The Guimet Museum, a Buddhist temple in the heart of Paris

- through Henry Oudin

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Story of the formidable epic of Émile Guimet, who created not a simple museum, but a veritable temple elevated to religions.

Returning from his journey which had taken him from August 1876 to March 1877 from Japan to India via China, Émile Guimet wanted to offer the French a didactic place dedicated to Buddhism and religions from around the world. What he did. Émile Guimet opened a museum and took advantage, between 1891 and 1898, of the visit of foreign religious to organize the celebration of Buddhist ceremonies never before seen for the general public. In 1891 and 1893, the first two were celebrated by Japanese, and the third, in 1898, performed according to the rules of Tibetan Buddhism by a Buryat monk.

February 21, 1891, a service in honor of Shinran

The monks Koizumi Ryotai and Yoshitsura Hogen had probably never imagined being called one day to celebrate in Paris this ceremony called Hôonkô, the most important of the tradition of the school of the True Pure Land (Jôdo Shin-shu). This school, created in the 1173th century by Master Shinran (1263-XNUMX), today brings together the largest number of followers in Japan and advocates the invocation of Amida Buddha.

Every November, the famous Higashi Hongan-ji temple in Kyoto welcomes thousands of worshipers from all over the country for a week to chant prayers and listen to sermons in tribute to Shinran.

The articles of the time tell us that the ceremony “took place in the library of the museum […], transformed into a temple for the occasion. The staging had been particularly neat. The ritual took place in front of the Amida Buddha statue and a representation of Shinran. Even if those present that day did not have to understand everything, this ceremony contained all the elements of a Buddhist ritual: homage, confession, offerings, invocations and dedications offering the merits of the ceremony to the happiness of all living beings.

“I knew well that Paris was the center for the propagation of industrial civilizations; also why could it not be the center of propagation of spiritual civilizations? »
Toki Horyu

From Amsterdam to Algiers, from New York to Bucharest, via Lille, Brest, Montpellier, Strasbourg, Bourges, the ceremony had an unequaled impact and benefited from unparalleled “media coverage”. Whether to congratulate or complain about it, more than 140 articles were published in a few days. With the exception of a few mournful souls who lamented that such "ridiculous" ceremonies could be celebrated when the Catholic Church was being challenged by the zealots of republicanism, the majority of the newspapers noted the chance of "a chosen few" to be in power. attend this great premiere. It noted the invocations "full of tenderness" to Shinran, the songs which were so many "caressing giggles", and that overall, this ceremony was "not lacking in gaiety". The journalist from Messenger from Paris even saw a practical side to it: “An excellent innovation that will soon dispense with travelling. What need to go to Japan, if Japan comes to us? All of Paris rushed to attend. Among those present, in addition to the representative of the President of the Republic, accompanied by a large number of ministers and politicians (Jules Ferry and Georges Clémenceau to name but a few), were present many members of foreign embassies as well than many artists, notably the painter Degas.

November 13, 1893, a thanksgiving in honor of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

It was then the monk Toki Horyu of the Shingon school (which comes under the japanese esoteric buddhism), who discovered the Guimet Museum on arriving in Paris in 1893 from Chicago, where he had participated in the first Congress of Religions. In a letter dated November 22, 1893, Toki writes how impressed he was by the richness of the collections. Émile Guimet could not miss such an opportunity: to have within his walls a monk, moreover the bearer of an esoteric tradition, of “secret” knowledge, what a godsend! He therefore asked Toki to perform a ritual specific to his tradition. This was the Gohoraku ceremony, in other words a “ceremony of thanksgiving in honor of all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas”. This ceremony is now exceptional, even in Japan. It was around 10 o'clock in the morning that Toki walked up to the copy of the mandala (1) of the To-ji (temple located in Kyoto) that Guimet had brought back from Japan. Toki officiated before a select audience of around a hundred people, including politicians (Clémenceau, him again), scholars (Louis Pasteur), artists, businessmen, Japanese scholars led by Léon de Rosny and many journalists.

The articles published in the following days reveal what must have been the ongoing debates about religion in society. Two tendencies emerge: one appreciates the ceremony, but remains circumspect about its scope; the other, much more hostile, believes that the country has fallen very low if in the very heart of Paris such "chinoiseries" are possible. Toki Horyu, meanwhile, wrote in a letter dated November 22: “I knew well that Paris was the center for the propagation of industrial civilizations; also why could it not be the center of propagation of spiritual civilizations? The celebration twice of Buddhist rites within the confines of the museum, in the very heart of Paris and of France, with the assistance of the President of the Republic [sic], ministers, important men, scholars, could this be if not a sign of the successful development of Buddhism in Paris, France? You could almost call these words "prophetic", right?

June 1898, an invocation to Shakyamuni and all the Buddhas

The French scientist of Russian origin Joseph Deniker received a unique visit in June 1898: that of a Mongol monk, Agvan Dorzhiev. According to Deniker's account of their meeting, the two men broached the subject of Buddhism and Dorzhiev asked him about "the number of Buddhists in Paris, to which [Deniker] replied that it was rather small, but that a large number of French academics were interested in the doctrine of the Buddha and that there was an important collection of Buddhist cult objects in the Guimet museum”. The visit to the museum was organized, and this time again, Guimet took the opportunity to ask to celebrate a ceremony. The monk complied not without pleasure. The program of June 27, 1898 mentions “the invocation to Buddha Shakyamuni and to all the Buddhas in order to ask them to inspire love and mercy in all beings. »

According to a witness, the assistance was made up of "learned and noble, beautiful ladies in morning clothes" amounting all the same to nearly two hundred people. In the audience, we could again see Clémenceau; it is also very likely that Alexandra David-Neel was there. Contrary to the previous times, the event received little coverage in the press, but it is true that we were then in the middle of the Dreyfus affair and the war was raging between Mexico and the United States.

Émile Guimet's initial objective was achieved: his museum was no longer just a museum, but a museum of religions, not to say a temple raised to religions

photo of author

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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