Can you tell us about your encounter with Buddhism? What Buddhism?
I discovered Buddhism at the age of sixteen, through reading the book The Third Eye by T. Lobsang Rampa. Presenting itself as an autobiography, this captivating work recounts the initiation of a young Tibetan lama with the XNUMXth Dalai Lama. It makes us dream because it tells us about magical Tibet. I discovered quite quickly that it was a hoax, written by an English plumber keen on esotericism. About it, the Dalai Lama once told me: “You cannot know how many people have discovered Tibetan Buddhism by reading this book! Fortunately, very quickly, I discovered other books by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama. It is mainly through Tibetan Buddhism that I discovered Buddhism.
Among the great teachings of the Buddha, which one touches you the most in your life as a philosopher-writer?
After discovering Tibetan Buddhism, I wanted to go back to the sources of the Buddha's teaching, notably through the book by Walpola Rahula (1), a Theravadin monk. I was struck by the simplicity and depth of three great notions: impermanence, interdependence and relativity. Also, I was very touched by the ethics developed by the Buddha which encourages to have a right thought, word and conduct. Buddhism is a quest for enlightenment, it invites us to leave the world of illusion, by becoming aware of the mechanism of the ego. This quest to move towards a greater understanding of myself and the true nature of phenomena has always fascinated me.
You defended a doctoral thesis on Buddhism and the West at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. For what ?
Through a sociological, historical and philosophical thesis, I wanted to explain the history of the encounter between Buddhism and the West, which happens in stages. It begins in Antiquity, continues in the Renaissance with the missionaries, then in the XNUMXth century with the philosophers (Schopenhauer and Nietzsche) and especially the Orientalists (learned studies on Buddhism). Then Buddhism was reborn in the second half of the XNUMXth century with the Japanese and Tibetan masters arriving in the West. As I progressed in my thesis, I understood that Buddhism is, in Eastern thought, what is closest to Western thought, because it is based on a universal rationality. It includes few myths and beliefs, unlike Hinduism. Also, Buddhism offers Westerners a more open thought than that of Cartesian rationality, and an understanding of the spiritual life extremely strong with practices, such as meditation.
“Buddhism is a quest for awakening, it invites us to leave the world of illusion, by becoming aware of the mechanism of the ego. This quest to move towards a greater understanding of myself and the true nature of phenomena has always fascinated me. »
I believe that Buddhism has a lot to bring to the West and vice versa. Take the example of compassion. In Buddhism, it makes it possible to help beings to awaken spiritually, but by abandoning material life, which has deprived it of works of charity. Thanks to the encounter with the West and the Judeo-Christian heritage of the embodiment of compassion in the support of others, the monasteries of Buddhist countries now take care of the poor. There is an interpenetration of East and West.
At a time when we are living through a deep ecological crisis, how could Buddhism help us find the wisdom necessary to avoid the excesses of humans on their environment?
The current ecological crisis appears as a unique event in the history of humanity, because it leads to the possibility of the disappearance of human life on Earth, due in particular to global warming. Faced with this major challenge that we all face, buddhist philosophy has a lot to bring us, on the one hand, through its ethics of moderation, which would make it possible to abandon the logic of “always more” and to have it, and on the other hand, through the notion of interdependence. Deeply correct philosophically and scientifically, the latter makes it possible to understand that all ecosystems are linked to each other and that upsetting them could lead to their collapse, by a simple game of dominoes. Which can help us think and act differently.
How your latest novel, The Consolation of the Angel, inspired by Buddhist philosophy?
It is the story of the almost improbable meeting of a young man, Hugo, in despair, who has attempted suicide from which he escapes, and an elderly woman, Blanche, who has loved life and who will try to give him the taste. One of the main qualities of the latter is to have accepted the impermanence of life. She understood that it was not necessary to cling to material goods, to her profession, to her social image and to beings. She accepts life in all its mutations and transformations.
“Being Zen is a daily way of life, in simplicity, authenticity and non-attachment to things, without wanting to cling to them. »
This philosophy of accepting impermanence, detachment and letting go has helped her to live and get through many hardships. With her, there is both an attachment, because she deeply loves life, but also a detachment, because she clings to nothing. Also, she transmits to Hugo, another notion dear to Buddhists: “All the way is to go from unconsciousness to consciousness”. Essentially driven by our unconscious, we are slaves to our affects, passions, desires and attachments. However, true freedom is interior and is conquered by lucidity, knowledge and understanding of oneself.
You have met the Dalai Lama twelve times. What impressed you the most about him?
In the context of books on Buddhism, I met the Dalai Lama several times in Dharamsala, to question him on the contemporary history of Tibet. Also, during his conferences in France, I had the chance to interview him for several media. First, I was struck by how much he embodies compassion. I found him to be very open-hearted, kind and caring towards me and others. He has an exceptional quality of presence. I also saw him take time for people in suffering, off the cameras, which I have written about in many books. Secondly, each time I met him, his laughter challenged me. This man, who bears all the suffering of the Tibetan people, has this joy of beings who are awakened and freed from all attachment.
You have just returned from a trip to Japan for a documentary series for Arte, “Les Chemins du Sacré”, where you met Zen masters. What about Japanese specificity in the great family of Asian Buddhisms?
I was surprised to see how syncretic Japan is, because even in the Zen currents that I have been able to meet, there is very often an influence of Shintoism which is the traditional animist religion of Japan. Believers believe that nature is inhabited by spirits. Also, the purity of Zen, whether through the art of gardens or the tea ceremony, touched me. Just their image makes you want to contemplate, meditate and internalize. There is a quality of silence, a force of presence. Everything is done with great simplicity, slowness, beauty and poetry. Finally, I was struck to see that there were not so many Buddhist intellectuals in Japan, but rather monks who live a simple and bare life, in which they seek to practice Buddhism through their everyday gestures. Zen has a very practical and concrete character and not a theoretical one.
What does being Zen mean to you?
It's a way of daily living, in simplicity, authenticity and non-attachment to things, without wanting to cling to them.