The Anatomy of Impermanence

On Buddhist Photography by Manabu Yamanaka
Mort Yao
Everything that has a beginning has an end.

As I was sitting in this becomingly heated room on a late autumn night, wrapping myself in a bath towel and enjoying the best port wine I ever had, with an erotic gravure poster of my favorite idols ahead, I wondered why I would be writing this up – I ought to be learning math and computer programming for the sake of my future career, or brainlessly entertaining myself with movies and sitcoms like I’m in the Matrix. But beyond my little pathetic comfort zone, I knew I couldn’t unsee the non-negotiable truth regardless of all my longings and insistences for life, that is, I, like anyone else alive, am always embodying the aging process from life to death. All is impermanent. All is about decaying and incrementing entropy.

Born and raised in a mostly non-religious country, I had no affiliation with any spiritual beliefs or so. The interpretations of existential Gods never appealed to me for their unfalsifiabilities, and I am also reluctant to disaffirm the existence of supernaturality as I don’t find a convincing definition of what is considered to be “natural” in a formalized physical world; as a result, I seek for pleasure from both science and art: Something you can either easily or tryingly sketch a proof, as well as something you just don’t know why it attracts (or disturbs) you without a reason. Among all art forms, I was not that into photography; I mean, I didn’t care about who did what and all those technical stuff. What I do care is what concepts they try to convey to viewers (even if sensual, subjective or offensive!); if something comes up with a great shock value, it’s usually worth having since it exists while being so heterogeneous from the others. After all, the reality has to be perceived by every individual, in some way ultimately; and this is not something from which you could just walk away.

So was there a universal God who created us, ruled us and judged us, within any reasonable perception of human minds? Buddhists said no. Why were there life and death with aging and illness all along that no one could escape? Why would people feel sorrows and pains? Why were some born superior, while some were suffering abnormalities or living their lives in poverty? Theravāda Buddhist philosophers put forward the “three marks of existence” (or three axioms of existence, if spoken more academic-mindedly) to characterize our woefully imperfect world, which stated that

  1. All conditioned things are impermanent. (諸行無常)
  2. All conditioned things are unsatisfiable. (諸行皆苦)
  3. All phenomena are not things-in-themselves. (諸法無我)

For someone who fortunately resides in such a prosperous era nowadays, those things may not be as manifest as they once were. Civilization shaped us in a way that we instinctively reject whatever disgusts us or comes against the common social value. Still, the more we deconstruct by negating our satisfying illusions, the more underlying internality of existence may we find.

Manabu Yamanaka (山中学), a Buddhist-influenced Japanese photographer, made a distinct visual demonstration of the notion of impermanence in Buddhism through the beauty of art photography. Born in the industrial city of Amagasaki, where most residents were local factory workers at that time, he was surrounded by a rooted religious neighborhood where traditional Buddhist festivals held from time to time. A severe traffic accident in his childhood put him into a near-death experience; after staying in a coma caused by injury for ten days, he miraculously survived, meanwhile, he found that his pet dog died in his stead. Since then, he immersed himself in Buddhism, expressed his ideas and posed some profound questions in his artworks from the perspective of a photographer.

To be honest, I have seen very little serious attempt in fine arts that explores the concepts and traits of matters such like sex, giving birth, aging, illness and deformity, and most significantly, death. There ought to be more. Even if deemed as taboos in most cultures, they framed the exact way we live and die. When I first saw Manabu Yamanaka’s photographs, they appeared to be truly sickening to me, but why – Why would I be sickened by something that existed and will probably continue to exist in this material world? Why would I be scared when someone was simply revealing the cruelty of reality in front of my face? Eventually I started to think of those depicted forms in his works, then I rethought of myself – About what personal experiences and causes made me unlike the others, but rather me as living today; and how is my suffering – if any – different than other people. It’s not clear to me at all why beings are formed into beings and how causal actions take their effects on them; more accurately speaking, I would see such arts as an anatomical vision of Buddhist impermanence (“aniccā”), which demonstrates all entities intuitively and makes people feel and think on themselves, without overwhelmingly explained or even distorted theories.

Trying not to add my subjective interpretations to these, let me introduce some of Manabu Yamanaka’s selected works. Surely you already have an idea of what this is all about, so you’ve been warned.

(Check out more photos by Manabu Yamanaka on his website:

For reasons unknowable, not every life is welcomed into this world.
And yet for a fleeting moment this tiny embryo, barred from
admission before ever having the chance to utter its first cry,
bequeathed to me an everlasting image of its perfect beauty.

– Manabu Yamanaka, Wukong Mang Mang Ran (無空 茫々然)

In a rest home I met a young girl. She was nothing but skin and bones, barely even breathing
while she lie down. Why was she born like this, and what are we supposed to learn from it?
To understand the meaning of her existence, I decided to photograph her.

– Manabu Yamanaka, Jyoudo (浄土)

I started early in the morning by bicycle for searching them in busy streets and parks.
When I found them, I asked them by saying “Please let me take your snap shots”
However, they would’t let me take the pictures so easily.
They hated it and walked away. I followed them and asked again and again.
I continued to follow them in spite of their spitting and hitting on me until they tired out with their patience.
They finally allowed me to take some pictures of them.

I am sure those persons deserve to be called ‘Arakan’ who severs the ties of flesh and is assiduous in practicing austerities.

– Manabu Yamanaka, Arakan (阿羅漢)

In my mind, I was thinking of Buddhist four(4) pains namely ‘birth’.‘age’, ‘disease’. and ‘death’.
And I had a desire to make photograph of either ‘age’ or ‘disease’ out of them.
After selection, I found only some pictures of old women of about 90 years of age left.
I thought those pictures depict faithfully “The last physical body of human who is just vanishing away”

– Manabu Yamanaka, Gyahtei (羯諦)

The thin bone of this corpse exposed a beauty and vulnerability reminiscent of Haniwa, which made me decide to photograph it.

– Manabu Yamanaka, Fujohkan (不浄観)

Just for this one, I have a few words to add: The horrific depiction of body decomposition was a common motif in old-days Buddhist paintings, which are referred as Kusōzu (九相図, “image of nine phases”) in Japanese. Taking root from the meditation of Patikulamanasikara (Fujōkan, 不浄観), where practitioners contemplate dissected human body parts as an approach to eradicate fleshly desire and sensual pleasures, the observation of postmortem bodies is somewhat traditionary and mentally pedagogical in Buddhism, rather than an exotic ritual of savagery. A little out of topic though, there was once a Japanese empress, Tachibana no Kachiko (橘嘉智子), a.k.a. Empress Danrin, who was renowned for her beauty as well as her deep piety in Buddhism, asked for leaving her lifeless body exposing and decaying in the wild field of Katabira ga Tsuji after she died, just to showcase people the truth of impermanence: No existence abides eternally in this physical world, and all conditioned things are doomed to degenerate.

Nine Phases of Ono no Komachi (小野小町九相図). Anraku-ji Temple, Kyoto.
Nine Phases of Ono no Komachi (小野小町九相図). Anraku-ji Temple, Kyoto.

Now, what do you think of these? Morbid, aesthetically compelling, inspiring, or just something you have easily got accustomed to? Precise as the anatomy, they are but a brief reflection of our mortal selves rested upon some composition of flesh and blood. Clinging to earthly lives and seeking to meet our different needs, we strive to be successful and realize self-actualization, but unavoidably tend to get lost in lust and fury. Humans are unequal, in a sense: Some are born advantageous and may achieve social dominance without much effort; while some are born with great physical challenges, suffering and struggling for wellness throughout their lifetimes. But beyond our individual diversity of experiences, we are – eventually are – made all equal, as the nature treats every existence unprejudicedly. There is no belongings of us that we could ever take away from this mundane world; and we ourselves are subjected to the impermanence whether we like it or not. So would there be a reason not to let our excess longings go, embrace the destined mortality and treat each other well?

We deserve to do better than what we’ve done. And the first things to do is to understand our constrained existences and to get over the fears. To finish up the initial intention of this glimpse (or “what I as an indevout secular could possibly learn from Manabu Yamanaka’s Buddhist photography”), here I quote a notable verse from the Diamond Sutra as my answer:

All conditioned phenomena
Are like an illusory dream, a fading bubble,
A drop of dew, a flash of lightning;
We shall perceive them as they are.