From French Anarchist to Zen Teacher: A Journey of Meditation
This is the story of one woman’s journey to personal enlightenment. It is also the story of a process more than anything else. Personal growth never comes easily or follows a straight line.
The whys of a personal quest are myriad and vary from person to person. Some seek meaning in a world of seeming chaos while others seek order, purpose and direction. Some seek wisdom while still others seek inner peace.
The journey is always personal and fraught with difficulties. No matter the goal, personal enlightenment means having to let go of chains, anger and the comfort of control and the familiar. The result of all that effort can be profound. In seeking our own enlightenment we usually help others on their own journey
The Zen master hit my hand and asked: ‘Where did the sound go?’ I had no idea. Meeting Zen masters in South Korea was fraught with the risk of appearing a little stupid but I did not mind. It was also fun, like playing the young student Grasshopper in an episode of Kung Fu, or meeting Yoda, the grandmaster of the Jedi council.
It was in South Korea in 1975 that I decided to become a Zen nun. I had wanted to see if meditation would enable me to change my mind. I’d been idealistic from a very young age: from 11 onwards, I’d wanted to save the world. I became an anarchist and read Bakunin; then I dreamed of taking the Magic Bus to India from rural France. But at the ancient age of 18, I realised it wasn’t that easy to change the world, let alone myself. So when I read a Buddhist text that suggested meditation might help, I decided to find a teacher and a practice. I ended up in a Zen Buddhist monastery in South Korea where, for 10 hours a day, I silently asked the question: ‘What is this?’
The Zen word ‘koan’ is sometimes used in common parlance — as in ‘What is the koan of my life?’ Or ‘Is this is a koan for me?’ The hero of Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) realises that his lack of Spanish enables him to speak in ‘enigmatic koans’. At the University of Warwick, there is a six metre-high sculpture called theWhite Koan by Lilian Lijn, which rotates and is illuminated by fluorescent lights. On MTV, Skrillex, the American electronic musician, recently introduced a DJ duo from Bristol who call themselves Koan Sound after their unusual bass sound. And in June this year, the marketwatch.com columnist Paul B Farrell wrote an article headlined ‘The ultimate Zen Koan? Your retirement’. They all used the word ‘koan’ to signify, among a multitude of ideas, a question, a mystery, a concern, an enigma, a riddle, something strange.
‘What is this?’ is one of the most popular koans used in Korea. It is not a riddle with a definite answer. Traditionally, it is seen as a method of radical questioning that will enable one to see one’s true nature and thus become a Buddha. But it is not as easy as that: it takes more than just a weekend meditation intensive to attain the way. It requires years and years of sitting on a cushion and asking until you develop a sensation of questioning so powerful that it ‘explodes’, as the tradition says. In Korean Zen, they say that to accomplish this you need to have great faith, great courage and great questioning. However, I was not so interested in slowly awakening to my own true nature: I wouldn’t have minded if it had suddenly and unexpectedly happened to me. I wanted all along to cultivate wisdom and compassion and, more than anything else, dissolve my restrictive and painful habits of mind and heart.