Catherine Genno Pagès Roshi: in the intimacy of a committed secular community

- through Henry Oudin

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Immersion in the heart of the Zen Buddhist center Dana, in the company of its founder, Catherine Genno Pagès Roshi.

It is a private house in Montreuil, on the outskirts of Paris, with a large garden where old roses bloom until late in the season. No plaque to indicate the Dana Zen Center – which means “generosity”, in homage to the first of the ten paramitas, these supreme virtues of Buddhism. In this place, deliberately intimate, the dojo dedicated to the practice of meditation occupies the entire top floor, under the attic. “We can accommodate up to thirty people there during monthly retreats. », says Catherine Pagès, the centre's founder. The daily meditation sessions bring together around fifteen devotees, including two residents. Here, the small community – the sangha – shares a diligent and deep practice of Zen Buddhism. She is very tight-knit despite her cosmopolitan origins; you meet Dutch, English, Germans, Portuguese and Poles. Not surprising as the career of Catherine Genno Pagès Roshi, who likes to teach in English, is international.

His spiritual journey begins with personal suffering, that of the loss of a stillborn child. At 34, the injured woman leaves her architect husband and her job in a Parisian art gallery, driven by the desire to be reborn. As a teenager, she had broken with the Catholic religion, despite a father whose faith she admired. “I found too much hypocrisy there, I was looking for a more authentic way”. His first destination? Mexico, meeting Carlos Castaneda, a great figure in shamanism, very fashionable in the 70s. There, a friend convinced her to awaken to Tibetan Buddhism. She goes to Nepal, where she spends a year with great masters. At the time, the country attracted very few Westerners. Living conditions are precarious, his health is deteriorating; Catherine Pagès returns to France with the deep desire to be guided. She finds her master in a line of Zen Buddhism, in the person of the American Dennis Genpo Merzel, passing through Paris. “My companion, Michel Dubois, who had known him in the United States, had offered to host him. So I met him at our own home and immediately identified him as the guide I was looking for,” she says. Determined to become one of his disciples, Catherine Pagès multiplies the trips across the Atlantic. The job that this graduate of the Ecole du Louvre and the Sorbonne landed at the Rodin Museum offers her a flexible schedule and enough to meet her needs.

First female zen master in her lineage

Five years after this decisive meeting, Catherine Pagès takes the plunge. Dennis Genpo Merzel, who had just opened a monastic center on the East Coast of the United States, asked her to become his assistant. The opportunity to devote oneself full-time to the practice of Zen Buddhism. She regularly accompanies her master in Europe, where he has several sanghas and especially in Poland, where in the following years she will teach regularly for several months a year. In 1994, two years after receiving the transmission, the one who became the first female Zen master in her direct line returned to France to create her own “secular” center, she specifies. Around her, the people who aspire to a sincere practice of Buddhism are not ordained monks, they have a family, a job. “I wanted to teach them. It was to be closer to them that I settled in Paris and not in the countryside. If we want Buddhism to take root in the West, we must encourage the practice of lay people and not be satisfied with funding monasteries like in Japan. “Catherine Pagès says she is totally integrated into civil society, especially nowadays when presenting herself as a “meditation teacher” is no longer taxed with oddity as 25 years ago. At Dana, members are very involved in social action, especially in the street, with people in a precarious situation, to which they distribute meals. The initiative came from Michel Genko Dubois, his companion, also heir to master Genpo Merzel and co-founder of the association One is the Other.

“If we want Buddhism to take root in the West, we must encourage the practice of lay people and not be satisfied with funding monasteries like in Japan. »

In his house in Montreuil, Genno Roshi, as his devotees call him, teaches in groups the practice of zazen, this seated and silent meditation which leads to enlightenment and which is the very essence of Soto Zen. “Meditation is as vital to me as breathing. It allows us to connect with what surrounds us, to manage our own suffering and that of others”, says the one who recommends solitary retreats to the most seasoned. Each session is extended by private interviews, including his lineage (see box) was inspired by the Rinzai school: "The opportunity to nurture an in-depth dialogue between master and student, by discussing their practice or by measuring themselves against kôans". Catherine Pagès is very fond of these sibylline riddles which also lead to Awakening. She completed the entire course of her line, more than 700 kôans! “It's a magnificent instrument that immerses us in the history of our ancient masters of China from the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century, by identifying with them, when they asked themselves these questions. At Dana, she also develops talking circles, a tool transmitted by Bernie Glassman – of the same lineage as her – and inherited from the American Indians. In the center of the circle is a speaking object that everyone takes in turn to speak from their heart and get to the point, without being interrupted or judged. “What we share with the group develops benevolence, the feeling of community, intimacy and interconnection. But it is also because she is a woman and has suffered from a male hierarchy as well as from the absence of a female role model in her spiritual journey that Catherine Pagès is fond of talking circles. : “I wanted something more horizontal, I am more into listening than in directive”. She is also delighted to have transmitted the dharma to as many women as men. "In the West, she welcomes, more women are practicing and teaching every day"

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Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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