Interviews of Zen practitioners
«A Way of Hope» - Pascal, 31.
How did you meet Zen?
I started in fact with Mindfulness. It was a period in my life when I didn’t know where I was going, when I didn’t feel well. So, I did some kind of Mindfulness training. I was very impressed by the fact that you sit down and study yourself without doing much. After this training, I wanted to continue, but there was no community in the vicinity with which I could practice regularly. My partner then advised me to try Zen, which I did. I found this practice very rewarding and I continued.
Do you practice in a dojo?
Yes. We first tried to practice zazen at home and sometimes I did zazen after work. But it’s much easier to practice when you tell yourself: “I will go to the dojo once or twice a week”, because you meet people there. I think the group is always stronger than the individual. Moreover, Zen in a dojo offers a real structure and … it’s cheap.
Which experiences do you do during zazen?
It’s quite surprising, given the simplicity of meditation. If you say to somebody: “sit down for 40 minutes”, they will probably not understand it, but there’s a lot going on.
The first thing is to become aware. You look inside, you observe yourself, you see what’s going on and then you get to know yourself better. We all live with tensions, concerns, things that we repress, that we eliminate from our consciousness, but these things are still there and come back to the consciousness again. I often think that our negative reactions are due to the fact that we are not aware of what drives us.
Another thing (and this is really a very old philosophical technique) is to learn to accept things. Sometimes you get frustrated because things change. But once you accept that fact, you can change things. It’s really great. By accepting what you must accept, you are more capable of controlling your own life. You don’t exhaust your energy on things that go “against the current”, you go “with the flow” of things.
In your opinion, which is the role of Zen in today’s society?
From a global point of view, the situation of our civilization is quite catastrophic. People live to consume, to share things on social networks, to possess more, to be more comfortable … but it doesn’t make them happy.
I think there is a spiritual degradation in progress. Christianity has a problem, because for 250 years many great thinkers did no longer believe in it. In the West and in Europe in particular, we are very much cut off from traditions, we no longer take anything seriously. We think that this is freedom, consumption, comfort, but everybody is concerned about his own self and we become neurotic. But all this is nothing facing death, because anyway, we are going to die. So, you really have to take death into account, instead of saying: “No, I’m watching TV, I don’t want to think about it”. In short, we can live like that, but I have the impression that Europeans need the contribution of “something oriental” such as Zen or Buddhism. It is easier for them to take this seriously because it is a bit solemn.
Zen is a practice, a work to perform on ourselves. Even if others think badly or do evil, let us work first on ourselves! And by what we will learn, by our “well-being”, we will influence the people around us. It is obvious, because we are all connected. I think Zen is really a Way of hope.
«It’s good to trust» - Thomas, 47.
What brought you to Zen?
I came to Zen after reading about Buddhism. I came across a book that talked about the history of Buddha and the Four Noble Truths, and it was a revelation to me. Then I thought: “how am I going to do?” I went to see several groups of different Buddhist schools and it was from Zen that I felt the closest.
Do you remember your first zazen session?
Yes, it was in a dojo seven years ago. It was a breakthrough. There was an initiation before zazen, and first I received explanations about the posture and the breathing, then I did zazen with the others. The first zazen was painful, because my body was not used to it. But I quickly realized that physical pains are only temporary and that it is necessary to practice regularly to overcome them. Over time, it got easier.
How are you practicing today?
I practice alone at home and also in a dojo, to keep a link with the sangha. Since there are always changes in our body posture, it is good to be corrected. For the study of Zen Buddhism also, I appreciate the exchanges with others. And during a sesshin, one has the opportunity to meet a Master.
What is the Master’s role for you?
It took me a long time to find my Master. I saw many of them during sesshin or summer camps and wondered who might be my Master. I realized that I was more interested in the approach to Zen with a Master: for me, the Master is like a guide … but I don’t get to see him often, only two or three times a year.
Why do you keep practicing zazen?
For me, the approach of Zen is a like a course, it is a Path. The practice of zazen helps me to become aware of my delusions, my attachments, but it takes time. But it is a Way of Liberation, so I am still practicing today.
What influence does Zen have on your daily life?
Zen is always present in my life. What I observe is that I engage myself more, even if it is not always easy. As I practice regularly, each of my actions is related to Zen, as a consequence. During a mourning period of my life, Zen helped me to get through.
Today, my father is old and I accompany him, I see him transformed by old age. Before, it used to be difficult for me to accept this change.
What would you recommend to those who start practicing zazen?
For beginners, it is good to have confidence, because it is a Path that is not easy at first. We’re used to doing something for a future purpose, but practicing zazen is being in the present. I realized after a while that this is a process, that I don’t go to the dojo for an hour and then “Zen is over”. There are many aspects of Zen to put into practice in daily life.
«An inner peace has settled in» - Sarah, 31.
How did you get to Zen?
I started Zen a few years ago. In fact, I was wondering which my values were. So, I tried to find a way to discover myself and find a path for the future, because I was going through a difficult time in my life. At that time, I did not live far from a dojo. So, I took an initiation to zazen, then I went from time to time to the dojo. Now I go there regularly, once a week.
At first, I found several things a little bit strange, such as ceremonies, or sitting in front of a wall, or dressing all in black. It was very different from what I did before and I expected something else. I thought that - with meditation - we’d become more open to the world, so why sit in front of a wall? Now I am not asking myself this question anymore: even if I am facing the wall, I am connected to the others.
What has changed for you since then?
I got to know myself better, to understand myself better. I believe that today I am more attentive to others and more connected with my environment. There is an inner peace within me and I am able to work better with others and help them.
What influence does Zen have in your daily life?
Zen helps me a lot in my daily life. During the day, I am really very busy, I run right and left. For me, Zen means “taking a break” and it has become a kind of principle that accompanies my actions in life.
In my professional life too, I’m more certain of what I want to do. We do a lot of projects with other companies, so I’m thinking more at long term and about the implications of what I decide. Zen is precisely a « long term path ».
«A red thread that shows me the way» - Albert, 47.
Why are you practising zazen?
I have been doing zazen for 2 years. When I started, I had just overcome a serious illness and I was looking for the meaning of life. Since my childhood, I had been rather oriented towards Christianity, like many people in our latitudes. Two years ago, a friend took me to a sesshin, a Zen meditation retreat, and it was a decisive experience for me. Since then, I have been practicing regularly. Zazen is an integral part of my life.
Why was it the right time to start zazen?
I’d say my illness has paved the way for zazen practice. The fact that this disease could have taken another turn has given me the impression of starting a new life, and for that, zazen is a good accompaniment.
Did the practice of zazen help you to accept your illness?
Yes, absolutely. Zazen helps me to deal with the prospect of a recurrence of the disease. Zazen helps me to live more “here and now”, with as little fear as possible, despite the possible relapse.
Does zazen also have an influence on your social life, for example at work, or in daily life with your family or friends?
In addition to the weekly practice at the dojo, I try to meditate every day at home for about 30 minutes. I now notice a difference in how I interact, how I live with people and how I deal with conflict. I think that, thanks to zazen, I live relationships more consciously and appreciate them more. And besides, I tended to be focused on the mental and to deal with a lot of things with rationality: thanks to the practice of zazen, I am better able, for example, to be more spontaneous with others and to follow my intuition.
Which other themes in your life are influenced by zazen, for example when you think of the great crisis of our civilisation?
I have a kind of fundamental trust in life and had it for a long time. This makes that I can, most of the time, think without fear to the future. This trust was perhaps before transcendental, but today it is more anchored in reality by zazen.
The main current crisis in the North of France, where I live, is immigration. I try to help in my neighbourhood, for example by accommodating those who are looking for housing, but - in fact - this cause was already important to me before practicing zazen.
Do you expect anything special from your zazen practice?
I expect that zazen will continue carrying me in life as it has carried me so far, as a kind of “red thread” that shows me the way.
How far my commitment will go, we will see. For example, I started to train to make the stitches for the sewing of a rakusu. Will a rakusu finally take shape? We’ll see.
As a child and a teenager, I was very involved in a Christian community, which I think makes me rather hesitant today to integrate a new doctrine. That doesn’t mean I feel as if I was “corseted” by zazen. The question of the scope of my commitment, to go as far as asking for an ordination, for example, remains open to me today.
«The Master gives coherence to our practice» - Isabelle,45.
Why do you practice zazen?
Finally, Zen unified a lot of intuitions in my life and led me to an inner liberation. For example, I felt a little apart socially, facing social and family pressures, and conditionings from which I could not liberate myself. So, I always felt out of step with the role I was expected to play.
With the Zen, I realized that this decalage had its reasons to exist, but that I could rely on my intuition and emancipate myself harmoniously from these conditionings. In Zen, I found this freedom, the freedom to make choices, to assume them and to feel neither in opposition nor in perfect agreement with something, but aligned with my deep convictions.
I’m also interested in the creative part of Zen. I can create my own inner trajectory. That’s why I stay in Zen. Before, I tried other forms of meditation and did a lot of yoga for years. So, yogi meditation also put me on the Path, but it wasn’t deep enough for me, not radical enough.
What is “radical” in the practice of Zen?
It’s the fact that you’re sitting in front of the wall, which completely stops any conditioning, the fact that you’re alone facing yourself. And there, we can no longer escape …The teachings as well help us to set landmarks.
There are also the interactions with others. The sangha, the community of practitioners, was a bit of a surprise to me. I thought that zazen was a very lonely job, and then I realized along the way that this was not the case at all. All these learnings are also revealed in the interactions we have within the sangha. In this kind of organic relationship that there is in the sangha with the Master, the disciples, the teaching and the practice, there is a kind of interactive flow that is created and that carries our practice. In any case, personally, it has carried me and still carries me.
Do you practice in a dojo?
Yes, I practice once a week in a dojo and sometimes at home, especially during the holidays. Practising alone has its limits. I found the path more “organic” with the group and this structure also helps to avoid getting lost. The sangha takes us out of our ego, which is an important work on ourselves we have to do.
Do you encounter obstacles during zazen?
One thing I’ve learned is that, at the beginning, when the obstacles first come up, they seem a little bit insurmountable. But little by little, we realize that, in the end, everything dissolves and everything resolves.
At first, I had a hard time staying focused. Bodily obstacles are also as knots we try to untie, but we try to do this rationally, and the more we do it, the more we lock ourselves in the problem. I learned that it is by practicing that we overcome obstacles and that practice carries us, because it allows us to overcome them.
Does the notion of a Master mean anything to you?
Completely. I practiced a few years «as a free electron»: I travelled a lot between different dojos and I met different styles of practice. I was not aware that I was looking for a Master, things suited me well like that. But there was still something, like a coherence that I missed. Then I met a Master, Roland Rech, and his practice answered questions that I was not even aware I was asking myself. After practicing a zazen day with him, I felt an inner harmony I had never experienced before.
The Master gives coherence to our practice. We feed on his practice, and maybe he feeds on ours, at least I hope he does. There is this connection which means that, even if you practice elsewhere and with someone else, you reconnect yourself with the practice of your Master. For me, it is essential.
Does Zen influence your social life?
Yes. When you come back from sesshin, you are very sociable and much more open to others. We react much faster and in a much more relevant way. At work, I have more harmonious relations and in my private life as well. I have noticed that by promoting compassion, Zen helps a lot to carry others, and it gives an extra boost to relationships, especially to help people in difficulty.