Dr Daniel Chevassut: "To be in terrible pain and to be at peace"

- through Henry Oudin

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After being seriously affected by the disease, Dr. Daniel Chevassut, in his quest to understand reality, encountered Vajrayana Buddhism some thirty years ago. Confronted with pain and death in his practice of medicine, he created, in 1998, a consultation of suffering in a hospital setting. Buddhism gives him the keys to genuine compassion and sincere listening to his patients.

Did you receive a religious education?

My mother was Catholic, but not very religious. However, she had a very strong link with Sainte-Thérèse de Lisieux. For my part, I was Catholic, but nothing more, while having great respect for all authentic religious traditions, as well as for their saints. When we study their biographies and their backgrounds, we see how the difficulties are the same for everyone, as are the qualities necessary to achieve mystical union or Awakening, according to the terminology used by the different religions.

How did you encounter Buddhism?

I became a Buddhist around the age of 35. At that time, the experience of illness transformed my life, being confronted with death. The physical and moral pains were important, intense; total physical exhaustion. At a certain stage, what could be called a completely involuntary letting go occurred: "Yes, if I must die, then I die...", a bit like a child who abandons himself completely in his mother's arms. I experienced, at that moment, an extraordinary peace, not in spite of, but with the pain. I finally got out of it, but the scientist that I was absolutely wanted to understand: how was it possible to be in terrible pain and be at peace? Medically speaking, it was incompatible. I absolutely needed an answer. I first went to India in an ashram, with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, before meeting, in France, my precious master, Bokar Rinpoche, within the framework of Vajrayana Buddhism.

What drew you to the path of the Buddha?

What attracted me was primarily the fact of having found my master, but also this very deep vision of reality that the Buddha teaches so perfectly. As a young extern, I worked in the emergency room in a hospital near Paris. There was a lot of road trauma. The fact of seeing dead children and their bodies shredded, of having to announce their death to their parents, revolted me terribly and provoked in me a violent anger. I didn't understand the meaning of life… I'm the kind of man who likes to face reality, directly. For this reason, I finished my studies in an anatomo-pathology service by carrying out many autopsies. Thus, I no longer had any doubts about the veracity of the Buddha's teaching (death, impermanence, suffering, etc.), and about the possibility of freeing myself from this painful cycle. From a certain point of view, Awakening is getting out of this nightmare in which we are plunged, a nightmare of which we are not always aware, moreover.

“As a scientist, I wanted to understand: how was it possible to be in terrible pain and be at peace? »

The fundamental principles of Buddhism speak to me in great detail. For example, in the paramitas or virtues, qualities such as the training of patience, not harming others or the calm resulting from meditation, help to establish harmonious relations with others. So it's very beneficial and ultimately very soothing.

What does this bring you in your practice of medicine, in contact with suffering and death in hospitals?

Already, the strength to face, on a daily basis, all these human pains, without being destabilized and keeping a good morale. I created the suffering consultation more than twenty years ago and, obviously, I did not expect all that I have been able to experience and learn through the torments sometimes endured by my patients. I owe a lot to these people who taught me so much through their trials and their last moments of life. These moments have powerfully stimulated me in my spiritual practice. Faced with such situations, a doctor develops a deep and sincere desire to be able to help. We all know, intellectually, that we die one day, but we are not really aware of it. To be confronted with suffering and death helps to realize what the Buddha calls “the precious human existence”. This existence becomes precious if one uses it to mature, grow and awaken to be able to help others and also oneself better to free oneself from suffering. This is called "the mind of enlightenment" or "the precious Bodhicitta ».

Does Buddhist practice allow you to be more attentive to patients?

Yes, for example, meditation helps a lot. I am not talking about secular meditation, but about meditation integrated into an authentic spiritual path. Presence then develops, which has multiple qualities: it leaves space for the other to express themselves with confidence; it allows the caregiver or therapist to better feel what is beyond words; she radiates genuine love and compassion.

It is very important for a caregiver to be deeply human and it is obvious that a true and sincere spiritual practice is very useful, both for the caregiver and the patient. Where there is suffering, disease and death, the sacred must imperatively be present. In the past, there was always a small chapel in hospitals.

How have you come out of your beliefs and fears throughout your Dharma experience?

I have no particular beliefs since I devote myself to the experience, to what is. This is what I liked in the teaching of the Buddha, who said: “Don't believe what I say, experience for yourself”. As a scientist, these words suited me perfectly. As experiences arise in connection with the teaching, then faith and devotion increase. Faith is synonymous with trust and devotion with love of reality. Very humbly, whoever turns more and more towards the divine or towards this unspeakable dimension, whatever the name, ends up feeling its sweet fragrance. Regarding fears, a spiritual practitioner has them, like everyone else; courage consists in facing it

What does spiritual practice bring you in your relationship with others, in everyday life? 

My practice probably allows me, at my small level, to give more love, to have more compassion, to have more patience. Qualities that help in a harmonious relationship with others. To share, I let life happen. It's a bit like the notion of seva, in Sanskrit: one gradually enters the service of the divine. One becomes a "spiritual slave", as the great master Lee Lozowick said. The term slave is not very pleasant, but here it is the opposite: joy is born with the ability to work spontaneously, naturally. It is a kind of freshness or innocence which is reminiscent of that of childhood. It's light.

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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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