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Swiss Shin: Reverend Ducor and Switzerland’s Only Shin Buddhist Temple

One day in 1968, the then 14-year-old Jerome Ducor settled down to watch TV in his parents’ living room in Geneva. What he subsequently witnessed marked the beginning of a remarkable journey that would eventually culminate in his ordination as a Buddhist priest in Japan, with his own temple in Geneva.

Nothing in Jerome’s background foreshadowed his calling to Eastern spirituality. The son of a Protestant father and Catholic mother, Jerome was born in 1954 and grew up in the Swiss capital with his two brothers. His father owned an antiques shop in the old town and his grandfather was a merchant of fine wines. After watching a TV documentary titled Le Message des Tibétains by Arnaud Desjardins about exiled Tibetan communities in India, young Jerome found himself on an obsessive mission to learn all he could about Tibet, Buddhism, and Asia in general. With the burning fervor of his youth, he tried to penetrate the mysteries of a way of thinking that was completely at odds with the world he in which he was living.

Image courtesy of Ruth Nilsson-Ladner

This coincided with his religious studies in preparation for his Confirmation. Rather than triggering a crisis of faith, his Buddhist studies actually helped Jerome shed new light on the Gospels. “What it means to be born in heaven makes more sense with the Buddhist explanation than the Christian,” Reverend Ducor reflected. This apparent paradox is no surprise in light of Buddhism’s humanist emphasis, which asks no more of a person than that they reflect about the Buddha’s teaching—the Dharma—without taking it at face value, and decide for themselves whether the Buddha spoke the truth. 

When it was time to decide what to study at university, Jerome did not hesitate: it had to be Buddhist studies. And so he enrolled at the University of Lausanne, where he gained a bachelor’s degree. This was followed by a master’s degree in religious studies from the University of Geneva, and crowned with a doctorate in Japanese studies. There were only four students on his course at Lausanne, and they all had to learn the four canonical languages of Buddhism: Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Chinese. Meanwhile, Jerome’s doctorate comprised nine years of research in the Japanese language, including a year of residency in Japan.

At some point during his academic studies of Buddhism, Jerome realized with astonishment yet total serenity that his view of the world had imperceptibly become Buddhist, and that he himself was, in fact, a Buddhist. He was deeply reassured in this shift by Albert Einstein, who is purported to have observed: “If there is any religion that could cope with modern scientific needs, it would be Buddhism.” The Buddhist cyclical world as the result of karma (cause and effect) is not the same world as the linear creator’s world of Christianity; while in Christianity guilt is prevalent as a result of Original Sin, in Buddhism each individual has their own karma as a consequence of the natural law of the chain of cause and effect.

The author, far right, with Rev. Ducor and members of his congregation. Image courtesy of Ruth Nilsson-Ladner

In 1977, at only 23 years of age, Jerome was ordained as a priest (tokudo) at Hompa-Hongan-ji in Kyoto, the mother temple of the Jodo-Shinshu branch of Japanese Buddhism. Ten years later, he qualified as a teacher (kyoshi) at the same temple. Rev. Ducor is the only non-Japanese priest in Europe to have earned these credentials. Too aware of the large number of self-proclaimed Western Buddhist gurus without any authentic affiliations, it was important to Ducor to be part of a recognized and living Buddhist community. Priests in the Shin Buddhist—or Jodo Shinshu in Japan—tradition are allowed to marry and are not bound by monastic vows.  The tradition has no provision for ordaining monks and therefore there are no Shin monasteries.

The path to Shin Buddhism was not a direct one for Rev. Ducor: “The tradition tells us that there are no less than 84,000 teachings in Buddhism to suit every situation. How an individual seeking deliverance from suffering is led to choose one or the other of these ways is impossible to determine precisely, as the paths of karma are so impenetrable.” Most people who are not born into a Buddhist environment begin by reading books about the fundamentals of Buddhism, starting with karma and the prospect of attaining enlightenment. It is after this first immersion that the question of which practice to choose arises. For Westerners, Rev. Ducor explains, it is usually either the Tibetan or the Zen way. Rev. Ducor was no exception; he started out in the Zen tradition but quite quickly realized that he would be unable to put its teachings into serious practice.

Image courtesy of Ruth Nilsson-Ladner

It was around this time that he met Rev. Jean Eracle, a former Roman Catholic priest from Geneva who had become a Shin priest and set up the Buddhist Society of Jodo Shinshu in Switzerland in 1970. Rev. Eracle himself was a disciple of the first Shin Buddhist in Europe, Rev. Harry Pieper from Berlin. Rev. Pieper had converted to Buddhism in the 1930s, but soon all Buddhist activities were forbidden by the Gestapo, the official secret police of Nazi Germany. In the following years, Rev. Pieper met with his group for clandestine Dharma gatherings in the attic of a rented apartment in Berlin. An artistically talented member drew a picture of the Buddha in chalk on the wall of the room, and Rev. Pieper recited the texts of the Pali Canon by heart. After having introduced Rev. Ducor in detail to the various schools of Japanese Buddhism, Rev. Eracle finally oriented him toward Shin Buddhism.

Shin Buddhism is a practice of self-discovery through external interactions. There are no specific codes of ethics and, unlike many other Buddhists, Shin practitioners do not take vows to refrain from eating meat, drinking alcohol or abstaining from sexual misconduct. Shin Buddhism eschews all asceticism and self-powered practices in favor of reliance on Amida Buddha’s vow that he will transfer his infinite merits to those who take refuge in him, allowing them to be reborn in  the Pure Land. Shin Buddhism merely asks its followers to take it upon themselves to see the truth of its teachings through their personal life experiences. They should live their own unique life and remember that they are always embraced—just as they are with all their flaws and shortcomings—by the immeasurable light and life that lies at the heart of the Shin tradition. Shin Buddhists take refuge in that which is “true and real” and the spiritual joy that comes with an abiding faith, which is understood as the arising of Amida Buddha’s mind within us (and not something that we generate). We are assured of liberation after death, just as we are, at the moment of entrusting in Amida’s power—or Other Power—here and now.

The founder of the Japanese Jodo Shin tradition was Shinran Shonin (1173–1263). Shinran spent 20 years as a monk on Mount Hiei near Kyoto, was exiled for many years, but also experienced the burdens of family life with six children. For Rev. Ducor, the difficulties experienced by Shinran give him a unique dimension that is not found in other masters. Ducor feels very close to Shinran in the latter’s struggle to rid himself of the illusion of self-power, which diverts us from Other Power.

Image courtesy of Ruth Nilsson-Ladner

Rev. Ducor’s Shin Buddhist temple—the only one in Switzerland—is tucked away in a two-room apartment on the third floor of a nondescript residential building just a five-minute walk from Geneva’s train station. This modest dwelling used to be the home and temple of Rev. Ducor’s predecessor, Rev. Eracle, the former Roman Catholic priest. After Rev. Eracle’s death, it was Rev. Ducor’s absolute priority to keep the temple going. Today, the Shin Buddhist sangha in Geneva meets there each Monday evening for Dharma teachings and discussion. Once a month, on a Sunday, Rev. Ducor conducts a service in the traditional robes of a Shin priest, including white two-toe socks and wooden clogs. The chanting of the original religious texts is in Japanese. There are around 20 active members, although the registered number is 50. Most do not live in Geneva. Compared with Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, Japanese Shin Buddhism is isolated as there are very few committed communities in the West. Remoteness is indeed a problem, Rev. Ducor admits, hence his frequent trips to the mother temple in Kyoto.

Shin Buddhism in Europe is markedly different from Shin Buddhism in the Americas, where there are some 60 temples mostly for the descendants of Japanese immigrants. Although there are some Westerners, it remains very ethnic. American Shin Buddhist priests are appointed by Japan, whereas in Europe there is no local ordination system. After all these years, Shin Buddhism in Europe is still in its infancy. Furthermore, interest in Buddhism is declining, while the focus on mindfulness and meditation is mushrooming. “These are ancient Buddhist techniques but now practiced without a religious dimension,” Rev. Ducor observed. “People want to control everything and choose everything themselves. We live in a time of hyper-individualism. The mindfulness industry, with its yoga, meditation, breathing, etc., is worth billions of dollars but it is all cut off from its roots in the metaphysical.”           

Rev. Ducor is not only a Buddhist priest but also a Buddhist scholar who has spent his entire career in academia. In the early 1990s, he taught Far Eastern religions at McGill University in Montreal, but returned to Geneva after two years, as he did not enjoy the American academic system. He subsequently joined the Department of Oriental Languages and Civilisations of the University of Lausanne as a private lecturer, staying there for 26 years. During the last 12 years, Ducor was also the curator in charge of the Asia Department of the Museum of Ethnography of Geneva, and a senior lecturer at the Japanese Language Unit of the University of Geneva. A couple of years ago, he retired from these positions, although he still publishes and teaches at UNI 3 Geneve and at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Paris.

Image courtesy of Ruth Nilsson-Ladner

Although he loves Japan and has visited more than 40 times, Rev. Ducor knew from the beginning that he could never live there: “Everybody knows what you are doing all the time.” He is a Genevois to the core. Indeed, his current apartment is a mere 200 meters from the hospital in which he was born. Rev. Ducor is also very happy that he never married: “Gott sei Dank.” He had some very nice love affairs, he reminisces, and being a Buddhist priest never presented an obstacle to his romantic endeavors. “I guess for them it was rather exotic.” He is a godfather many times over and an engaged uncle to his two brothers’ children, although he does not have children of his own.

Advice from Rev. Ducor

I asked Rev. Ducor as a concluding thought: “We live in a time of a confluence of catastrophes, what with the pandemic, the war in the Ukraine, global warming, inflation, food shortages, rising nationalism, and so on. How should one live in these times?”

He replied: “Come back to impermanence. Everything is under the law of impermanence, even Buddhism itself. What you do in the face of this fact is up to you. A human life has a maximum average lifespan of 100 years. We need to relativize and keep in mind the true nature of all existence, which is suffering. Enjoy life as far as you can. You can enjoy everything provided you take it for what it is. Enjoy but don’t think you’ll enjoy it forever, or that it will last. People don’t want what is painful; they want only to repeat the pleasurable sides of life. But suffering waits at every turn and everyone and everything will eventually vanish. For Shin Buddhists, Amida Buddha is the personification of compassion. If you are faced with difficulty, think of the Buddha. Take refuge in compassion.

“In this fraught climate, Shin Buddhism has a great deal to offer humanity today, just as it did 800 years ago. While the lives of people in Shinran’s times might seem remote from ours, they were, fundamentally, much the same because the facts of the human condition have not changed.”

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