For thirty-five years, Christophe Boisvieux has captured moments of rare spiritual intensity on film. Epics danced by monks in the Tibetan Himalayas, Burmese lining the floors of pagodas with oil lamps or offering hot air balloons in the shape of animals to the Buddha...
From Nepal to Thailand, from Mongolia to Sri Lanka, the photographer has visited all countries with a Buddhist tradition. So much so that the white-haired reporter feels there, each time, “like a fish in water”, he assures with a quiet smile. A true spiritual family to which he wished to pay homage, with the writer Olivier Germain-Thomas, in the book Buddha Lights. Although they did not take refuge, the two authors were deeply marked by their encounter with Buddhism. “Often martial in Japan, very nonchalant in Laos, the facets of this tradition are multiple. She really adapted to the countries she crossed,” testifies Christophe Boisvieux, with a serious and poised tone.
In the cell of Korean monks
The adventurer first became acquainted with the Dharma through texts, as a teenager. “Like many young people, I started with the very romanticized vision proposed by Hermann Hesse in Siddhartha ". His encounter with authentic Buddhism occurred later, in the field, in 1984. A photographic competition offers to bring back images of a welcoming country. Christophe decides to go to South Korea for a month. He rents a motorbike and stays there from monastery to monastery. “It was enough to stammer a few words of Korean, at the reception, to ask for hospitality for the night. Sometimes that meant sharing the cell with the monks. The latter do not speak English, difficult to communicate”, notes the photographer, who adds: “I received just as much by silence. I was deeply touched by the beauty of the liturgy: the deep vibration of the bells in the mountains, the chanting of the sutras at the hour of prayer, the prostrations that tear the “little” me to pieces”.
“Meditation plays a subtle role in the relationships I build with the people I photograph. A kind of complicity sets in, which allows me to capture the intimacy of the gaze. »
The photos of this immersion, which make him one of the winners of the competition, are then exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris. And this is, for him, the starting point of a spiritual adventure. Wishing to deepen his knowledge of Buddhism, he obtained, before his 30th birthday, The teaching of the Buddha according to the oldest texts, from the Sri Lankan Theravada monk Walpola rahula. "I really felt like I had a treasure in my hands." Today, the Four Noble Truths truly resonate with him. “The impermanence of everything is a deep insight into life. When we attach ourselves to what is impermanent, we run after an illusion. To hear that liberation is to be freed from desire has something revolutionary about it”.
In India, in the footsteps of the Buddha, the ascetics and the Middle Way
Christophe Boisvieux regrets that some see Buddhism as a nihilistic religion. “If we open the newspapers or do some introspective work, we see that suffering and impermanence are at the heart of existence. If we wish, we can "free ourselves" by the path proposed by the Buddha. As a pilgrim would have done, during his many wanderings in India, the photographer followed the earthly journey of Siddhartha, the Indian prince. Not long ago, he found himself again in Benares and Sarnath, the city where the Buddha delivered his first sermon. There he met saddhus – renouncers – practicing extreme asceticism, covered in ashes and completely naked. An opportunity for him to remember what the middle way is: “The Buddha also went very far in asceticism, but gave it up when he almost died of starvation,” he remarks.
Meditation to better catch the eyes
To follow this middle path, Christophe began to practice meditation about thirty years ago. For fifteen years, it has become for him a lifestyle. Every morning, for half an hour, he sits on his cushion. Assailed by thoughts that follow one another, he tries to come back to himself and sometimes knows the grace of touching moments of plenitude. "It's hard not to get attached to it!" “, he remarks. A sometimes thankless practice. “When I started out, I sometimes felt like I was wasting my time. But meditation turns out to be very rewarding if we take the trouble to persevere and accept, with humility, that we are asleep”. The practice permeates the entire flow of its existence. In the life of a couple or at work, this allows him not to be carried away by emotions. “When I photograph, at times, I am in an inner urgency of the moments that I want to capture. Meditation then plays a subtle role in the relationships I build with the people I photograph. A kind of complicity sets in, which allows me to capture the intimacy of gazes”.
Joyful lesson in impermanence in photos
During the Festival of Lights, in Burma, his photographs capture a great devotion on the faces gathered, lit by the warm light of candles. The ordination of future monks remains a very significant event, to which Christophe Boisvieux devoted a chapter in his book Burma, the land of gold. “Reenacting the episode of the Buddha's renunciation of the world, they parade, dressed like princes, on horseback or on the back of an elephant. Then we take off their clothes, we shave their heads and they put on the robes of the monks. By going from splendor to sobriety, they are already learning a supreme lesson in impermanence”, testifies the photographer.
For Christophe, the adventures are far from over. He accompanies trips to several major Buddhist sites in India and has just put the finishing touches to a book, pearls of wisdom, which will be released in the fall. It will include many quotes from the Buddha, including the sutra of universal love (1), which the photographer particularly likes. “It is very revealing of the Buddha's teaching. It's not easy to like the mosquito or an unbearable neighbor, but you can try to do it, and it's a wonderful program of life! “, he rejoices