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“And you sit there for how long?”

a discussion about zen practice

Clairelise: I’m counting on the audience to ask questions... But to start things off, can someone say a few words about the master-disciple relationship, which is a bit foreign to our way of seeing things when we don’t practice Zen?

Christian: This is a relationship that is not really understood in the West because we always imagine a superior/inferior relationship: the one who knows vs. the one who doesn’t. But there’s nothing of that in a true master-disciple relationship. It’s an encounter between two people who are each on the path of their life and practice. And suddenly, there’s a confrontation, an exchange about the essential thing that makes us alive. There is mutual respect in this confrontation, the recognition that they share something essential, and that they can help each other. When you practice facing the wall, you’re alone with yourself, and many people conclude that they can do that at home. I say no, you can’t do it all alone, because if you do, you close yourself up in a shell. And the master is there to help you out of that shell. The master was a disciple himself once, and always remains a disciple. read more...

“And you sit there for how long?”

a discussion about zen practice

 

[Photo of the discussion group der Teilnehmer der Diskussion “Zen: Together to the Other Shore”, November 2005]
In November 2005, the Le Havre Dojo organized a roundtable discussion about Zen, entitled, “Zen: Together to the Other Shore.”
Philippe Coupey and a half-dozen of his disciples shared the stage on the top floor of a tearoom, La Nuage dans la tasse (The Cloud in the Cup), in front of a convivial and curious crowd. Here are some excerpts from this event.

 

The participants:

  • Clairelise Chobelet, Le Havre journalist and moderator of the discussion.
  • Philippe Coupey, Zen monk and disciple of Master Taisen Deshimaru. He has been practicing at the Paris Dojo since 1972, and teaches Zen in Paris and throughout Europe. He is also a writer.
  • Christian Espiau de la Maestre, monk, head of the Rouen Dojo. He began practicing Zen with Master Deshimaru in 1973 . He works in the chemical industry, safety and hygiene division.
  • Patrick Ferrieux, monk, practices at the Paris Dojo and is an engineer and quality consultant.
  • Elaine Konopka, nun. She practices in Paris and is also a translator.
  • Nathalie Le Guillanton, nun, formal head of the Le Havre Dojo. She is also an actress.
  • Alain Poret, monk, head of the Cergy-Pontoise Dojo. He is a carpenter and cabinetmaker.
  • Guy Rivoallan, monk practicing in Paris, where he is a social-worker.


The Master-Disciple Relationship

 

Clairelise: I’m counting on the audience to ask questions... But to start things off, can someone say a few words about the master-disciple relationship, which is a bit foreign to our way of seeing things when we don’t practice Zen?

Christian: This is a relationship that is not really understood in the West because we always imagine a superior/inferior relationship: the one who knows vs. the one who doesn’t. But there’s nothing of that in a true master-disciple relationship. It’s an encounter between two people who are each on the path of their life and practice. And suddenly, there’s a confrontation, an exchange about the essential thing that makes us alive. There is mutual respect in this confrontation, the recognition that they share something essential, and that they can help each other. When you practice facing the wall, you’re alone with yourself, and many people conclude that they can do that at home. I say no, you can’t do it all alone, because if you do, you close yourself up in a shell. And the master is there to help you out of that shell. The master was a disciple himself once, and always remains a disciple.

And this is where we should give the floor to the master.

Philippe: I agree. Americans, for example, don’t like the word “disciple.” So they don’t call themselves “master” and “disciple,” they call themselves “master” and “student.” It’s very widespread. I understand that people might be reticent about the word “disciple,” but “student” is certainly not the right word. Because it’s not as though we go home at the end of the day and it’s over, like a school or university. The practice is all the time, the relationship always exists. Even if the master isn’t there — and even if he’s dead — the relationship and the practice continue, whether we’re sitting in meditation or in a bathtub or in bed. I think that “disciple” is a very good word.

Elaine: It’s not only the word “disciple” that the Americans don’t like; it’s the word “master” too. And I think that term is misunderstood as well. For me, the master isn’t a master like a dog has a master. He’s someone who has mastered something: for example, his own master’s teaching.

Clairelise: A guide?

Elaine: Yes, that’s it. Someone who shows the way, someone who has mastered himself and the teaching he has received. So I like the words “master” and “disciple” too. Americans (and incidentally, I am one) say “teacher” for “master.” It’s much weaker, in my opinion.



The Basics


Question: Since Zen is part of a larger form of Buddhism, can you say a few words about the basics of Buddhism?

Philippe: Buddhism is Buddha’s teaching. And we practice this teaching starting with Buddha’s awakening under the bodhi tree. The idea is that we are all awakened, we all have Buddha-nature, we are all Buddha. No need to look for it. So we begin right away; it’s the essence of Buddhism, it’s facing yourself, it’s contemplation, meditation.

Patrick: What I understand Buddhism to be is taking the time to respond concretely with the body to the question, “Who am I, what am I, really?” I don’t practice for the pleasure of getting into a spiritual dimension; it’s because it’s of vital interest to me, almost a matter of survival, to know what my position is, what my existence in this universe is. Before I go, before this body disappears, I’d like to feel the limits of my body and mind. In the end it’s the meaning of life, without there necessarily being a personal mission to accomplish. This is the question, the basic problem I’m dealing with by doing nothing other than listening to everything that might be listened to when sitting.

Christian: Buddha’s first view of suffering, sickness and death is what really made him question the meaning of his existence. It’s the first of what were later called the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the origin of suffering, the extinction of suffering and the path that helps us evolve from that point. This unites all schools of Buddhism. Our path: we’ve chosen to come back to a silent, still space, facing the wall, and to understand this instant apart from every other... and is there any other? The originality of our school is sitting with no goal — and doing it regularly, because this way we learn to know ourselves, as Philippe says, and to finally see our existence confirmed by all others.


Is Buddha the image of a master, or a god?

 

[Close-up of a small Buddha statue between candles on the altar]

Question: In Zen, is Buddha the image of a master, or a god?

Philippe: Master, not god. A man. A person.

Question: … Because in a dojo you see a statue of Buddha. Isn’t that another idol?

Alain: The statue is there to remind us of an ideal, the ideal of the posture. When we bow, we’re bowing to ourselves; we’re not bowing to a god or the image of a god.

Philippe: There is no idolatry in Zen. We’re always breaking down all kinds of fixed ideas and concepts to touch the core of the human being.

 

Question: Many people are in the Judeo-Christian tradition. How do you bring people to understand another system that isn’t based on deism or the idea of a god? How do you explain that Buddhism is different?

Philippe: It’s true, Buddhism is different; but it’s also a religion like other religions. Except that it’s not always considered as such by other religions, because there is no notion of a god outside of us. In the end, I think that in order to have common ground, we have to come back to shunyataku, in Japanese, “emptiness” — and cause and effect. God can be seen as ku, emptiness. Literally, ku is the sky. And I think that that’s the place for an exchange. We come up against the eternal problem of separation: man down here and God up there. Separation between man and Buddha is not our teaching. So, how do we communicate? Through an understanding of what vacuity is. If the Christians want to understand us, they should think of God as vacuity; maybe then we can have a deeper communication.

 



Nuts & Bolts

 

Question: Concretely, what happens at a zazen sitting? I show up, I don’t know anything …

Philippe: It’s better not to know too much...[laughter] The first few years, I suffered a lot because I knew too many things.

[Photo of people sitting in zazen with their faces to the wall, in the background: Philippe Coupey]

Guy: We’ll show you now with a zafu, if you like …

[A zafu (round cushion) is placed on a table so everyone can see; a nun gets into zazen. A brief explanation of the posture follows.]

Question: And you stay like that for how long?

Nathalie: Oh, a few hours… [laughter]

Question: And what happens?

Guy: You really have to experience it.

Nathalie: When someone comes to the dojo, we correct his or her posture. But we can’t spend the whole time correcting. So thoughts come up. You let these thoughts pass and come back to your posture.

Question: You don’t think about a particular subject? You let your thoughts pass like clouds in the sky?

Nathalie: Yes, we observe, we witness our thoughts, but we let them go.

Question: But … that’s all you do, you let things pass? [laughter]

Elaine: Sometimes we observe, sometimes we concentrate. For example: “Are my hands touching my abdomen? Is my head touching the sky? Is my pelvis tilted forward?” So we come back concretely to our posture and breathing to really stay in the present moment. Because it’s very easy to drift off.

Christian: Your body accompanies your thoughts. Under the influence of a thought, your posture can collapse, or become rigid …

Guy: If you want to do zazen alone, it’s a problem. Because we can’t see ourselves. So it’s important to practice with other people: that’s why you go to a dojo where there’s a master, educators, people who are there to help you. Otherwise, you might let yourself get carried away by ideas, you might have a bad posture and hurt yourself, you might be self-content and satisfy your ego. Our practice is practicing together and following the schedule, sesshins, retreats... Practicing facing the wall: it’s not that complicated.

Question: What’s the point? [laughter]

Christian: In zazen, in that time and place, you create the conditions for something simple and vast. And you notice that your thinking shrinks your horizon every time. So you let it spread out again. We often alternate like this. Creating this vast mind is being on the path offered by Buddha: leaving room for something that already exists of its own accord — not my accord, not clouded by my projections. It exists, and it is no longer experienced as suffering.

Elaine: Zazen isn’t a washing machine… [laughter]

Question: But you go in with a full brain, and you abandon your ego!

Elaine: Yes, but the ego will continue anyway. I would say instead that we sit this way, without moving, for half-an-hour or an hour, to see that everything is changing. The essence of the practice is to recognize that our world and our body change, all the time, constantly. In Japanese this is called mujo. If you can manage to stay calm with everything changing, then you’re happy, then you’re free. You haven’t chased anything away. If there’s a goal in this practice, that’s it for me: staying still in the midst of change.

Question: If I understand correctly, we evacuate all our suffering?

Christian: No, not at all! We become familiar with it, we get to know its source, we learn how to live with it or live with it less by taking a different tack.

Question: Earlier you talked about a big black robe. The first time we come to practice, what should we wear?

Christian: Something dark and comfortable, that lets you cross your legs and breathe.

Question: How often do you advise people to come to zazen?

Guy: Obviously you should have a regular practice. If you have a dojo with one or two zazens a week, there’s only one thing I can say: go. Don’t hesitate. If you can only do zazen once every two weeks or once a month: same thing.

Philippe: The question is how to do it once. Once, not twice. That’s the present moment: once. Anyway, there comes a time when you feel something, even if you only come once a month. Once a week is better. Once a day is better still.

Question: I heard about a stick...

[Photo of three Kyosaku sticks laid out on the altar in the temple]

Patrick: It’s “the awakening stick.” We call it by its Japanese name, the kyosaku. It’s a stick about 80 centimeters long used at a certain point during zazen for people who want it and ask for it. They’re struck on the right side then on the left, on the fleshy mass of muscle between the neck and the shoulder where there are lots of important acupuncture points. And it’s true: when you receive a good hit on that exact spot, it wakes you up if you’re asleep, it calms you down if you’re agitated and it gets you out of your mental structure and the pain of the moment. When you’re caught in a mental trap or a pain trap, it gives you a little shake and afterwards you feel refreshed.

 

Is Zen only for people with good joints?

 

Question: Is Zen only for people with good joints? Can one also practice on a chair?

Philippe: You should do your best. If you can’t cross your legs, that doesn’t mean you can’t practice Soto Zen. But you have to be honest with yourself and do the maximum. That’s the practice of zazen.

Christian: I see a 95-year-old person regularly. In the beginning, she could sit in her easy-chair. She wanted to get to know Zen. And now, she can do zazen less and less in her chair. I told her, “That’s ok. Anyway, right to the end, you still have your breathing.” So I taught her to practice lying down as well. Recently she said to me, “It’s not very practical, because I fall asleep a lot...” [laughter] But with her mind, which wants to continue, she’s developing enough attention.

Question: You mention older people. Can children practice? Starting at what age?

Philippe: My daughter practiced in Master Deshimaru’s time, when she was 5 or 6. We practice for about 30 or 35 minutes, then we do a slow walk. And the children usually go out at that point.

Question: At the end of the first sitting, how can a beginner know if he’s on the right path, since there’s no verbal communication? How can you see it?

Philippe: Generally, people don’t make mistakes when they first come to the practice. It’s later that they start to err. That’s why Suzuki’s book talks about “Zen mind, beginner’s mind.” We should always remember our mind when we began. It’s not that you have a perfect posture or that you’re practicing well inside, in your mind. It’s not a matter of form, it’s a matter of non-form. Why did you come? Why do you want to sit? Why? Only you can know: what have you experienced that could lead you to look at someone sitting like the nun who was on the zafu here earlier, and say, “Hmm, what’s happening? Nothing.” And in our practice, there really is nothing. A teaching is given while we’re sitting, but otherwise, there’s nothing, there are no stages. That’s what’s so hard for many people later on. But in the beginning, it’s ok: you come with a pure mind, and you should never lose that mind. You should really observe yourself when you come in the beginning: how you are, and what you really want.

 



Monks, Nuns and the Energy of the Transmission

 

Question: You say “practice here and now,” but at the same time, when I listen to what you’re saying, I feel you’re very attached to your school, the Soto School, and also to someone who you’re always mentioning and who everyone here may not know, that is, Taisen Deshimaru. Why this attachment, when in fact you’re supposed to be practicing something free here and now?

Elaine: But he is here, now... at least for me. There’s no separation. You’re making a distinction in terms of time: someone lived and taught 25 years ago, but now he’s not here anymore. No, that’s not how it is for me. It’s a flame that is passed along. The flame is still here. And we’re not attached, either. I didn’t know Master Deshimaru, but I have the good fortune to know one of his disciples. It’s the same. It’s a continuation, beyond time and space.

Question: In the end, it’s through the posture that you keep these people alive.

Guy: It’s not the person, it’s all the energy, the teaching that’s been transmitted, from Buddha, Bodhidharma, Dogen, Keizan, Kodo Sawaki, Taisen Deshimaru, right up to now. It’s the same thing, the same teaching. It’s not about the person. We look to people who transmit that energy. Obviously, the person has a certain importance, but above all, it’s the transmission that’s important.

Philippe: We can’t practice if we don’t think that what we’re doing is the highest, the best that exists. It’s ridiculous to say, “Yes, I practice that, but I prefer the Rinzai practice.” Well then you should go practice Rinzai! And I also think we should always think that our master is the greatest. For me, there’s no question. How could my master not be the greatest master on earth right now? Impossible, impossible. And I hope that someone from another school, who follows another master, would say the same, because if he doesn’t, what’s he doing there?

Question: When you introduced yourselves earlier, I heard the terms “nun” and “monk.” I’d like to know what’s behind these terms. Is it a commitment? Do you get this degree or qualification after having a regular practice, or after reaching a certain level of study?

Guy: For me, the right word is unsui: cloud and water, which leaves no trace. [see the title picture at the top] We say “monk” and “nun,” which often brings us back to the whole classic Christian monastic system. In our lineage, there is an organization, we are ordained... but still, it’s a little different. There are no degrees with exams or certificates. You don’t even have to be Buddhist to practice zazen. It’s completely universal. You don’t have to be a monk or a nun either, you can continue practicing just as you are. There’s no difference when we’re together in the dojo. Someone comes for the first time: it’s a breath of fresh air coming in. All these stories about degrees and all that, they’re just mental complications, of secondary importance. I think we have to stay with “cloud and water.”.

Question: I understand; but when you introduced yourselves, almost all of you used this term. So I wonder, why present yourselves that way? Is it a way of differentiating yourselves? A habit?

Philippe: We choose to become a monk or a nun because we consider that it’s the highest dimension we can live on this earth. It means shaving your head and practicing zazen every day. It’s considered by Buddhists, those who follow Buddha’s teaching, to be the highest. And it is considered to be the best way to change the world. It’s our practice, and the practice that Buddha wanted to hand down when he was awakened: it’s being there, here, in the present moment. It’s not a projection into the future: I will become good, I will do good. You do it, at the moment you take the ordination. At that moment, you cut your bad karma. And if you have faith in that, then it’s true. If you don’t have faith, you don’t ask for the ordination. But for me, it’s not a commitment, you’re not obliged to do anything... yet you are led. Generally, when you become ordained, when you follow a master, you’re grabbed by the nose, you’re drawn in. And the master is drawn in, too. He can’t stop. He can’t not come to Le Havre. Same for the disciple. This collective functioning is very important, because it requires us to really practice, and that’s the basis of Buddhism and Buddha’s teaching: the practice here and now, always the practice. And it’s considered to be much easier to be in the practice if you are ordained a monk or a nun. But it’s not necessary at all. You do as you like.

Elaine: I think it’s also a matter of context. If we all introduced ourselves that way, it’s because we’re here, in a Zen context. We have to situate ourselves as monks and nuns who took vows when we were ordained. I don’t introduce myself that way on the street, or to the tax man: “I’m a Zen nun!” But in this situation, we do introduce ourselves that way. It’s not a degree, it’s just so that you know who you have in front of you. For me, they are vows that are repeated every day: it means that I put the practice at the center of my life. So you’re talking to people who have put the practice of Zen at the center of their lives. We have this experience that we can share with you.

Nathalie: In fact, I practiced for a long time without being ordained. I received the bodhisattva ordination a while ago, and the nun ordination two years later, because it was important for me to join the stream. And what I experienced beforehand, without the ordination, was still the practice; it was still zazen. Now I’m more in the current of the practice of zazen.

Alain: I’d like to specify that in our lineage, Master Deshimaru didn’t want professional monks. We are monks, but we don’t live in seclusion in a dojo or a temple; most of us also have a strong professional or family life. Our ideal is the bodhisattva, or the lotus flower, in other words, roots in the ground and head towards the sky. We have these two dimensions. It’s important to point out that we have a “normal” life, but our practice shows through, even if we don’t introduce ourselves as a nun, monk or bodhisattva. I never tell anyone. But our presence, our way of being, shows it, wordlessly.

 


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