Manuel Coley: A spiritual path nurtured by the Orient

- through Sophie Solere

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Artisan musician, choirmaster and composer, Manuel Coley rediscovered Christianity through the practice of Zen Buddhism. He has been combining these two paths for more than thirty years.

When did you start practicing zazen?

I discovered it through Jacques Breton, a Catholic priest who was the founder of the Center Assise, a center of inner journey referring to Zen and the teaching of Karl Graf Dürckheim rooted in the Christian mystical tradition. Jacques Breton was one of the first to build bridges between Zen Buddhism and the Christian tradition. When I met him, I was already practicingAikido and was very attracted by the Japanese culture which gives access to beauty and to the essential through the search for the most radical sobriety. When, at the age of 25, I wanted to leave to deepen Zen in Japan, Jacques Breton wrote me a letter of introduction. I was first welcomed in a Zen temple located in the suburbs of Tokyo, which had Abbot Eisan Goto, whom Jacques Breton had frequented for a long time. Then, in the monastery of Ryutaku-Ji, south of Mount Fuji, in the region of Mishima. It was there, during a five-day sesshin, that I had a kind of revelation. A small voice told me that I was neither Buddhist nor Japanese, that I belonged to a culture and a tradition, that I was “born somewhere” and that was where I had to find my way.

I then returned to France without really knowing where I was going to find what I had gone to look for in Japan. I also had to get rid of certain “blockages” having been born into an atheist, communist family, hostile to the church and considering religion as “the opium of the people”. Someone advised me to go to the abbey of Pierre qui Vire, a Benedictine monastery located in the Morvan, which at the time hosted Zen monks. I immediately appreciated the calm of the place and the atmosphere of prayer which echoed what I had experienced in Japan. This is how I gradually reconciled myself with Christianity, of which I knew almost nothing. It was at the Pierre qui Vire abbey that I discovered books by Jean-Yves Leloup and Annick de Souzenelle, whom I met a few years later, while leading singing workshops as part of courses they conducted.

Did you continue to practice zazen after your return from Japan?

I have never stopped practicing zazen since this stay in the East. Silent sitting nourishes my meditation which is itself nourished by the study of the texts of Judaism and Christianity, which fertilize the practice of zazen, through the relationship to breath, silence, posture, verticality and interior space that make up the richness of Zen Buddhism. I particularly like Zen's economy of means. This relationship to emptiness to express the Whole touches me a lot and I find it today within Christianity.

So it was thanks to this detour via Japan that you became reconciled with Christianity…

It is indeed thanks to this trip that I was able to rediscover my Western spiritual roots. However, it then took me about twenty years to make peace with the Christian tradition whose richness and revolutionary force I had begun to glimpse during my studies in musicology at university. This, thanks to a course on the philosophical reading of the Gospels which allowed me to discover the figure of Jesus, then by the permanent frequentation of the music of JS Bach.

“All human cultures have tried to formulate the unspeakable, the infinite that some call God. But the Source of all these traditions is One. We find everywhere, in different formulations, this same attempt to put words to this initial creative intelligence. »

What is this “buddhism/christianity unification journey” that you mention on your website, when describing your spiritual journey?

I refer to the first verse of the Prologue of the Gospel of Saint John “In the beginning was the word”, that is to say, in the beginning was the word, the vibration. Saint John then specifies that this word is light and that this light enlightens everyone. All human cultures have tried to formulate the unspeakable, the infinite that some call God. But the Source of all these traditions is One. We find everywhere, in different formulations, this same attempt to put words to this initial creative intelligence. My journey simply wants to show that these two cultures are not exclusive, but on the contrary, they can nourish each other.

You also mention, on your website, your militant commitment combining musical pedagogy and meditation...

Being from a family on the left, very marked by the class struggle and in which the values ​​of social justice were very present, I often asked myself the question of my role and my contribution to the life of society. , of my social “usefulness”. This relationship between music and meditation is rooted, once again, in the prologue of Saint John, “In the beginning was the Word”, speech, sound and song by extension. Singing allows us to come into contact with the Source that we all carry within us and which is at the origin of all that exists. It is a means of privileged experiential access to the greater than oneself, inscribed in the depths of oneself. This work of accompaniment by singing and music is, in my eyes, a form of activism, of social commitment insofar as it is the tool of a personal interior transformation for the benefit of a collective practice. Change yourself to change the world.

Collective vocal practice would make it possible to live together better...

My thirty years of practicing the profession of choirmaster in different conservatories have convinced me. I try, in the practice of my profession, to always refer to the meaning of what we are doing, that is to say to weave the link. The metaphor of musical polyphony is particularly eloquent: singing different melodies which, united, create a harmony, a synergy of beauty far superior to the simple superposition of these.

You also build bridges between very different practices, between singing and the enneagram, singing and biodanza, singing and fasting...

I measured how fruitful it could be to combine these practices which apparently have little in common, except that they help us reclaim our bodies. I have always known intuitively that body and mind should not be separated in the journey to Source. A certain Catholicism has contributed, due to a misguided interpretation of the texts, to drying out the body, whereas, paradoxically, the Bible makes the body the temple of the Spirit. "Glorify God in your body," says one of Paul's letters. I therefore invite people, within the sessions of "song and silence" to reconcile with their tradition. Doesn't the Dalai Lama invite Westerners to study and practice Buddhism while remaining rooted in their own religion? Let's not forget that this dimension of interiority and connection to the body that many of us have sought in the East also exists in our Western culture, even if it is perhaps less immediately.

Why do you qualify as an artisan musician?

I come from a family of craftsmen, I feel more craftsman than artist. I like this relationship to a profession that works with matter even if this, in the case of music, is paradoxically immaterial matter!

What part has composition played in your life?

It occupied an important part in my life as a choirmaster and continues today to play a central role with compositions which are at the service of the meditation of the texts. This approach naturally generates a minimalist music having a function close to that of the mantra in the East. It is written several times in the psalms: "Sing to the Lord a new song". What is this new song? It is the one that is sung by the new man, by the person renewed by the Breath who is entirely grateful to creation. This, for me, is the essential, my contribution to the world: to strive to be a fragment of the universe, alongside thousands of others, where the joy and beauty of being humbly radiates.

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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