I feel guilty about waking Joe: he looks so peaceful in his sleep, head on his pillow, one hand holding his guitar case… After a first confused look, he beams a smile and starts our conversation with a self-effacing joke: “I spend my life sleeping on benches”.
The bench in question is in Sydney’s Pitt St mall, the “Mecca” of Australian retail: it is the most expensive commercial real estate in the country and the 4th most expensive in the world. A square meter of shop floor here will set you back more than $10,000 a year: less than in Hong Kong, New York and Tokyo but more than London, Zurich or Paris. Nespresso and Zara opened here when they planted a flag on our map and rumour has it that Esprit is shutting down because rent has grown bigger than revenues for their Pitt St store.
A small gang of buskers has taken residence on this pedestrian thoroughfare and entertain the thousands of tourists, shoppers and office workers that pass by daily. I wonder what it takes to get a spot on such a desirable stage? English councils license their buskers; where I come from, performers often pay protection money to shady figures; here they wake up at the crack of dawn and wait for their one-hour afternoon slot. For the last 6 years, Joe has been setting his alarm clock to 5am to secure his spot. “I brush my teeth, put on some clothes and jump in my car; from the inner city it is a 10 minutes drive and if nobody has beaten me to it I get the first slot […] at Christmas shopping time, buskers start queuing from 2am”.
Joe Moore -23 this January – got the music bug at 14 from his dad, who taught him how to play guitar on Oasis’ “Wonderwall”. Joe spent the following year teaching himself chords. “I could not play the B chord for ages” he says, and chose songs accordingly: if one had a B chord in it, it was out.
The first song that he remembers writing is “Nobody Cares”; at 14, with a drummer school-friend; the oldest still in his repertoire is “I am not leaving”: his reaction to his family’s decision to emigrate from the UK to Australia. “Leaving England is one of the hardest things I have ever done and the easiest time to write songs – for me – because it was SO much in my head: all I had to do was start singing and it was coming out. I did not even need to write it down, I just remembered it. I wrote that song in ten minutes: I wrote it in about the same amount of time that it takes to sing it today: I wrote the chorus & thought: that’s good; now I need some verses; I wrote the verses; done”.
The creative process is not always that easy and not always solitary: his friend Dan Burrows writes lyrics for him: “sometimes it is just notes on his phone, different stuff jotted down that I stick together & then start playing some music and I just sing them and make them fit somehow & it is actually really cool! It turns out a really good way of finding a melody because it is almost like the melody is already there because I have to sing [the words] in a way that make them fit, therefore the melody is decided by how long the words are”. Dan wrote the lyrics for “Smile” about his new boss, whom he fell in love with (and whom he is marrying in March) & Joe put it to music, while “Lost People” and “Symphony”, which took him to Australia’s Got Talent’s grand finale were written at a Gosford studio with Hayley Warner, Andy Mak & Thom Macken. Joe owes the opportunity to collaborate with more experienced songwriters to his performances on the Australia’s Got Talent TV show, which attracted the attention not only of the general public but of the music industry as well.
I am not surprised to hear that in his late teens he was repeatedly offered to audition for talent shows: Joe is talented, good-looking and committed; when he performs, his connection with the public is immediate and effortless. Women – especially – are spellbound and almost mechanically pull out their mobile phone and start filming him. The romantic theme of his music might help cast the spell: all of his songs are about love. He says he wrote one about being hung-over once but even that could be classed as a borderline love song. Whatever it is that makes him so appealing, it is working: he has 10,000 Facebook fans and when he mentioned an upcoming trip to Europe he was asked to perform (and offered a couch) in most of that continent’s cities.
So I am not surprised he was approached for TV, what makes me cringe is that he said no. Repeatedly. He said no to Australia’s Got Talent too and only relented at the insistence of Greg Beness, the show’s producer.
Joe acknowledges that “It is very cool to be able to see someone grow; watch them go to that first audition and then watch them turn into a superstar”; “but you lose some of the magic”, he says. His idea of a new band is that they should come out of the radio sounding like “they are just magic, in your head, like they are from a different world” and jolt the listener into wondering who they are. His concern is that talent shows might take away that wonder and amazement by putting singers in front of the wider public too early.
“But I changed [my mind] because I went on Australia’s Got Talent!” he quips. “By then I had been working with my manager for a year or so, I had become a lot better than I was and Australia’s Got Talent was not going to make me into something else, all it was going to do is showcase me: let me do what I do here, on a stage in front of the whole country”.
I listen to his argument but all the while I am thinking: “are you crazy? In an industry that promotes boy bands and child acts, you said no to potential teen-stardom!”… And then it dawns on me that what he is saying is that he was not ready. The music industry might search for 16-year old pop stars, who have an affinity with the lucrative pre-teen market but is that desirable for the chosen ones? I am the proud dad of a handsome 6-year old; would I feed him to show biz ten years from now, when his limbs and brains are not yet fully formed and his moral compass is still searching for North?
I ask why I don’t hear him on the radio; why he is not signed with a label and spitting out CDs like they are going out of fashion (which I am told they are) and he says that pop/rock is not currently on trend and that both domestic record companies and media are focused on folk/indie, not pop. He is writing songs all the time but he is not planning to release a new album soon. A few thousands people have bought his Symphony EP either directly from him or from iTunes but he would like a wider exposure for it before he returns to the recording studio. He is planning a trip to Europe & the UK in April to see if the industry’s gatekeepers over there prove more receptive to his work.
It is the small market curse: I come across it over and again living in Australia, bending creativity to whatever mold is deemed fashionable: in visual art, you ought to photograph dead birds and make found objects collages to get into galleries, in poetry you ought to be stuck in post-modernism & be as obscure as you can to get prizes and publishers; literary agents routinely seek copycats of the latest blockbuster: magical sagas after Harry Potter, vampire stories after Twilight; in music it has become hard to promote even pop love songs… Madness.
A domestic market only 22 million people strong breads risk-averse creative industries with little room for artists outside the straight and narrow of what it is deemed “in”. In such an environment, the obvious choice is to go global & trying to make it overseas, like so many artists do. I reckon Joe’s trip is a smart move: it might lead him to a wide and diverse enough market and to producers who recognize that he is just ripe for the picking.
More photos of Joe:
Joe Moore on the net:
When I enter the store, Elliot is sitting by the window making “God’s eyes” while a couple of his friends are reading and chatting on the next bench; the record player entertains them all spinning an old tune. The room is shady and aromatic with incense, I look around and the lavish décor hits me: ceiling collages, wall murals, bookshelves, rugs, sofas, framed pictures, art installations and an eclectic collection of objects from another era transforms this space into something quite unexpected and it is hard to take it all in at once.
The Hip Pocket Bookshop is housed in what was once office space in one of the buildings that line the rural town of Murwillumbah’s main street; its neighbours are a psychologist and a mentoring service for writers. One gets there climbing a steep flight of stairs and walking through a long, anonymous, carpeted corridor. Finding a living shrine to the sixties’ flower revolution at the end of it is a bit of a surprise.
Once I have adjusted to the light, the smell, the music and the explosion of creativity and colour that now surrounds me, I strike up a conversation with Elliot, whose vision transformed this space into its current incarnation. As the room gives amply away, he is very fond of the ‘60s: ideas, images, lifestyle, music. All the books in store are of or about that era; they are sourced from opportunity shops and the internet and are lovingly selected to fit the collection. The Hip Pocket – as well as being the name of a local toad –comes from a quote from Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
When I ask how he managed to get this rent-free space to start the bookshop, he said that the owner let him have the room providing he cleared it out; “Do you want to see what it was like before?” he adds and leads me to the other side of the corridor where a similar room is full to the brim with archive boxes, documents and piles of rubbish. “It took me six months to clear everything out; all the documents had to be destroyed so I burned them”. I take a few pictures of Elliot in the middle of this junkyard and then move onto the bookstore and have a whale of a time documenting its many corners inspired by the 60s – of course – and by a trip to Sri Lanka and the fun that Buddhist temple artists have with colour over there.
After the store photo-shoot, I go back to its 20-year old owner, who is taking a year’s break from studying bio medicine at university, plays bass guitar – the same make and model that Paul McCartney used to play – in psychedelic blues group The Otchkies and enjoys surfing on nearby Wooyung beach. He is planning to start serving tea, once the weather cools a bit and is thinking of taking over next door and turn it into a community sewing space – if he can stomach another clean up; he is also worried that the colors he has chosen for his “God’s eye” may not key properly. I marvel at his creativity and make a mental note to pull out of my library “COLOR Form and Composition” written in 1966 by Wana Derge, who hated all things “unlovely” and published in her book a rather helpful explanation of color key charts. It might turn out to be the perfect gift for Elliot.
I have never met Lama Shenpen but when she answered the telephone, her intonation sounded familiar: I recognized it from the recordings I have heard of her teachings. Her style was as I expected: straightforward, open and peppered with laughter. Like many Buddhist Lamas, she has a good sense of humour; not the elusive Eastern humour but the direct English one, and thankfully I get it.
For ten days in December 2002, Ajahn Suphan, the Abbot of Wat Ranpoeng in Chiang Mai, Thailand had been my meditation teacher. I had never tried to meditate or studied Buddhism before and I followed my wife on this silent retreat out of curiosity. Every day at around 5pm the western students in their white pyjamas would gather at the Abbot’s office for their ten minutes’ audience. Ajahn Suphan proved to be a polite man, always busying himself with something during our awkward prostrations and often making small talk to put us at ease. On one afternoon, he had company: a hermit monk had just returned from the mountains and was chatting to him when I entered his office. The two roared with laughter and the Abbot courteously translated the joke so that I would not wonder whether they were laughing at me. The story involved a mischievous boy putting a raw goose egg in the monk’s alms bowl, where only ready to eat food is meant to go. To this day, the hilarity of the story remains – to me – sadly lost in translation. When I think about that goose egg, I wonder what the Thai equivalent of Monty Phython might be and whether I would get their jokes… And I bask in the good fortune of having found a western Buddhist teacher.
Having embarked upon Lama Shenpen’s long distance course Discovering the Heart of Buddhism, I became intrigued by this English woman who became a learned scholar and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in the Kagyu tradition, who has founded a hermitage in North Wales, built a Sangha (religious community) and designed a deceptively simple, profound and deeply stirring course to guide others in their spiritual quest. What bit her? I wondered. So I asked whether I could interview her and quench my curiosity. The result was an inspiring long distance phone conversation that retraced some of the key turning points in Lama Shenpen’s path.
Lama Shenpen Hookham was born Susan Kathryn Rowan in 1946 in Essex, UK; she was raised in the Anglican tradition but religious fervour was not a family feature: indeed both her father and grandfather had been communist and atheist. She described her father as an intelligent man, who came back from a trip to Russia convinced that the masses needed electricity more than revolution; put himself through evening college and became an engineer.
Lama Shenpen discovered Buddhism at Reading University, where she was studying Geography and Sociology. At the beginning of her university years, she had felt strongly Christian but thought that she needed to learn about other religions too so she started reading about Buddhism. The Reading University Buddhist Society was being set up at that time and they asked her to help so she became involved in inviting speakers. Being the person organizing the talks meant that she had the opportunity to meet all the teachers. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche – among others – used to go to Reading, spend the day with the students and then give a talk to the Buddhist Society in the evening. She said of the experience: “At that point I was Anglican; I had read the Bible but I had not read theological texts written by Christian thinkers. Like a lot of people, I saw religion as a do-it-yourself sort of thing, it was Buddhism that woke me up to the sense that it requires more than that: that there were teachers and you could go to them and be taught, which was a big revelation for me. I might have got that from Christianity too but I never did”.
What turned an interest in other religious traditions into the life transforming decision to follow the Buddhist path was the idea that you can discover the truth through your practice. Lama Shenpen: “I thought: my experience of religion is all about believing what I am told but Buddhism is about discovering something within yourself, for yourself, in your experience and I can tell myself whether it is true or not, which I thought was AMAZING! I was totally amazed by that […]. So I picked up the challenge and thought: OK, I am not going to just believe things, I am going to only go with what I can know from my own experience”.
Independent thinking came up several times in our conversation and to me this is one of the defining features of Lama Shenpen, who scraped through her first years at school until self-directed research projects woke her interest up and allowed her formidable intellect to shine through; who after university announced to her bewildered family that she was travelling to India – where she studied Tibetan language, Buddhism and practiced meditation for six years – and left them wondering: “what went wrong with Susan?”; who years later, given the choice between two possible directions, decided to follow the guidance of Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche instead of that of His Holiness Rangjung Rigpei Dorje, the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage and – after the Dalai Lama – possibly the most revered figure in Tibetan Buddhism. It is not surprising that such an independent mind could not let go of the “challenge” –as she puts it – to find out the truth for herself.
I know from experience that inspiring teachers can have a profound impact on one’s formation and life choices but I also know that a teacher’s guidance needs a receptive pupil to work its magic and – even allowing for the heightened social environment of the late ‘60s – I would not presume that the decision of joining a nunnery in India could be taken lightly, so I asked what in her background allowed Lama Shenpen to be open to the religious path. She believes that her affinity for spirituality is innate and that she felt an intuitive sense of connection with the Divine from very early on: she remembers being a little girl, waking up early one Christmas morning and singing a hymn she found at the back of a book and feeling her mind go quiet when singing inspiring words like “holy” or “God”, “Almighty” and “truth”. She also remembers how unimpressed her family was with her outburst of spontaneous religious fervour and – her singing starting at 5.30 in the morning – she does not blame them.
There also was a sudden premonition when she was only 10 years old and, during a headstand, she had a strong sense – a calling – that she would become a nun. The thought stayed with her all through her teens but she did not know any nun or how to become one or whom to speak to about such a thing so she let that thought hover in her mind and did not do anything about it.
Having gotten a fairly consistent image of a not rebellious but single minded kid who, upon reflection, agrees with her mum’s assessment that “Susan never does anything that she does not want to do” and who thinks about joining a nunnery in India not as a break with the past but as a “smooth trajectory”, the obvious next step in her spiritual development, I got onto the “serious business” of tracing Lama Shenpen’s lineage: the Buddhist teachers who inspired her most and who were most influential in her formation. What I gathered from her answers is that she experienced two key transformative periods: the six years spent in Northern India and the years spent preparing her PhD thesis at the Oriental Studies’ department of Oxford University. In both instances she had access to impressive teachers, who guided her growth and accomplishments.
Lama Shenpen credits Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche as her most inspirational teacher at Reading University. It was he who suggested that she should go to India to further her studies and who sent her to Tilokpur Nunnery, where Lama Karma Thinley Rinpoche gave “a very good grounding” to her studies. Kalu Rinpoche happened to be teaching at Dalhousie at the time so she had the opportunity to receive some transmissions (teachings) from him and, when Karma Thinley Rinpoche moved to Canada, she started studying with Kalu Rinpoche’s main student: Bokar Rinpoche, “who was a HUGE influence – she said – he was a great meditation teacher. He taught me Tibetan and I did all my early study with him one-on-one. It was FANTASTIC, ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC; it was such a privilege! For five years, I used to get teaching from him for an hour or two every day for months on end; just me. It was really amazing. He really gave me a good basic training in the practice of meditation. He was a wonderful example of how to live the Buddhist life. I was very very lucky”.
Lama Shenpen’s Indian retreat came to an end when His Holiness the 16th Karmapa asked her to return to Europe and become a teacher. Her talent and potential had been spotted before by Kalu Rinpoche, who had earlier suggested that she should start teaching but she had managed to dodge that bullet; the Karmapa proved harder to put off and she eventually relented. In the mid-70s, the Karmapa was preparing his first visit to the West and was keen to build a base of teachers that could help practitioners that might have become inspired by his visit. Lama Shenpen says she greatly enjoyed her meditative life in India and she did not feel ready to teach; she also did not have any means to support herself in the West and was concerned that becoming financially dependent on others would hamper her freedom. She told all that to the Karmapa and his – to my eyes very Tibetan – answer was: “Don’t worry about it, it will be all right!”.
What followed was a confused period when Lama Shenpen tried different ideas generated by the Karmapa, which did not work often due to the lack of resources. She half-jokingly remembers: “All my teachers would say: “The Karmapa knows the three times [the past, present, and future], you should ask the Karmapa what to do” so I thought: “OK, well if he knows the three times, presumably he knows what I should be doing and my teachers tell me to follow his guidance so I will”, but his guidance proved impractical.
One of the suggestions was for her to become the teacher for a group in Manchester led by a person, who is now a teacher in his own right and has taken the name of Jampa Thaye. Lama Shenpen: “It was a bizarre situation: Jampa Thaye at the time was just a student; he had no money, nobody had any money. I was supposed to be there as a teacher but how could I live? I had no money to live on”. Another idea was for her to receive teachings from Ato Rinpoche in Cambridge but that did not work out either.
Eventually she met Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche and had a very strong feeling of connection with him. The Karmapa, who had the greatest regard for Khenpo Rinpoche suggested that she should do a 3-year retreat and receive teachings from him but Khenpo Rinpoche did not like the idea and sent her instead to Oxford University to study more. “I think that that was very perceptive of him because I had never really studied… I did: I learnt Tibetan, I learnt the practice texts, the meditation texts but I did not really know the doctrinal background very well. I had a lot of instructions but I did not really know the tradition. Khenpo Rinpoche said: “if you want to be able to help people with their questions, you really need to know the tradition” and I think he was right and I also needed to know the real meaning of the Tathagatagarbha [the Buddha nature] teachings and the Shentong interpretation of the Tathagatagarbha. I needed to know better what Buddha nature meant. Although I had a lot of excellent pointing out instructions I had not really connected it properly and I really feel that what Khenpo Rinpoche said to me then was absolutely vital and key and pivotal in my life. Sending me back to Oxford to study Tathagatagarbha doctrine and write about the Shentong view. This was really, really important”.
Khenpo Rinpoche suggested Trungpa Rinpoche as a teacher for Lama Shenpen but she felt a bit intimidated by his fame and bewildered by the many stories surrounding his figure so she decided to contact one of his British students, instead. She had started setting up a student Buddhist society in Oxford and she invited Michael Hookham [now Lama Rigdzin Shikpo] to give a talk there. Michael Hookham had met Trungpa Rinpoche in his twenties and had been initiated by him to the Dzogchen teachings. Student and teacher used to spend entire weekends together and the detailed notes that Michael took on those occasions became the basis for his practice and teachings. Lama Shenpen described Michael Hookham as a learned and meticulous disciple of Trungpa Rinpoche, a great teacher and a “kindred spirit”. The two married not long after moving to Oxford.
The ten years spent researching and writing her dissertation at Oxford were an intense learning period for both Lama Shenpen and Lama Rigdzin Shikpo. The two were having a stream of in-depth discussions that considerably deepened their understanding of the Buddhist tradition. Thanks to Lama Rigdzin Shikpo, Lama Shenpen gained access to Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings and thanks to Lama Shenpen’s understanding of the Tibetan language as well as of the Buddhist practice, Lama Rigdzin Shikpo could access Khenpo Rinpoche’s teachings and interpretations without the hindrance of a language barrier. In Oxford, the couple’s spiritual investigations resulted in what appears like the confluence of the lineages of two highly respected Buddhist scholars: Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche and Trungpa Rinpoche.
In Lama Shenpen’s words: “We had an amazing period of transmission when Rigdzin Shikpo was doing his three-year retreat in Oxford and I was translating and practicing with him and it was probably the most important moment of my whole life in terms of transmissions. A very very rich time. The PhD work was laying the theoretical foundations for the actual practice: I was in constant communication with Rigdzin Shikpo trying to go through the process and acting as intermediary between him and Khenpo Rinpoche, which was a tremendously privileged situation to be in. Absolutely amazing. From the experiences I had then, I have been developing my own teachings ever since”.
While Lama Rigdzin Shikpo was still in retreat, Lama Shenpen finished her PhD, which freed a considerable amount of her time and energy. She had noticed how difficult it was to integrate new students in her Buddhist group due to their different level of understanding of the teachings and she designed a distance learning course in Buddhism with the aim of allowing students to learn at their own pace and avoiding having to start from scratch every time that a new student joined her group. Her students received the course enthusiastically and a Sangha (religious community) began to grow around her.
Once Lama Rigdzin Shikpo came out of retreat, the couple found it difficult to agree on a common trajectory. The practicalities of life further complicated the situation and limited their choices. Both Lamas were keen to continue working together and thought they might be able to do so splitting their students between beginners and advanced and entrusting the beginners to Lama Shenpen while leaving Lama Rigdzin Shikpo to teach the more advanced practitioners, but that did not work out. Lama Shenpen puts it down to her husband’s streak of impractical perfectionism and his difficulty with working within a team. The two gradually – by attrition more than by a clear-cut decision – split their activities and communities and ended up leading strongly connected but separate lives (she in North Wales, he still in Oxford). When I asked whether that put a strain on their relationship, Lama Shenpen replied: “It did put a tremendous strain on our relationship and in fact we do not live together anymore and we do not see each other very much. I regret that very much and he sort of regrets it but he does not do much about it. We meet up from time to time and we talk like in the old days and I check everything with him: if I have a new inspiration or an idea or I start teaching in a different way, I ask him. He is the only person that I can talk to like that and we always go deeper: he always helps me go deeper and he says that I inspire him in new ways of teaching and looking at things. We are very close spiritually”.
How Lama Shenpen ended up leading a Sangha and living in a hermitage in North Wales makes for another interesting story: “What happened was that His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche told Rigdzin Shikpo to build a stupa in Wales at the time that Trungpa Rinpoche had passed away and Khyentse Rinpoche was doing the final rites for him. Rigdzin Shikpo went to talk to him and told him that Trungpa Rinpoche had always wanted to set up a Guru Rinpoche place with a lake and an island and Rigdzin Shikpo wanted to know whether that was a good idea and Khyentse Rinpoche thought that it was a very good idea and said: find a place west of London with a lake and an island and I’ll come and bless it. We thought about it and we were not sure what he meant by “west of London” So we showed him a map of Britain and he took the map and said come tomorrow and I’ll show you [where to go]. We went the next day and he had drawn a square in North West Wales and he said find a place there and I’ll come and bless it so that is why we moved up here to Wales. His Holiness wanted us to build a stupa or a temple, which we intend to do now. We then made a big effort to get up here and got a retreat running up here but then Rigdzin Shikpo decided he did not want to come and live up here so he stayed in Oxford. So I was up here and he was down in Oxford. I have been here about ten years. […] We sold the place we had in Oxford and we bought with that money land and a building in Wales, where property is much cheaper so we got a lot of land and a big building in Wales with what we got for a small semi in Oxford”.
It did not immediately spring to my mind that a religious person pursuing a contemplative lifestyle would need to worry about money, but of course she would. Of course projects require both inspiration and resources to see the light of day and the issue of resources –money, the lack of it and how that contributes to shaping decisions – came up repeatedly in our conversation: how Lama Shenpen’s friends could support her in India but could not afford to do so at a European cost of living; how a PhD scholarship became the obvious choice for a scholar proficient in the Tibetan language who wished to undertake further studies; how selling a semidetached house in Oxford can pay for a hermitage in North Wales.
Would I move to North Wales because some big dude drew a square around it, when given a map of Great Britain? I find Lama Shenpen’s willingness to follow her calling so promptly both inspiring and challenging and I wondered aloud whether she could imagine herself leading a more mainstream life. She said she had no interest in pursuing an academic career but that – had she not encountered Buddhism – she might have become a Christian contemplative nun. While she hopes that her teachings might be helpful for her students she does feel the lure of a fully contemplative life.
When I asked Lama Shenpen what she felt her greatest achievements where, she listed three things: her PhD dissertation, for which she credited Khenpo Rinpoche’s guidance; her Discovering the Heart of Buddhism course, inspired by Lama Rigdzin Shikpo and her Sangha: an institution devoted to the living transmission of the Buddhist teachings and to supporting those on the Buddhist path.
Lama Shenpen: “This [the need for support structures] I felt from the moment I came back from the East: how supported I was by the people around me, who understood what I was doing and rejoiced in what I was doing and supported me psychologically in what I was doing and I thought how difficult it is in the West where people are not supporting you in your spiritual quest. They think that it is an irrelevance or a sideline. There is not that feeling of support and so we set up a Sangha where people are supporting each other in their practice. I feel very proud of my students sometimes. It is really fantastic. Maybe if they really can take responsibility and work together and keep good samaya (good connection with each other), maybe this will be the seed for something that will be of tremendous benefit for the future for many many people. So that is my great hope: I am very happy to think that maybe that may happen and it will be a living transmission able to transmit something that is really alive and essential and true and genuine and that the students would have picked it up in that way and would be able to pass it on. I guess if that really carries on and is getting stronger as I get older, I should feel very content when I die”.
Of her correspondence course, she said that she is very pleased with its content and its capacity to be helpful to students with different levels of understanding of Buddhism, which is – I agree – a remarkable achievement. She was less pleased with its somewhat limited distribution: student numbers were once 300 a year and have petered down to only a few dozens due to an inconsistent marketing strategy and the competition of an increasing number of other Buddhist courses. Lama Shenpen blames Karma for it: she thinks it must be due to karma that she was not able to attract and retain supporters with the skills and capacity to disseminate her message more widely. And it must be karma that shaped the course of her activities and determined the outcome.
It is an interesting question: “Whom does one inspire?”. There is a page in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy that describes the gathering of a great army: witches, gipsy warriors, angels glowing with fierce energy and the formidable armored bears of Svalbard all responding when the ambiguous, shady but unmistakably alpha male Lord Asriel raises his standard and pitches his battle against God. Whom would I inspire? I tried it a few times, leadership. My first attempt was at school: I was eleven and I had just left my primary school and started attending the big kids’ school, which was on the other side of the village and required adult supervision to get to due to the Via Giardini, a busy thoroughfare whose fast and relentless traffic cuts the village of Casinalbo in two. It took me a few weeks to work out who were the three or four people in my class that I liked best; having ascertained that – during one morning playground break – I wrote a few invitations to join my newly minted Society for the Protection of Animals and then gave the bewildered chosen few an invitation each. Nobody responded, which I can see now is unsurprising since I failed to query their interests and desires and did not even wonder whether THEY liked me, but the observation takes none of the sting out of that failure. I have learnt a few tricks over the years and tried my hand at leadership again a few times. Not many and not that successfully either. Karma…
I asked Lama Shenpen why she has not written a book to make her teachings more accessible and she said that she hoped that her book: “There is more to dying than death” might attract more people and spark an interest in her work but again blamed insufficient publicity for its limited reach. I wondered about the market appeal of a book that has “dying” and “death” in its title but I was still cringing for having to admit that I had not read it and said nothing about it. I returned instead to the idea of a book aimed openly at popularising Lama Shenpen’s work and she said that she considered it repeatedly and intends to do it but haven’t done it yet because her Sangha work is too taxing on her time to leave her the opportunity to write such a book. I can believe that: if you enrol in her course, you can (and are encouraged to) contact her either in writing or on the telephone. I have done it once with some thorny questions and received a very detailed and insightful message that was actually helpful. I have read dozens of such emails: every week Lama Shenpen’s editor strips the messages of their personal details and distributes a student’s question and Lama Shenpen’s answer to the whole of her community. The questions are as varied as there are students: a few I can relate to, find intriguing or inspiring or comforting; the majority I put in the not applicable, show off, misguided, arcane (how many Pali words can one stuff in a three sentences email?), political (should liturgy be toned up or down at the Sangha?) categories that lead straight to my recycling bin. The answers are unflinchingly engaged, kind and thoughtful and betray a genuine attempt to be helpful. That work alone must cost hours every day.
I truly admire Lama Shenpen’s drive to engage fully: towards the end of our conversation, I asked her what she loves most and what she hates most of her practice, which is not that exciting a question and betrays some fatigue on my part. Instead of dodging the question or answering it flippantly, she pondered a while and when she started talking again her tone was deeper and her voice had the energy of the flutter of birds’ wings. What she said was alive: “I love the direct pointing out instructions, there is that sense of truth, freshness and revelation that goes with that insight so I just absolutely live for that and I trust that, I really trust that and it is what I like most to give to others. What do I hate most? A big problem with Tibetan Buddhism is overloading: it is such a rich tradition and they have so many transmissions that they can give, that it is very easy to get overloaded and to feel that you have so many pieces of practice to do that you are not doing any of them properly and that is a horrible feeling and – I think – a huge problem with Tibetan Buddhism and I try to make sure that I don’t put that onto my students and that I don’t put it onto myself, actually: that I only do what I feel is genuinely inspiring and helpful and I don’t just do a lot of stuff because you have been told that you are supposed to do all this stuff every day and keep up with it all and you end up feeling pressured by your practice so that is something that I try to protect my students from. Unsuccessfully –she added laughing – but I try”.
Finally, I asked Lama Shenpen whether I had left anything important out and she remembered not to have answered my question of how she became a Lama and decided to tell that story: “When Khempo Rimpoche was training myself and Rigdzin Shikpo, there were not really many Western Lamas. He said that Rigdzin Shikpo realization was very profound [so] we asked: “should we be called Lamas?” and he kept saying: “no, no, not necessarily”; so we did not call ourselves Lamas and then one day a student of mine went to a teaching on Mahamudra by Trungpa Rinpoche and she was told that for Mahamudra you ought to have a Lama so she came back and asked: “Are you a Lama?” because she was my student and she wanted to learn Mahamudra. So I asked Khenpo Rinpoche: “My student wants to learn Mahamudra; will I teach her? And am I a Lama?” and he said: “Yes, of course!” and that is how I became a Lama”. Was there a ceremony? – I asked – “No, just like that!” she said laughing. “If I had said no, she would have had to find someone else to teach her Mahamudra so I had to say yes, of course […]. And I have asked Khenpo Rinpoche about transmission: I have asked him: “You have given me permission to teach Mahamudra, do I have permission to give other people permission to transmit it?” And he said: “If they have enough faith in you, you can; if you have enough faith in them and you think they understand, you can”. In that sense, I feel confident that the Sangha now has the potential to be a transmission lineage”.
I felt baffled by such no-nonsense bestowing of authority. I am used to the imagery of chanting monks, colourful mandalas, robes, bells, crowded altars; even masked dancing oracles that are associated with Tibetan Buddhism and I asked whether that conforms to tradition; whether it is normal for a Lama to be made in such a way. Lama Shenpen: “It is the normal way. It is the yogic way. The way of the yogins: so you have in Buddhism your yogins, or your transmission of the actual experience in meditation and insight but you also have Buddhist institutions: monastic institutions or lineage institutions […] and they can in fact start to work at odds with each other but the tradition is that the institutions are quite secondary to the transmissions. What liberates is the transmission of the realisation: that is the liberation. The other institutions are the exoteric support for the esoteric transmissions but the esoteric transmission side has always been just from teacher to student. There is nothing else”.
|Lama Shenpen Hookham||http://www.buddhism-connect.org/|
|Lama Rigdzin Shikpo||http://www.longchenfoundation.org/aboutFounder.html|
|Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche||http://www.ktgrinpoche.org/index.html|
|Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche||http://www.shambhala.org/teachers/chogyam-trungpa.php|
|Karma Thinley Rinpoche||http://www.karmathinleyrinpoche.com/|
|Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche||http://shechen.org/wp/spiritual-development/teachers/dilgo-khyentse-rinpoche/|
My wife picked Nano out of the 61 gigs at the 2009 Mullumbimby Music Festival. We were going through the program judging performers by their portraits. I glanced at his free flowing “Joanne D’Arc” hairdo and flicked the page while she noticed his grin and picked him as the most openhearted artist on the program. She was right.
Watching Nano perform was a revelation: he is a gifted musician blessed with unstoppable, contagious energy. His ballads have the romantic quality of lullabies and his crescendos lift the soul and command movement. To my mind, Nano’s music combines the poetic genius of Ivano Fossati with Jovanotti’s vitality. If you are not Italian and don’t know what I am talking about, you’ll have to trust me at face value. Alternatively, get your hands on Fossati’s live double album “Buontempo” and Jovanotti’s “Lorenzo 1994”. It will be like dressing your stereo in vintage Armani…
What was truly special about Nano’s performance was his storytelling: the anecdotes he used to introduce his songs were told with humour and disarming honesty. His tales touched the public with the force of their reality. In concert, he talked about staying at a Belgrade squat where the bathroom doubled up as a pigpen and having the surreal experience of sitting on the toilet looking Pepsa, the pet pig, in the eyes. He also shared intimate memories of his late father accepting his choice of becoming a professional musician. “Lucky boy!” I thought with more than a hint of envy. Explaining my life choices to my dad had been a painstakingly slow losing battle against an army of fears. He sometimes accepted my decisions with a loving leap of fate but understanding them was out of question. To the day of his death, he dismissed my wanting more than a safe job in the village I was born as a foolish bout of optimism. Bonehead.
Nano’s style intrigued me so I wrote him a fan email with a request for an interview, which he granted. We agreed to meet at the sound-check before his last concert in town and have a beer and a chat between the technical stuff and the show. He had just returned from the Woodford Folk Festival, where he performed for six days straight and forgot to sleep. He was freshly showered, which gave him a new lease of life but seemed exhausted and a bit concerned about the state of his voice. I watched Nano pacing the stage getting the gear ready and thought that he moved like someone who inhabits his head more than his body. I wondered whether he kept his head bent forward because he liked the feel of his hair slapping his cheeks at every step or whether he was worried to trip over a loose cable and looked down for safety reasons? I wondered whether he had expected that I would be younger?
Once seated at the Courthouse Hotel in front of a couple of schooners of Coopers, I asked when he decided to become a professional musician. “Ever since I was a kid, I don’t remember ever wanting to be anything else – he said simply – apart from being a soccer player, of course”. He remembers the moment when his love affair with music began precisely: his elder brother did not want to go, so his mum took Nano – age three – to an orchestra performance. The experience touched him so deeply that from then on, his heart was set on becoming a musician. He started taking lessons and was playing the violin at three. “It was a violin-shaped piece of cardboard, at first”, he qualifies. He raved about the Suzuki method used at his school and likened it to the Steiner teaching philosophy because the learning process is fostered without using an authoritarian approach. He thinks that children, who learn with Suzuki’s method develop a unique relationship with music that stays with them for life. He said that he can spot people that learned music the way he did. I wondered whether my two-year old son might be musically gifted? Our jam sessions of Hey Diddle Diddle are not promising…
Nano landed his first professional gig at fourteen, playing base guitar for Chilean rock group Matorral; at nineteen, he started his solo career and he has been on the road ever since. Touring keeps Nano away from home for ten months a year (home still is Santiago del Chile). He sings in Spanish but the entries on his travel journal are in a collection of different idioms. He laughs when I tell him that he speaks Italian with a thick Roman accent, and blames a past girlfriend for it. He remembers meeting Brian Dubb – his manager – on the plateau of Cuzco, Peru, where they found each other playing guitar on the same terrace; the breathtaking views having inspired them both. The friendship started at high altitude was rekindled in 2007, when Brian invited Nano to Australia for a tour that promised little money but a healthy dose of fun. His performance at Woodford (QLD) Folk Festival earned him an invitation to Port Fairy (VIC) Festival and since then he has found himself on the dry continent often.
Nano’s new song – composed on a week’s break at the hippy hamlet of Crystal Waters – has no words and not even a title yet, which led our conversation towards the creative process: for Nano music comes before lyrics. He considers himself “A connected musician more than a connected lyricist”. I asked what he meant with “connected” and he described the musician as a conduit more than a creator: “You don’t create music – he said – you compose it; you put things together, find them, more than creating them”. Sometimes his experience is blessed with great clarity: “Once or twice, I have picked up the guitar and written a whole new song in one go”. After a short pause he adds with amazement: “Something that was not there before”; at other times, he may toil with an idea that intrigues him for a whole year; “ant’s work”, he calls it.
On stage, his main concern is to connect with the public. His aim is to be “fully present, honest, real and personal”. Nano prepares by entering a calm, almost meditative, state; he is prone to hyperventilating and knows the adrenaline rushes will come; calm is what he seeks before the show. He strives to become physically and mentally supple, to connect with himself and become a good medium. “People can sense whether or not you are enjoying being there –he added – enjoying it in the broadest of senses: you could be happy or sad; what matters is being content and accepting of what is happening to you”.
“I perform to create something beautiful, otherwise I may as well stay at home”, he added with a smile. I could not agree more with the objective of creating beauty but the introvert in me finds it hard to relate to his open – almost unguarded – stage style so I asked whether he has reservations about sharing intimate stories with his public and he said that it would be tempting to tell those stories over and over again just to explain what he is trying to do with his music but that he shares openly only when he feels a real connection with the public. “If the connection is there, expressing your feelings is valid and can be very relieving. It is a bit like talking about your feelings within a relationship: it makes you feel much better than hiding from them”.
Listening to Nano talk about music reminds me of my Buddhist teacher: she is an elderly Welsh Lama with a librarian’s smile and a gift for subtlety and she talks about the pursuit of happiness using an uncannily similar vocabulary to Nano’s, which prompted a question about religion. Nano seemed startled by the conversation’s non sequitur. To my surprise because he sounds so Buddhist, he does not think of himself as Buddhist. He described himself as Jewish with a sense of belonging to a tribe more than a religion; he sounded firmly secular and a bit weary of the subject and said he feels “spiritual but not religious”.
I took a picture of him and then left to give him time for a bite before the show and while I waited for that to start, I played his latest album: “Los Espejos”, which is confident and inspired and has not left my car stereo all Summer. As I often do, I played all of its eleven tracks and listened to the last song – “Opticas Ilusiones” – twice, as a treat.
|Nano Stern on the net:||http://www.myspace.com/nanostern|
“Do you mind looking ugly?” is an unsettling question coming from anyone pointing a camera at you; it is positively discouraging when the photographer in question specializes in beauty. I make a mental note to cross out modeling from the list of careers I might try when my mid-life crisis hits in earnest and then pose for Alex, who wants to test how my camera renders skin tones.
I had arranged to meet Sintawee Sittirangsan AKA Alex Photopaint at his office in one of Darlinghurst’s back lanes. The “office” turns out to be a fancy computer crammed in his kitchen’s back corner. We had planned to go out for drinks but he has a bad cold and our common interest is photography so we get straight into shoptalk and spend the evening looking at pictures and discussing the weird and wonderful world of fashion photography.
I am familiar with Alex’s work from what he posts on the net and from attending the same course at the Australian Centre for Photography (ACP), in Paddington. At the time, he bowled the whole class over with a stunning assignment shot of an amateur model taken with cheap lights from the local hardware store. The tutor, an old fox with an eye for talent pointed him towards portrait photography and, in the two years since I last saw Alex, he has become the photographer of choice for Sydney’s male models when putting together their portfolios.
I wonder aloud where he finds his clients and how he markets himself and he says simply that clients find him more than the other way around. What started with a handsome friend (Nathan Kelly) needing help showing off his good looks became an eye-catching portrait of a gloomy angel with wings of fire. The image, powered by Facebook’s networking might, kick-started the careers of model and photographer alike. Alex is so engrossed in his work that he refers to that first photo shoot as the beginning of his life.
We browse through his early work and I spot an excellent shot: it is a barren stone staircase after a storm; the night lights reflecting onto the wet surfaces make them look shiny and rather beautiful. I compliment him on the image and he answers pointedly: “Yes, but what for?”. He then logs onto Google and searches for his name. A host of pages from DNA Magazine’s blog pop up, each one showcasing one of Alex’s clients. He opens a few and points proudly to the viewers’ counts, which run in the thousands. It is a good point: a creative pursuit requires mastery of the chosen medium, a vision and, most of all, an audience. I recently set up my own website and I am planning to print greeting cards with some of my images and I understand well the urge to have one’s work viewed. What is it for, otherwise? He points at something else on the computer screen: each and every picture of a client carries his website address. “These guys are going places”, he says, and wherever they go, I go with them”. I did not study marketing at university, I specialized in finance, but it does not take a degree to appreciate how, being watermarked on a pair of healthy-looking buns might do wonders for one’s brand.
The aforementioned buns lead us to talk about nudity: Alex chuckles recounting how embarrassed he felt at first taking the shots. “I am Thai, you know, I was not used to the display of so much flesh but the clients wanted sexy images and seemed comfortable taking their kit off…” I have no difficulties believing him: taking one’s shirt off might not be an original strategy for a gym bunny at the beginning of his modeling career but an effective one, I suspect. Lily Allens says it with harsh clarity in one of her songs: “…// And I’ll take my clothes off and it will be shameless / Cause everyone knows that is how you get famous /…”; and I can easily see how his clients would feel comfortable being scantily clad in front of him: for all his steamy pictures, there is not an ounce of sleaziness in Alex; when he gets behind the camera he loses his shyness (but not his kindness) and becomes surefooted to the point of stubbornness. He is totally absorbed in what he is doing and that, I am sure, makes the people working with him feel at ease whether their shirt is on or off.
Another image that sparked an interesting discussion is a headshot of a blank-looking dude. I find it inexpressive and that gets Alex going: “But that is the look I am going for! It took me hours to get that blank expression”. He digs up the RAW files and here he is: the same handsome dude (Cheyne William Armstrong) frowning, smiling, sneezing, looking insecure at first and then positively bored and then eventually, displaying a full set of relaxed facial muscles and a blank stare. I find looking at the dud shots comforting: they make this modern-day Adonis appear human, which is the problem, I guess. “They need to look like objects” insists Alex and pulls out a glossy fashion magazine; he flicks through the advertising pages and there they are: one blank stare after another selling Gucci, Prada, Dior and all their lesser cousins. A hint of a frown is all they can afford; anything more would spoil the image and the model’s prospect of getting more work. I take his point but wonder whether a fashion brand brave enough to show off its creations on models looking less like dummies and more like sentient beings might be successful in attracting the public’s attention. Neither of us is Donatella Versace so there is little point in debating my wishful thinking; I ask Alex, instead, what might be the next challenge he takes on. He says that he wants to work in high fashion and, with a team of skilled makeup artists, a growing pool of female clients and his trademark determination, I reckon he will be working for Vogue before my son starts preschool. There is a snag though, the beauty industry is highly segmented and most of Alex’s clients are Bondi Beefcakes who might look unforgettable in Speedos but are too bulky to ever work for Zegna. Alex’s portfolio might need a bunch of tall, lean, good-looking guys and a few more ethereal female beauties for him to crack the dressed segment of the fashion industry. If you have got the right looks and aspire to the glossy world of fashion, start practicing the blank stare and then give him a ring.
Time flies and what was meant to be a quick drink ends up being a four-hour fascinating conversation. Throughout the evening, Alex’s description of his photographic journey keeps reminding me of Ken Robinson’s “The Element”. Robinson’s pivotal point is that finding what it is that we are both good at and passionate about, unleashes our creative potential and makes us happy. His book is peppered with examples of all sorts of successful people who, having discovered their gift, deploy it to astonishing effect. Alex Photopaint’s story is unfolding much like one of Robinson’s textbook examples; watching him “swim in his element” is nothing short of delightful.
|Alex Photopaint’s website:||http://www.alexphotopaint.net/|