Your latest book is a succession of short chapters on koans: what is it exactly?
They can be described as the verbal, poetic and instantaneous expression of something ineffable. Concretely, these are little phrases with a mysterious air, used to shake our minds, to get us out of the torpor in which our habits plunge us, and thus bring us back to more reality and simplicity. It can be an anecdote, a whimsical dialogue or even a famous sentence from a master, for example: "Clapping hands creates a sound, what sound does one hand make?" by master Hakuin in the XNUMXth century. They are mainly found in collections compiled in China or Japan. They have always accompanied me in my practice, and I wanted to share some thoughts with as many people as possible through them. I also wanted to break with a whole imaginary surrounding koans: that of enlightenment in particular, the idea that a short sentence could suddenly awaken us and transform us into a kind of sage. No, koans are more like shavings of silence: if they sometimes make us more sensitive to the reality of the present moment, it's also what happens before, during and after that matters.
What are you trying to convey in your writing or online postings?
To be honest, my communications mostly respond to commands; my first manuscript was sent by someone else, the same for the videos that had been requested of me… I took the opportunity, but it was not on my part. I consider more generally that what I write does not really belong to me; I see myself less as an author – except when I correct my typos! (Laughter) – only as a ferryman. If I had to sum it up though, I would say that everything is already there: love, freedom, happiness… There's no point in looking for them elsewhere, in imagining methods to achieve them. On the contrary, we must abandon all these belief systems, these illusions about oneself, about the good life and about reality. Afterwards, to return specifically to this little book on koans, I also wanted to take this tradition out of the cenacles of the zen, sometimes a little hermetic… We have to stop with these masters who claim to be the best interpreters of the genre and who would like to reserve this tradition for a small elite. Awakening is a constant practice, by definition open to everyone.
You like to provoke, even if it means speaking crudely…
I have no doubt retained the impertinence of a heavy-handed and literary intellectual. That said, I spent the first half of my life keeping quiet, letting myself be impressed by “masters” proclaimed under the pretext that they were Asian or members of a clergy. Today, all that leaves me indifferent. We must stop letting people believe that a Buddhist is a being apart or – even worse! - superior. A monk is like you and me: it shits, it burps, it farts. Awakening is a practice essentially consisting in accepting that, in perceiving things as they are and not as one fantasizes them. It's not burying yourself in a cave to end up in a state close to levitation… As long as you don't understand that, you're just off the mark. I'm going to give you a revealing example, in any case formative for me: when I was young, I had learned from a Japanese master in particular. All his disciples imitated him, myself included. We thought that was the real Zen. When I arrived in Japan, I realized that most people behaved like him. In fact, we were imitating very “Japanese” cultural attitudes that had nothing to do with Buddhism. Becoming aware of this helped me to no longer be fooled by a mirror with exotic larks.
Does Buddhism as a fad seem detrimental to you?
In a society eager for quick and effective solutions, like ours, it has become a product, a guide to practical recipes tinged with oriental exoticism, nourishing a whole imagination – think of the figure of Yoda in Star Wars, caricature par excellence of an exotic and “superhuman” American figure of Zen… In short, there is a phenomenon of commodification which can go very far, even to sectarian excesses. It is not a question of panicking, but of remembering, of repeating that Buddhism is useless. If you don't understand that, you will always miss the point.
“While koans sometimes make us more sensitive to the reality of the present moment, it's also what happens before, during and after that matters. »
The traditions are extraordinarily varied, but generally converge around the idea that samsara, life as it is and as we spontaneously know it, is nothing other than nirvana. The latter is not an ultimate or second state, as we often hear, it is simply our default condition. There is no beyond, no afterworld, it happens here and now. The only work that would have to be done would be to let go, to surrender to this idea… and therefore above all not to work in this direction!
How do you analyze the fact that your Christian education was not enough for you?
Something of it has certainly remained with me, moreover I sometimes regret the fact that Buddhism speaks so little of love and I try to develop the concept there… But Christianity remains at the antipodes of what I experience. From childhood, this mysticism of suffering – symbolized by the crucifixion –, the idea that we were born sinners and that we had to expiate our faults to have a chance of going to paradise… It didn't appeal to me. For the anecdote, I had to go to confession the day before my first communion, and since I saw nothing to reproach myself for, I invented a sin that I had not committed. I told the priest that I stole candy, it suited him well. Buddhism defends just the opposite via the idea of putting an end to all forms of regret, shame, but also giving up the hope that it will be better tomorrow if we do this or that. Everything comes back to an acceptance of what is, where Christianity is more in a more negative attitude vis-à-vis the existing. That said, I have no doubt that Christians can find the same thing as me in their own practice, as long as they approach it with simplicity and spontaneity.
But can acceptance be enough in a world like ours? Aren't there fights to fight for example?
In general, action is the natural extension of practice. You can't sit with your ass on a pillow all the time. Above all, it is not a question of wallowing in stasis or ecstasy! Presence is by definition active; when you are touched, the ineffable is not understood as such, but experienced. And like anything experienced, it becomes an embodied action in your daily reality. It can be politics of course; in the United States, Bernie Glassman wonderfully embodies this through his action against poverty and exclusion, for example. But it can go through many other things. Someone like Valérie Duvauchelle has developed a practice around cooking and, by extension, veganism and environmental activism. It may not be a question of wanting to “change the world” strictly speaking, but at least of embodying the change that is expected of it. For my part, I found myself above all in transmission and sharing, whether through my publications or retreats with people less experienced than me.