André Comte-Sponville: “As long as you make a difference between nirvana and samsara, you are in samsara. »

- through Francois Leclercq

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This atheist philosopher, but faithful to his Christian culture, is also a passionate and connoisseur of Buddhism. Yet – or precisely for this reason – he refuses to define himself as a follower.

Where does your interest in Buddhism come from?

Of my interest in wisdom, whether from the East or from the West. But when I was young, this theme seemed obsolete in the West: contemporary philosophers seemed to have given up looking for any wisdom whatsoever! So I made a detour to the East, where this quest seemed to me to be more lively. And I quickly encountered Buddhism, which I felt much closer to than Hinduism or Confucianism. For what ? Because it is less religious than Hinduism and more spiritual than Confucianism. Hinduism advocates the assimilation of the inner “self” (“the atman”) to the absolute Self or the universal soul (“the Brahman”). Whereas Buddhism simply denies the existence of a self, either in me or in everything. This is the idea of ​​“anatman”: there is no substantial identity, no other than illusory ego. As for Confucianism, it is a ritualistic and conservative humanism, very effective in daily life, but which lacks spiritual elevation, a sense of the absolute or of eternity, finally a mystical dimension.

Which currents interested you the most? 

I first leaned on primitive Buddhism: I was looking for what the original thought of the Buddha might have been, before his disciples, always too pious for my taste, made it a religion. The main sources, from this point of view, were in the “small vehicle”, a current dedicated to a relatively traditional and personal practice.

“A school of freedom rather than submission, of lucidity rather than piety, Chan is like a synthesis between the immense wisdom of Siddhartha and the great madness of Lao-Tseu! »

Later, notably thanks to Nagarjuna, an immense master who would have lived between the XNUMXnd and XNUMXrd centuries, I turned to the “great vehicle” or Mahayana. I appreciated its mystical dimension – but it is a mystique of immanence, not looking for a god outside or above nature – and even more the idea (found in the Stanzas of Nagarjuna) that there is no difference between samsara and nirvana. Samsara designates daily life as it is: relative, finished, failed, wasted... While nirvana refers to a form of salvation, bliss, eternity and the absolute. To say that the two merge is for me one of the strongest theses in the whole history of spirituality! What I summarize in a formula, which I first attributed to Nagarjuna, and of which – for lack of finding it in any text whatsoever – I end up wondering if I did not invent it: "As long as you make a difference between nirvana and samsara, you are in samsara. If someone can tell me the source, I'm interested!

You have nevertheless kept a certain distance...

As the years went by, I became interested in Zen, because I was beginning to meditate, and even more in Chan, which is the Chinese version of Buddhism, strongly influenced, in this case, by Taoism. It's like a synthesis between the immense wisdom of Siddhartha and the great madness of Lao-tzu! Chan is undoubtedly, today, the spiritual current to which I feel closest. A school of freedom rather than submission, of lucidity (and invigorating! and caustic!) rather than piety. "If you meet the Buddha, kill him!" That suits me well enough… All the more reason not to convert to Buddhism. I prefer to cultivate the furrow which is mine, that of a Western intellectual of today, simply open to the different spiritualities of the world, and all the more so since they are less religious.

Why do you remain critical of a certain "spiritual tourism", when one takes a liking to very distant cultural horizons?

“The farther one goes, the less one knows,” said Lao-tzu. All tourism, by definition, is superficial. This does not prevent one from becoming fond, as you say, of very distant cultural or spiritual horizons, but it should also encourage prudence and humility. Even if I take an interest in Chan, and unless I devote ten years of my life to it – but then it wouldn't be tourism anymore – the knowledge I have of it is necessarily less profound than my knowledge of Descartes or Spinoza.

“I meditate every day: it's like a bath of silence and truth that we would take every morning. »

When Matthieu Ricard spends years in India or Nepal, lives in a monastery, learns Tibetan and becomes a Buddhist monk, that doesn't shock me at all. But precisely: it's not tourism at all, it's a conversion. Nothing to do with the junk orientalism found in so many magazines and salon conversations.

You sometimes place Buddha on the same level as personalities like Jesus Christ or Socrates. Isn't your conception of spirituality basically universalist?

Yes, of course ! Humanity is one. The truth too. What is not universal has no interest, or only has anecdotal interest. This is why, here again, I am wary of “spiritual tourism”, always too fascinated by the particular. Basically, what is most true or most interesting in Buddhism is what is not reserved for Buddhists! The same for Christianity: you don't need to be a Christian to be sensitive to the message of the Gospels.

What differences do you make between meditation and prayer for example, and why do you meditate every day? 

Prayer is done with words: “to pray is to say”, wrote Thomas Aquinas; meditation, with silences. The prayer is addressed to someone; meditation, to anyone. Prayer wants to be an encounter between two subjects, God and the soul; meditation, a bodily experience of emptiness, without subject or end. Prayer, almost always, is a request; meditation is an attention, a contemplation, which asks nothing of anyone. Prayer tends towards a future (see the Our Father…); meditation lives only in the present. Prayer is part of religion; meditation, spirituality. That's why I meditate every day: it's like a bath of silence and truth that we would take every morning.

How do you think Buddhism offers a way to free oneself from a tyranny of desire? 

His own way does not interest me much. This is the Eightfold Path of the Fourth Holy Truth: righteousness of vision, thought, action, etc. The challenge is to free ourselves from all forms of suffering and dissatisfaction. It is, at bottom, in the spirit of its zealots, Buddhism itself. However, I am not a Buddhist nor do I plan to become one. Only the truth interests me, which is not a doctrine or a religion.

Is this approach so different from those of Western philosophers – for example the Epicureans, Montaigne or Spinoza?

It is close to Epicurus in the assertion that there are only aggregates (which is not unrelated to Epicurean atomism); from Montaigne, through the idea of ​​impermanence (everything changes, nothing is preserved); of Spinoza by the idea of ​​conditioned production (which corresponds, in Spinoza, to the fact that there exists, for each thing, an infinite chain of finite causes); of the three by the absence of Self. But they do not believe in karma, nor in reincarnation, nor in Buddhism, nor do they celebrate monastic life… Me neither!

Can we finally say that Buddhism tends towards a form of eternity, and in what sense would you define it? 

Yes, we can say so, except that this eternity is not that of an immutable transcendence, but, on the contrary, that of immanence and impermanence. That's what I believe too. Eternity is not the opposite of becoming, but its truth. This is why I usually say that we are already saved: eternity is now!

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Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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