You have recently embarked, successfully, on the practice of sports apnea: isn't this contradictory with your commitment to Buddhism?
Basically, the first person to have described a form of apnea, in a natural and spontaneous way, was Buddha Shakyamuni, with the famous attention to souffle,anapanasati. It is the main way of access to the Dhyanas. When he describes these levels of absorption, he speaks of “letting go of the breath”. Someone who practices meditation and zazen seriously will necessarily be confronted with this, at some point, in his practice. Breathing is part of meditation because it relates, in some practices, to the feeling of emptiness. When we breathe, we feel everything that is happening inside us, the breath is a form of consciousness.
At the same time, freediving is a sport that leads to a certain spiritual experience: past a certain level of depth, the physiological sensations are of the order of the mystical… Deep waters considerably modify the acuity of the mind. Many freedivers have the intuition of a form of spirituality in this extreme sport that they practice.
Zazen, which you have been practicing daily for 24 years, does it have anything in common with this sport?
In itself, zazen is a dynamic variation of the seated and silent position of the Mahamudra, almost a sports evolution of meditation. The neck, the chest, the shoulders, everything must remain straight, because the body and the spirit are one: if the body is stooped, then the spirit will be stooped... It was Bodhidharma who insisted on this way to practice, ignoring superstition and beliefs. The concentration on the posture can go beyond the conscious, it is no longer the brain that guides, but the heart and the guts, we appeal to the intelligence of the body.
The essential art of zazenis to end up thinking from the depths of non-thought. It is at this moment that something deeper is revealed: it is the spiritual experience. We are the receptacle and the source of a universal faith, and this allows us to accept our own abandonment. But when you dive, the fact of abandoning yourself a little helps to make the fear disappear! That, for me, is the common point between Buddhism and apnea: I let go. Me, in the end, I don't dive anymore, I just let myself sink.
Did you feel fear, in apnea?
Yes, it can happen, all freedivers have diffuse fears. Me for example, I am not a daredevil, I do not like reckless risks, but I realized that I was afraid of dying on my own initiative: this may be the case if one s stubbornness in achieving an overambitious objective… At a certain point in the descent, you have to know how to remain lucid. This is what makes the exercise of apnea in competition so special: you have to know how to assess your own ability yourself. And in the quest for performance, apnea obliges despite everything to know how to show great wisdom, the very one that helps to acquire zazen. Traditionally, wisdom and performance rarely go hand in hand, but freediving obliges them to be combined. Freediving, like meditation, brings you to face yourself.
Would you say that the practice of meditation can help develop apnea faculties?
You don't get into it for the wrong reasons, you don't do meditation to improve your apnea performance! What zazen teaches us is that we must experience ourselves, by ourselves. Each person has a very different experience of awakening or spiritual enlightenment. But don't expect too much. It is the principle of mushotoku, which we teach to learn to abandon the goal: if we practice with a precise objective, then we obstruct the mind, we prevent it from finding the way. The effectiveness of zazen is in the relaxation, it does not belong to you, it is not individual. In this, it can be useful for freedivers, since it can help to drop the idea of performance – which does not exist in zazen. The person who practices a little, each evening, before going to bed, thus helps his mind to relax, to take a vacation from himself. And she is in better shape the next day.
“Traditionally, wisdom and performance rarely go hand in hand, but freediving forces them to be combined. Freediving, like meditation, brings you to face yourself. »
Nor should meditation be given more power than it has. For the anecdote, when I arrived in the world of apnea, some people thought that as a monk, I had special powers and that I could stop my heart! At the beginning, when I was diving, I had Zen phrases or the Way of the Sword that came to my mind… It may have worked to a certain depth. But to go lower, I did like everyone else: breathing exercises, stretching, yoga, etc.
And, conversely, does apnea have certain things to transmit to Buddhism?
Yes of course ! I try to introduce Zen monks to apnea so that they rediscover the importance of the intercostal muscles, how the diaphragm works, etc. And to confront new emotions, too: in two minutes of apnea under water, some are much more afraid than in twenty years in a dojo! In a way, it's a commitment that is never made in this form in spirituality: you don't learn to put yourself in danger to mobilize all your strength and all your energy...
How do you reconcile the spirit of competition, inherent in high-level sport, with the values of Buddhism? This might seem incompatible, at first sight…
In apnea, I don't really feel in competition with others, I'm not trying to beat someone. It is also linked to the specific competition format of freediving, which is done in such a way that there is no possibility of overbidding (each announces a depth score without knowing that of their competitors, and it is this score, and only this one, if it is validated, which will be counted, editor's note), which consists first of all of working on oneself. That's it, finally, the spirit of competition in apnea, it's being able to admit that when you can't do it, you have to go back up.
And then, between us, the competition also exists in religion, between its different currents or within its orders – I was much more competitive in matters of Buddhist discipline than in apnea! – and not sure that this is healthier in essence… At least, in apnea, there is a scientifically calibrated measuring device, an objective number which gives a winner and a loser: the one who dives 100 meters has descended lower than the one at 90 meters. In religion, that does not exist: are the teachings of the Dalai Lama deeper than those of Jesus Christ or those of Muhammad?
Freediving is a strange sport, because no one really sees us when we're underwater… We can see that the tennis player is sweating, in pain or missing his move. But the freediver, everything is played in the look he will cast to the judges, once back to the surface. This is where we see if he is still master of his means, or not. Freediving has these two dimensions: it is a sport, because it opposes others, but it is also spiritual, because it is played a lot in oneself. How do you gain more depth, literally in apnea as well as figuratively, in the field of sport? The answer seems obvious to me: by looking for it first within oneself.