Odon Vallet: “The Buddha was a welcoming man”

- through Francois Leclercq

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A historian of religions, Odon Vallet does not hide his attraction to Buddhism. Fascinated by the rites and popular piety in Asia, the father of the Vallet Foundation finds in the teaching of the Buddha the keys to thinking, acting and achieving inner peace, in the East as in the West.

With your Foundation, you have decided to bet on education. Can you give us some educational principles related to Buddhism that you think are important to learn in the West?

I believe that life is worth nothing, but nothing is worth life. In Buddhism, there is the idea of ​​not attaching oneself, of not attaching value to something. You have to have a certain indifference to the events of life. It saves you from being unhappy. But, at the same time, you have to try to make it the best possible for yourself and for others. Buddhism is a kind of internal and natural medicine, a medicine of the soul which takes life as it is.

Is Buddhism always peaceful?

Outer peace begins with inner peace. But just because you're supposed to have inner peace doesn't mean you're peaceful. Buddhism has never sought to convert anyone by force, has never proselytized. However, some Buddhists do not get along with some others: in the south of Thailand, Muslims are persecuted. In Burma, the Buddhist monks don't like the Rohingya very much. In Sri Lanka, some monks believed that Hindu or Christian Tamils ​​should be eliminated… No religion has a monopoly on war or the secret of peace.

“Buddhism is a kind of internal and natural medicine, a medicine of the soul which takes life as it is. »

Regarding sexuality, do we find in Buddhism an approach similar to other religions?

Regardless of religion, sexuality is the same for all human beings. These questions have led to some rifts between the Buddhist schools, in particular the separation between Theravada or Hinayana (doctrine of the Ancients) and Mahayana (Great Vehicle): the former claimed that having nocturnal ejaculation was a demerit, while the latter considered that was natural. There are always people who are a bit too judgmental. Sexuality, we must give it its place in our lives: all its place and nothing but its place. No addiction to sex then, but a well-tempered sexuality is not at all incompatible with Buddhism.

Throughout its history, Buddhism has adapted to the civilizations it has encountered. Should Buddhism be westernized, without distorting it, so that it can develop more rapidly in the West?

Buddhism was born in northern India, on the border with Nepal. While it has almost disappeared from India today, 98% of Buddhists currently live in Southeast or East Asia. Only 2% live outside the Asian continent. Could this percentage be increased by westernizing Buddhism? I am not sure. In Europe, we say that Buddhism is a philosophy. Yet it is also a clerical religion, with 400 monks: that's as many as the number of Catholic priests! On this level, whether in Theravada or Vajrayana (the Tibetan Diamond Vehicle), what is essential is the clergy, the Sangha, the monastic community. In the Mahayana, the clergy plays a slightly less important role, but still! So I think there is no Buddhism without a monastery, just as there is no Catholicism or Orthodoxy without a monastery. In Asia, everyone goes to the pagodas, we feed the monks with their alms bowl in the early morning… I think that simply making a philosophy out of it is wrong. That said, one can be influenced by Buddhism without making it a religion, by making it a principle of thought and action.

“Buddhism suffered greatly from the XNUMXth century and from the 'bamboo curtain', the equivalent of the 'iron curtain' in Europe. But we have seen, in recent years, a return to religion in several Asian countries.

It is often said among Buddhist teachers that it takes at least three generations to adapt Buddhism to the country in which it is found. Wouldn't one way of adapting it to the West be to diminish the rites and dogmas, and to make them a practical philosophy?

Fewer rituals in Buddhism is what the Hoa Hao school in Vietnam does. For a century, she has wanted to make a Buddhism of unity, simpler, oriented towards personal meditation. I obviously think that there can be a less ritualistic Buddhism, that we can lighten or modernize certain rites. But be careful all the same: in Chinese, religion is often the rite (“Li”). Each year, at the Temple of Literature, in Hanoi (Vietnam), we pay homage to the great literate ancestors, to the doctors, with the small stick of incense, with the gong, with repeated prayers... In a very ritual civilization, where the question of faith does not arise so much, I think that the rite is essential.

How did you discover Buddhism? And with who ?

I discovered it with a crowd! In the big cities as in the villages, there is a real popular piety. This devotion has lasted for 2500 years. And like all great religions, nothing kills it. The more you persecute it, the more it is reborn. Buddhism suffered greatly from the XNUMXth century and from the “bamboo curtain”, the equivalent of the “iron curtain” in Europe. But we have seen, in recent years, a return to religion in several Asian countries. In Laos, many communist leaders, in principle atheists, pray in front of Buddha statues. For them, it is not incompatible. Finally, the greatest enemy of Buddhism, as of Christianity, is the consumer society, the prevailing materialism, a society of comfort... When it is necessary to choose between entering the monastery, very poor, and a profession where the 'we make a good living, we hesitate a lot.

In the West, Buddhism, particularly Tibetan, experienced an upturn in the 1990s, following the Dalai Lama's Nobel Prize in 1989. Where is the interest of the French in Buddhism today?

We are in a period of media decline and at the same time in a period of awareness of the realities of Buddhism. The Buddhism of the real is not that of the dream. And, on this level, I think that we all have a lot to learn, because the intellectual and spiritual richness of Buddhism is considerable.

What do you retain in priority from the original doctrine of the Buddha?

When I see, 2 years after his life, a Vietnamese student that I know say a little prayer "My good Buddha, make sure that I am accepted at Polytechnique", it is all the same that this historic man was someone very exceptional! Everyone can draw from the Buddha's teaching what suits his person, his time and his society. In this, Buddhism is a universal religion, like Christianity or Islam. He can give us not lessons in didactics, but rather examples of what is permitted to be done and advised not to be done.

How then can Buddhism respond to the challenges of our time, particularly in areas such as bioethics, neurosciences or the environment?

All ages demand something from a religion. Be careful not to want to transform neuroscience into a gospel truth… On the other hand, what Buddhism can show us is that meditation can be useful. But we can say meditation, or prayer, or reflection, or simply inner silence. It can still be useful, even and especially in the din of modern, urban life.

To convey these ideas, what role do you think a site like ours should play?

It must be able to accommodate the greatest number of people possible, in their essential diversity, without ever imposing a school of Buddhism, but rather showing that the Buddha was a welcoming man. He had followers among the rich – he had a friend who was CEO of a 500-cart transport company – and among the poor. He received important gifts and at the same time he lived a very simple life. We can always find in Buddhism something that can speak to the leaders of our country, but also to those who are led, to those who have significant financial means and to those who do not.

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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