Zen Road
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A question of mind

An interview with Philippe Coupey, zen monk


During a retreat (Sesshin Sans Demeure, Gorenzen, Germany, February 2005) Philippe Coupey answered questions about the practice from three disciples: Gernot Knödler, a journalist for the Hamburg edition of the newspaper Taz - Die Tageszeitung, specializing in city-development and environmental issues; Uli Schnabel, a journalist for Die Zeit, specializing in physics, brain research and the philosophy of science, who was also the tenzo (cook) during the sesshin; and Bertrand Schütz, a translator, cross-cultural trainer, and teacher of language and literature.


what is Zen about?


B.S.: Many images and concepts about Zen are in the public eye nowadays — it’s not something unknown anymore. We see Zen in connection to aesthetics and design; a perfume has come out with the name Zen; wellness products are sold with a picture of a Zen monk with a shaved head and rakusu... So what is Zen about?

Ph.C.: Well it’s not about that! Zen is a practice. The practice is absolutely essential for everybody in this world. It’s not just us, it’s everybody. If we’re practicing, whatever we do is Zen. But we have to practice with a mind beyond our own little selves, getting rid of our egocentric attitudes. This is universal. This is Zen.

B.S.: Universal for whom? For everybody, or only for religious people?

Ph.C.: Everybody! “Religious” means nothing. It’s for everybody. Everybody’s religious. Everybody has a spiritual mind.

G.K.: But not everybody believes in God.Philippe Coupey

B.S.: Do Buddhists believe in God?

Ph.C.: God has nothing to do with it. God is neither here nor there. God, the devil... those are just human concepts. We don’t fabricate anything. God is fabricated. In this practice, we don’t fabricate anything or construct anything. God is us.

G.K.: Then what makes religion different from anything else, like going to school or going to work?

Ph.C.: It’s not different. It’s an open mind, it’s looking from the inside. Religion is not a doctrine; it’s something experienced.

G.K.: So what do you experience when you experience religion? Most people would say you experience God in some way, or you talk to God. Christians would say, “We pray, we talk to God, we believe in God, that’s what a religion is all about, and we try to get in contact with God.”

Ph.C.: That’s creating subject/object. Religious experience is understanding that when someone else dies, you die. Tsunami: the problem isn’t the dead, the problem is the living. When a kid loses his parents, it’s not the parents who suffer, it’s the kid who suffers. And the kid: who’s the kid? The kid is finally us.

B.S.: So the practice is about living?

Ph.C.: Yes. It’s about life. Zen... Deshimaru used to say you could drop the word “Zen” and just say “life.”



B.S.: When we see what practice is, on a sesshin or in a dojo, we see many rules. What can you say about the unlimited mind and the strictness of rules, the strictness of the posture?

Ph.C.: I wouldn’t call the posture “strict.” It’s the true posture of the human being. It’s keeping your backbone straight, and your head straight on your shoulders. This is the normal condition.

And rules: we need rules, because there are many of us. We should follow them, but they can be changed, and they should be changed, as time goes on. We shouldn’t be stuck with old rules. This is what the Catholic Church is, isn’t it? It’s stuck with old rules that have nothing to do with our time and place. With Zen it’s here and now, beyond the structures of church and state from hundreds of years ago.


there’s no sin, just wrong thinking.


G.K.: Some of your colleagues have said that “Zen is true religion.” Is there any wrong religion?

Ph.C.: A wrong thought, that’s wrong religion. There’s no sin, just wrong thinking. It’s ignorance, our own ignorance, which we create, and which perpetuates itself.

B.S.: And how does Zen practice deal with thinking?

Ph.C.: It’s necessary to think, but not to think-think-think, always going from one thought to the next. Religion is when you go from thinking to non-thinking, and from non-thinking to thinking. Going from thought to thought to thought is ignorance. It’s just our own thoughts, it has nothing to do with reality. It only separates us.

G.K.: How do you know what’s wrong thinking?

Ph.C.: When you hold onto your own thoughts, that’s wrong thinking.

B.S.: So practice would be to re-immerse oneself into reality? To come back to reality? Do we have a tendency to leave reality?

Ph.C.: Of course, but it depends on what practice you do. If you just do the practice of calisthenics, it doesn’t serve any purpose except to develop you muscles, or your flexibility, or your coordination. But yes, we were born in reality, and we leave reality with our own minds and our own thoughts. Practice teaches us not to follow our thoughts, particularly the Zen meditation practice, and other practices too, I hope.

We’re always running after God, that’s absolutely ridiculous, it’s purely materialistic. It’s trying to obtain something, accumulate merits. There’s nothing wrong with God: God is fine, God is us, it’s what we must find in ourselves. God is one, and this is what we are, we are one. When one dies, we all die.


without the avant-garde there is no tradition


B.S.: You said we shouldn’t follow our thinking. What should we follow?

Ph.C.: First, in a practice like Buddhism, you need to have a master: that is, a person with whom there is complete exchange, master to disciple. Not “master” in any particular glorified sense. And what you follow is the teaching he or she gives you, which has been transmitted throughout the centuries. But it’s always here and now. This is important: you follow your own master and his teaching. Whether he’s here or not is irrelevant. Alive or dead is irrelevant.

We’ve received this teaching from Master Deshimaru, who received it from Kodo Sawaki, who received it from Fuyodokai, who received it from Bodhidharma, and Buddha. This is clearly the case, we can easily verify this, and this is our job: to follow this teaching. But following a teaching does not mean that you don’t live in the moment and you’re not avant-garde. Being avant-garde is the tradition. Without the avant-garde there is no tradition.

G.K.: Doesn’t avant-garde mean that you create your belief anew in every moment?

Ph.C.: Yes and no. We don’t create our beliefs. We have faith in this line of the transmission. The Tibetans, for example, have faith in theirs, we have faith in ours... and this faith gives us faith in the human being. And not only the human being, but in all living and non-living things.

G.K.: You stress the master-disciple relationship. Zen masters are renowned for behaving absurdly at times, doing things that may not seem reasonable at first.

Ph.C.: They’re not reasonable, and they’re not rational. We’re beyond that. We’re not interested in what’s rational. Six times six does not make thirty-six. So a Zen master who reacts as you say, “absurdly,” he’s not making thirty-six — but he’s not absurd.




G.K.: The Western world nowadays is very much confronted with fundamentalism in many forms, mostly religious. How can a Western mind discern between fundamentalism and the seemingly absurd things a Zen master does?

Ph.C.: Fundamentalism is not religion. Fundamentalism is a doctrine. Then it becomes one doctrine as opposed to another doctrine. The Christians were fundamentalists and still are; the Muslims were fundamentalists and still are; the orthodox Jews... one against the other.

Religion has nothing to do with being one against the other, and Buddhism has always shown this to be the case. When the Muslims killed the Buddhists in India — and they totally liquidated them, there are hardly any Buddhists left in India because the Muslims finished them off — the Buddhists never held anything against the Muslims. It’s not one against the other in true spiritual practice.

G.K.: But Buddhists have also been fighting...

Ph.C.: Where?

G.K.: In southeast Asia.

Ph.C.: You mean the Sri Lankans fighting against the Hindu Tamils? Sri Lanka is a society that calls itself “Buddhist,” but they’re generally not practicing Buddhists. True practicing Buddhists don’t fight one another. Of course they do sometimes; there are always people who don’t understand the religion that they practice.


the factory worker helps the world


G.K.: Let’s get back to the practice of zazen. You said practice is very important. So what happens when you practice? Where does it lead?

Philippe Coupey

Ph.C.: When you practice zazen correctly, you experience no-self. You get up every morning, you go to the dojo, you do the ceremony... At first you have to push yourself to do it, but after years of practice, you just do it. Whether you’ve slept two hours or ten, it’s the same: you get up. Your habits change.

G.K.: How is this different from going to a factory every morning?

Ph.C.: It’s not different. This too is religion. It’s a question of mind, it’s not a question of what you do — as long as you’re not harming other people. The factory worker helps the world.

G.K.: So what state of mind do I have to go to the factory in in order to be practicing Zen?

Ph.C.: It’s not going to the factory. It’s doing. It’s the doing, here and now, that means something. The factory doesn’t mean anything.

Zen doesn’t mean anything either. You get up, and you go. And you go to the factory with correct mind, which means not small mind, not selfish mind, not always accumulating.

That’s the problem in society, isn’t it? That we’re always thinking in terms of accumulating. The worker has to make a living, of course he does. I wouldn’t hold him responsible for this quest to always get more! Our society, our politics, our wrong understanding of politics are responsible. Everything is always based on the future, based on getting something for or in the future.

U.S.: That’s a very important point, and it’s very difficult for people to grasp: it’s not about what I want to do, it’s about the action of doing it. Normally people tend to see, not the action, but where it leads to, or what you’re doing, or what kind of practice you’re doing. It’s always about the surroundings, the surface: “Ah, you’re wearing black!” That’s important, apparently. It’s very difficult for people to understand that it’s not about the effect...


true politics


Ph.C.: You mean it’s not the goal, it’s the doing. What is a goal? It’s a pre-fabricated human idea.

U.S.: But how can you make people realize this point?

Ph.C.: You can’t. People can only realize it for themselves, if they follow and they have a true practice and a master-disciple relationship. It doesn’t have to be a “master,” doesn’t have to be a “disciple,” but always, throughout history, from the time of the cavemen, an older person has always taught the younger ones. Teaching is necessary. Teaching is absolutely essential. But not teaching that six times six makes thirty-six.

G.K.: But there are Zen schools that say there are stages towards enlightenment. How does that fit into your image?

Ph.C.: It’s wrong. No stages. No enlightenment. There’s only enlightenment for the unenlightened.

G.K.: Then a very famous Zen master like Rinzai must be wrong?

Ph.C.: The Rinzai tradition follows another method, and one has to be very careful about judging other schools without having been in that school. I think in the long run, the result is the same.

If you practice Rinzai or Soto, you’re confronted by what I just said. But their procedure is always step-by-step... However, they say our procedure is step-by-step, and theirs isn’t! So everybody who has a little bit of wisdom denies step-by-step. You have to be an idiot to say you go step-by-step. So everybody denies it.

But we say, “You Rinzai people go step-by-step, you have koans. You have to go from the first koan right through to the hundredth koan. Isn’t that step-by-step?” They don’t know how to answer. So they say, “Well, all you Soto people do is SLEEP.”

But this is fair play. It’s a very good thing Rinzai exists, because it confronts us with ourselves. And it’s very good that we exist, because it confronts Rinzai followers with themselves. It’s very stupid for one school to reject another. Any form of rejection is stupid, as I said before. It’s stupid to reject another religion.

Politics is the same. It’s the stupidest thing in the world to set one political point of view against another. Why are they against each other? Because they’ve got projects. We don’t have projects. True politics, which we should learn to understand ourselves, is in the mind. We have to solve the political situation in the mind, which is here and now. This is the only way to help the world. Not with projects, but now. This is our job.


grasp every opportunity to be attached


U.S.: My feeling is that it’s so human to be attached to something, that we grasp every opportunity to be attached, even if we follow a spiritual way. Even when you teach mu and mushotoku, people start to get attached to something...

Ph.C.: This is why life is so interesting! Because we see it right within ourselves. We don’t have to go very far to see the problems in the world. [...] You see people running after things: How interesting! It’s not something to object to. People are people. [...]

It’s a good opportunity to see how we’re capable of running after things too, and not just material things, but spiritual things as well. And if we see this, we have the possibility to act differently. [...]


when a religion starts to organize itself


U.S.: I have a feeling that this also happens when a religion starts to organize itself. At the moment when Buddha had enlightenment, and in the moment when he formed a sangha, these things inevitably came into being — people began running after titles and positions. Is it possible to have a sort of religion where you don’t have this phenomenon?

Ph.C.: Yes! Of course! Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. And I think we’re going in a very good direction. [...] What we’re doing is, I believe, a true religious or spiritual practice. [...]

When Buddha started, when he became enlightened and had disciples around him, there were no degrees. When someone came up to him, whether it was Mahakashyapa or anybody else, he simply said, “Welcome!” Welcome was all. There was nothing else.

Today, some people are very involved in hierarchies and degrees. But what we’re doing is the complete teaching as I understand it. We’re living in society, we have to make a living, we have to feed our families, we have to feed ourselves, we have to pay to practice, we pay to come, and we come a lot. We practice every day in the dojo, we come to sesshins, we come to summer camps.... This is not easy. This is what true religion is. It’s not easy. But once the practice becomes embedded in the instinctive brain, it becomes easy, naturally and unconsciously.

G.K.: How do you explain to somebody on the street why religion isn’t easy? Everybody’s looking for something that makes life easier! And if you say, “I’m practicing something that’s really hard, it’s not easy,” they say, “Well, why are you doing it?

Ph.C.: You don’t talk that way!

There’s no point in talking religion to the man in the street — it’s absolutely ridiculous, in fact. Ridiculous to talk about practice. It’s just who you are, who you are at that moment. And who he is at that moment. That’s i shin den shin. You don’t have to be a master, you don’t have to be a disciple — you are anyway. You don’t need a degree to be one.


the normal human posture


G.K.: You said that zazen was the normal human posture — back straight, shoulders down... Why then is it so hard to do?

Ph.C.: Well, it’s hard for us to do because we’ve had centuries and centuries of physical deformation. We can’t even cross our legs. We sit in chairs, we’re bent over reading books, in the subways all the people are crunched over, they’ve screwed up their backs, they’ve screwed up their necks, they’ve got a frontal brain that’s so heavy it pulls them down.


Philippe CoupeyIn zazen, we’re developing the hypothalamus, the instinctive brain. This is difficult, but it’s also easy. There’s no such thing as just difficult. It’s also the easiest thing in the world. It’s both. But life is difficult. Being born is difficult. We’re not born to live a simple, easy life, though this is the goal of so many people. But this is not what we’re here for.

The moment we’re born, we’re slapped by the doctor and we start crying. You have to learn to channel this and make something of it, and realize that we’re together and you’re not just yourself, separate. This is essential. This is essential to understanding the tsunami, as I was saying. Everybody’s going around crying. It’s ok to cry, but not to cry about humanity, not be angry with God; this is just a cheap way out. We need to understand how we suffer when others die. They don’t suffer — they’re dead. We suffer. Once we understand this, we practice naturally and easily, and it’s not that hard. But hard as hell.

But it’s not even that, because you get to the point where you realize you have no choice. It’s not even hard or difficult. You don’t have a choice. He who practices doesn’t have a choice. Sometimes we say, “God I don’t want to do this anymore.” But we can’t not not do it. I’m sure we all know this. How many times have I wanted to stay in bed? But I can’t go back to sleep! Because if I get up now, I can still make it to the dojo. I say, “Oh, let the dojo go, go to sleep again. You didn’t sleep last night.” (whispers) But you get up and go.

So, that’s not difficult.

U.S.: (in a small voice) I manage to stay in bed.

Ph.C.: Well, sometimes you do stay in bed. You shouldn’t be stuck on this as a blind habit. It should always be fresh, it should always be the first time you’re going to the dojo. It should always be a creative moment, when you get up...

It’s interesting over the years to see your mind when you get up, and how it changes. Because it does change. We transform. We don’t go away from evil and approach good, we don’t approach God. We are God, in the most humble sense of the word, obviously. Over the years, you don’t even think anymore. You just get up, you put on your pants and you walk out.

It’s interesting, how it is, every morning throughout 15 or 20 years. Tired, not tired — that doesn’t even come into play. You become a free man. You’re free of these notions, you’re free of your body, you’re free of concepts, you’re free of thinking, you’re free of everything, you don’t think about it anymore. You just go.

In Japanese there’s a word for “the action after the action”: zanshin. That was an interesting discovery for me many years ago. But there’s also the action before the action, and this is what finally happens. You’re not thinking, you’re not doing it. Then you think, “Ah, I’m doing it!” — if you even get that far. That’s the action before the action. You were saying we always want to go for a goal. But not if you’re functioning before the action.

U.S.: But I’m often functioning by thinking without action. Know what I mean?

Ph.C.: Yes. Sometimes you’re too hard on yourself. Don’t look at your bellybutton too much. Because you do come to the practice, I’ve seen you for so many years, you’re always here, and sure, you can say, “I stay in bed, I just keep on goiung from one thought to the other...” But it’s not true, hmm?

U.S.: Well, not completely. (stands) I have to go back to my pots.

Ph.C.: See, you got up before you said it and before you thought it!.... I have all these fine journalists around me: a United Nations translator, two good journalists...

B.S.: It’s a big wheel you’re turning.Thank you very much.