How did you discover Buddhism?
Buddhism came to light later in my life. As a young architect, I went to Japan in 1964 to deepen my knowledge by including the techniques of traditional Japanese architecture. At the time, Buddhism did not fit into my approach. Tokyo hosted the Olympics; I wanted to work in an architect's office, so I knocked on the door of a few celebrities, like Kenzo Tange, who created the Yoyogi National Gymnasium and its two indoor stadiums, Kunio Maekawa and others. But that was practically mission impossible, because the places were expensive. So I gave up on this idea and took classes as an auditor on Japanese culture at the University of Sofia in Tokyo. I quickly realized that Zen had a considerable impact on Japanese culture. So I started to take an interest in it, discovered that it was a branch of Buddhism, but what interested me was the spirit of zen. At that time, I met a Frenchman who frequented a famous expat bar, Fugetsudo, the equivalent of Les Deux Magots in Paris. He had just spent a year in the Shofuku-ji monastery and opened the door to Zen for me.
Is that when you started practicing?
To earn a living, I, the son of a worker and the grandson of a peasant, started teaching French in a private school. I had a lot of free time to cultivate myself, to immerse myself in Japanese culture, and I did my first zazen sessions with this French friend. I don't like to use the term meditation, because by definition, it translates the idea of deep reflection on a subject, the will to find an answer to a problem... However, zazen has nothing to do with meditation. in the etymological sense. By practicing zazen periodically, I discovered a new world within me! I then decided to spend six months in a Zen monastery to go further in knowing myself. Then, one day, I landed at Shofuku-ji, in a shirt and tie. Half an hour later, I was in the zendo with the other monks. The first few weeks were hell!
On this subject, you evoke "seven years of assiduous practice, of daily efforts, of collapses, of victories too". Can you concretely describe these collapses?
It was a collapse of myself, because the Zen way of life is so difficult, rough and rigorous that the first seven days, I lost seven kilos! People do not imagine the physical difficulty of sitting cross-legged for endless hours!
Have you thought about stopping everything?
The thought of giving up never crossed my mind. If I had thought of it even once, maybe I would have left everything, especially since I was not bound by contract to the monastery or screwed to my meditation cushion.
"Zen is liberating, but this path requires making the necessary efforts to destroy your ego. »
After six months, I realized that I hadn't understood anything, so I decided to stay six more months. Then another six months, etc. After two years, I realized that all that had brought me to Japan was not the architecture, but that my journey had been a means of arriving at me being confronted with myself- even. My path and my life was Zen. So I went to see my master and told him that I wanted to become a monk. Architecture brought me to Japan, Japan to Zen, and Zen to what I do today: teaching a multi-secular tradition, which has enabled thousands of human beings to realize themselves. I am a link in this ancestral chain.
Why did you choose to follow Zen Rinzaï rather than Soto?
At the time, I did not know that there were several schools of Zen, I had simply followed this French friend who belonged to the Rinzaï school. One day at the monastery, I overheard two monks talking about the differences between Soto and Rinzai. I ask them: “Here, what is it? Which made them laugh. I repeat: at the beginning, my interest in Zen only concerned the scope of my transformations, not the concepts. Zen was a tool, especially zazen, which allowed me to work on my personal realization.
What are the main differences between these two schools?
I think it's primarily the use of koans in Rinzai and Shikantaza (1) in Soto. But in both cases, we practice sitting cross-legged, the intellect does not intervene at any time.
your master Yamada Mumon Roshi (2) kept repeating to you: "Be one with the void. Concretely, how do we become one with the void?
I just released a book, Walk on the edge of the void (3), in which I deal with this theme: the void does not exist, it contains everything! Like the air we breathe, the void is an element that contains the full. Scientists will certainly be able to explain to us that there is an absolute vacuum in the high spheres of the inaccessible, but what is important to know is the vacuum of all thought. This is the real work on oneself. Because the thoughts constantly fuse; they are formed, unbeknownst to us, and constantly pass through us. Now, what resides in this void? Our deep nature. It is towards this objective that we tend when we do zazen. In deep zazen, at a given moment, thoughts stop. The one and only reason for practicing Zen is to realize one's true nature, one's Buddha nature.
Can you tell us a word about the famous Rohatsu sesshin, which takes place in the heart of Japanese winter and consists of seven days and seven nights of almost uninterrupted zazen. It's like an obstacle course!
Yes, it's a sort of obstacle course. It is an exceptional sesshin, which only takes place from December 1st to 8th. We don't go to bed for seven days, we just lean on the edge of the stage from midnight to 3am. The harshness of this sesshin and the sufferings one endures are necessary to go to the end of oneself.
“The one and only reason for practicing Zen is to realize one's true nature, one's Buddha nature. »
But it is not artificial suffering or masochism, one could compare this sesshin to the training of a top athlete. Usain Bolt said breaking the world record for the 100 meters was easy, unlike the daily, herculean workouts that performance required. When you enter a monastery, you have one goal: to realize your true nature. And it doesn't happen sitting in whipped cream!
You often mention the efforts, the discipline, even the asceticism, essential to this life objective. How are they fundamental on the path to enlightenment?
Zen is liberating, but this path requires making the necessary efforts to smash your ego.
It is customary to say that Zen is not a progressive path, we speak of “sudden”, “sudden” enlightenment. This seems contradictory with the discipline and the path that this tradition demands.
Let's say that the experience of realization is sudden, while the ripening that allows us to arrive at this experience can be very long, even endless. Unfortunately, one can die without having lived a deep experience of it oneself.
Today, Zen is used in all sauces. What are the shortcuts that annoy you?
There's a cliché that annoys me a little, it's when we talk about a "heart to heart" experience. Remember that the Japanese ideogram that is used for “heart” is “mind”, so it is not a heart-to-heart experience, but a mind-to-mind one. This expression says a lot about the perception of Zen in the West, and comes, among other things, from the fact that in Zen, we sometimes evoke the strong relationship that unites the master to his student. Westerners like to talk about love…