Enlightenment in Black and White

Paula Deitz

Paula Deitz Art

Nestled along the luxuriant cliff-side banks of the Mekong River, Luang Prabang, the former royal capital of Laos, is a city of stately palaces, villas, and bungalows left from the French colonial period, as well as many golden temples (vats) alive with the Buddhist culture of their attendant monasteries. While its local textile industry is renowned, what seduces the visitor to Luang Prabang is the tranquil pace of life, where time is marked by the gongs and drums that signal the daily rituals of the monks. These begin at daybreak with Tak Bat, when the monks, from sixty-four monasteries, process down the main street, Sakkaline Road, to receive alms in the form of nourishment placed in their ample tin-lidded bowls by residents who kneel curbside.

Monk’s Offerings. All Photographs by Hans Georg Berger. 

To reach this ceremony, you walk through side streets as the nightly gloom begins to lift to the sounds of roosters crowing in backyards, and women in their dark sarong skirts, carrying traditional baskets of sticky rice and other local specialties, rush to find their places roadside. Suddenly, as the sky turns a pale pink, the monks come by single file, the oldest to the youngest, draped in their saffron robes in a variety of shades, from near red to yellow. Many of the temples, with their multitiered, tiled pagoda roofs and deep maroon and golden interiors, line this road. After completing the Tak Bat, the monks circle back and stand outside their monasteries to chant before entering. Then the youngest pick up grass brooms to sweep away the bougainvillea petals and other leafy matter that have accumulated overnight in the courtyards between buildings—this cleaning is considered meditation. Only then do the monks congregate over their meal.

Among the distinctive characteristics of these monastic enclaves are the thickly interwoven branches of frangipani trees in groves around the courtyards like canopies of gray lace. (Frangipani is the Lao national flower.) And spilling over street-side walls, Ashoka trees with clusters of tiny saffron blossoms, bright orange-yellow wilting to red, reflect all the gradations of the monks’ robes. Allegedly, Queen Maya gave birth to the Buddha under an Ashoka tree, so it is integral to monastic life.

During the day, the young monks go to school in town; many are sons of poor rice farmers from remote villages who enter the monasteries for an education and for the disciplined spiritual regimen before choosing to go on, for instance, to university or jobs in civilian life; others remain monks. On the streets though, they are still boys and are especially engaging in groups on rainy days under their black umbrellas or crossing the high bamboo bridges at the confluence of the Mekong and its tributary the Nam Kahn River on their way home to a monastery. Passing by the temple of Pak Kahn on an afternoon, you may see the raised and gilded drum pavilion just as a strong young monk ascends to perform the rhythmic beating whose sound carries across the town.

Following the arc of the day, around five in the afternoon, visitors are welcome to sit on the floor in a temple sanctuary to hear chanting by the monastery’s community. As the monks gather before the altar, the chanting grows increasingly forceful—its pleasant singsong melody varied only by the high-pitched voices of the youngest members, much like descant in a Western boys’ choir. In Vat Xieng Mouane, a seated golden Buddha, illuminated by candles in glass globes below, sits high on the altar with a saffron scarf draped over the left shoulder. Set against a background of rows of small seated Buddhas along wine red walls, the altar is encircled by six columns of the same hue stenciled in gold with stylized geometric patterns. The whole assemblage of objects glitters in a subdued light that is cast over the gathering of monks (and even one of their dogs asleep in the corner).

  • Courage.
  • Novice’s Offerings.
  • Robe 2.
  • Landscape 1. Overview of Luang Prabang.
  • Meditation Place on the Mekong 2. 
  • Hans Georg Berger. Photograph by Alain Menoni.
  • Walking with Mindfulness 1.
  • Teaching to Read a Manuscript.

This is the world the photographer Hans Georg Berger entered for the first time in 1993, already seasoned by his knowledge of spiritual realms. Having studied comparative religion and drama at Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich and the University of Vermont, in 1976, at age twenty-five, he set out for Sicily but ended up on the island of Elba with the key to a house. Eventually he found his mission there in the restoration of a picturesque medieval friary, Eremo di Santa Caterina, a long-abandoned hermitage on a hill covered with what Italians call macchia, dense evergreen shrubs. After negotiating a long-term lease with the church, he eventually established an artists’ retreat and, with the help of botanist friends, created a botanical garden and a walled enclosure for ancient roses, reminiscent of his grandmother’s garden in a village on the Mosel River. His photographs of the retreat’s scholarly life in the arts and the burgeoning landscape became a major exhibition in Munich. From 1977 to 1983 he was also director of the Munich Theater Festival and in 1985 co-founded a festival of contemporary opera called the Münchener Biennale.

When Berger arrived in Luang Prabang, he embarked on a commitment to reinvigorate the local Buddhist culture that had suffered through colonization, war, and revolution. His early meeting with a local abbot Phra Khamchan Virachitta Maha Thera was pivotal, and Berger and his photographs became the catalyst for preserving Buddhist customs, not only of the monasteries but also of the lay people upon whose support the monks are dependent.

Unlike ethnographic photographers who tend to keep their distance in recording their subjects, Berger became part of a communal effort to record both sacred rites and ceremonies as well as lay festivals. Proposals were discussed with the monks in advance and final selections made together from contact sheets. Many of the subjects were facing a camera for the first time—in this case a Hasselblad middle-format camera on a tripod that produces the square images Berger sees as appropriate to Buddhist architecture and cosmology. All of the photographs are black-and-white silver-gelatin or platinum-paladium prints, in a process he calls “artisanal.”

Morning Alms. The Tak Bat at sunrise.

Fortunately, Berger began photographing in 1994, only a year before Luang Prabang was named a UNESCO Historic Site under the aegis of the French restoration architect Laurent Rampon in an ironic twist that reintroduced the French into the region, but also further threatened religious life with an influx of tourists. No strangers to photography, monasteries had long preserved in their own archives formal portraits of eminent abbots and prints commemorating important ceremonies. But this new project was all-inclusive; and when first exhibited in nine monasteries and at other sacred locales, the photographs were feted with their own ceremonies.

Exhibited in Luang Prabang today in the Amantaka Collection (on view in the public rooms of the Amantaka Resort), the photographs combine transcendent images of the sacred with detailed portrayals of daily rituals, from a full view of an altar with a seated golden Buddha and an assembly of monks to the simple folding, wrapping, and tying of a monk’s robe. True to the tenets of Theravada Buddhism (which literally means “Words of the Elders”), many prints depict an elder monk with a younger one reading the sacred scriptures written on long rectangular palm-leaf manuscripts tied together. Berger also captures the mystery of the town’s autumnal Festival of Lights, when celebrants create thousands of bamboo and banana wood fireboats, festooned with candles and set aglow to drift to the middle of the Mekong, where they catch fire and sink in an image of nirvana. Finally, there are views of those inimitable sculptural floral arrangements, some with marigolds and frangipani wrapped in leaves, created in homage to the Buddha.

Not simply considered fine art, as Berger explains, in the Buddhist perception these photographs became sacred rites unto themselves and reflect the spiritual progress of the person portrayed; thus, they may be contemplated as meditative exercises toward enlightenment, further integrating them into the community. And since, to be effective, every Buddhist ritual has to be beautiful and right, the photographs themselves must meet this expression of beauty in the everyday.

Some eleven years and fourteen thousand printed photographs later, Berger was presented with a second challenge. One ritual of Lao Buddhism, Vipassana, a specific kind of meditation that requires the quiet of a surrounding forest to cultivate mental awareness and insight, had been in abeyance for thirty years; none of the younger monks or novices had any experience with it. At this point, Berger’s Buddhist master, the abbot Pha One Keo Sitthivong, said to him: “You and the art project could help us getting started with meditation. This is new for you. We need support. You can learn with us.

  • Sitting Meditation 4: The Floating Buddha.
  • Sangha. A monk’s ordination at Vat Saen Sukharam.
  • The Royal Chapel. At Vat Xiang Thong.
  • Nirvana.
  • First Dressing of the Robe.
  • Reading.
  • Manuscript Procession.
  • Monastic Calligraphy. On mulberry paper.

Working with the German ambassador, Berger approached the Ministry of Culture without initial success in obtaining permission. But finally, they met with a department head in the ministry, a woman who was also a poet, and worked together with her to develop the project, not simply as a religious meditation but as one representing all of Lao culture. And, indeed, this complex monastic venture required support from the entire community for food, medicine, and other necessities.

During 2004 and 2005, more than nine hundred young monks and novices joined two-week retreats held at Vat Pa Phon Phao, a monastery on the outskirts of Luang Prabang surrounded by a large forest with views of mist-shrouded mountains. Photographing this silent and intimate ceremony presented its challenges for Berger, who describes the process of doing so as a form of meditation for himself, one in which he learned how not only to record the serenity of the monks without disturbing them in Vipassana but also to bond himself with the living forest. His prints showing the procession of hundreds of monks filing into the forest, heads bowed under an archway of trees, convey the powerful sensation of being there.

Under the title The Floating Buddha: The Revival of Vipassana Meditation in Laos, the prints of this photographic essay are displayed in a permanent exhibition with a catalogue at Vat Souvannakhili, a monastery that has become a center for the preservation of Buddhist culture in Luang Prabang. In viewing one after the other the prints of youths meditating among piles of leaves or walking, sitting, or sleeping, one senses the vulnerability of the young monks as they emerge into a new state of awareness in this setting.

As a result of these successful retreats, the monastic and lay community, with support from the government and the Badur Foundation, is founding two new institutions to enhance the opportunities of the young monks within monastery life: the Academy of Higher Buddhist Education and the School of Traditional Temple Arts and Crafts, to teach the skills required to adorn the temples before knowledge of them disappears. Land has already been acquired—two rice fields and two mountains—seven miles outside of Luang Prabang, and the architect Laurent Rampon is designing a campus with vernacular architecture, re-creating the multiple pagoda roofs. The decorative interiors, like those that distinguish the local temples as cultural treasures, will be completed by student artisans.

Monastery.

Berger has also been instrumental in forming the Buddhist Archive of Photography, a collection of historic photographs from monasteries now housed for preservation and study at Vat Souvannakhili. Also, with the support of the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme, the Buddhist Heritage Project has been extended to include valuable journals, monographs, and documents from individual monasteries including a collection of ancient palm-leaf manuscripts and accordion-pleated leporello manuscripts, some recording ancient epics. Given his devotion to gardening, Berger has created a double formal parterre of old roses collected from Luang Prabang monasteries along the front of the archive building and small adjoining temple. A total culture has been both preserved and revived.

Berger now lives in Laos more than half the year and had a house designed for him in 2009 by Rampon. Called Ermitage du Ban Meuang Khay, it is located in a village next to an old monastery on the Mekong outside of Luang Prabang. A side gate to the monastery remains open to monks who wish to meditate on his land. The house, surrounded by lush rustic gardens, is a series of white stucco structures with terra-cotta shingled roofs on graduated terraces with views of the river. And for outdoor pleasure, the architect designed his own version of a Roman stibadium in the tradition of the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. A stone bed surrounded by freestanding columns with papyrus capitals is separated from a raised basin with Chinese goldfish by a square labyrinth of rivulets. It serves as Berger’s retreat.

As the riverboat plies its way back to Luang Prabang through the low rapids on the Mekong, the setting sun casts a radiant glow over the rolling mountains far into the distance, and along the river banks water buffalo and children take their last dips in the fading light. Recalling that “beauty” is the key to Buddhist rites, here one sees that it is everywhere.

 TRAVEL INFORMATION

FLIGHTS: Fly direct to Luang Prabang from Bangkok, Thailand (Bangkok Airways or Lao Airlines), or from Hanoi, Vietnam (Vietnam Airlines or Lao Airlines).

HOTELS:

Sala Prabang, a Mekong riverside hotel. A former residence of the first prime minister of Laos, this combination villa and cottage is a landmark of colonial architecture. Address: 81 / 1 Ounkham Road Ban Xiengmouane, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. Tel: (+856) 71 252 460; e-mail: salabang@ laotel.com or salabang01@gmail.com.

Mekong Riverview Hotel and its excellent Viewpoint Café at the juncture of the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers. Address: Mekong Riverside Road, Xieng Thong Village, P.O. Box 183, Luang Prabang, Lao PDR. Tel: (+856) 71 25 49 00; fax: (+856) 71 25 48 90; e-mails: hotel@mekongriver view.com; viewpointcafe@mekongriverview.com.

SIGHTS: Buddhist temples line Sakkaline Road, with the associated monasteries frequently extending seamlessly from one to another, culminating in Vat Xieng Thong, with its classic architecture dating from 1560. The exhibition of photographs by Hans Georg Berger called The Floating Buddha: The Revival of Vipassana Meditation in Laos is on view at the Buddhist Archive of Photography at Vat Souvannakhili on Sakkaline Road. Other Berger photographs are on view in the public rooms of the Amantaka Resort, 55/3 Kingkitsarath Road. For more information about Hans Georg Berger, visit hansgeorgberger.de.

Berger’s latest collection, My Sacred Laos, was published in the U.S. last year by Serindia Publications.