On the way to letting go

- through Sophie Solere

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Zazen, samu, calligraphy, making kesa and rakusu. Six and a half days of life in a group in an abbey in a rural environment, awakening to self-reflection and a form of voluntary simplicity. Such was the program of the Sesshin Sans Demeure which was held at the end of February in Sarthe. Report in Bernay-en-Champagne.

They were a little over a hundred, for the family photo, smiling, holding the pose under the arcades of the cloister. Standing, dignified and proud in their kesa, grey-black or grey-blue, symbols of simplicity, unification of spirit and openness to the unspeakable and the sacred. More than a hundred monks, nuns and bodhisattvas from France and Germany met in this former abbey planted on a hill in Bernay-en-Champagne, about twenty kilometers from Le Mans. Most were ordered by Philippe Coupey, their master, who created the Homeless Sangha in 2001, but also by Taisen Deshimaru or other disciples of the master.

Kesa and rakusu

On the menu for this long sesshin lasting more than six days: seven to eight hours of zazen daily, punctuated by samu sessions (voluntary collective work, a form of "meditation in action" to provide meals, maintenance and running of the place), and calligraphy workshops, making kesa (the traditional dress of monks and nuns) or rakusu (a traditional Japanese dress worn around the neck) and nature walks. “These are people I sometimes only see once a year. But when we meet again, it's like we never left each other “, says Juliette Heymann, producer on a public radio, bursting into a great joyful laugh. “It's a bit like a family. There is no need for words. We accept you as you are. People come as they are and deepen who they are. There is no cheating. I am much more comfortable there than in my own family. Here, there is no rumination of the past. This does not prevent enmities, but the practice unites us. We are all sitting side by side, you feel the energy of others, the energy of the dojo…”

“Our practice, Shikantaza, has nothing to do with intelligence, because it has no goal. So, there is no need to learn a technique, to possess any particular knowledge or skills (…) Only a good zafu and courage and a lot of courage. »Philippe Coupey

It is 7 a.m. this Friday, February 28. Alone or in small groups, practitioners join the dojo, a vast rectangular barn with paneling and exposed beams, in which are installed black circles and squares on the white tiles, a multitude of zafu and zafuton. Practitioners sit in a lotus or half-lotus position facing the wall. Ringing of a bell, followed by two others. Are you there? Alive and strong as a mountain, and immersed in the present moment? After an hour of sitting, Philippe Rei Ryu Coupey, who directs the sesshin, invites the participants to a ten-minute "kinhin" sequence. It is an extremely slow walking meditation, to the rhythm of the breath, which extends the seated meditation and aims to invigorate the body and the mind. The closed left hand covered by their right hand, monks and nuns advance with measured steps, slowly with grace and dignity, to the rhythm of inspiration and expiration, eyes half open and gaze lowered. After lifting the foot slightly, first place the heel before taking support up to the toes as you exhale to anchor yourself firmly in the ground. For a short moment, the body stops, the time of expiration. At the sound of the bell, bring both feet back together, before bowing and returning to your zafu.

" Rituals ? They are like acupuncture points. We all make the same gestures that feed the group. It's a setting that doesn't lock us in, it opens us up to true freedom," underlines Françoise Sho Jaku Lesage, with a lively gaze, a serene and poised sixty-something, seated in the room of the calligraphy workshop that she runs. . It was in 1978 that this former teacher of children in difficulty discovered Zen. She has never met master Deshimaru (who died in 1982), but nevertheless says she is imbued with his energy, with this force anchored in the present, which invites her never to let herself be carried away or destabilized. She received in 1985 from Étienne Zeisler the ordination of nun and a Japanese name, "Sho Jaku" - "exact tranquility" -, which, she says, directed her life and helped her to become who she is. .

Calm and focused presence

After two and a half hours on the road, in the rain, tuned to a non-stop news radio, blasting away, quarter-hour after quarter-hour, the evolution of the spread of the coronavirus throughout the world, it is a pleasure to immerse oneself in the great family of the Sangha Sans Abode. Calm and kindness. No forced smiles or intrusive curiosity. There emanates from most practitioners a form of peaceful and focused presence. “How is this egregore born, this fruitful group spirit? We don't have a temple. It is the bonds that we weave between us that are important”, smiles Jonas Endres, assistant to Philippe Coupey, ordained a monk in 2008, who co-directs the sesshin. “These links are based on the practice of zazen, which brings us all together. A practice that is perhaps the most noble thing for us. We make sure to leave everyone all the space they need. We can feel sympathy for each other, but it is not imposed. It's very pleasant,” he continues, his soft voice and guttural accent betraying his German origins.

Calm and sobriety are also required during meals taken in silence. Rice porridge for breakfast. Butternut squash soup with oat milk, rice and vegetables in brine for lunch, followed by a cream of chestnuts with lemon zest. Everything contributes to cultivating simplicity, gratitude and a feeling of humility and contentment in the face of what the table offers you.

“To practice the Way, you simply have to invest yourself with the body in the present moment. And this is absolutely not a question of intelligence. Our practice, Shikantaza, has nothing to do with intelligence, because it has no goal. So, no need to learn a technique, to have knowledge or special skills (…) Only a good zafu and courage and a lot of courage”, insists Philippe Coupey in his book Zen, simple sitting which is a comment from Fukanzazengi, Universal Guide on the Right Path of Zazen.

What then can be expected from the practice of zazen, if, as Master Taisen Deshimaru maintained, there is nothing to be obtained in Soto Zen?

Those who stop practicing are often people who are waiting for something, a carrot, points out my neighbor at the table. “For me, the deepest lesson is that there is no goal. In fact, everything has changed in my life since I practiced, even if it is difficult to define it in words. As far as I'm concerned, it first played on letting go. We don't stop emotions or thoughts, but now they tend to cross me and go their way. It's impermanence, ”says Juliette Heymann before slipping away. “I am the pillar of all zazen during this great sesshin. I have to be in position before all the others, ”she slips, smiling.

photo of author

Sophie Solere

Sophie Solère is an economic and social journalist who has been interested for years in the environment and interdependence. She works for Buddhist News, a media platform dedicated to Buddhist spirituality and wisdom. By practicing yoga and meditative dance, Sophie discovered the power of spiritual journeys, which offer so many paths to (re)find yourself. She is dedicated to sharing inspiring stories and valuable advice on spiritual practice and the environment with Buddhist News readers.

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