When did you start practicing Zen?
I was introduced to the practice of Zen in San Francisco in the United States at the end of the 70s, where I had established myself as a taxi driver after hitchhiking across the country from east to west. In 1980, I joined the American Indians, participating in the "long march for survival" from San Francisco to the United Nations in New York. This march was a prayer to put an end to the exploitation of uranium mines on Indian reservations, a prayer also for Indian women, sterilized during the 60s and 70s by the Indian Health Service. This was my first militant act.
After this cause, what was the trigger for your involvement with the most disadvantaged?
I had the good fortune to meet Bernie Glassman at the Los Angeles Zen Center in the early 80s. This Zen teacher, who was the first successor to Taizan Maezumi Roshi, one of the pioneers of Buddhism in the West, was already heavily involved in social action in New York. He then challenged me by saying: “The practice is to become more and more vulnerable and homeless”. He would become my second master. Fifteen years later, when I had been back in France for some time, Bernie Glassman offered us – Catherine Pagès, my partner, and myself – a street retreat in Germany, Cologne and Düsseldorf. This ordeal of meditating, walking, sleeping, begging and eating in the street for four days radically changed our perspective. “You have to feel closer to those you are helping,” Bernie encouraged us. It's a pretty trying experience that I still practice, because it allows you to let go of your conditioning and open up to the unknown. We do not become homeless, we are simply with them. We do not feel “other”, but vulnerable. This bridges part of the gap by erasing the fear of this other who has no roof, and this sends us back to our own precariousness. In the process, I made the commitment to serve meals to the underprivileged. In 2004, I co-founded the association L'un est l'autre. We started by distributing 80 meals on Sundays, on the sidewalk of rue de Flandre, in Paris. Last year, we served over 120, three times a week. L'un est l'autre is a magnificent secular association that brings together nearly 000 volunteers of great diversity as well as people sentenced to work of general interest.
How do you reconcile meditation and action on the ground?
I remember one of the retreats conducted by my master Genpo Roshi in 1985. He asked several of us to give a teaching. When my turn came, Genpo Roshi saw that I had some notes and grabbed them. “If you talk with your notes, he told me, you will do it with your head”. And he added: “Trust your heart” – “Trust your heart. I trust your heart. This was a profound koan for me! I have more and more confidence in intimacy – below and beyond my thoughts – in unconditioned intimacy.
“I had my share of youthful mistakes and I had a lot of fights. This allows me to look at the detainees without any judgment. »
In turn, Bernie Glassman invited me to dissolve this tightness. Until then, I was compartmentalizing my life. With the heart, she gradually opened up. It has become more and more one and the same. Whether I start each of my days with a meditation session at Dana or whether I am with the poorest, I let go of my ideas, I open up to the unknown and I leave this experience of non-differentiation, of non-duality , soak me up. In the Metta Sutta, the Sutra of Loving Kindness, a fundamental Pali text, the Buddha exhorts us to love every living being “as a mother loves her only child”. It is an invitation to take care of the other with total generosity. Similarly, in a long version of the Great Perfect Wisdom sutra (Prajna paramita sutra), when the devotee Subuti asks Buddha, "How does a bodhisattva make an offering to rescue living beings?" “He answers him:” He feeds those who are hungry, he offers human beings everything that can be useful to them. I am struck by the similarity with a passage from the Gospel of Saint Matthew: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was in prison and you visited me. I tell you, whatever you have done to the least of my brothers, you have done to me. »
Since you mention prison, how do you take care of prisoners in Fresnes, where you are chaplain?
I was appointed as one of the first Buddhist chaplains in 2012, through my friend Eric Rommeluere, a Zen teacher, who presided over the birth of the Buddhist prison chaplaincy. Prison, a place of great suffering and insecurity, brings me back to the basics of the path of Buddhism – unhappiness, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering and the path to its end. As a chaplain, you can only really move between these walls with kindness. There are very few Buddhists among the prisoners; those who ask to see me and participate in my meditation groups are of all faiths. I don't proselytize, I encourage prisoners to practice their own religion. I teach that we are all there, in Fresnes, because of the sequence of causes and effects, in other words that we are the heirs of our acts and our intentions. From the moment we change our perspective, when we act with kindness towards ourselves and towards others, our life is transformed. Prison is said to be a place of radicalization. I observe that it is also a place of great tolerance and fraternity between all faiths. One day, a Muslim prisoner said to me: “You are a real Muslim! citing in support a hadith which states: "He who knows himself, knows his Lord". He added: “You, you give us a method to know each other”. It touched me.
How do you feel when you encounter suffering?
My action with those who have fallen into the fault lines of society invites me to work on my gray areas, on the rejected parts of myself. I was boarded at an age when I was too young and, at 22, I started backpacking in the Maghreb, across Africa and in the islands of the Indian Ocean. I had my share of youthful mistakes and I had a lot of fights. This allows me to look at the detainees without any judgment. As for the experience of street retreats, it exposes me; it brings me back to my vulnerability, to my own impermanence. It's something important that helps to soften me and open my heart."