When they walked barefoot along the local sidewalks to a Thai restaurant to receive donations of food, they passed buildings defaced with the hate-filled, territorial graffiti of rival gangs. The poignant scene was captured by Don Farber, a Los Angeles-based photographer and practicing Buddhist who has devoted four decades now to documenting Buddhist life throughout Asia and in the West as part of his spiritual practice. His background growing up in Los Angeles and coming of age in the late 1960s and 1970s and his personal devotion to Buddhist teachings has given him a unique angle from which to depict contemporary Buddhist life. He has become well known over the decades for his exquisite photographs of Tibetan, Thai and Japanese monks working and praying in mountain temples, on pilgrimages through snowy forests, begging for alms. However, it is arguably in his portraits of Buddhists expressing their devotion in modern urban settings like Los Angeles and in his portrayals of Buddhist teachers striving to preserve their traditions, often among refugee communities, where his photojournalistic skills shine most vividly and where his lens is most compassionate.
Farber was born and raised in Los Angeles and took his first photography lessons at age 16. He soon developed a passion for the art form, avidly collecting photography books and visiting photography exhibitions at museums. He was most profoundly influenced by an exhibition he saw at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art featuring portrait photographer Dorothea Lange, whose work expressed immense empathy for her subjects. In 1969, he traveled to Manchester College of Art and Design in England to study the fundamentals of photography and soon returned to California to photograph mothers and children for an antiwar group that opposed the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Even at a young age, his photography was deeply infused with a message of compassion and peace and a desire to spread this message.
In the 1970s many Vietnamese refugees arrived in California. Although the majority settled in Orange County, a substantial community grew in Los Angeles. Farber, who was becoming interested in Buddhism at this time, was soon attracted to this community and their spiritual practices. In 1977, he joined the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, where he became a disciple of the late Zen master and scholar Dr. Thich Thien-An. In 1970, Dr. Thien-An had established the International Buddhist Meditation Center, one of the first centers in the US to teach meditational, or Zen, Buddhism, specifically to Westerners. He later founded the first Vietnamese temple in the United States, Chua Vietnam (Vietnamese Buddhist Temple) a block away to take in refugees from the Vietnam War. Farber was not only drawn to his teachings but also to the sense of peace and healing that the temple provided for the Vietnamese refugees. Soon, he decided to make a book about life in the temple. The project took him ten years and Dr. Thien-An’s untimely death in 1980 during that time made it even more important to him.
One of the most moving moments Farber documented was of a ceremony that Dr. Thien-An led on a boat in Los Angeles Harbor in 1979 to ease the spirits of the refugees, or “boat people,” who had died at sea. The black and white image depicts Dr. Thien-An in the background leading a group of followers in prayer next to an American flag. In the foreground, several Vietnamese men and women are caught gazing thoughtfully in various directions, clearly remembering their own experiences of a few years earlier when they fled their homeland. Farber’s attention to their expressions here shows a tremendous compassion for these new residents of Los Angeles. “Being on the boat in L.A. Harbor,” recalls Farber, “with everyone praying for the ‘boat people’ who died at sea made me feel deeply for their suffering and a sense that these prayers were helping them.”
In the late 1970s, Farber was also becoming exposed to Tibetan Buddhism and attended seminars and retreats led by some of the most eminent figures of the Tibetan Buddhist community. Forced to flee Communist China in the late 1950s, the community has had its center in Dharamsala in northern India, but many leaders and teachers have traveled the world garnering support for the Tibetan people and their culture. In 1979, on his first trip to the United States, His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited the Los Angeles Vietnamese Buddhist Temple. Farber, who was already interested in Tibetan Buddhism, first encountered His Holiness on this visit and took his first of many photographs of the Buddhist leader that day. It was also the first of many photographs that Farber went on to take of the refugee Tibetan Buddhist community, both in the United States and in Dharamsala.
Soon Farber began studying with one of the Dalai Lama’s close disciples, the Venerable Geshe Gyeltsen at the Tibetan Buddhist center he had recently established in Los Angeles. The center received many visiting rinpoches (“precious jewels”) — teachers who had been the last to receive their Buddhist training in Tibet before the Chinese occupation. Farber decided to begin a series of portraits of these teachers, as a way of visually preserving aspects of Tibetan culture that seem destined to disappear. “I think of the similarities between the situation of Tibetans today under Chinese rule and that of the Native Americans a century ago or more, when their way of life was decimated by European settlers,” he explains, drawing parallels between his portraits and those of Edward S. Curtis, Adam Clark Vroman and others, who photographed Native Americans in the late 19th century in the hope of helping to preserve their culture and memory.
His 1990 portrait of His Eminence Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche (1930-2002) exemplifies Farber’s respectful approach to photo-documenting these great Tibetan Buddhist teachers. Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche was the sixteenth tulku, or reincarnated master, of the Chagdud line of the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Though exiled from his own culture, he strived to preserve it elsewhere, establishing the Chagdud Gonpa Foundation and 38 centers in Europe, the United States and South America and inspiring thousands of followers. For this portrait, Farber positioned him simply against a black background and masterfully captured the kindness and intelligence of this great spiritual leader. As an American photographer whose own life has been profoundly influenced by Buddhist teachings, Farber has a unique ability to convey wisdom and compassion — the two core qualities stressed in Buddhist practice — in a single image. Farber explains his skill as a consequence of his practice. “I think if we meditate, contemplate the Buddha's teachings, pray for all sentient beings to be free of suffering, and make this a part of our daily lives, when we do photography or work in any art medium, there is the potential for the art we create to emanate wisdom and compassion. Buddhist artists have worked this way for more than 2,000 years.”
Click right or left to see more of Don Farber's photos below.
Similarly, in his 1989 portrait of His Holiness pausing during a lecture at the Vajrapani Institute in Santa Cruz, Farber depicts the Tibetan spiritual leader in a moment of thoughtfulness as he gazes out at his audience — a mixture of Tibetan and American followers. His sensitive approach to portraying Tibetan Buddhist practice and life has earned him a unique position as a Western photographer. Over nearly 40 years, Farber has documented many of the Dalai Lama’s activities around the world and at home in Dharamsala, India, where he was even granted rare permission to photograph His Holiness during meditation practice. “It was dawn and very dark in the room, so I bounced flash off the ceiling,” Farber recalls. “I was probably photographing him in meditation for about twenty minutes. I thought how incredibly precious this moment was. It was one of the peak experiences of my life.” The result was an iconic image of the spiritual leader in a moment of deep contemplation, one that has undoubtedly served to inspire many of the Dalai Lama’s followers worldwide.
Farber has recently been applying the same sensitivity and compassion to a documentary film about Buddhism in Southern California. In his film, Roshi, Farber chronicles the last years of Japanese Zen Master Joshu Sasaki Roshi, who pioneered Japanese Rinzai Zen Buddhism in the US in 1962. Sasaki Roshi founded the Mount Baldy Zen Center near Los Angeles and attracted many followers, most famously the late Leonard Cohen, and lived a long life, dying in 2014 at the age of 107. Like his photographs, Farber hopes that this film will also serve to document contemporary Buddhist life, in particular that of a Buddhist teacher who contributed to the spread of Buddhism in the West.
Living in Southern California positioned Farber from an early age to focus his spiritual practice and his camera’s lens on Buddhism and the people who practice this religion. “Southern California is the main gateway for Asian immigrants to settle in America and more Buddhist traditions are represented here than anywhere else in the world,” Farber explains. “Through the friendships I've made with Buddhists here, I've connected with Buddhists in Asia.” Over the years, living and praying with Buddhists from different communities, he has been most deeply inspired by their emphasis on compassion towards others, particularly in light of the suffering and hardships many of these people have themselves endured in their lands. In his four decades as a practicing Buddhist and as a photographer documenting Buddhist life, Farber has used his camera as his tool on a personal quest to capture visions of Buddhist life and share them with others as a way to spread the message of compassion and peace in the world.
Find Don Farber's photography on this link.
Top Image: Vietnamese monks-in-training walk the streets of Koreatown | Don Farber