Philippe Rei Ryu Coupey: a sangha in our time

- through Henry Oudin

Published on

Philippe Rei Ryu Coupey is a master of the Zen Soto school. He met master Deshimaru in 1972 before becoming one of his closest disciples. In this interview, he evokes this meeting, but also the Sangha Sans Demeure that he created in 2001 and his refusal of Japanese ecclesiastical tutelage.

Did you have any spiritual practice before meeting Master Deshimaru?

I practiced yoga. My yoga teacher lent me a book on meditation that immediately interested me. I arrived in France at the end of the May 1968 riots, accompanied by my wife and my daughter. I didn't have a penny. For thirty-five years, I lived on very little money. I did odd jobs. Being outside the system gave me a lot of freedom.

Was your first meeting with Taisen Deshimaru decisive?

I practiced karate in a club, I liked that a lot. It was the club officials who told me about a Zen master who practiced in Paris, rue de Pernety. I became his disciple as soon as I entered the dojo. It was an afternoon in 1972. I felt like I had been to the place before. Deshimaru arrived and settled down for a zazen session. I couldn't see him, because he was sitting in the lotus position facing the wall. He said: "You have to know that here, in Zen Soto, there is nothing to obtain, nothing". For example, he meant: "Do not think that by your practice of zazen, you will obtain good health or the energy that you would like to accomplish certain tasks, to be more efficient at work, more balanced at home". If one is in this state of mind, separation arises, distinction, classifications, good and evil, then one is just following one's own ego. We just attach ourselves, stay put. In a dojo, we don't stick to anything, nothing related to our perspective or our personal well-being. This word of "Mushotoku" that he spoke means to return to not-knowing, to non-distinction and, obviously, to non-separation. Return to what is universal. I found that fantastic. Hearing these words in this circumstance was a determining factor for me. I always, afterward as a disciple, had very good relations with Deshimaru. I had, moreover, the merit, in his eyes, of speaking English and knowing how to write. So he quickly asked me to write for him.

How would you describe it? What were his most salient character traits?

He was a very strong man, both physically and morally. And sweet at the same time. What was important to me was also that he was wrong, like us. Everything is teaching. You, my disciples, he told us, must become truly religious, but not professional religious. True religious should help others by their practice and not by talking. On the way, you must behave like a true guide, a true master. The essence of Zen education is to reduce selfishness.

Did you quickly know that you were going to continue on this Path?

No, I had rather a feeling of gratitude then. The feeling of having had the chance to discover this Pernety dojo which was, for me, both heaven and earth. I didn't think then that I was going to dedicate the rest of my life to Zen.

Among the books that you co-wrote with Master Deshimaru, do some seem more important to you than others?

They are all different. the work The Voice of the Valley (later published as Zen and karma) has become something of an icon today. It was, however, censored in the United States, in particular crucial passages in which master Deshimaru criticized certain American masters were deleted. There was also The Lion's Roar, a comparison between the Rinzai and Soto Zen schools, known today as The Two Sides of Zen. It is a series of kusen given by master Deshimaru during the summer of 1978, during meditation sessions in Val d'Isère. It is a book full of teachings relating to life in the here and now, advice for the posture and practice of zazen, stories and poems drawn from the tradition of Buddhism and in particular from Zen. You have to really get into teaching when you read these books.

Is the Homeless Sangha the only one without a temple?

Now everyone wants a temple. We don't have a temple and don't want to have one. Not having a temple is a way of approaching the Way by perpetuating the tradition of “being homeless”. Besides, personally, I don't like being an owner. We should not be attached to a place. Today, the Sangha Sans Demeure brings together 300 practitioners. Forty of them lead sesshins in France, Germany and Switzerland.

How important is transmission in your tradition?

Zen is one of the oldest oral traditions on this earth. This interactive transmission ("I shin den shin", "From my heart-mind to your heart-mind") is an extremely powerful way to advance on the Way of Zen. Then, after long years of practice together, the master gives the "shiho" to his disciple, the transmission of the dharma which authorizes to teach. He thus certifies his disciple. What is most important? The transmission or the shiho? There are many people who receive the shiho without having had any transmission, others have received the transmission without having received any shiho. Deshimaru did not give the shiho, while he passed on teachings to many of his disciples.

What is the role and importance of this certification?

In our societies, it is customary to have a paper with a stamp certifying that such master has certified such disciple. This certification is required. It is the objective element which is the counterpart of the relationship between master and disciple which is the subjective element. Sometimes we are deprived of one of the two elements. This poses a problem, because it is through certifications that our lineage is built, which bases everything on the human being. This poses a problem when some people teach without having received the shiho. As far as I am concerned, refusing the influence of the Japanese clergy, I transmit shihos not officialized by Japan, but still registered with a notary. I myself received in 2008 the shiho from Kishigami, a direct disciple of Kodo Sawaki.

You have made yourself the champion of religious autonomy by refusing Japanese religious guardianship. Why this refusal?

At the end of his life, Master Deshimaru told us: “I brought you the seed of Zen, it is up to you to develop it”. On the death of Etienne Zeisler, one of Master Deshimaru's closest disciples, two opposing tendencies appeared. Some went to Japanese ecclesiastical guardianship. A tutelage, like that of the Chinese over the Japanese after the death of Dogen – like in the United States after the death of Suzuki – has always existed. An ecclesiastical guardianship imposes an external authority on you and, in exchange, protects you in your practice, grants you titles and enhances your mission. But in religious autonomy, guardianship cannot exist. Autonomy is the independence to decide by oneself and for oneself. That of freely directing his sangha. In the Homeless Sangha, each of us must find our own autonomy in the dojo, as in daily life.

“Master Deshimaru, he often spoke of “recovering the normal condition”. The normal condition is non-separation. The state of Buddha did not appear at our birth. It will not disappear when we die. »

What makes you different from other sanghas?

Japanese guardianship no longer recognizes us. We were excluded because I didn't play along. In many other sanghas, it is customary to organize trips to Japan. Close disciples of the godos, the teachers of the dojo, travel to Japan to learn Japanese ceremonials which they then introduce into their sangha in Europe. What we don't do at the Homeless Sangha. We nevertheless remain faithful to the basic teachings that Deshimaru passed on to us. We have kept more or less the same ceremonies and introduced a few rare novelties.

Have you sought to westernize certain practices?

No one can westernize Zen. It westernizes itself if we let things be. However, I behave differently from the Japanese. For example, I give the ordination and the shiho in a much simpler way than the Japanese.

The practice of zazen would allow, you write, to balance internal brain and external brain?

It is indeed essential. When you practice zazen, you learn, through posture and abdominal breathing, to put the frontal brain to rest and to think with the hypothalamus, with the body and with the hara. And so, you return to what Master Deshimaru called the normal condition. You have to let the mind be as it is, fragmented. When one follows his thoughts, the mind is no longer fragmented. The normal condition is to have a fragmented mind. The normal condition is to think. But you have to be careful not to let your thoughts run into each other like the carriages of a train. By practicing zazen, we manage to no longer attach ourselves to thoughts. We don't run after them, we don't run away from them either, we let them pass. We follow our breathing without wanting anything.

You support in your book The song of the wind in the dry tree that the practice of zazen “creates an interior revolution which lays the foundations of an authentic civilisation”. What about?

We men must change our minds. This is the revolution. It is not an external revolution, but an internal one. Our work on this earth, we who practice zazen, is situated in the invisible. This is where the change, the inner revolution, takes place. And this practice influences all men.

What is the cosmos that you evoke in your teachings?

Our life is connected with the whole cosmos, as Master Ejo, the disciple of Master Dogen, writes in his writings. Our life is not limited by our birth and our death, it is not something personal, individual. To better free us from the ego, master Ejo tries to make us understand that there is ultimately no separation. Master Deshimaru often spoke of "recovering the normal condition". The normal condition is non-separation. The state of Buddha did not appear at our birth. It will not disappear when we die.

photo of author

Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

Leave comments