Oral Histories

Interview of Don Farber

Photographer known for his images of Buddhist life.
Many Branches, One Root: Buddhist Traditions in the Los Angeles Area
Asian American History
Biographical Note:
Photographer known for his images of Buddhist life.
Cline, Alex
Farber, Don
Persons Present:
Farber and Cline.
Place Conducted:
Farber's home in Santa Monica, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, series coordinator, UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research; musician; member, Order of Interbeing, Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism, ordained 2009 by Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. Farber was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content. The corrections made were then entered into the text by the Center for Oral History Research staff.
9.5 hrs.
Interviewee Retained Copyright
Series Statement:
The Many Branches, One Root series traces the histories and practices of a range of Buddhist traditions and communities in the greater Los Angeles area. Beginning in the early twentieth century, a succession of Buddhist traditions have put down roots in Los Angeles, each one providing spiritual support and a sense of community for the tradition’s immigrant population. By the late twentieth century many of those traditions had extended their reach beyond their original ethnic base to include an American-born, often largely Anglo, constituency. The series seeks to document the ethnic and immigrant roots of these traditions, as well as the changes that have resulted as traditions have accommodated to an American context. Series participants included monks, nuns, and lay people from Buddhist traditions from Japan, China, Tibet, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam and a mixture of immigrants and American-born practitioners.
Parents’ backgrounds as artists in New York— Tragedies in family background— Early childhood in Pasadena— Growing up in Laurel Canyon— Relationships with parents— Early education in Laurel Canyon and Hollywood— Notable neighbors and parents of friends— Early interest in photography— Lightly Jewish upbringing— Surfing in Santa Monica— Temporary family relocations to England and Brooklyn— Musical influences in Laurel Canyon— Attending Hollywood High School— Counterculture experiences— Travels in Europe and beginning at Manchester College of Art and Design— Becoming vegetarian— Studying photography under Seymour Rosen— Studying photography in Manchester— Returning home after travels— Continuing education at San Francisco Art Institute— Encountering Buddhism through Alan Watts’ seminars in L.A.
Further surfer culture involvement— Introduction to Buddhism through Unitarian Church camps— Music and psychedelic influences on finding Buddhism— Quitting cigarettes and marijuana— Influence of teachers in San Francisco— Making an experimental film in summer class at UCLA— Moving back to L.A. and finishing school at UCLA— Introduction to Eastern religions through photo study work on farm— Experience at Vedanta temple in Hollywood— Moving back home after receiving BFA— Three-day retreat by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche at International Buddhist Meditation Center (IBMC)— Involvement in workshops and Trungpa’s teachings— Connecting with Thich Thien-An and photographing Buddhist Vietnamese refugees— Photographing Thich Thien-An’s classes— IBMC involvement and connections to other Zen centers.
Attending and photographing Sufi musical performance Cosmic Mass in 1974— Dharma talks by Sasaki-roshi at Cimarron Zen Center— Drug culture influences on meditative practices— Differences between Hindu and Zen meditation practices— Thich Thien-An’s koan to Farber— Impact of Thich Thien-An’s cancer and death on community and on Farber— Thich Thien-An’s successors— Practicing with Taizan Maezumi-roshi at Zen Center of LA and photographing practices— Maezumi’s misconduct causes Farber to discontinue working with him.
Putting together photography exhibition of Vietnamese Buddhist refugees— Story of photograph of child monks in L.A.— Success of exhibition and later iterations— Experience writing grants— Exhibition becomes book Taking Refuge in L.A. — Exhibitions connected to book release— Interest in worldwide photography of Buddhism— Studying with Geshe Gyeltsen and photographing Tibetan Buddhists— Influences on Farber’s practice— Photographing grand opening of Hsi Lai Temple— Photographing consecration of Tibetan Buddhist stupa in New Mexico— Photographing Kalu Rinpoche and Dalai Lama— Encountering traditional Tibetan culture at Rinpoche’s funeral in India— Photographing Dalai Lama’s birthday and taking portraits of him— Photographing kalachakra initiation in Santa Monica and other Dalai Lama appearances— Traveling to Taiwan, Japan, and China to photograph Buddhism— Nurturing harmony and peace through documentary photography.
Clarification of Buddhist distinctions— Base in Tokyo during travels to Asia through businessman’s and Japanese Buddhist Federation’s sponsorships— Photographing events in South Korea and Nepal— Getty Trust as major client— Adapting practices while maintaining his own— Difficulties integrating into practices— Always able to gain entry to Theravada monastics— Camera and film descriptions— Publication of Visions of Buddhist Life— Experience of China after the Cultural Revolution— Meeting Tibetan wife in 1992 and birth of daughter in 1995— Fulbright fellowship to photograph Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal— Photographing Dalai Lama in intimate settings— Nonprofit commercial photography— Photographing Tibetan masters who came to U.S. in the 1990s— Impressions of the Dalai Lama.
Taking Maha Gossananda’s portrait— Health issues traveling in Asia— Traditional Tibetan wedding— Grants and financial aid for photography work— Work with Buddhist magazines— Later photography books— Selection process for books— Reasons for disappointing book sales— Transition to digital photography— Beginnings of video work for teaching and interviews— Photographing Joshu Sasaki-roshi— Beginning a film on Sasaki involving Leonard Cohen in 2010— Sasaki sex scandal breaks and throws project into chaos— Misconstruing of Cohen’s comments on Sasaki during scandal— Current stage of film’s production— Farber’s personal view of Sasaki— Present at Sasaki’s death— Personal connection to Dalai Lama and Geshe Gyeltsen— Influence of different teachings— Buddhist approach to parenting— Views on current state of Buddhism in the West— Coming to Buddhism through peace activism— Farber’s interfaith practice.