Was Chekhov a Buddhist?


Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

‘My life passed as if I had not lived’, says Firs, the old family servant at the end of The Cherry Orchard, and it’s a thought that could be echoed by many of the characters in Chekhov’s plays. They live in a fantasy world of the past or some imagined future, and as  if at one remove from their present reality and situation in life.

In a similar way, the Buddha diagnosed the root cause of our problems as suffering, or perhaps dissatisfaction might be a better translation, which arises from either clinging on to things or pushing things away from us. We live life as if in a trance, hardly aware of what we are doing. This state of being he called samsara which literally means ‘going round in circles’.      

Characterising the impermanence of life, the Buddha compared it to:

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

In Buddhism, the past does not exist and the future has not yet come, so the only thing we can access is the present moment. It is the only point at which we can have direct contact with reality, everything else is a mental construction. That is why there is such an emphasis in Buddhism on awareness and mindfulness in everyday life: it helps us to become aware of our habitual patterns of behaviour and gives us a wider choice of response. We don’t automatically have to fly off the handle when something goes wrong or someone crosses us. Gradually, and slowly and painfully, through waking up in the crucible of meditation, we can find other ways of reacting that perhaps aren’t as harmful to other people and ourselves.

In his plays Chekhov depicts characters painfully locked in a samsara-like state, in delusive and ultimately self-destructive patterns of behaviour. The sisters in Three Sisters constantly hark back to their previous life in Moscow and fantasize about a future life in Moscow. Gayev and Ranyevskaya in The Cherry Orchard can only see the estate as it was when they were children. Even progressive characters, like Dr Astrov in Uncle Vanya fantasize, about a better future when they will no longer be alive.

Chekhov was an atheist. In his youth though he had been a server at church in Taganrog and knew the Bible well and his friend, the painter Repin, consulted him on details from the Bible when painting some of his pictures. Modern scholars have also noted subtle Biblical echoes in the texts of his short stories. But there is no denying that at first sight the Chekhovian vision of life as depicted in his plays is a bleak one. He seems to be telling that  life is better lived without delusions or fantasies that blind us to the life we have before us right now. One of the starkest expression of this is at the end of Three Sisters when the sisters are left on stage listening to the retreating music from the military band as the soldiers leave the town and Olga says to her sisters:

O, dear sisters, our life isn’t over yet. We shall live! The music is so happy and joyful and it seems in a short while we shall find out why we live , why we suffer…if only we knew. If only we knew!

This lyrical flight is however undercut by the military doctor, Chebutykhin, singing quietly to himself:

Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay… I’m sitting on a bollard…It makes no difference! It makes no difference!

Chebutykhin is singing a popular music-hall song of the 1890s, but in Russian it has different, darker words which are not completed in the play, but they go something like this:

Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay

I’m sitting on a bollard.

I’m weeping bitter tears

Because I have no meaning.

It’s perhaps one of the darkest endings of any play that I know.

I have no evidence that Chekhov was a Buddhist, nor even how widely Buddhist ideas were disseminated in late nineteenth century Russia. Certainly Buddhist ideas had become more widely known in western Europe in this period: even Wagner at his death was planning a music drama on the life of the Buddha (what an interesting work that would have been!). Chekhov never went to India, but on his way back to central Russian from Sakhalin he did spend three days in Ceylon. (modern day Sri Lanka).

Despite my provocative title I am inclined to think that it is a coincidence of ideas. There’s an interesting work by the scholar R H Blyth on Zen ideas prefigured in English literature in his book Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics.

Chekhov's grave, Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow

Chekhov’s grave, Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow

Seeing beyond the camera manual

For a while now I have felt that my photography is not going anywhere. It’s repetitive, not creative, technically average and frankly rather dull: just snapshots really. How to improve?

Through a combination of circumstances, I had the idea of doing a project on a particular theme, to help give me a focus and a way of improving my technique.

After my first day’s shooting, I wasn’t satisfied with the results and wanted to get an objective view on my pictures to help me see how I could improve. So I asked a friend to do a critique of these first shots. I thought before I saw her that the shots were OK, but they just didn’t grab me as engaging images. So I expected my friend to suggest improvements in composition and point of view.

‘All these images are too soft’, she started.’What did you take them with?’

‘My 18-105mm Nikon’ I replied.

‘Don’t use a zoom lens. The glass quality isn’t good enough for what you’re trying to do. You need to use a prime lens, preferably a 50mm which gives the same sort of view that your eye sees. The type of photography you’re doing is reportage. So what are you trying to say with these shots?’, she asked.

I tried to articulate the purpose of my project which is aimed at capturing old country crafts and in particular the end to end processes involved.

‘Photographs should tell a story. It should be clear what the shot is showing. So, for example, if you’re shooting someone tying a knot, then it should be clear that this is what they are doing. They should also show the craftsman at work in the context of his craft. You should look at the work at the great reportage photographers, Emerson, James Ravilious, Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau.’

So now it’s almost like I am starting in photography again but this time with renewed purpose and a clearer sense of where I am going . I have put my zoom lens away and live with my 35mm lens (roughly equivalent to 50mm on my cropped frame sensor) on my camera. I have to move around much more to find better angles to shoot from rather than standing in the same place and using the zoom on the lens to move in closer for me.

I am now very conscious of what’s in the frame when I’m shooting and I try to think about what the picture is saying. Of course, all this feels very artificial and clumsy because I am not used to shooting photographs in this way. But it’s essential if I am to improve my photography.

One other recommendation from my friend that I am finding challenging is studying the work of other photographers. I do look at a lot of photographs, but with an uncritical eye. I tend to register like, dislike or indifference and then pass quickly on. Rarely do I look beyond that initial reaction at why I react in the way I do. In the past week I have been looking at the work of a local photographer who published a book of her pictures of local crafts. Many of these are very well composed and captured, and I find myself thinking about them a lot, though I find it very difficult to articulate what makes some work well and others work less so. Nor do I understand how this will carry over into my own picture-making.

This all seems strange and new to me. It’s going beyond photographic technique to trying to train myself to ‘see’, to look at the world with an artist’s eye. And that’s not something I have done before which is why it seems so hard. I look forward to starting out on this new journey and sharing my experience, both good and bad, on this blog.

A Christmas Pantomime

Pantomime is a curiously English form of theatrical performance. The word pantomime has a Greek original referring to a popular form of entertainment, but it came to England in the eighteenth century by way of the characters in the Commedia dell’arte. However, it’s somehow difficult to imagine it as anything other than quintessentially English. An English pantomime is a hearty helping of earthy, physical humour with a sprinkling of coarseness.

These shots are from the dress rehearsal of a pantomime called Jack and the Beanstalk, where the principal boy is a played by a girl and the Dame (Jack’s mother) is played by a man. Pantomimes usually contain a lot of slapstick comedy, an animal (in this case a cow) played by actors in a costume, a bit of innuendo, topical references, puns and jokes so old weak they wouldn’t make the cut as cracker mottoes, and of course audience participation.

Here’s the Dame with her two sons, Simple Simon and Jack.

The Dame with Simple Simon and Jack

and the King and the Dame:

The King and the Dame

Jack and the Princess:


Jack’s family is so hard up that the Debt Collectors put his family’s house up for sale. Needless to say the Debt Collectors are in to physical comedy in a big way…

Debt Collectors

… as are most of the other characters in fact. Here there’s a classic cake baking scene which starts to get out of hand:

Cake making scene

There’s also a Rat Catcher and a wicked Witch in league with the Giant:

Rat Catcher & wicked Witch

The Rat Catcher tries to involve the Debt Collectors in kidnapping the Princess:

Rat Catcher & Debt Collectors

Rat Catcher & Debt Collectors

The Princess is carried off by the Rat Catcher, put under the Giant’s spell and guarded by rats:

Princess under the Giant's spell

…until she is rescued by Jack and the King:

The Princess rescued by Jack & the King

The Dame

The villagers' delight

The Rat Catcher & the wicked Witch

Fire and Ice: the influence of Orthodoxy

Greek church dome

It’s some time since I last did a post on the influence of Byzantium & Greece on Russia. So today I want to look at one obvious link – Orthodox Christianity.

Vladimir of Kiev willingly adopted Orthodoxy as part of his alliance by marriage with the Byzantine Emperor. Priests, architects, icon painters, translators moved to Kiev to help establish Orthodoxy in this new land and soon churches started to spring up in the city.

The Byzantine basilica style of church architecture was adapted for the Russian climate. Initially Kievan churches were built out of wood before they moved to the use of stone. The familiar onion domes only became the main distinguishing feature of Russian Orthodox churches from the 13th century onwards. Before that churches featured either raised or helmeted domes. There doesn’t seem to be any convincing reason for this change in dome design: perhaps it was for practical reasons to stop snow settling on them and water coming through the roof; perhaps they were really meant to symbolise a candle, though I can think of shapes that more accurately mimic candles.

When Russians were baptised into the Orthodox Church they started to use the names of saints, many of whom were of course Greek. The custom was to name a child after the Saint on whose day the child was baptised. These names were contained in minei, books which described church services to be used each day and the saints to be venerated and also menologia, calendars of Saints’ days. Minei were among the first books to be translated from Greek into Russian. To the ordinary Russians these adopted foreign names must have sounded very strange and they continued to use the old pagan names alongside their new Christian first names right up until the eighteenth century.

Greek first names, suitably Russified, thus started to percolate through Russian society: Vasily, Dmitry, Nikolai, Aleksandr, Mikhail, Irina, Elena, Maria, Anna, Ekaterina, to name but a few. And it was icon painting that made these saints familiar to worshippers, a devotional form of art to which Russia became particularly attached.

In the fifteenth century, the penultimate Byzantine Emperor, John VIII Palaiologos, was desperate for a union of the churches in order to get military support against the Ottomans. So in 1439 at the Council of Florence he negotiated with the Papacy a union of the eastern and western churches that was never actually accepted by his own people. Tsar Vasily II rejected this agreement and in 1448 the Russian church appointed a Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia, independent of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Five years later Byzantium had fallen.

Greek and Russian Orthodox churches today have some clear differences. Greek churches have seats in them whereas Russian churches have no seating at all, the congregation remains standing throughout the services. In the Russian church only the priest, the deacon and the choir vocally participate in services; in the Greek church services are a dialogue between the priest and psaltis (cantor) and normally (except in monasteries and cathedrals) there is no choir.  Interestingly in Russia it is becoming increasingly common for the congregation to join in the chanting of the Creed during the Liturgy.

Floods on the Somerset Levels and Muchelney

This week I had to go to the little village of Muchelney on the Somerset Levels in connection with a project I am working on. Muchelney has attracted national interest because for the past couple of weeks or so it has been cut off by the flood water that has turned large parts of this low-lying part of England into an enormous lake.

My project is not connected with the flood, but I would like to share some of the pictures I took on the way to and from the village.

On the approach from the north, the main road between Langport and Muchelney is still flooded. The brother of the person who ferried me in to the village had driven it in a Landrover and found the water four feet deep in places. The water came up over his bonnet and, though it didn’t get into his engine and kill it, it did start coming in through his air vents.

So my approach was from the south via the village of Kingsbury Episcopi. Here is the road (yes, it’s a road not a river) seen through the windscreen as we start on the approach to Muchelney.

Muchelney - approach from Kingsbury Episcopi

The water level on the road is at the same height as the flooded fields on either side.

Muchelney - approach road

Muchelney - approach road

Of course some of the houses in the village have flooded and over 100 people have had to be evacuated (the population is only just over 200). This medieval house stands on the edge of the village and the floods can be seen in the background on the left of the house.


Muchelney was mentioned in the Domesday Book and is famous for its ruined abbey founded in the 10th century and its 14th century Priest’s House. It often floods in winter – Muchelney means ‘big island’ in Anglo-Saxon – but this is said to be the worst flood in 100 years.

Looking across the garden of a house on the edge of the village at the flood water:

Looking at the flood water from MuchelneyIn the village itself the roads are dry and free of flooding. Vehicles coming in are he subject of intense interest, as the inhabitants try to gauge from speaking to the drivers whether the flood waters are going down.

Muchelney village

At the height of the flood a local farmer laid on a tractor and trailer service to enable people to get into and out of the village. But others have resorted to a different form of transport to cope with the flooding:

Boat on the edge of Muchelney

At one point I started to walk back from the village into the flood water, just to see what it was like and took a few shots along the way.

Road out of Muchelney

But it’s not long before the water starts to get deeper.

Road out of Muchelney

Road out of Muchelney

Road out of Muchelney

Flooded fields - Muchelney

Flooded fields - Muchelney

I turned back when the water had got about 8-10″ up my Wellingtons and when I realised, from the freezing cold water seeping into them, that they were no longer waterproof.

Later I got a lift back to Kingsbury Episcopi to pick up my car and took a few final shots on the way:

Flooded fields _DSC0187

Dry land comes into sight as we start to emerge from the flood water.