Olivier Reigen Wang Genh: How do Buddhist communities experience confinement?

- through Sophie Solere

Published on

Zen master and delegate president of the worship center of the Buddhist Union of France, a federation bringing together the majority of schools, Olivier Reigen Wang Genh looks back on how Buddhists experience confinement.

How are you dealing with this health emergency in your monastery in Alsace, a very affected region in the Grand Est?

We respect the rules imposed on any community. We continue the practices and ceremonies, with the same schedules and the same rhythm, but we no longer receive anyone. We are twenty-five to live here, so there is plenty of room, whether in the temple or in the refectory, where we take meals in a ritual way morning, noon and evening and where everything is organized with the distances minimum. In the dojo, we respect two meters of distance between each person. The people who take care of the service and the kitchen wear masks and gloves. There are bottles of gel everywhere and our groceries are delivered by local producers. We have incorporated these new rules into the practice in the spirit of Zen. In the beginning, and like everywhere, people had to be constantly reminded: the need for sociability and closeness is strong in human beings and habits die hard!

There is this saying from the philosopher Gaston Bachelard: “a soul that is used to it is a dead soul”. This kind of crisis should therefore, ideally, make it possible to renew souls by fighting against habits? But, the dojos being closed, how are all those who came to see you from the outside doing?

A fortnight ago, I wrote a letter to the member communities of the UBF, the Union Bouddhiste de France, asking them how they lived this particular period, their organization and the difficulties encountered. We received responses from more than 60% of the members. We therefore have a fairly accurate overall view of the situation of the communities. All of them have made creative efforts to keep in touch with external participants: videoconferences by Zoom, Skype, Facebook… Communication on the internet has developed by podcast or other.

“Awakening is in no way to be achieved, but to be lived, it is a daily practice. There is no Nirvana to be found, but you have to constantly awaken, now. »

Here, at the monastery, we had already developed a live audio broadcasting system five years ago: everything that happens in the dojo is broadcast on the meditation-zen.org site.. If someone wants to practice Zen meditation online with us, they can listen to all the sounds of the dojo: the wood, the bells (with the big bell, the Boncho), the chanting of sutras, the teachings, the sounds of the birds in nature or rain, etc. Our statistics show that 3 to 400 people follow these sessions at the same time as us, in the morning at 6:30 a.m. and in the evening at 18:15 p.m. We even do weekend retreats which are broadcast. That of Easter was attended by about 250 people. The feedback is excellent, people are delighted to be able to follow these meditations from home. In one way or another, all communities do this stuff.

You also perform ceremonies, at the request of relatives, for the deceased and also votive rituals, called Kito, for the sick and those in pain...

In Soto Zen, the Kito is a so-called "transfer of merit" ceremony, which is intended for people in serious physical or psychological difficulties. It can also be collective, the last Kito we did was for a hundred people. The names of people in distress are recited at the end of the ceremony, and the compassionate energy released by this kind of ritual is intended for them. Right now we are doing kitos every other day and ceremonies for the deceased almost every day.

So these are real religious rituals, as we find in all religions…

Yes, absolutely, we sing sutras with a lot of sound energy and benevolence. We thus apply the simple law of interdependence dear to Buddhism: we are all connected. There is an invisible relationship that is created. There is nothing shamanic or magical about it, it corresponds to the reality taught by the Buddha.

State services have asked to be informed of any difficulties encountered by Buddhist communities…

We are in daily contact with the worship service at the Ministry of the Interior. We address all the subjects, including financial difficulties, because there are some: in particular in the Asian pagodas, which are very lively places and rich in constant passages and which have been closed since the Chinese New Year. All the major festivals of the months of March, April and May - including the famous Vesak, the anniversary of the birth of the Buddha -, which bring together thousands of people, have been canceled. Hence considerable shortfalls for the communities. This situation should not last too long, because it may endanger some of these groups: we all have bank loans for construction, various charges... We hope despite everything that seeds of wisdom will be born from this pandemic, concerning our global, societal, industrial and ecological functioning.

You like this beautiful phrase from the poet Marianne Williamson: "It's the light that scares us the most, not our shadow". Can you comment on it?

This is an excerpt from the poem used by Nelson Mandela during his presidential inauguration ceremonies. I think that sheds a good light on what this crisis has revealed: the immense fragility of the system, as well as our own flaws, the disarray that has gripped everyone, the family difficulties of some, the shock of loneliness and inactivity… Fortunately, this creates in some people a powerful need to rediscover interiority, depth, rituals of concentration and “connection” as well as a new rhythm of being.

Just a few words about the book you published before these events, Is it still far from Awakening? Why did you choose this title?

I sincerely believe that enlightenment is formed in a practice of meditation carried out in the light of benevolence. Awakening is in no way to be achieved, but to be lived, it is a daily practice. There is no Nirvana to be found, but you have to constantly awaken, now.

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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