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Jun 19
Arts and Poetry
Perception Warrior

Lights in the Forest

Lights in the Forest

Celebrating Photographer Freeman Patterson

by John McQuade

This is a birthday remembrance for the great Canadian photographer Freeman Patterson. He celebrated his 75th birthday last year and many admirers celebrated with him. For many decades, Freeman has been a major figure in the Canadian and International world of photography. For this remembrance, the decisive point is not that he is Canadian but that he is a contemplative.

Patterson’s Early Influence on Miksang

Miksang is a Tibetan word that means “Good Eye.” Nalanda Miksang contemplative photography was established by Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin to explore and embody Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s dharma art teaching through the medium of photography. (For more information, please see: www.miksang.org)

Trungpa Rinpoche’s dharma art teachings are the main source for Nalanda Miksang – but not the only source. Indeed, at the beginning of our engagement, in practical terms, the work of the photographer Freeman Patterson was more of a “guiding light.” In that early engagement we sort of worked with a Trungpa Rinpoche view and a Freeman Patterson manifestation.

Michael Wood, a professional photographer, began to engage meditation practice and became interested in how the experience of that practice could be expressed through photography. Michael was influenced by the teachings and images of Trungpa Rinpoche but he was also deeply influenced by the work of Freeman Patterson. In particular Freeman’s early books: Photography and the Art of Seeing and the Photography for the Joy of It.

Freeman portrait

Freeman portrait

In those formative years of Miksang, Freeman’s books were the major recommendations – along with the “pirated” transcripts of Trungpa Rinpoche’s dharma art teachings. When Michael taught his first course in contemplative photography, as a study resource, he assembled a sourcebook (Straight Shooting) of relevant photographers and contemplatives. The most cited photographer is Freeman Patterson.

At the time I had finished an M.A. in the phenomenology of perception. Phenomenology is a form of continental philosophy that seeks a way to truth through the experienced phenomenal world rather that the traditional philosophical method of concepts. I was interested in finding a more practical and artistic way to engage phenomenology. I found that way with Trungpa Rinpoche’s dharma art perception teachings and through developing Miksang with Michael.

When we engaged and taught Miksang, Freeman Patterson’s work was a key resource. Freeman realized that what deeply inspired photographers was not so much the making of an image but the experience of seeing. And the joy of that experience.

As well, he discerned some formal properties of the visual field and developed an aesthetic for making an equivalent photographic image. For example, in his approach to landscape photography, Freeman does not orient to the standard “calendar” content of scenic expression but to the formal visual values: the layers of color and texture.

Patterson’s Landscape and Joy



Currently, Nalanda Miksang, responding to Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s call for the manifestation of enlightened society, is engaging the exploration of landscapes as a major project. We explore many contemplative forms such as heaven, earth and man but still retain Freeman Patterson’s approach to landscape as basic visual forms.

Freeman’s approach to visual forms and equivalent images is often articulated through the schematics of visual design. Nalanda Miksang takes the orientation of visual forms deeper: to the visual itself. It explores what constitutes the visual as the visual: color, light, surface (texture, pattern etc). Space and seeing something – a figure on a ground. This is a deeper perception level. It works from the same basic orientation that informs Freeman’s early work.

And the joy of photography. Freeman realized that what deeply motivates photographers and keeps them going is the engagement: the experience and the depth of the experience. The depth of the experience is Joy.

His teaching are oriented to the “Joy of Photography.” Nalanda Miksang engages the same orientation: joy.

Going Forward

John McQuaid self portrait

John McQuaid self portrait

I recall an occasion when Michael visited my wife, Alice, and I at my home village a hundred kilometers east of Toronto. On his way there, he had a “miksang perceptual vision” and stopped to make an equivalent image. When he arrived, he was very excited and said something like: “I just made an image that is more Freeman than Freeman.” And indeed it was: it was an image of “a field,” water (Lake Ontario) and sky as three bands of color/form. Pure Freeman Patterson. But also: purified Freeman Patterson. We took it deeper.

In retrospect, besides inspiration, the contemplative contribution of Freeman Patterson’s work for Nalanda Miksang is the formal approach to the visual and the orientation to Experience – and in particular the experience of joy.

Personally, I feel a deep appreciation and communion with Freeman. Oddly, we have almost never met.

There was one weird encounter. In the 1986, Michael and I were invited to teach Miksang at the Summer Naropa University program in Halifax. We realized that Freeman would be conducting his annual workshop in New Brunswick. So – full of fantasy of how great this meeting would be – we made the detour and sure enough we spotted photographers with their tripods. We tracked Freeman down at a restaurant. I won’t go into the details but it did not go well: sort of Freeman meets Stalkers.

When we left Michael was somewhat despondent. We needed to cross a river on a ferry. I said something like: “Ok. Now we are on our own.” We were and that was good. After the ferry, we were driving. We passed a “landscape scene” and we both said “did you see that!?” So we went back. It was a small curving river – sort of mauve in the green field. We both made an image. I feel that “shoot” was one of our first cuttings from the umbilical cord of Freeman Patterson. Now we were becoming Miksang as Miksang.

You cut the umbilical cord but that does not mean there was never a connection. That connection continues. Some aspects of his work still inform the teachings of Nalanda Miksang. To this day there are strong and brilliant threads of Freeman’s work in the tapestry of Nalanda Miksang.

In our tradition and language Freeman Patterson is a Shambhala Warrior.

So: belated happy birthday to Freeman – a contemplative photographer.

For more information about Nalanda Miksang, visit their website here: www.miksang.org

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3 responses to “ Perception Warrior ”
  1. John, thank you for this reminder and for being a warrior yourself. We are deeply grateful to you for sharing these beautifully contemplative and joyful teachings with the world.

  2. I enjoyed reading that, John.
    May I ask, how does your miksang differ from the miksang taught by Michael Wood and his advanced students? For example, I cannot just step into a Level II or join a roving band of miksang photographers in the Michael Wood tradition or even from his graduate students unless I take his beginning miksang workshops either from him or from his students.. Which is not to say I remember everything from the workshops I took from you long ago, but why cannot I switch back and forth with relative ease?
    Best wishes, and thank you.

  3. Thank you for illuminating this important Miksang connection.
    Thank heavens for Miksang!

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