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 The Asian Reporter's

From The Asian Reporter, V14, #16 (April 13, 2004), page 20.

Sacred and gorgeous

To the Light: A Journey Through Buddhist Asia

By Sharon Collins

Norton, 2003

Hardcover, 164 pages, $29.95

By Josephine Bridges

To the Light is an extraordinary book. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but words and pictures together are priceless, especially when the words are selections from sacred writings and the photographs are the work of Sharon Collins.

The author wastes no time getting to the heart of the matter. Following the title page, dedication, and table of contents are these words from the Bhagavad Gita:

"There is no wisdom for a man without harmony,

and without harmony there is no contemplation.

Without contemplation there cannot be peace,

and without peace can there be joy?"

On the facing page is Collins’ photograph of a monk reading. Taken in Myanmar, it is a striking composition in white, red, black, and brown, and it is only the beginning.

Collins’ picture of a rainstorm in the distance beyond gentle central Tibetan hills is accompanied by text from the Tibetan Book of the Dead:

"Let go into the clear light, trust it, merge with it.

It is your own true nature, it is home."

A monastery library in Ladakh, India is unlike any library I have ever seen — there is nothing in the photo that resembles a book — and I want to go there right away. The words from Hitopadesa are a perfect match:

"Hear the essence of thousands of sacred books:

To help others is virtue; to hurt others is sin."

Sharon Collins certainly pays attention to the composition of her photographs. The smiling face of a Laotian child — whose body, immersed in muddy water, is invisible — is not in the center of the photo, where one would expect it, but way off to the side, giving the water itself a place of equal honor. The accompanying quotation from Buddhacarita refers to "joy, peace, and bliss."

A figure seated on the stern of a wooden boat surrounded by the blue water of Vietnam’s Hoi An harbor basks in a ray of sunlight. The Way of the Bodhisattva adds:

"Regard your body as a vessel,

A simple boat for going here and there.

Make of it a wish-fulfilling gem

To bring about the benefit of beings."

Words from Verses from the Center (translations of Mulamadhyamakakarika) bring this gorgeous and inspiring book to its conclusion:

"Life is no different from nirvana,

Nirvana no different than life.

Life’s horizons are nirvana’s:

The two are exactly the same."

Opposite this verse, a brightly painted empty boat rests on a beach in Thailand. Beyond the expanse of water are the misty shapes of hills, above are cumulus clouds in a blue sky. It’s a marvel.

Sharon Collins’ "Impressions" are included as an appendix. Not only can she take pictures, this woman can write. I’m a great fan of the rickety bus on the treacherous mountain road genre, and Collins’ description of the journey to Leh, Ladakh is a significant contribution: "What I never adjusted to, however, was sitting in the back, on the outside as our fully loaded bus, tilted backwards, did a K maneuver on the hairpin turns. During those times, I was never able to see any road at all from either the back or the side. Like a mantra, I would repeat to myself over and over, ‘The wheels are ahead, the wheels are ahead.’"

Readers who yearn for more of the sacred words included in To the Light will find a treasure trove of books at the end, where locations of photographs are also listed. You can read this book from cover to cover in forty-five minutes; you can return to it for a lifetime.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books