Michel Banassat: a guide off the beaten track

- through Francois Leclercq

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Ex-Buddhist monk and guide-lecturer, specialist in Parisian Asian communities, Michel Banassat walks through his visits in this hidden, little-known Paris, on the Way of the Buddha.

He has two loves: Asia and Paris. Two cardinal points that Michel Banassat connects each week during his walks in the City of Light, gazing at the rising sun. His way of spanning the continents by walking the streets of Chinatown. Wherever he is, his compass points due east. Meet in the heart of the “Triangle de Choisy” (1), on the slab of the Olympiades shopping center, crushed by the concrete towers and the curved roofs of the shops built in the early 70s. A snapshot of Asian architecture that the guide never ceases to fight during his journeys downtown Chinatown (2). Without waiting, he takes me to one of the two real pagodas in the area. The first, the Buddhist temple of the Amicale des Teochews de France (3), stuck in a recess of the disproportionate urban lego; a second, hidden from view in the underground passage of the rue du Disque. Discretion. Here we are at the heart of Chinese religion, "a syncretism between Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, which perfectly illustrates the pragmatic conception of Chinese religion", he summarizes, facing the statues of the Three Jewels (4) which sit enthroned in the prayer room. On the sides, the eighteen Luohan, the disciples of the Buddha and guardians of the Law, watch over and encircle the visitors, like a cord of spirituality. On one of the walls, a fresco by Avalokiteshvara retraces the epic of the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, to whom Michel Banassat devoted two books (5).

The fascination for the mysteries of the East

He guides, he walks, literally and figuratively, since he discovered, during his first trip to Asia in 1987, the charms of the Orient. “Everything changed during a trip to China when I was in my twenties. I felt like I was at home without ever having set foot there. At the time, the “self-taught” student, who was coming out of a hardly exciting preparatory year at Sciences Po, was on a spiritual quest. “But the religions of the book, based on beliefs, did not suit me. I was conquered by the message of the Buddha, which advocates personal fulfillment and invites us to seek the divine that there is in each human being. To believe in yourself”, explains this man who distrusts the commandments, whatever they may be. After a few weeks of immersion, Michel Banassat returned to Paris and became a Buddhist monk at the Blanc-Mesnil Pagoda, a disciple of the Venerable Gnanissara. He studies the canon pali, Sanskrit and the basic sutras, including that of the Lotus, his favourite, “a text of great poetry which presents the teaching of the Buddha lavished on the Peak of the Vultures. It is certainly the most esoteric sutra, because it contains 28 chapters which give rise to many interpretations. He left monasticism after eight weeks: "It's a restrictive life discipline, you have to follow 227 rules of conduct, spend hours in meditation, but it's true, you feel better afterwards". Why, then, did you drop the kesa, the monks' robe? “I wanted to return to my lay life, but I will definitely return to the monastery in a future life. We Buddhists have time…”, he eludes, with a mischievous look. Today married to a Chinese woman, he practices daily by reconciling the teachings of the Hinayana and Mahayana schools. If in his guided tours, Michel Banassat leaves little room for silences - he has so many things to say and correct -, in an interview, the man with the almost shaved head and the beard of a sage practices verbal ping-pong, namely short exchanges. Enigmatic smiles, mischievous look, sometimes disillusioned, he answers with questions, flashes, sometimes in ellipsis. With a line, a sentence, he draws a perspective.

Legends of the Middle Kingdom

In his circuits, which are more cultural than touristic, he regularly stops at the few places of worship in the district, but regrets that his clients are more interested in the worst legends about the Middle Kingdom or in down-to-earth questions about the way of life of the Chinese community than by the depth of the philosophical views of Buddhism. In this district, spirituality is above all a matter of tradition, especially among young people “not very religious, because they are caught up in the gears of consumerist Western civilization”, and of “superstition” among the oldest.

“Westerners look to Buddhism for personal comfort. However, this religion explains precisely that one should never be centered on oneself. And no, Zen is not synonymous with “cool”! »

Buddhism, a Second Way? No. In his eyes, it is a tradition that requires reading keys and that “we return to the study of the original doctrine”. “Westerners look to Buddhism for personal comfort. However, this religion explains precisely that one should never be centered on oneself. And no, Zen is not synonymous with “cool”! ". Also, it is important to go back to basics to see further. According to him, Buddhism provides concrete answers to current challenges, particularly in terms of the environment. Or even to the question of the animal condition dear to Michel Banassat, who wrote a Defense of the Rights and Life of Animals (You-Feng Editions) in 2012, long before the current media sequence. "An act of true love for our animal friends, weak, vulnerable beings, who are unfortunately very often discredited, denatured, manipulated, exterminated, exploited for unfair purposes, and tortured by the greatest predator existing on this earth, know the man,” he wrote in his introduction. He rejects any hierarchy between species and, in summer, is careful not to crush insects, these so-called "pests". Step by step, but by the thousands given his activity, Michel Banassat never ceases to tell of this Paris of other lights, with at each stage, this gentle reminder: “Follow the guide! »

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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