Imaginary Life

Questions to Tenzin Shenyen; a monk called ‘friend.’

In ten days time, our friend Tenzin Shenyen will embark on a 3-year Tibetan Buddhist retreat in Germany that “begins a cycle of practices to stabilise, concentrate and open the mind through more meditative practices that… include practices aimed at transcending one’s deeply ingrained delusional tendency to see oneself and the world as ordinary.”

Q: It’s been 3 years since you gave a talk at Service Design Conference in Stockholm. It was wonderful to see the whole conference meditating with you. It palpably changed the energy in the room. I especially appreciated your advice for design professionals to ‘Just Say No!’ more often. I think that advice is more important than ever. Can you expand on that a bit?

A: As I said in one of my posts about the approaching retreat, I think human beings are machines for producing works of art, and that the best works of art are nameless and invisible. Saying “no” to what is visible and which already has a name is one way into that space. I also re-read Castaneda’s Journey To Ixtlan recently and was touched by how deeply I still resonated with it. There’s a lot of ‘no’ saying in it, from ‘erasing personal history’ to ‘losing self-importance’, to ‘becoming inaccessible’ and ‘disrupting the routines of life’. The genuinely ‘new’ comes out of nowhere – and I mean absolutely nowhere, a brutally total nowhere- but we are too eager to be ‘somewhere’, no matter how shabby and derivative that ‘somewhere’ might be.

I hope at least one designer out there reads this and decides to say ‘no’ to the whole works — until reappearing twelve years later with something with no name and no identity that the whole world needs.

"Saying goodbye to house sits and temporary rooms, to the forest and one litre bottle-showers at twilight, to the over-exposure of homelessness. Saying hello to deep seclusion and practice. The worlds we inhabit are neither visible nor invisible, but secretive, coded, nuanced and blessed. Saying goodbye also to Facebook, and hoping something more nuanced, respectful and soulful has taken its place by the time I come out again. I'll meet you there, I'm sure."

“Saying goodbye to house sits and temporary rooms, to the forest and one-litre bottle-showers at twilight, to the over-exposure of homelessness. Saying hello to deep seclusion and practice. The worlds we inhabit are neither visible nor invisible, but secretive, coded, nuanced and blessed. Saying goodbye also to Facebook, and hoping something more nuanced, respectful and soulful has taken its place by the time I come out again. I’ll meet you there, I’m sure.”

Q: What impact does your Buddhist practice have on your daily life today? How does Buddhism work as a practical guideline for daily decision making? How can this shape a layman’s decision-making to live an ethical life as an ‘ordinary’ person?

A: My daily life is perfumed by Buddhism. It allows me to see everything I do as a kind of prayer. For example, right now I’m watching the world cup. It’s football and I love it, it needs no justification. My unconscious is working tremendously hard preparing for the retreat, so Shenyen is balancing that by just relaxing. I don’t need to justify it. Justifications are for people who are organising pogroms, or asset-stripping entire national infrastructures, etc. not for people who are … content just being nobody, nowhere, just talking with The Invisibles, just owning one pair of shoes … or just watching Argentina’s slalom into the knockout stage while reading Jorge Valdano reflecting on the military dictatorship of the 1970’s, along with his plea to stop treating football as a science; it all turns it all into a kind of dream yoga. And dream yoga is part of the path to Buddhahood. You cannot live an ethical life without nurturing your imagination.

Elaine Scarry’s talk, Beauty as a call to justice, will explain that in detail. I re-posted it on my youtube channel. Ultimately no-one can tell you how to live, they can only seduce you into living in a specific way. Ethics thus emerges from Eros, from loving relationships — with yourself, people around you, your own karmic history, and the culture around you and the times you have been born into.

Q: You spoke once about the importance of combining Buddhist practice with your own ‘culture’ or your natural place in contemporary society as a western monk. Will you still have space for that kind of ‘personal cultural research/ observation’ on your 3-year retreat? Can you watch football when you are there?! Can you read Artforum? Can you write your blog, radioshenyen?

A: Football? Probably not! But in between the meditation blocks, that will usually last about 6-8 weeks per topic, we are encouraged to relax, maybe even listen to a little music. And I will have my Artforum scrapbooks with me. Enough for one exhibition a week I think! But I don’t see too much separation between the centuries-old tantric stuff and my personal interests. Doing the retreat in all its traditional structure is also a part of my ‘personal cultural research’.

"Study, a mixture of chaos and silence, concentration and fragment."

“Study, a mixture of chaos and silence, concentration and fragment.”

Q: How much meditation do you recommend to a layperson or beginner? Is frequency important for practice? Are there other types of activities such as physical work (making things, cleaning, gardening, etc.) that are also seen as part of Buddhist practice? In Asia, meditation isn’t seen as something that ‘ordinary people’ do. Lay people often ask the monks to meditate and pray on their behalf.

A: Meditation is extremely over-emphasised in contemporary Western presentations of Buddhism. Ethics, study, art, service, offering, confession, purification, prayer, chanting, and vows, among other things, are all sidelined, or dismissed as ‘obvious’, ‘old-fashioned’, ‘embarrassing’ or ‘peripheral’. But Buddhism only really comes alive when you take on board it’s entire culture, it’s ‘world’ while being willing to do the work of engaging that world with your own. Thus, my love of contemporary art is inseparable from my study of Madhyamaka and tantric meditations. My best moments of mindfulness occur when on alms round. You can’t just meditate in a vacuum, in a fog of mundane activity and thinking.

But nevertheless, it is part of the path.

I would recommend a very short commitment — 10 minutes a day is fine — to being quiet, still, disciplined and visionary on one’s cushion. But instead of wanting to meditate I would suggest that people simply pray to be able to meditate, and then relax. Thinking about what other people need — the immediate needs of the people around you right now, at home or on the train platform — is so much more powerful than some half-hearted meditation practice.

Genuine meditation comes out of uncontrived faith. Faith arises out of joy and ethics. Ethics from art and empathetic disciplined imagination.

Q: We need to manage negative attachments to the idea of future, such as fear or sadness or anxiety, as these feelings arise, to avoid shutting down altogether. Is hope also an attachment?

A: Attachment is one of those words that are easy to misconstrue. In Buddhism, liking something isn’t an expression of attachment; wanting something good to continue, or to happen if it hasn’t yet happened, isn’t attachment. Attachment is defined as a state where ‘you are willing to do something bad in order for something to continue (or begin)’. So ‘hope’ in itself isn’t attachment. Love isn’t attachment, not even fierce love. Whereas cowardice would be.

Q: What is your favourite festival or holiday? What practices in your life have changed significantly since becoming ordained?

A: I like New Year’s celebrations. Awareness of time cycles is a lovely thing and transcends specific religions and worldviews. And the atom bomb memorial day in Hiroshima is also high on my list of ‘things which make the heart beat faster’ – if that’s what you mean by ‘festival’.
Ordination, by providing an absolutely fundamental challenge to my sense of identity, in both challenging (demanding, humbling) and transformative (blessed) ways, has helped me to explore more deeply the teachings on non-self as a meditative state.

Q: How important is it to be altruistic?

A: It is impossible to become a Buddha without practising altruism. And never mind Buddhahood, it is impossible to keep enjoying positive samsaric rebirths without practising altruism. All art comes from altruism.

Links:
– For those interested in reading more about the 3-year retreat there are 5 posts on Shenyen’s blog, radioshenyen that talk about it in more detail. https://radioshenyen.blogspot.com/
– Shenyen on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKf_RRjzHsJ5a_LtWltGubA
 Images from Shenyen’s Instagram: @radioshenyen 

With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world.

The exhibition by Pavel Matveyev at Cigarrvägen 13, Stockholm, is titled “With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world #3.” A complex and though-provoking title presents a very simple installation of one large scale photographic image to be viewed from an armchair, with headphones of a soundscape, an audio documentation from the same site.
The image he chose was of an abandoned manor house on the outskirts of Moscow. The house was originally an aristocratic palace, but like many buildings of its kind, was converted into a public institution during Soviet times. After the revolution, properties that weren’t converted into sanatoriums or hospitals fell into disrepair. And in turn, those institutions have long since been abandoned.

With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world #3

With everyone’s imagination atrophied, no one will ever be a threat to the world #3

The specific history of this house, although uncertain, calls into a questioning of what history and cultural identity means in the post-soviet era. Without a ‘golden age’ to fall back upon, how can these fading, decrepit romantic visions be anything more than documents of catastrophe? What image of ‘culture’ can be salvaged from history to remain relevant to today and moving forward? The manor house is viewed through an entanglement of overgrown branches. Dead wood obscuring the view a once splendid, great culture? Or a new, neural network emerging out of the ruins? Maybe both.

The most interesting part of the exhibition is not the image by itself, or image as art, but the decision by the artist to merely wallpaper the gallery with the image and guide the viewer to be seated in a comfortable old-fashioned armchair, to view the work whilst listening to an audio sample taken from the site. The work becomes temporal and highly evocative as you are emerged in the soundscape and the blown up patterns. You can hear and feel that this is a documentary of an abandoned space as you are surrounded by the rustling of leaves and the feint sound of dogs barking in the distance. It is a catastrophe that has happened. It is too late. You wait for a narrative or voice to appear, some semblance of human presence, but it never does. The audio is on a 3-minute loop, offering no answers and no conclusions. You almost start to hallucinate traces of human life. Can you hear voices or music in the background or is that sound from outside the gallery, the here and now seeping in through the corners? For a few minutes you are thrown into a powerful drama in this space. But it is emotion observed, not filtered, emotion filled with gentle acceptance.

Elena Fanailova describes Matveyev’s work as a contemplation of the “post-Soviet, post-cultural, post-historic space devoid of emotive meaning.” But the work itself is far from lacking in emotion: you are caught somewhere between a photograph, a still image and a film you once saw. It’s like watching a Tarkovsky film for the first time, but even that analogy is far too obvious. When so much of our consumption of images, still and moving, happens in the digital realm, this is a space in between, a ‘Russian’ sensibility in exile. You are a foreigner to the experience but complicit in it. Fanailova writes: “There is no pity, no nostalgia, only the purity of observation: photography and sound. This is post-history, post-culture, post-game.”

Whether this is a questioning of a image-making, a nostalgic longing for a meaningful contemporary cultural identity, or a personal coming-to-terms-with-history, Matveyev captures your heart through your senses with a sensitive and elegant intervention. He swiftly avoids the work becoming bombastic or clichéd by merely pointing us to experience an image in a new way again. It’s optimistic: your imagination is not atrophied; it just needs to be awakened gently. Matveyev’s exhibition is a commentary on all the consumption of all ‘culture’, bringing into question the relentless flow of images we experience on a daily basis in bite-sized packages of ‘history.’ Imagination is not dead or atrophied. But we must understand that images contain a tremendous power to influence on the way we think. They direct our awareness, and by doing so, shape our world view and our collective memory -no matter who we are or where we are from.

About the artist
Pavel graduated from Moscow State University’s faculty of journalism in 2002, and in 2006-2007 studied photography at the University of Brighton, UK. In 2012 he received his Master’s degree in Fine Arts from Konstfack in Sweden, where he is now a permanent resident.
In his work Pavel Matveyev explores connections between the private and the public, reflecting on nostalgia, melancholy and the luxury of boredom, often investigating notions of the gaze and the poetic image. In this process he employs simple tools in the form of photographic and audio recordings. His works are held in private collections in Sweden, UK, France, Norway and Russia and he has exhibited at Konstfack, Gävle konstcentrum and Arkitekturmuseet, Stockholm.

www.pavelmatveyev.com

About the space
Cigarrvägen 13 is a 30-square-metre art space run by Stockholm-based artists Ami Kohara, Frida Krohn, Ylva Trapp, Johan Wahlgren, Helena Piippo Larsson, Maryam Fanni and Lisa Renvall. Together they form an artists collective who aim to make it easier for all types of local artists to exhibit their work. Cigarrvägen 13 has been opened with support of Stockholms stad.