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The Dry Lake

This article is published in collaboration with Buddhistdoor en Español, which published a Spanish-language version in August 2021.

The Chateau, main building of La Gendronniere. Image courtesy of the author

It was in the mid-1990s when we began visiting the Zen temple at La Gendronnière, located in an old 19th-century chateau surrounded by gardens and forest in the gorgeous Loire Valley. This is where Taisen Deshimaru founded one of the first Soto Zen temples in Europe in 1980. When arriving, after driving along a trail crossing through the forest, we saw a majestic French castle  next to a dojo—a temple in the purest Japanese style, with its bell hanging inside a shrine. It was a clear insinuation of the fusion that had been forged there. During the period in which we arrived, the majority of the long-standing disciples of Taisen Deshimaru were still practicing together.

Since Deshimaru’s early death in 1982, there had been no teacher although they had decided to keep practicing his teachings together. Deshimaru’s practice was one deeply rooted in Japanese Zen, and introduced in modern-day Europe to many young disciples steeped in the French movement from the 1960s. At that time, continuing together meant that the different work teams—the forest, kitchen garden, kitchen, service, cleaning, and so on—were all led by senior disciples, and this was very noticeable. If you went to collect firewood in the forest, it wasn’t just any old gathering, but a true Zen experience of being one with the forest, where colleagues passed logs from hand to hand in complete mindfulness.

Life at the temple was simple and straightforward—zazen seated meditation, working, eating, and sleeping, all at a peaceful yet constant pace, leaving you exhausted by the end of the day but with a peaceful and calm mind. A similar serenity was emitted by the lake, a large hectare-plus body of water surrounded by woods.

Taisen Deshimaru. From zen-azi.org

The lake was a favourite spot for strolls due to its charm and beauty and the peacefulness it instilled. For many years, and not in vain, the photos most used as an emblem of La Gendronnière depicted a monk sitting by the lake. The lake was the heart of the forest and of the sangha. Parties, and gatherings were organized close to its shores and many experiences took place there that the silent lake will never reveal. We all knew there were fish in the lake, as you could feed them from the shore, and sometimes water rodents were glimpsed, as well as wild ducks and other birds.

I remember one winter, many years later, when intense freezes completely covered the lake in thick ice. Given the shallowness of the water, the sangha feared that the fish would suffocate, so they broke the ice, discovering sadly that the fish had indeed died. I still remember the scene, when they removed these enormous fish—wels catfish measuring two meters long—from the lake. An image that, along with the ice and the darkness, seemed like a veritable Dantesque vision. After this event, the waters of the lake started to deteriorate. Invasive fauna spread, including a freshwater mussel whose shells were everywhere. Over the years, this led to the lake drying out for long enough that the invasive fauna disappeared and its muds were cleaned. So, after many years of hosting summer camps at La Gendronnière, one day upon arriving we found the lake dry. The lake at La Gendronnière has dried up, I thought, what can that mean?

The lake at La Gendronniere today. Image courtesy of the author

Semantic synchronicities provide us with glimpses of the transcendent. In past years, these senior disciples had gradually moved on from doing everything together to each of them founding their own temple or community. It was a healthy and natural growth to spread the word, very typical of Buddhism, although this same dispersion process had caused the sessions at La Gendronnière to grow progressively smaller, given that the practitioners were now distributed among several temples. In the end, it all issued from there, that was the source, the lake from which the waters flowed that nourished the new communities.

That brought to mind a passage by Dogen, in which he speaks of a dry ocean. Referring to a sentence in a koan: “The bloodline has not been cut off.” The bloodline is Dharma transmission from teacher to disciple, uninterrupted from the Buddha until today, and for Dogen, that is like a lake drying up without ever reaching the bottom. Never reaching the bottom is in itself dryness. A dryness in which we continue drying.

It is a phrase from the koan, “A dragon howling in a dry tree,” which later asks: “Is there anyone who can hear the dragon’s howls in a dry tree?” And Sosan responds: “In the whole world, there is nobody who hasn’t heard them.”

And again, they ask him: “And what do dragons sing?”

And Sosan responds: “Although they do not understand its words, everyone who hears its song loses the self (yo).” Perhaps it is this dry lake, the lost self, following the bloodline that dries without ever reaching the bottom. And you, reader, what does it tell you? Do you hear the howl of the dragon in the dry tree?

The bell shrine behind the dojo. Image courtesy of the author

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Zen Kannon
Zen Kannon (Facebook)
Lluís Nansen (Facebook)
Zen Kannon (YouTube)
La Gendronniere Temple

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