Venerable sir, were you brought up in a very religious family?
I was born in Vientiane, Laos, behind the village pagoda, where I was ordained over fifty years ago. Every morning, my parents gave offerings of food to the monks who begged for alms as is the tradition. The temple being right in front of our house, I therefore grew up in contact with monks and novices. I then left to study engineering in the United States and England. At that time, I was a student among others, I was interested in the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and football, until the day I fell in love with a Laotian princess. In Laos, the tradition is that when you are twenty, you serve eighteen months to two years in the army, or three months of spiritual retreat to obtain a “certificate of good conduct” and be able to get married. In order to get my "green card" in a way, in order to be recognized as an adult and to be able to marry her, I had to do this retreat. It was then that I had the chance to meet a very famous master of the forest school, Ajahn Pan Anando. He helped me go to the essentials, telling me that I had nothing to learn, simply to go and practice in a meditation hut, in the forest, during these three months. This period completed, he added: “You have integrated the base, but is it enough? Once married, you will be too busy to continue, while there you are still free to learn. This touched me, and I stayed at the monastery. My master died a year later. As a monk, with other disciples, our duty being to take care of his funeral, I stayed there until the political situation forced me to leave the country.
How did you arrive in France? By political choice?
I first went to Thailand to follow the teachings of Ajahn Chah (1), who was already very well known. In 1975, Laos became the People's Democratic Republic, I couldn't go back there. All Laotians who had received a Western education were taken to re-education camps. So Ajahn Chah said to me: “Your place is in France”. This is how I became the first refugee monk in France, in July 1975. A little cousin aged twelve accompanied me. When we arrived, his sister who was studying in Paris said to me: “I'm taking him with me, but I can't accommodate you”. She lived in a small attic room under the roof. There were no refugee camps yet, no organized reception at the time. So I found myself alone, a wanderer in Paris, with the tramps, for a year.
Some were ex-teachers, ex-executives and spoke English. Since I didn't drink alcohol, I became their bartender, I kept their bottles while they went to get food, and in exchange, they gave me leftover food. I became in a way the caretaker for all the tramps in the XNUMXth and XNUMXth arrondissements of Paris. I learned a lot of things in contact with the homeless. When they were sober, we could talk, but when they were addicted to drugs or drink, it was impossible. Often, at the beginning of their desocialization, there was a dismissal, an argument with a spouse, a separation... When one arrives in the street, it is rare to be able to go back, the mind is blurred, the moments of lucidity are too short to recover. However, if the conditions are favorable, it is always possible to change, provided you find a place to stabilize yourself physically, and stay away from certain negative influences. When we hit bottom, there are only two possibilities: drown or rise to the surface. Some manage to get back on their feet, others don't. For addictions, we must go even further and consolidate the mental, physical and psychological, because either we die or we get out of it. Buddhism teaches that we are responsible for our words, our thoughts, our well-being and our misfortunes. So we cannot blame society, family or anyone else for our suffering.
When I was with them, I practiced morning, noon and evening. Some tried to do the same and remained motionless, without speaking. Others asked me what I was doing, but our exchanges were very limited. For a few years, I kept in touch with those who came to see me at Tournon, to learn to meditate. Today, most of them are dead… When there is nothing left, no more hope, no more clarity, when there is no longer even awareness of the danger, then death sometimes comes faster.
Tournon was a turning point. From the street to the creation of the monastery in France, your journey is amazing, what do you remember?
To be able to teach and to understand the world around me and the complexity of French society, I needed time. In forty-three years, many things have changed in society. Little by little, things have evolved, with single mothers, cohabitation, Pacs, then marriage for all, the whole of society has changed. The couple is a good indicator of the evolution of societies, the education of children too. So, of course, these changes destabilize the conservatives, but for us Buddhists, it is a normal evolution, since everything is impermanent. Society evolves, laws too, people too. It is neither good nor bad. It's adaptation. We learn from our experiences.
Blended families are a challenge for the modern world. The old notions of brother, sister, father, mother are transformed. This is why the lesson of one generation is not valid for the next generation. You have to accept it, that's the lesson. If we refuse it, we remain blocked and the energy does not circulate.
We are on Earth to learn to live with what we have, what we are, and to adapt to the milieu, to the social environment, to the circumstances. The goal is to free yourself from suffering. But how to eradicate suffering to find inner peace and live in harmony? The first stage, “morality”, consists in paying attention to what we say, what we think, what we do. It is then a question of striving to maintain this attitude for longer and longer: it is mental clarity, concentration and meditation. And, when we manage to establish, on a daily basis, without interruption, this zone of peace, this state of clarity and well-being, to let wisdom manifest itself. If we relax this attention, everything falls back; if we maintain it, it stabilizes. Acquiring this is not innate. Contrary to what some Asians think, it is not because they were born Buddhists that they are. No, Buddhism is a state of awakening which allows an awareness which helps to live in this crazy world. To be a Buddhist is not simply to recite prayers or mantras.
Why is Buddhism adapted to our time and to today's society?
Because it empowers and allows you to adjust to all situations, and to find the causes of problems, suffering, illness, discomfort… There is a problem, so there is a cause; and if there is a cause, there is a solution. This is expressed in the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. The first says that existence brings suffering; the second, that there are causes at the origin of all suffering; the third, that there is a remedy for this cause; and the fourth, that there is a path to freedom from suffering and well-being – through the observation of probity, concentration and wisdom.
“Buddhism is a state of awakening which allows an awakening which helps to live in this world in madness. To be a Buddhist is not simply to recite prayers or mantras. »
Buddhism is humanistic and modern. This implies that those who follow it develop a sense of responsibility and learn to adapt. Adapting means being ready, not depending on circumstances, no matter what. Today's society is not independent enough, it must work to achieve self-sufficiency. There are simple and important things to do for this, like a small garden for food, because food is the first medicine. In town, you can make a small vegetable garden on your balcony. The basis is food, for health and balance, it is best to consume natural foods. It is also essential to keep in touch with the earth and nature. Buddhism teaches how to live in harmony with oneself and with one's environment. If at home, your plants are not doing well, it's because your apartment is not "healthy", it's a bit like a test...
Buddhism can also provide answers to current issues, to bioethics for example. It is important to let the dying go naturally. If there is the possibility of curing them, then yes, they must be cured, otherwise they must be left to die out. We are humans, dominated by fear, desire, rejection and ignorance, we do not always intervene wisely. Another example is that of cannabis used in healthcare. It alleviates some suffering, but it also sometimes has harmful effects. Meditation allows you to naturally find a state of joy, peace and above all to be in contact with reality, with nature and with our human nature, so, yes, you have to meditate.
You share your knowledge with very different peoples, like during your travels in the Amazon. How did you meet them? What plans do you find yourself on?
In 2011, in India, on the occasion of the 2600 years of the Awakening of the Buddha, five thousand monks were invited to plant the tree of awakening, a pipal, a ficus religiosa, in New Delhi in the park of Gandhi. At the same time, in the Amazon, shamans from the Yawanawa people, who had just completed purifying rituals, had a vision of “shaved heads” emerging from their forest. As they had never left their house, at the time, they did not understand what it was about. Until the day when they were invited to come and talk about nature protection at Unesco and they saw me, I was one of those “shaved heads”… They then invited me to the Amazon. Spiritually, they recognize me as a shaman. For them, I am in a way an antenna, a relay, which helps them to connect to subtle energies, they asked me to teach young shamans methods of purification of the spirit, so that they have clear, spontaneous visions, without the aid of hallucinogenic substances, such as ayahuasca and other perlimimpin powders, which, contrary to Buddhism, cause unconscious, trance-like states devoid of clarity of mind. With these shamans, I share the same bases. They, too, have learned to survive alone in the forest, protected from danger by the practices on the mind. When danger arises, they are ready, because in reality the danger is within us, not outside. When one is clear and awake, there is no fear. A forest monk does not run away from fear. Either he remains motionless, or, if he has the courage, he advances towards the unknown, towards the “beast” which is in him. There is neither accepting nor rejecting fear, because everything is illusion, and we are the ones who create it. You just have to observe its arrival and anticipate its effects.
What has living in France brought you in terms of understanding Dharma and practicing it?
The discovery of the evolution of society through marriage, Pacs and this last stage of marriage for all. It is excellent to see things evolve and to accept them. There are also all these changes around masculine and feminine, and now the third gender… I'm waiting to know what the next step will be!