Zen Road
Zen Road
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The essential practice of sitting

An evening with Philippe Coupey, zen monk,


Westwerk, Hamburg, Germany, 3 May 2005.

[Photo of Philippe and two assistants during the lecture at Westwerk, Hamburg, May 2005]

Introduction by Uli Schnabel:


Good evening and welcome to Westwerk for this evening with Philippe Coupey. Philippe is a Zen monk who lives in Paris; we often have the opportunity to practice with him here in Germany, when he comes to lead sesshin organized by dojos in our school.

Perhaps just a word about our school. Master Taisen Deshimaru came to France from Japan in 1967. He settled in a small apartment in Paris and began to teach Zen. What was important for him was above all to transmit the practice of Zen here in Europe.


He said Europeans had enough philosophy and theory; what was missing was a practical method for realizing awakening. He taught this practice — zazen — in Paris, in France and later throughout Europe and the world.


He founded more than a hundred dojos and a large temple near Paris, La Gendronnière, which has become the center of our school. Master Deshimaru died in 1982, and since then his elder disciples, including Philippe Coupey, have continued their master’s teaching.


Philippe Coupey is the editor of two books of Master Deshimaru’s teaching, which are available in the lobby. One of them, The Voice of the Valley, is out of print. It was more or less blacklisted in the States because it contains critical remarks about other schools... Maybe Philippe will talk about this.


Later we’ll have an open discussion: we’re not here to proclaim the pure doctrine of Zen. Your questions are welcome.





Ph.C.: I thought he gave a very good speech! He gave me some ideas...


It’s true, I just arrived from Paris, and as I was entering the Hamburg Airport, I said to my secretary, “My God, I didn’t prepare anything for this talk, and my head is completely empty.” And my secretary said, “Well, that’s very good.” (laughter) So I thought a little bit about that.


Emptiness is just continual change. And in continual change, there’s nothing. It’s nothing personal, there are no personal thoughts. This is my state of mind right now. I don’t know what I’m going tell you. I tried to remember some of the statements that Uli made so that I could pick up on them...


He did not have a temple.


[Photo of Philippe Coupey smiling wryly during the lecture, May 2005]

Yes, I met Master Deshimaru in 1972. He was a disciple of Kodo Sawaki, whose picture you see everywhere here today. He was a great master, and in fact he did not have a temple. He was called “Homeless Kodo.” He just traveled around to different places. I was surprised when I heard that he used to travel with a trailer full of books. I guess that was so that he, too, could have some ideas when he had to talk.


Master Deshimaru continued in the same way. At the very end of his life, he created La Gendronnière Temple, but I don’t believe he had in mind a temple/monastery like the ones developing today in the West. He really didn’t have much outside structure that controlled him in any way.


He had very little connection with the Sotoshu (the Sotoshu is like the Vatican). He wasn’t even recognized by them. But today this is apparently becoming very important: not only to be part of a structure, which is necessary, I suppose, but to enter into the extreme situations of these structures, meaning monasteries, or temples, where you live and practice.


One thing is true: everybody practices in Zen. Whether you’re in a temple, or outside, as I am, the practice of sitting is absolutely crucial and essential. But one has to be very careful, I think, about finding oneself in such structures.


Zen began with Buddha. The transmission began when Buddha turned a flower in his hand, and Mahakashyapa, his closest disciple, smiled. It’s a very fine, delicate, fragrant beginning. Nonetheless, Buddha did not live in a monastery.


Monasteries really began after his death. After Buddha died, his disciples composed the first sutras from memory. And they lived in monasteries, with all the rules that that entailed. They understood Buddha’s teaching to be one of discipline and faith: faith in Buddha, faith in the other buddhas before him.


Mahayana Buddhism


But five hundred years later, around the 1st century (Buddha died around 500 BC), many practitioners were not satisfied. They didn’t feel they could awaken under such conditions, since faith is not one of the essential conditions for enlightenment or satori, nor is living in a monastery, nor is following the precepts to the letter. So they wrote their own sutras. We don’t usually talk this way, of course.


We say they’re Buddha’s sutras. But they couldn’t have been Buddha’s sutras: this is five hundred years after his death. This is when the Lotus Sutra appeared, the Prajnaparamita Sutra from Nagarjuna, the Vimalakirti Sutra... These sutras were not based on memory, as were the earlier sutras, which came to be called “Hinayana sutras”; these sutras were not written by scholars; they were not written by monks in monasteries.


So who wrote them? They’re the Buddha’s words, so to speak, but they were composed by enlightened people, enlightened monks, outside of monasteries, who were, in fact, buddhas themselves. Having left the monastery and what later came to be called the Hinayana or Theravadan tradition, they became completely enlightened, and when they wrote these sutras, they wrote them from the point of view of the enlightened man.


Not as “lay disciples” aspiring to enlightenment, but beyond “lay” or “religious” — neither lay nor monastic. They were simply enlightened people. This is what came to be called Mahayana Buddhism. They were the ones who began using the expressions “Small Vehicle” and “Great Vehicle”: “small” being Hinayana, and “great” being Mahayana. Not “great” in the sense of better, but “great” in the sense of broad, in the sense that everybody, every single person, can be enlightened. This is very different from the Hinayana approach, which is much more based on faith.


You won’t find what I’m saying now in books written by scholars. Scholars inaccurately claim that Mahayana is also pure faith. Of course faith is essential. But it isn’t the driving force of Mahayana. The problem with faith is, you have faith in a person and you create a form of idolatry. The Mahayana didn’t consider that the Hinayana arhat was really an enlightened man — though he was a highly recommendable person. This is why they separated. And this is really the root of Zen. Not temples, not monasteries.


I was just trying to connect myself with how Uli had introduced me. But anyway, to get back to the beginning:


I sat.


I met Master Deshimaru in 1972. While I was practicing one of the martial arts in Paris, I heard of Deshimaru and his dojo, and I decided to go take a look. It must have been very important to me, because I wanted to go alone. I suppose when something is very important to you, even unconsciously, you don’t talk about it, you don’t tell anybody — but you go.


I remember deliberately walking through the Montparnasse Cemetery to get there: somehow all those dead people brought me closer to where I was going. However, I had a lot of misgivings. I’d read books on Zen, but I couldn’t imagine that Zen Buddhism and a true Zen master existed in our times.


I arrived. I was shown around. The master wasn’t there, just his secretary. She asked me if I wanted to see the dojo; I said yes. I’d never seen a meditation dojo in my life. I never really thought of following anybody, either. I was like most people: individualistic. I had a wife and daughter. I was a writer and still am. But then I was just a writer, making a living however I could on the side.


Well, I entered the dojo, and I had a very strong feeling, but I didn’t know what the feeling was. The secretary said, “Would you like to hear the bell?” I said, “Please, I’d love to hear the bell!” She hit the bell, and... you all know the expression déjà vu. I’m sure most of you have had that experience: it’s as though you’ve heard it before or you’ve been there before...


I wouldn’t say in another lifetime, because that has all kinds of other implications. Although “other lifetimes” simply means the life of everybody here and now in each one of us. It’s not the individual that’s reincarnated; it’s the act of millions of people. And déjà vu comes from that. I’d heard that bell before.


So I came the next day and sat. It was terrible. I think we suffered more in those days than people who begin the practice today. Deshimaru hadn’t been in France for very long when I arrived, and the sangha, the group around him, was very young.


Looking back over the thirty years or more that I have been practicing, it was as if we were children then, and now we’re no longer children — “we” meaning all of us. In other words, when you practice, you’re no longer children, because we were the children, we did it for you.


Now you have something else to do, for us and for everybody else: what adults do, who are looking for the Way, and who wish to find a raison d’être in their own lives. And of course, it can’t stay confined to your own life for very long; one has to live for all lives.


So we suffered terribly. It was very, very painful. I finally got up the courage to practice for one day — we sometimes have one-day sessions. It took me a long time to find that courage. Now I see new people come in and do it quite easily. I had to get up and go out, get sick, and then come back... Anyway, I hadn’t heard Master Deshimaru, I didn’t even seen him for the first two weeks because he was away on sesshin in Germany.


“In Soto Zen, there is nothing to obtain.”


When he arrived, I didn’t know he was there; I was just suffering in the corner (laughter) and of course going through all the thoughts that one goes through: “What am I doing here, sitting facing this wall with nothing on it?” This is a common reaction, but again, in retrospect, one can ask oneself all kinds of questions, why one does this practice, and especially what one expects to get from it.


We’re so conditioned in this society to want to obtain something. You do this, and you obtain that. Same with the spiritual: you do this, and you obtain that. But in retrospect, one doesn’t really choose anything. I didn’t choose to go there. So my question, “What am I doing here?” was totally irrelevant.


So anyway, I’m sitting in the corner suffering... Now when I arrived I was very familiar with Rinzai Zen, which teaches you that you obtain awakening, or satori, from a practice. Having read Professor Suzuki’s works, I knew that in Soto Zen (which is what we practice), you do nothing, you just sit on your zafu (cushion) and go to sleep. Anyway I’m sitting there, I’m not asleep, I hear this voice. I didn’t recognize the language at first. Then suddenly I thought, “Whoever he is, he’s speaking in English!” And he said:


“In Soto Zen, there is nothing to obtain.”


This must have reached my ears at the right moment in my life. Because if I have ever experienced awakening or satori, I certainly experienced it at that moment. There’s nothing special in that statement: “There is nothing to obtain.” But the conditions in which you find yourself make such statements of infinite importance. This is the object, and you’re the subject, and it comes together... and this is a true satori. The circumstances here were thirty people sitting silently in the dojo, without moving, all in black robes (maybe not myself).


And we’re not following our thoughts — at least, we’re not supposed to be following our thoughts, and I think that everybody there was working very sincerely at not following their thoughts and at practicing correctly: sitting in the right posture with the backbone straight, and the head right on top of the shoulders, not like that (lifts chin), in ecstasy, or in slumber or in thought (drops chin to chest), but with the eyes horizontal and the nose vertical.


These were the circumstances and the conditions in which I heard this expression, “There is nothing to obtain.” I’ve never put that into question, it’s never ever disturbed me since then. And those were the very first words I heard from Master Deshimaru.


I was fortunate, because this doesn’t happen to everybody; it takes some people many years to understand that there’s nothing to obtain; it’s an extremely profound concept — especially while you’re sitting in zazen. It’s like you’re sitting in the coffin. You’re not hearing this through the frontal brain, you’re hearing this through the hypothalamus, or instinctive brain. And such a situation can bring about satori.


(turns to translator) How long have I been talking?

(Translator: About fifty minutes.)

Fifty!? Well. We’ll have an exchange. (laughter)


Whether or not you have practiced is irrelevant.


[Photo of Philippe Coupey pausing for thought during the lecture, May 2005]

I know I haven’t gone through the usual steps of explaining what zazen and Zen are all about, as one usually does, when one prepares something with a beginning and a middle and an end; but I think that we’re all mature now.


Whether or not you have practiced is irrelevant. We’ve all practiced. When Buddha was awakened, he said something like, “Now that I am awakened the whole world is awakened.”(1) This too has very deep implications. One has to understand that there is no separation. So I think that even if you’ve never heard anything about Zen before, it makes no difference: we heard it (laughter). So you heard it.


If anybody has any questions, don’t hesitate...

(to translator:) Is there anything that you would like me to talk about?

(Translator: Well, there’s The Voice of the Valley...)


The Voice of the Valley


That book was forbidden reading in the Zen world in the United States. It came out in 1979, from a well-known publisher in New York. When some of the American Zen communities read the book, they contacted the publisher and said, “We want you to remove that Deshimaru book from the shelves.” It was only on sale for about a month before it was removed. I took back most of the copies. So the only people who have a chance to look at it are people like you.(2)


The reason why it disturbed the Americans so much is because the principle line of Zen in America is a mixture of Rinzai and Soto, brought to the United States by Yasutani’s disciples like Philip Kapleau. Master Deshimaru criticized this very severely. You can’t mix the two. Of course in the end it’s the same.


In the end, what’s not the same? When we’re in the coffin, we’re no longer Catholic or Jewish or Protestant; we’re not Rinzai or Soto. We return to the cosmic consciousness. But here in the living world, Rinzai and Soto are quite different. I believe the goal is the same — both are Mahayana. Therefore it’s awakened mind, free mind, liberty.


But the difference is that in Rinzai they play on doubt. You try to solve koans, these impossible statements, like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” and you go through all the torments in hell, and then suddenly you break out of it. And this is a Rinzai awakening: you are reborn.


But Soto is quite different. There’s no rebirth. You are all already awakened. When we practice Zen, we start where the Buddha had his enlightenment under the bodhi tree. We’re not reborn: not twice born, but once born.


So the book was outlawed, forbidden.


Any questions?



What about practices like archery?


Q1: When one speaks about practice, one usually speaks about zazen. But what about practices like archery? Is this close to Zen, or just similar?...


Ph.C.: No, it’s not close — and yet it is, too. In archery, as in most martial arts, you start with an object. Subject-object. You aim at a target. In Zen, you aim at no object, no goal, no target. Of course, in the end, in both archery and Zen, subject and object become one.


But the result is different. In one you become a good archer. In the other, you become a bodhisattva; you become awakened and you do the same as Buddha did. Buddha gave up archery once he discovered the path to enlightenment...


From the Zen point of view, everything teaches the Way. So why stop at archery? The most important thing is the practice of meditation, which is zazen. In archery, you are perhaps meditating at that one moment, but it’s not your whole life, day-in and day-out, that’s involved.


You don’t even have to pick Japanese practices: you can also talk about Western sports. I remember watching Björn Borg, the tennis player, and thinking, “This man is an enlightened man when he hits that ball.” (laughter) The whole time he’s on the court, his breathing is correct, his movements are correct, his concentration is focused. But look at what happens when he leaves the court: he’s an ordinary man, not an awakened man.


Whereas the awakening of Zen is all the time, everywhere, without going backwards. You don’t lose your awakening.



This state of being awakened


Q2: You say there is nothing to obtain, and yet there is this state of being awakened, which is always there, which is to be reached, or obtained...


Ph.C.: Yeah, but it’s not your awakening.


Buddhism is the only religion that has the concept of the bodhisattva — the awakened bodhisattva. He rows the boat across the river with people in it, brings them to the other side, drops them off, goes back, takes more. Brings them to nirvana, comes back to samsara (suffering), then brings more.


He doesn’t know he’s awakened, and he certainly doesn’t think in terms of doing good. He doesn’t think in terms of helping people. He does. And this is the greatest compassion. But he doesn’t know it. It’s not his. It’s everybody’s.


But...one cannot deny the fact that it’s to your advantage (if that’s the word) to love your fellow man. But this is after the fact. So one does, perhaps, obtain. One obtains the highest. But this is unimaginable. It’s beyond words. You can’t express it. The moment you think you’ve obtained it, you haven’t obtained it, and you can’t even think of it anyway.


It’s ku, it’s in the invisible. You can’t think in terms of obtaining. You can’t obtain. Having said this, I’ve practiced Zen for many years, and I don’t know if I’d still be alive today if I hadn’t practiced. It’s balanced my mind, it’s brought me an understanding of the foundations of life: what we are, what we come from, where we go.


But your question could be answered in many ways. In the very first talk I ever gave (I don’t give many), I said you get everything from the practice of Zen. And this is true too. It’s not a word game. One has to know how to embrace contradictions. It’s wisdom.



Whether one practices or not


Q3: If there’s nothing to be obtained, whether one practices or not, is there anything one can learn?


Ph.C.: It’s very important to practice. It’s very important to do something with your life. Because if I continue your thought, then what’s the point of doing anything? Effort is essential. It’s very hard for people to get up and go to the dojo every morning. But if one can do this, one is very fortunate. And one is creating a very good karma, not just for oneself, but for all people. But it’s difficult. You have to activate yourself. I think it has to be understood that practice is one of the essential ways — maybe the only way — to create an awakened society.


The Buddha practiced zazen. He didn’t call it zazen, but it was zazen. We see statues of him sitting in the posture under the bodhi tree. He created a sangha around him, the group, the holy community, with the idea of creating here and now an awakened society by using zazen, meditation, as what you can do, as what you can realize. This is the Mahayana teaching: everybody can be awakened, and awaken others.


But this takes effort. One has to change one’s life little by little in order to do this. I used to go to bed at three in the morning — drunk, maybe. I had to stop. I had to give that up. I don’t know how I did it, but I did it. Because I just got up every morning, with no object in mind.


You just get up, without thinking. Why do you get up without thinking? Somewhere along the line you’ve made a kind of a vow to do this, do this or die. And this is what’s necessary to create an awakened society. This becomes the example that people can see, and follow.


This is why Mahayana is generally outside of temples. It’s in the street. But you can’t do just anything. You have to do that. Or this. One thing (holds up his thumb). Thumb: one. Thumb is everything. One thing, one point, the drop of water that toom, toom, breaks the rock.


Then when you approach death, if you’ve been able to function this way, I believe you’ll think, “At least I didn’t waste my time when I was sitting in zazen.” True. But it takes effort and determination.


The bar’s open? Well, we’ll go to the bar, and if you’d like to speak with me, I’m there.


Thank you.



(1) According to Keizan, when the Buddha was awakened he said: “I and all sentient beings on earth, together, attain enlightenment at the same time.”


(2) Copies are available by contacting us at: daor-nez@retsambew.org


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