Norin Chai: the bodhisattva of animals

- through Sophie Solere

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Chief veterinarian of the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes, at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, the Buddhist Norin Chai relieves the suffering of wildlife throughout the world.

From Cambodia to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. To meet Norin Chai is to dive into thoughts nourished by vast spaces where silences punctuate the spoken word. Spaces populated by wild animals to which this Buddhist has dedicated his life. Norin Chai relieves the suffering of elephants, leopards, pandas and eagles. On a sunny winter afternoon, we stroll through the aisles of the menagerie, home to Nénette, a 50-year-old orangutan from Borneo – like Norin Chai! – to join him in his office. Bright smile, intense gaze and enveloping handshake, the man receives us in the middle of a shambles in which Buddha rubs shoulders with Master Yoda: there are products derived from the Star Wars film, stuffed animals, a dried leaf from the tree under which Siddhartha experienced enlightenment, in Bodh Gaya, or even a statue of Buddha brought back from Cambodia. His country of birth.

Sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, Norin Chai unfolds his life story. His early years were the color of blood, that shed by the Khmer Rouge. In 1974, his parents fled Cambodia, taking their two sons with them. “From a very young age, I was confronted with existential suffering, but I was always protected from it,” he explains. The family found refuge in France. “My parents, who were trying to survive, gave my brother and me what was essential: love. This love allows you to love yourself – already – and to feel in your place in this world. They brought us such an anchor that I was able to fly away without ever getting lost. »

The bodhisattva of animals

Under their benevolent gaze, Norin Chai realized his childhood dreams. He remembers: “I wanted to treat all sentient beings. As I grew older, I realized that I "felt" better with animals . I had an emotional interaction with them. So, around the age of ten, I thought of becoming a veterinarian to take care of wildlife. In high school, I saw myself running a park in Africa. What I did, in Chad, as deputy director of the Parc de Manda before occupying this position at the Parc de la Haute Touche (Indre). Finally, when I was a student at the Alfort veterinary school, I projected myself at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. »

When asked how he explains such a harmonious career path, he offers this wise answer: “The world aligns because you yourself are aligned and you are this world. It's like going for a long walk: if you equip yourself materially and prepare yourself psychologically, you will receive the benefits. When we are thus in harmony with what we think, what we say and what we do, everything flows naturally”.

“Siddhartha was a doctor of souls. He made a diagnosis and offered a treatment. There is nothing more scientific than Buddhism. It is men who have made a religion of it. »

Like the elephant, his totem animal, Norin Chai walks with powerful serenity: “The important thing is the journey. I owe the luck of having been aligned “heart-head-belly” so young to my maternal grandfather. Thanks to him, and to my parents, I was able to realize my dreams and even beyond. The question I ask myself is “Why? If I consider these dreams as beacons of a path to undertake, and not as an objective, the answer to why vanishes by itself since, once again, it is the path, the important . I am here for a specific reason. A mission to accomplish. »

In this first part of his life, Norin Chai's mission was to relieve the pain wildlife. “If, as a child, I was intuitively attracted to animals, it is because they accept suffering, unlike human beings who fight against the four Noble Truths (1). Raised in the Buddhist religion by believing and practicing parents, Norin Chai became a monk after passing his entrance exam to veterinary school. In a burst of laughter, he launches, mischievous: “I only stayed two months at the pagoda of Champs-sur-Marne (Seine et Marne). I wasn't going to party anyway, with the other students, as a monk! More seriously, he confides: “For me, Buddhism is not the asceticism of monastic life. The middle path suits me better. »

The middle way put to the test of reality

This scientist now takes an empirical look at Buddhism: “Siddhartha was a doctor of souls. He made a diagnosis and offered a treatment. There is nothing more scientific than Buddhism. It is men who have made a religion of it. Buddhism is pragmatism. The proof: we go beyond what is demonstrable and we work with a broader consciousness”.

With the same pragmatism, Norin Chai observes the ongoing collapse of our industrial civilization: “It's just a transformation because of the ego of the human who feels superior. It is the natural result of overproduction. It had to happen…” But what to do when this human being separates nature from his own nature to the point of causing the extinction of wild biodiversity? And endanger the future of humanity? “Change comes through introspection, retorts the father of two sons. Demonstrating, shouting your anxiety, rebelling, is not taking action: you give yourself the impression of existing, without questioning yourself. For my part, I try not to put my energy into the negative, because that only leads to negative. I never complain, except at myself! I know that it's not the outside that will bring me my happiness. In his soft voice, he observes: “The conflict is inside us. If everyone worked on this internal conflict, everything would calm down. If we were, each of us, in empathy, benevolence, compassion, there would be no more confrontations ”.

When he is not at the Menagerie to watch over his residents or carry out his scientific research, Norin Chai leads an association for the study and preservation of wildlife in Asia, Africa and America that he founded. in 1999. He baptized her Yaboumba (2). A nod to the nickname of the teddy bear given by his grandfather who died in the S21 prison camp of the Khmer Rouge. Norin Chai pays homage to him in the cover of his latest book, Harmonies (3). Words from here and from above. Words that connect the souls of the living and the absent. Because in the eyes of this Buddhist, everything is linked.

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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