In the footsteps of the Buddha in Nola

- through Francois Leclercq

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“Let the good times roll”. Could the motto of Louisiana have something Buddhist? Has the philosophy of the Buddha penetrated the bayous? Our journey to the heart of Creole music will tell us.

Spring 2018. That's it, we took our plane tickets to New Orleans. For the musicians that we are, this city is an Eldorado, a crossroads of the musical world. Our goal: to meet one of the legends of local Cajun and folk music, Michael Doucet (see box 1). A famous musician, singer and poet, founder of the BeauSoleil group, one of the monuments of French-American music. Through a Louisiana singer friend, Sarah Quintana, the meeting takes place quickly. For this appointment, we must leave the city as soon as we arrive. Michael has returned to his roots, to Lafayette, in the heart of Cajun country, a two-hour drive through the swamps and their share of alligators, visible from the side of the road.

"Tabasco Buddha" was owned by one of the founders of the famous hot sauce typical of the region.

What does this have to do with Buddhism, will you tell us? Initially, none! But we should have been wary, because a first clue was going to put us on the way of the Buddha: Sarah is an assiduous follower of yoga, meditation and Buddhist sympathizer. She plays regularly with Michael and told us, as a preamble, that "Michael is a Buddhist ». We wanted to retort "like everyone in the cultural milieu in the United States", as the artists we knew, in California and New York, were used to putting Buddha on all notes, from Wayne Shorter to Tina Turner, for the best known.

Buddha falls on us!

We meet Michael in Vermilionville, a marvelous Cajun cultural center in Lafayette which recreates identically the traditional life of the Cajuns. Here, many volunteers and a team led by the very welcoming David Cheramie give life to a real center of living history, where ancestral know-how and ways of life are preserved and practiced without ever falling into nostalgia or the park. of folklore attraction. Barely seated, Michael tells us about the visit of the Dalai Lama in 2013 (see box 2), weekly Buddhist meditations he held for a few years at NOLA (diminutive of the city of New Orleans) and the difficulty of permanently establishing a Buddhist community there, unlike what he had experienced in California. In question, a certain inertia specific to the Louisiana musical and cultural milieu that he rubs shoulders with, for a practice no doubt deemed too “exotic”. Michael is a "true" practitioner. It's disturbing: we had come to look for the "fiddling" tradition, as we say in Cajun country, and Buddha fell on us!

Unwittingly, with chance and curiosity as our only guides, here we are faced with the “central figure” of Louisiana Buddhism. "When Buddha wants to be discreet, he goes through the little door of chance", to paraphrase the adage.

Discussions with Michael reveal the subtle dance between values, Buddhist practices and deep traditions of Louisiana. During our walks, chance continues to play with us by putting us in front of a superb statue of Buddha over 900 years old, in the heart of Jungle Gardens, in Lafayette. Here, people call it "Tabasco Buddha" because it was owned by one of the founders of the famous hot sauce typical of the region. Amazing appearance in a city which has, according to statistics, 53 Buddhists out of 127 inhabitants!

Voodoo sauce impermanence

In fact, it is easier to make music here than to practice a religion or a philosophy that comes from elsewhere. With Michael, we quickly move from dialogue to music: we play Sidney Bechet, Canray Fontenot, the Savoy family, in short, music that he readily qualifies as “Creole”. Hey, "Creole"? After all, isn't Buddhism Creole, as some currently accuse him ? Isn't everything Creole here? Historically, everything that was not Anglo-Saxon in Louisiana is Creole. More broadly, the creolization dear to the philosopher Édouard Glissant defines all the natural crossbreeding of our time. I'm going back to New Orleans to investigate. There is a certain presence of Buddhist temples (see box 3), including some flamboyant. Yet according to statistics, Buddhists do not roam the streets of the city, with Buddhists making up just 0,72% of the population, compared to 2% in California and 8% in Hawaii. The temples are mainly used by Asian communities, settled in a city that has always been welcoming to emigrants from all over the world. And if New Orleans was ultimately a Buddhist city in essence, who would practice Buddhism without knowing it? After all, through Louisiana's famous slogan “Let the good times roll”, doesn't the city embody one of the key precepts of Buddhism: impermanence? Here, life plays with destiny, the dead, disappearance is an integral part of the various celebrations of the city. It is enough to have attended a “jazz funeral” or a Cajun Mardi Gras to understand it. Life and death are improvised every evening in the jazz clubs of Frenchmen Street, in the heart of the “Crescent City”.

At NOLA, all religions are welcome, syncretic and creolized, like the Catholic religion steeped in African, Cajun, Asian and Amerindian crossbreeding… In a word, “voodoo”, the Louisiana version of Haitian and African voodoo. The last surprise of our trip will confirm this intuition by putting me in front of a statue of Buddha in the middle… of a voodoo temple! More than a land of welcome, Buddha finds in New Orleans a land of encounters

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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