A Return to Buddhism in American Suburbia

Through the taxing illuminating journey that composes Slouching Towards Nirvana, Vietnamese photographer Lea Hoàng rediscovers her long-buried religious roots of Buddhism, leading to a path of self-awareness.

Through the taxing illuminating journey that composes Slouching Towards Nirvana, Vietnamese photographer Lea Hoàng rediscovers her long-buried religious roots of Buddhism, leading to a path of self-awareness.


In the Temple of the Enlightenment - a religious institution promoting mindfulness through meditation in the South Bronx - the dining tables sat empty. Between them, an idle man, perfectly framed by a circular opening in the wall, towered in silhouette near a glowing exit sign - a caveat of caution, a clue of direction.

“I thought about the idea of the island that comes through these empty tables,” Lea Hoàng says, referring to the desolate sitting area. “You're looking outwards, at the ocean, and you see an island - you see that it's there, but you don't quite know how to get there,” she says. “Then the exit sign signifies what it means to transcend one's suffering: essentially, that's what enlightenment means.”

In a single, perfect frame that resonates with her oeuvre as a whole, Slouching Towards Nirvana, Hoàng captivates the viewer’s eye and intellect by speaking the nuanced language of photography to encapsulate some of the principles at the core of Buddhism.

But first she had to reconnect with it.

Born and raised in Hanoi, Vietnam, she refers to her younger self as a “Buddhist on paper,” her early practice guided by convention as the spiritual aspects eluded her. Attending high school in Singapore, she appreciated its religious and ethnic diversity. But, as she moved to the United States, some aspects of suburban American life somehow shattered that: studying liberal arts at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers, New York, in spite of the country’s inherent diversity, a new sense of isolation, intensified by the unprecedentedly divisive presidential election, left her feeling defeated and powerless; a temporary vulnerability that spurred Hoàng’s search to reconnect to Buddhism.

“I could find some kind of peace in there, especially at a time when everything seemed so meaningless. And that's the kind of idea about it, the main idea of the project.” Slouching Towards Nirvana alludes to Charles Bukowski’s book of poems, the gesture of “slouching” - not grasping, not striving, rather sliding along - suggesting a path to enlightenment.

Toying with the notion that nothing is permanent, Hoàng’s quiet photos invite viewers to contemplate the transitory nature of the human condition. Bursting through a curtain of crystals - like the Buddhist concept of passing through a stream - is Hoàng’s trope for entering a new stage of consciousness, “transcending one reality to reach the next, one closer to enlightenment,” she says, describing one of her photographs.

In another frame, a man is caught “dreaming,” as if in meditation, the immersive experience of shutting society out: it evinces a sense of “radical solitude” fundamental to Buddhism and to Hoàng’s path as well. In its practice, contemplating an intimate way to oneness within a supportive spiritual community, Hoàng found new comfort and refuge - ultimately something very “life-affirming.”

“When you feel alone and you feel you can’t rely on anyone, Buddhism says that there is always a community that you could find meaning in, […] find solace. You can find like-minded individuals who also believe in the ultimate truth that Buddhism offers,” Hoang says. “It transcends all we know about religion, but it's also all that we know per se.”

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Lea Hoàng is a contemporary photographer and visual artist who explores the blurred line between photographic truth and fiction. She uses photography as a mediatory tool to interrogate and negotiate cultural, racial, gendered, virtual, and ideological identities shifting between the East and West. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Lucia De Stefani is a writer and editor focusing on photography, illustration, and everything teens. She lives in New York. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.

© Lea Hoàng, from the series Slouching Towards Nirvana
i

© Lea Hoàng, from the series Slouching Towards Nirvana

© Lea Hoàng, from the series Slouching Towards Nirvana
i

© Lea Hoàng, from the series Slouching Towards Nirvana

© Lea Hoàng, from the series Slouching Towards Nirvana
i

© Lea Hoàng, from the series Slouching Towards Nirvana

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