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Forty years ago… an invitation

an interview with Daniel Guétault, one of the first disciples of Master Deshimaru, April 2003


[Photo of the Guétault family with Master Deshimaru in front of a cottage in the country]
In the mid-1960s, Daniel Guétault was a follower of George Ohsawa, the founder of macrobiotics. On a trip to Japan to attend a conference, he met a Japanese Zen monk who would later be invited back to France and change — or rather begin — the history of Zen in Europe. It was forty years ago this July.

Mr. Guétault represents a number of “firsts”: he became Master Taisen Deshimaru’s first disciple; received the first rakusu, Zen “certificate” and kyosaku; made the first genmai ever on the Continent; and opened the first dojo in 1967, in Tours, where he still resides today. He was interviewed by Luc Boussard and Marie Maurin, also Deshimaru disciples, in April 2003.

The following excerpts were taken from their exchange, which can be found in its entirety (in French) on www.deuxversants.com.




The first time I saw Sensei


Question: For openers, could you give us the details of your relationship with Sensei and the first part of this adventure?


Daniel Guétault: The first time I saw Sensei was when I arrived in Japan with a group of macrobiotic friends. Departing from Paris, we made the trip by plane to Moscow, and then to Khabarovsk and Nakhodka by train. Crossing the Sea of Japan was terrible — a typhoon! And the seasickness! I arrived at Yokohama green, stomach empty, exhausted.


From the ship’s deck, when we were getting ready to go ashore, I saw a group of Japanese on the dock. I immediately recognized Mrs. Ohsawa. She was surrounded by several officials — I don’t really know what their function was — and a strapping man all in black and white, his sleeves up on his shoulders. A monk? It was Master Deshimaru. That was the first time I saw him.


That was July 1966. He was 52. He came to Paris the following year. But this was the first contact… I should explain the circumstances. The macrobiotic conference we were attending had been organized by George Ohsawa and several Japanese macrobiotic groups. But Ohsawa died in April, and the Japanese were wondering if the conference should still be held. In the end it did take place, in spite of Ohsawa’s absence. Master Deshimaru and George Ohsawa knew each other, they wrote to each other…


At the opening session of the conference, Master Deshimaru was seated near Mrs. Ohsawa… We had friendly and relaxed interaction with Master Deshimaru, myself more than the others, because, since I spoke English, I immediately took on the role of interpreter; Sensei immediately asked me to translate his explanations… At the end of August, the time came to return to Paris; but the story didn’t end there.


Since we had gotten on well together and since, with Ohsawa’s death, the macrobiotic movement basically had no leader, we invited Master Deshimaru to come to Paris. When you look at where he was after Kodo Sawaki’s death, it couldn’t have turned out better for him. Kodo Sawaki died in December 1965, and he said to Deshimaru — you can read it in his biography — “Now you must go teach Zen elsewhere. You shouldn’t stay in Japan, with all these professional monks.”


Master Deshimaru talked to me about it once; he said, “Okay, but where should I go?” For awhile he thought about going to the United States, that’s what he told me, but he was only half-interested, because there were already Japanese there. Suzuki was there… So, the United States, maybe, but… Basically, he hadn’t decided anything. But this meeting with the Parisians, with Europeans, who were interested in his teaching and his practice, this was the opportunity to seize…


When Master Deshimaru spoke to me about Paris, I realized how fascinated he was by the city. For him, it was the ideal landing-place, because it was not only France but also a center on a European scale. He felt that by coming to Paris, everything would open up for him. And there was this invitation…


The first rakusu


[Photo of a certificate, written in Japanese calligraphy, signed by Master Deshimaru and with a dedication to “M. Daniel Guétault”]

I have the first certificate — you know that Master Deshimaru used to give out certificates — dated 1966, before he came to France: a certificate of Zen practice. You get the idea: I barely knew what it was and I already had my certificate… But it’s interesting, I understood later on, he was planting, planting, planting, saying to himself, “If I sow a lot of seeds, a few of them are bound to sprout.” I also got the first rakusu, but it was stolen. I still haven’t gotten over it. It was stolen from a parking lot in Entrevaux, when I’d just gotten back from the 1968 macrobiotic camp.


[Photo of Master Deshimaru wearing a ceremonial rakusu and holding the kyosaku]

I immediately began leading zazen. I had the rakusu, and I had the first kyosaku given by Master Deshimaru to a European [in September 1967]. A friend, a carpenter from Tours, had made three of them. [The other two] wound up in pieces. Deshimaru gave some good whacks sometimes. I know one of them was broken during a sesshin in the south of France, because I heard about it afterwards: “Oh! Sensei hit so hard, he broke the kyosaku!”


Had they been kyosakus made of oak as they are now, they wouldn’t have broken on a guy’s shoulder. But these were much lighter, they were actually pretty thin, and you can see how, if you hit hard enough, it could break. But I never broke mine… The fact that Master Deshimaru broke the kyosaku on a disciple’s shoulder was used as an example of his extraordinary energy — which is true, actually…


Anyway, at the end of August 1966, he was invited to come to Paris, and he had already sown some seeds, because obviously I wasn’t alone. Three of us had received a rakusu and a certificate. The two others also practiced macrobiotics…


Master Deshimaru never reproached me for being macrobiotic. Never, never. But he did criticize macrobiotic followers for being attached to a rigid practice, and that’s what he taught me… In several different circumstances, [he] made me face my blocks with — I wouldn’t say harshness, because he was never harsh with me — but with a certain sharpness.


In Paris when I went to see him on rue Pernety, he made me drink whiskey. Those were the only times in my life when I drank whiskey. It made me sick. I drank half a glass and I was half-drunk. I said to myself, “Good grief, why in heaven’s name is Master Deshimaru making me drink whiskey? He knows I’m macrobiotic, that I don’t like it, that it makes me sick…” Since it was Master Deshimaru, well, okay, I drank it.


But I questioned it for a long time. I don’t anymore, and in fact it reminds me of the first times Master Deshimaru went to see Kodo Sawaki in his temple, when [Sawaki] made him drink sake, and Master Deshimaru said to himself, “How is it that a monk, in a temple, can make me drink sake?” The same question… Master Deshimaru taught me to continue the practice, but not be attached to it, in other words, to be able to have some distance from it in certain circumstances…


Q.: You were saying that a woman was there to welcome him to Paris…


D.G.: Yes. Sensei arrived by train on July 17, 1967. He had made the entire trip by train. He got the boat at Yokohama, crossed the Sea of Japan and took the train the rest of the way. At the Gare du Nord, Monique L. and Maurice C. were waiting for him. He stepped onto the platform in his monk’s robes, with practically no luggage, and in his hands he held a zafu. You see the symbolism: he got off the train dressed as a monk with a zafu, in other words, with the practice of zazen in-hand. “I haven’t come here as a tourist, I’ve come here to transmit to you the teaching of the practice of zazen.” And on the 19th, he gave a lecture.


He didn’t stay in Paris for long… He was surrounded by people from the very beginning. “Destitute”? Let’s not exaggerate: materially, he was taken care of by our macrobiotic group. At the beginning, the night of the 17th, I suppose he slept in the Kameo [macrobiotic] store. It was summer, and there was room in the stockroom. He must have slept there for two or three nights.


We did zazen in bathing suits.


But immediately afterwards, he spent the end of July and all of August at a macrobiotic summer camp in Le Brusc. There, he had his own room, he ate with us, and that’s where we really started doing zazen regularly. I was camping out. He had a room upstairs. We never saw him in the morning because — and I was very struck by this — from the outset, he had begun to write. I suppose he was writing the book that was later published in Japan.


But we saw him in the afternoon. We went to the beach with him. Master Deshimaru was in a bathing suit like everyone else, and I can still see him showing us how to breathe, in a bathing suit, his legs crossed. And then we would put our hands on his stomach, to really see that it expanded with the exhalation. It was all Greek to us — or rather, Japanese, to be exact — and we couldn’t really understand what he was talking about. Passers-by on the beach saw us gathered around a Japanese man. They would come closer and wondered what we were doing. It was rather funny. Then we would go swimming. And when the beach began to fill up, we went back to camp.


Next to the hotel — it was a hotel at a campsite — there was a terrace. We did zazen there. He had told us, “You shouldn’t do zazen with bare shoulders.” So we put shirts or towels on our shoulders. We sat on rolled-up blankets or towels. There were no zafus at that time, no kolomos, nothing. We did zazen in bathing suits…


Q.: Do you remember if there was kinhin?


D.G.: It’s strange, I don’t remember kinhin… I remember doing kinhin in Paris, but it was a bit later, when he organized weekends… He started slowly. Things fell into place over several months and years. In the beginning, there were no sutras. There was the kyosaku. I remember that very well, because of those zazens we did on the terrace when we came back from the beach.


About a yard from where we sat was a path that led from the beach to the villas higher up. The people coming back from the beach at the end of the afternoon would stop on the path to look at us sitting still and Master Deshimaru in his monk’s outfit. They were intrigued, so they stopped. We could hear what they were saying. And then, after awhile, they stopped talking. Because of the silence and stillness, their minds calmed down. We didn’t hear them anymore.


Then Master Deshimaru hit someone with the kyosaku. “Oh! Did you see that?! What a brute! He hit him, and he didn’t say anything. If that had been me, I would’ve punched him in the face.” We heard things like that. There would be a moment of excitement, and then, since the “victim” wasn’t saying anything, didn’t rebel, calm was restored on the path.


What was odd and fantastic was that people left in silence, almost on tiptoe. That impressed me and I still remember it because it taught me how zazen practice can influence the world around you. Those people turned up talking and left on tiptoe: for me, it was a completely unexpected and extraordinary realization…


Q.: Do you remember if there was a kusen?


D.G.: The kusen was limited to reminders about the important points of the posture. However, we could ask Master Deshimaru questions whenever we wanted to. At this macrobiotic camp, with the very first zazens in France, he taught us how to sit as best as we could. And I have to tell you, he had his work cut out for him with that alone. The postures were awful. We didn’t even know how to cross our legs. We knew nothing, nothing, nothing. Master Deshimaru had to establish all that. The teaching was limited to how to sit, and other than that, there was just correcting postures and the kyosaku…


Wherever he went, he had people practice zazen.


Q.: Was there a sangha at that time? Sesshins?


D.G.: Sangha… no, there was no sangha. There were strong ties in the macrobiotic sector, but that was fairly individual. There were no dojos yet, not even in Paris. I remember doing zazen in Paris, it was the end of ’67, behind the macrobiotic store.


It was winter, and it wasn’t warm. And I remember at one point feeling heat on my back. I said to myself, “Hmm, they’ve turned on a radiator.” And when I got up for kinhin, there was no radiator. It’s strange, the reactions one can have. In this case, I understood the phenomenon we might call “awakening energy”… We often say that “zazen stimulates energy,” but I really felt something was moving in my body. It was a new experience for me, completely unexpected.


I also remember doing zazen facing a very fine Norman sideboard, but I can’t remember where it was. It was at someone’s house. That’s how it started. People said, “Master Deshimaru, would you like to come lead zazen at my house?” There was no fixed dojo. Wherever he went, he had people practice zazen.


The first sesshin that I did was in February or March of 1968, at René Joly’s house — Taigen René Joly, the first monk ordained by Master Deshimaru. He lived in Gretz, a residential suburb of Paris. He had a very big garden, a small park, where he had built a dojo (he was an architect), a superb wooden dojo, very traditional, but which, much to his despair, was always empty. And so he offered to organize zazens in his dojo for Master Deshimaru.


That’s where I met Raymond Lambert for the first time. There were also macrobiotic people, because when there was a special event of this kind, Master Deshimaru phoned around. He had called me to invite me. René Joly must have told some of his friends about it, too. There were about fifteen of us… And that’s where I made the first genmai.


The first genmai


The first morning: typical French breakfast. Tea, coffee, homemade jams, honey, bread… The jam pots were being passed around from one end of the table to the other, in front of Master Deshimaru, who was seated in the middle. “Sensei, don’t you want to taste my jam?” “Sensei, do you want tea or coffee?” The chattering was constant. As secretary/interpreter, I was sitting across from him. I was beginning to get to know him, and I could see that something was going through his head. He had stopped talking. He was looking in front of him, as though his mind were elsewhere.


At some point he turned his head and looked me straight in the eye. He said, “Tomorrow, genmai.” It was the first time I heard the word. I said to him, “Yes Sensei, but genmai, what is it?” “Rice soup.” I understood a bit better what it was all about. But I thought, “What exactly am I going to do?” And I asked Sensei for some details. He replied, “You macrobiotic. You know.” And he started talking with the people next to him. I understood that to mean, “Work it out for yourself, there won’t be any more explaining. I’ve said enough. Get to work.”


[Photo of a ladle dripping with Genmai (a rice soup served in the early morning after zazen)]

At the time, I wondered what I was going to do. Well, I wasn’t the only one practicing macrobiotics. There was another fellow who I knew very well. So we got together and went into René Joly’s kitchen. There was brown rice, there were vegetables…


I made a classic rice soup, with organic brown rice, naturally, and then the vegetables — onions, carrots, I don’t know what else… turnips — cut up beforehand into small pieces (not tiny pieces, I might add), which we sautéd. The genmai has a much better taste when the vegetables are sautéd a bit… So we cooked all that together. We also prepared gomasio, which is a mixture of sesame seeds and salt. And there was soy sauce…


So we come to the second breakfast. It was nothing like the first. At each person’s place was a bowl and a spoon. We had also prepared three-year tea (kukicha). People were wondering: “We only have one bowl, how are we going to drink that?” My friend was at one end of the table, I was at the other. We served in total silence. Master Deshimaru waited calmly.


We ate the genmai in silence and, when it came time to serve the tea, we started with Master Deshimaru, who stirred the tea with his spoon to wash his bowl. I can still see people’s faces, they didn’t understand. Three-year tea in the same bowl we’d just eaten rice out of — for them it was dishwater. When we had to drink it, they were all but wincing. It was a very surprising exercise. At the end, Master Deshimaru lifted his head, looked at me and said, “Genmai, good.”


That’s how it happened. I think it was the first genmai in the entire history of Zen in France and in the West.


He welcomed everyone.


Q.: Do you remember how Sensei, little by little, became independent in terms of macrobiotics?


D.G.: It happened progressively. He went to the macrobiotic camp in the south of France several times… I remember, I think it was in 1969, doing a sesshin at Annecy with Master Deshimaru. Muriel was there. There were also the local hippies who came to do zazen. Some of the participants, who had a keen sense of smell or who knew the odor, said to Sensei, “You know, you should kick those guys out, because you’re going to have trouble with them. It smells like hashish in there.” What struck me at the time was that Master Deshimaru replied, “No, no, no.”


Master Deshimaru never refused to let anyone into the dojo. He welcomed everybody, even people who the others found weird. In the Paris Dojo, I often heard, “Oh! You know, with that guy, you’ll have problems,” or, “That one is like this or like that, you should ban him from the dojo.” Master Deshimaru never followed this advice. He welcomed everyone.


When people left, it was of their own accord. Master Deshimaru didn’t kick people out. I continued that in Tours, that’s our policy: welcome, openness, even with people who might cause problems, or who only come once in a while. “If you come, that’s great, if not, too bad for you.” We don’t grab people by their sleeves, but we try to have a welcoming attitude…


Q.: So the people around Master Deshimaru were mainly macrobiotic devotees and a few scholars who already had a Buddhist education?


D.G.: Not only them, far from it! After every lecture, after every trip, new faces appeared. From the beginning: Jeanine Monnot. She contributed a lot to setting up the AZE and later the AZI. Raymond Lambert, yoga professor (who died in May 2006). He complemented his teaching with zazen practice. He organized sesshins in Paris, Rouen and le Havre. Who else? Theater people: Colette R., Germaine D., to name a few I knew best. You could see their names in big letters on Paris theater posters.


Q.: I came several years later. But I’ve often heard it said that in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a wave of young people, “hippies,” took over from the first generation of Sensei’s disciples, who were more into Buddhism, esotericism, metaphysics…


D.G.: Yes, that was the case with Stéphane, Alain, J.B. — a whole group of boys and girls. But their culture and their freedom were not mine. It was not my generation. I had very little contact with them…


Q.: At that time, it was the dojo on the avenue du Maine?


D.G.: Avenue du Maine didn’t last long, because the dojo was the living room of an apartment. The neighbors in the building complained: during certain times the elevator was monopolized by people who came to visit Sensei; very early in the morning the bell echoed in the elevator shaft… Obviously, they couldn’t stay there, and that’s when they went to Pernety. But by then, it was already established, already solid, well-organized. That’s where there was the workshop, where we began sewing kesas, zafus, rakusus, kolomos… At Pernety, the foundations of the Zen association were already solidly formed…


Q.: And ordinations?


D.G.: Madame Pérusat-Stock was the first nun ordained by Sensei. She was the one who cut and sewed my first kolomo. It’s a bit thick and a little too short, but I still wear it. René Joly was the first monk. He knew Buddhism, especially Theravadan. He helped Sensei by organizing sesshins, and especially by preparing the first version of True Zen. But he didn’t appreciate being followed by a group of “ignoramuses.” Sure, they practiced zazen every day with Sensei, okay, but in his eyes that wasn’t enough.


Some people asked for the ordination right away, after a few months of zazen. Others waited — for what, in fact? That was the case for me, until December 1974, in the Pernety Dojo. J.B, recently deceased, was my ordination brother.


Q.: Do you have the impression that there was an evolution in the teaching itself?


D.G.: No, no… What I felt instead was, not an evolution, but a continual deepening. In the beginning, there was only the posture and the kyosaku… Little by little new aspects were integrated into the posture — the breathing, for example — and later, new supports — the zafu, the kolomo, reciting the Hannya Shingyo


At the end of every major sesshin, [Master Deshimaru] gave out certificates. I always got the professor certificate. Sure, why not? I was pretty pleased with myself. And then one day I look: ah! I was third professor. Well, there’s second and first professor ahead of me. Behind, there were the assistants. Later I moved up to second professor and first professor. Above me were the masters. This was the group of Parisians who were very close to Sensei. On my last certificate, I moved up a level to third vice-master.


That’s when I realized that in Zen, there was no end to moving up. You never manage to climb to the top, but, through your practice, you are also at the top. We practice a seated posture that may lead us to believe that we can attain Buddhahood, but at the same time, we are already Buddha. Both things exist. There is the path and the realization.


[Photo of a “His Master’s Voice” record label, showing a trusty dog listening to the gramophone]

To come back to the certificates: I especially remember one sesshin, it was in Lodève, and there was this distribution of certificates. It was fairly interesting to observe. You sensed that in the disciples’ minds, the certificate was important. It was a kind of recognition, attesting to a regular, deep, assiduous practice. But I remember this sesshin because, at the end, after having distributed all the certificates, there was still a piece of paper on the table. Master Deshimaru waited a bit. Everyone was wondering what was going on…


The last certificate was for Alain Cassan’s dog, who regularly attended all the zazens, asleep on the rug at the entrance to the dojo, waiting for his master… The dog was brought in, Master Deshimaru, seemingly thrilled, attached the certificate to its collar, and I said to myself that all these certificates we were more or less all unconsciously running after, which we valued so much, were put into perspective. It’s important, but in the end, it’s not.


Our master is now the teaching


Q.: How do you see the current state and the future of Sensei’s mission? Earlier you said that he spent his time sowing seeds. Are these seeds sprouting?


D.G.: It must be said that there are many which did not sprout, that’s for sure… One thing struck me. When Master Deshimaru died, among the people who followed him every step of the way, who didn’t leave him for a second, a certain number disappeared very quickly. You can see it when you look at the photos. I think there was an attachment to the master as a person more than to the practice. I think this should be a lesson to us.


It reminds me of Buddha’s death. When he was dying, he said to his disciples, “Don’t cry. I am going, but I am leaving you a teaching.” Basically that meant, “Don’t stay attached to me personally. Otherwise, you won’t do anything more.” For us too, our master is now the teaching that Master Deshimaru left us. And he left us enough so that we could get along by ourselves and go deeper through our own means.


I am always surprised to see how we find the teaching through the practice of zazen, how we can understand the texts through the posture.


Q.: So you think that Sensei left us a teaching sufficiently complete for us to continue on our own?


D.G.: Listen: frankly, I believe so, yes. Shikantaza, just sitting.


Q.: What do you think of the return to Japan that the current leaders of the sangha are conducting, with an eye to a more complete training, a certification, who knows what…?


D.G.: I understand the AZI’s apprehensions, because I have the opportunity to visit dojos affiliated closely or loosely with the AZI: each one has its particular way of doing things. The risk is that each dojo leader will behave in a way that is too personal. There is the risk of being scattered and dispersed, the risk that the teaching will lose its unity, its spirit. So, I understand that the AZI is seeking to unify all that somewhat.


But on the other hand, I think that Master Deshimaru brought us what is essential. He brought us the practice of zazen, translations of and commentaries on texts by the great masters of the tradition… We don’t have to imitate what is done in Japan, we don’t have to conform to that. One gets the impression that Soto enjoys a social recognition there, it plays a role, has a place in society.


I think that Zen should… not reject or be against, but hold itself apart from the hubbub of the social world, which is basically driven by a spirit of profit. The spirit of profit, attachment and rejection. Those are the three points, the engine that drives the world we live in. I think that, obviously, we must avoid getting caught up in that system…


The moonbeam takes on green reflections on a blade of grass


Q.: In terms of Buddhism, do you think that Sensei put a lot of importance on the Buddhist roots of Zen?


D.G.: He more often referred to Dogen and the Shobogenzo than to the words of Buddha, it’s true… I have asked myself this question. So much so that I wondered if Buddha’s teaching as such can be found in Master Deshimaru’s teaching. But Buddha was addressing people who lived in India at a certain time, who had their tradition and their culture. His teaching consisted of presenting the Dharma to them in a perceptible and accessible way.


Sensei was addressing Westerners, whose culture was completely different. He couldn’t use the same vocabulary. The language is completely different, so much so that we still have tremendous difficulties translating the texts. I think that was Sensei’s strong point: he always tried to make things understandable to Westerners. That’s something you felt: the desire to be understood by the people he was talking to.


That was the attitude of Buddha, who used local dialects to make himself understood by his listeners.


Q.: To conclude: If Zen — the Zen of Deshimaru and Kodo Sawaki — continues to develop, what kind of relationship should it have, in your opinion, with the Japanese institution?


D.G.: A cordial relationship, that’s clear, but not a follow-the-leader attitude. The moonbeam takes on green reflections on a blade of grass, or grey ones on the surface of a lake. That’s normal. But it would certainly be a mistake to conclude from this that moonlight is green, or that it should be grey.


Q.: To your recollection, what was Master Deshimaru’s attitude on this subject?


D.G.: What I remember is that once or twice I heard people who had discovered Zen in Paris, at the dojo, who said, “Ah! I’m interested in this. Now I’ll go to Japan.” Master Deshimaru replied, “That’s useless. If the practice of Zen concerns you, don’t go to Japan, come here to the dojo.” I’m not saying Master Deshimaru was wary, but the title of the first book he published in France was , after all, True Zen. I also heard him say, “If I taught you Zen the way they practice it in Japan, there would be nobody left in the dojo.”


Q.: And if you don’t mind talking about it, what do you think of the fact that he did not name an official successor, leaving us without certification or authentication?


D.G.: Did he decide that his disciples, even the closest ones, weren’t mature enough? Did he want to let us work it out ourselves? Maybe he also hoped he still had a few years ahead of him… It’s true, he was sick when he left for Japan, but after all, an operation can be a success… It’s a delicate question. Can it be answered?


Q.: I’m thinking in terms of the desire for legitimacy and official authentication that seems to drive the current leaders of the sangha…


D.G.: If I’m not mistaken, Master Deshimaru did not have the shiho when he came to France. We can make a connection there… The question is, is it necessary to have an official shiho to transmit what one has received?… Well obviously you can answer yes, and you can answer no.



Our thanks to our friends at Deux Versants for their generous permission to translate and reprint this article, and to Daniel Guétault, for being where he was, when he was, and telling us all about it.