Zen Road
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Tremblay-sur-Mauldre

A new chronicle that follows the river of sesshin, zazen days and introductions to the practice. Along this wide river, turbulent or calm, we sometimes meet up with remarkable karmas. Such was the case last November, in a village an hour outside of Paris…

 

Invited by a regional group, Reiryu Coupey and a few nuns and monks set down their zafus in Tremblay-sur-Mauldre for a half-day of zazen.

 

[Picture of an antique brass-and-mahogany ship’s wheel]

In the entryway of the town hall that is serving as a dojo, there’s a wonderful surprise: a ship’s wheel!

It looks like the one in Tintin, the one on Captain Haddock’s boat. Next to it are some odds and ends that have nothing to do with a village so far from any ocean and from any other Buddhist representation.

 

Upstairs, there are worn leather traveling cases on either side of the entrance to the gaitan, and antiquated books with yellowed pages in a massive armoire of curious style. Finally, a clue: the initials “B.C.”

 

The village and dojo of Tremblay-sur-Mauldre are steeped in the karma of a superbly free and amazing character: Blaise Cendrars.

 

So who was this guy? When he was sixteen, he left his peaceful homeland, La Chaux de Fonds (!), Switzerland, hitched a ride on the Trans-Siberian and headed for China. He had an obvious nose for “business,” selling coffins, corkscrews and pocket-knives. Later, Blaise, whose real name was Frédéric Sauser, settled in France for the first time and stayed active in commerce by growing watercress. Dissatisfied with the results, he became a beekeeper and declared, “Eight thousand francs a year in honey: I’m rich!” Later we find him in Brussels and in London, where he shared a room with Charlie Chaplin. These were lean times of pierced and empty trouser-pockets…

 

One starry night in 1912, flat broke, he composed “Easter in New York,” a long poem in free verse. At the start of World War I he enlisted in the Foreign Legion and lost his right arm during a bloody awful offensive. When it happened he declared, “There’s still the left one! Forward!” He left the battlefields and took up combat sports and typing, the usual stuff.

 

At the end of the war, he traveled from South America to Africa, where he became a prospector. During this time he also wrote “Nineteen Elastic Poems” (1919), “Kodak (Documentary)” (1924) and “Travel Notes” (1924).

[Black and white photo of Blaise Cendrars smoking]

 

I’m ugly!
In my solitude, if I keep sniffing the smell of girls,
My head and nose will fall off soon.

 

- from “The Great Fetishes” (1916)

 

From 1917 to 1940, his tracks are hard to follow: Méréville, Brazil, war correspondent for the British Army and a return to Paris.

 

Cendrars also turned towards the cinema, where he worked with the renowned French director Abel Gance. His forays into poetry became more rare during these sedentary years; instead he wrote tales, short stories and commentaries, a superb cocktail of exoticism, adventure, wildness, sex and violence.

 

In Paris, on the Montparnasse side, though he detested the Parisian literary circles, Blaise rubbed elbows with the greatest artists and writers of the 20th century: the Surrealists, Picasso, the poet Francis Carco, Appollinaire. A portrait of him from this time is signed Modigliani.

 

His contemporary, the writer Paul Morand, called Blaise Cendrars “a reporter of God, a spiritual adventurer.” He still has a strong influence on major contemporary writers, such as Jim Harrison, who, in his memoir Off the Side, cites Blaise as one of the greatest writers who inspired him.

 

Since you can’t be bored if you’re reading Blaise, here are two passages I like. The first is an excerpt from Planus (1948):

 

Ledje was a tart, a tub of a woman who must have weighed about 240 or 250 pounds. I had never seen such a monument of tottering, overflowing flesh. She spent day and night in an overstuffed chair made especially for her which she never ceased to ornament and bedeck with ribbons, weaving it with favors, knots and gold and silver braids.

 

 

Wanting to make love with Ledje meant scampering about like a hound. What a joyful little animal! It began with running about, yelping, frolicking, hitting with paws, biting, laughing, struggling until we were out of breath… We toppled onto the bed where we engaged in a mock battle which ended in slaps and clouts for laughs, but they were good hits carefully placed, such as you’d administer to a young dog in the excitement of play, with the covert goal of good training, and not second-rate petting.

 

 

When I asked her, “Tell me, Ledje, you don’t put out this way for just anybody, eh?”, she replied, “You must be joking! You’re not the first one to come along. I hate you. I only like swine. That’s why I became a whore. Ah! Men…”

 

 

And here’s a second, completely different excerpt, this one from “Prose of the Transsiberian and of Little Jeanne of France,” published in 1913:

 

The Kremlin was like a huge Tartar cake crusted with gold,
With great almonds of cathedrals, all white
And the bells’ honeyed gold…
An old monk was reading me the legend of Novgorod
I was thirsty
And I was deciphering the cuneiform characters.
Then, suddenly, the pigeons of Saint-Esprit took off over the square
And my hands took off too with albatross rustlings
And these were the last recollections
Of the last day
Of the very last trip
And of the sea.

 

 

Blaise Cendrars died and was buried in Paris in 1961, but he went on knocking about (though not like with Ledje): his ashes were transferred a few years ago to Tremblay, and all the affairs found in what is now the entrance to the dojo are the remains of his life, bequeathed to the village by his last companion, Raymone Duchateau.

 

But after reading about his lively, rich and action-packed life, I have to ask: “Did Blaise Cendrars really die in Paris in 1961?”

 

In any case:
Hey Blaise! We came by to see you this morning! Monks and nuns are practicing zazen near your books and your suitcases that still stink of adventure. It’s not over, old buddy, you’re still traveling!

[Cendrars’ gravestone - polished granite with a left hand in bronze on top]

Between two zazens, I ran to do gassho at his grave, where his right forearm, lost in the war, finally came back to him.

 

Crossing Karmas: Have a close look at the back cover of the novel Horse Medicine by M.C. Dalley, a good friend of Zen Road; you’ll see that Blaise is still among us.


[Group photo of Zen monks and nuns with Philippe Coupey in Tremblay-sur-Mauldre]

Many thanks to the Tremblay-sur-Mauldre Zen Group.
Text: Guy Rivoallan

Photos: Françoise Lesage; Guy Rivoallan; Centre d’Études Blaise Cendrars www.cebc-cendrars.ch


one response to “Tremblay-sur-Mauldre”

  • 1

    Purely serious and easy text, at the same time. I enjoyed it.
    Poet from Greece.
    Delighted. Best wishes.

    05. January 2006 at 4:39 by John Livadas


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