Arnaud Desjardins (1925-2011) was a leading figure in introducing the broader French public to the philosophies and religious practices of Asia. His films devoted to Tibetan Buddhist leaders, Indian religious teachers, Japanese Zen philosophers, and Afghan Sufis were widely shown on French television in the 1960s and early 1970s, when such topics were largely unknown among non-specialists. His films were often accompanied by books and later radio interviews and talks.
In 1968, when the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton journeyed to the Far East on the trip from which he never returned, he took along a book by Arnaud Desjardins called The Message of the Tibetans. Merton quoted from that book frequently throughout his last book, Asian Journals.
Desjardins is the author of dozens of books, all dealing with a simple, straightforward approach to life. Drawing heavily from his own personal experience and years of study in both Eastern and Western spiritual/religious traditions, Desjardins presented a synthesis which is soundly based in psychology, but goes way beyond the limitations of that discipline to include the pristine essence of the human spirit.
His role in France can be compared to that of Alan Watts in the USA — a first-class presenter and popularizer of Asian thought, although later in life he would be recognized as an eminent spiritual teacher in his own right. Desjardins used to say that the times were so confused that his rather common sense comments on society, on the need “to be” rather than “to have,” were taken as profound wisdom. Like Alan Watts, who was his friend, he was willing to talk about his life experience, his experiences with different Asian teachers, and his four-year love affair with a widely-known popular singer, Dalida, which did not fit with the public image of how writers on religion should spend their time. The love affair ended with the suicide of Dalida and a divorce with his first wife, Denise, who was also a writer on Indian philosophy and Afghan Sufis.
Arnaud Desjardins came from an intellectual Protestant family active in Protestant social welfare activities, especially help to refugees displaced during the Second World War. His parents encouraged him to study at “Science Po” — an elite university-level institution in Paris which educates people for politics, literature, and high positions in the French civil service, and more recently for positions in the U.N. and the European Commission. While at “Science Po,” Desjardins met teachers and other students who were interested in the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky.
The teachings were largely based on Tibetan Buddhism and Islamic Sufi practices that Gurdjieff had learned during his years in Central Asia. However, Gurdjieff never footnoted his sources, and nearly all the teaching was done orally in small groups. Gurdjieff died in 1948, and his teaching and awareness-building dance motions continued in small groups, especially of intellectuals in what were nearly ‘secret societies’ or at least “by invitation only.” Thus Desjardins was intellectually prepared for dealing with ideas coming from Tibet and Afghanistan. He participated in the Paris-based Gurdjieff groups from 1948 to 1965 — years when he was getting his start as a television filmmaker and producer. Some of the others in the Gurdjieff group held high positions in newspapers and journals who saw to it that when gossip of Desjardins and Dalida started to circulate, they were kept out of publications.
When the Dalai Lama left Tibet in 1959, some of the most intellectual and highly-trained monks left with him and settled in northern India and a few in Bhutan, which had a Tibetan Buddhist-influenced culture. Desjardins wanted to make some films that stressed not the hardship of refugee life but the intellectual richness of Tibetan thought and its possible contribution to the world. He also feared that Tibetan culture might be destroyed both in China and by “modernization” in India. With the help of the Dalai Lama, who facilitated the interviews, Desjardins made four films, largely of interviews with leading Tibetan monks, followed in 1966 by a book Le Message des Tibetains which prepared the ground for a later interest in Tibetan thought and the coming to France and Switzerland of Tibetan teachers. There is now in France a real interest in Tibetan thought and several retreat centers. There are more French who are influenced by Tibetan teachings than any other form of Buddhism. There is, however, a fairly large Buddhist community of Vietnamese and Cambodians who follow other traditions but who have made less effort to reach out to French who do not have an Asian background.
After the Tibetan films, Desjardins went to Afghanistan — calm and isolated in the early 1960s, and filmed interviews with Sufi teachers (pirs or checkhs) and also music and movements (dances). Afghanistan was largely unknown in France in the 1960s, and the only Sufi traditions known in France were those of North Africa and Senegal-Mali which are rather different from those of Afghanistan. His visit to Afghanistan, just prior to the Russian takeover, allowed him to film special ceremonies and initiatory rituals which were soon outlawed in that country. (All of the Sufis filmed in his piece were later executed by the Russian army.)
In both Tibetan Buddhist and Afghan Sufi traditions, there is a great emphasis on the role of the teacher who passes on knowledge and helps the student to find his own way. The teacher is also supposed to be a model of the way that he presents. Thus, it was natural for Desjardins to start interviewing in Hindu ashrams — the Hindu guru being the original model of the spiritual teacher. A book, Ashrams, followed the films and opened the way for a good number of Indian teachers to come to France, although they have not had as great an impact as the Tibetan Buddhists. However, the term guru has come into ordinary French speech as have ideas such as karma of reincarnation.
During the filming in the mid-1960s, Desjardins spent time at the ashram of Swami Prajnanpad, a Bengali spiritual teacher. Desjardins became a follower of Prajnapad, as did his then-wife Denise. Desjardins did not, however, “convert” to Hinduism. He always remained a member of the French Protestant church of his youth, although his views may have been viewed with distrust by the narrow Calvinist leadership. A leading Protestant theological seminary has just changed its name to the “Jean Calvin School of Theology” to highlight its theological foundations. For Desjardins, the core of the Christian message was “The Kingdom of God is within” which is also the core teaching of the Asian faiths. Thus there was no need to “convert” but only to seek the inner path.
Desjardins worked with Swami Prajnanpad until the teacher’s death in 1974. Since then, and until his own death, Arnaud Desjardins served as a guide and teacher for thousands of men and women from all walks of life–in both France and other European countries. He was a highly respected figure, regarded as a sage by a large public as well as by Eastern masters and spiritual authorities such as the Dalai Lama.
Reconciliation was the central theme of Desjardins’ writings, of his interfaith dialogue activities, and his work with young seekers. Reconciliation was a necessary first step on the inner path to wisdom. To be reconciled to one’s self was needed in order to move to the Higher Self. Prajnanpad had stressed that the study of emotions — and not of ideas — was the way to advance. Ideas about the nature of God, the good life, of ethics and rules were always external and would lead only to adding one idea to another idea. One should start by looking at one’s emotions which are closely linked to the body and to the situation in which one finds oneself. We need to look at our emotions of fear and hate and purify them, at our emotions of joy and calm and see how they can be made lasting.
Desjardins stressed reconciliation with one’s parents, as many of our emotions — both positive and negative — arise from our early relations with our parents. Then, in a technique widely used by Buddhists — a metta (loving kindness) meditation — one moves from reconciliation within oneself to reconciliation with one’s parents, to reconciliation with people we know, and then ever wider, finally to include all living beings.
Another aspect of Desjardins’ approach to reconciliation is reconciliation through the cycles of time. The idea of cycles of time is important in Indian thought and was taken over into Tibetan Buddhism as the Kalachrakra literature and rituals — Kalachakra meaning the wheel of time. In July 2011, the Dalai Lama did part of the Kalachraka rituals in Washington, D.C. as he has in other parts of the world. The Dalai Lama believes that the Kalachakra is especially important for the period of transition through which humanity is passing.
The idea that the past can influence the present and thus we must be reconciled to the divisions of the past is a widely-held idea both in terms of personal and national psychology. Reconciliation with the past liberates us for positive action in the present. However, the idea that the main elements of the future are contained in the seeds of today — the working out of karmic laws — is less developed or at least not as an element of political and social action.
Desjardins spoke of a needed “yoga of reconciliation” as there is already in Indian practice a “yoga of knowledge” — practices and exercises that lead to knowledge. Thus we also need a “yoga of reconciliation” which leads to an all-embracing effort on inner and outer peace, on liberation from the divisions of the past, the present, and those divisions which we have already created and which will manifest in the future.
Excerpts from his writings:
“One day someone asked me, ‘How can I progress in spite of everyday difficulties?’ I gave the somewhat hard answer, ‘How can you get to the second floor in spite of the stairs?’ So the real question on the path is: ‘How can I progress on the Way thanks to every day difficulties.’”
“Love, love, take the first step. Everything depends on love. Even professional success means feeling that life loves you, that your managers, bosses and colleagues are not enemies.”
“An adult is one who has lost the grace, the freshness, the innocence of the child, who is no longer capable of feeling pure joy, who makes everything complicated, who spreads suffering everywhere, who is afraid of being happy, and who, because it is easier to bear, has gone back to sleep. The wise man is a happy child.”
“Mindful and creative, a child who has neither a past, nor examples to follow, nor value judgments, simply lives, speaks and plays in freedom.”
“But my own experience – that of a man who has entered the secrets of hundreds of human hearts – has shown me that the profound frustration of my fellow man, be it latent or manifest, springs primarily from failure in love and sex.”
“Reality and appearance are one and the same thing. Two sides of one coin. Unity in diversity IS unity, this is the great experience, or realization.”
“One day, as I was answering a question on the subject of death, the following words came to me: “You are not afraid of death, you are afraid of life.” Thinking over that response, I realized how true it was. Our fear of death is all the greater when we have not dared to live. In fact, if you stop fearing life, you can no longer fear death because you will have discovered within yourself what life really is. (Not your own life, but the unique and universal life that nourishes us.) And it becomes obvious that such life is independent of birth and death.
Westerners commonly consider life to be the opposite of death, but Orientals consider birth to be the opposite of death. For them, life expresses itself through a movement of perpetual change: an uninterrupted play of death and birth. Many spiritual paths share this conviction. My own “guru,” Swami Prajnanpad, gave simple examples to illustrate this: the birth of the child is the death of the baby; the birth of the adolescent is the death of the child.
Daring to live means daring to die at each moment. But it also means daring to be born daring to pass through important stages in life where the person you used to be dies, in order to make room for someone with a new view of the world (assuming that there are various levels before the ultimate level of Awakening). It is a case of being more and more aware that each moment you are born and you die, you die and you are reborn.
To put it simply, daring to live also means no longer having the slightest fear of what we feel. I am sure that many of you agree with me, especially those who have begun to discover what lies within their own unconscious. You are afraid of what you bear inside because you cannot fully count on yourself; you know from experience that you tend to get yourself into situations which you end up bitterly regretting. But you are also afraid of what you carry inside because each of you, as a child, has experienced situations where the way you expressed yourself was brutally contradicted. Your joy of living, high spirits or fervor led to catastrophe when you found yourself being severely reprimanded for something you had been so happily doing.
Perhaps through therapy you had the chance to re-experience how bewildered you were to see your parents overcome with anger, when you had been having so much fun cutting up the best curtains in the house with a big pair of scissors. I once used the shoes of everyone in my family for boats in the bathtub. My parents didn’t have much money at the time and there weren’t very many shoes in the closet, but there were enough for me to float. Although that sounds quite harmless, it was an incident I re-experienced with tragic intensity between my mother’s despair, my father’s severity, and my own shattered happiness. I couldn’t understand why something that had been such fun had upset my mother so much. She was convinced that all the shoes in the house were completely ruined.
It often turns out that something which was a small incident in the eyes of the parents was actually a terrible event in the eyes of the child we once were. A fear of what we are capable of very quickly takes hold of us. From then on, unless our parents are particularly careful, we ourselves start to smother our own life force. We start repressing our vital impulses. Then, as both psychology and self-observation show us, our discovery of the sexual world often takes place in an atmosphere of uneasiness, misunderstanding, and a certain guilt that accompanies childish masturbation. The urges which arise in us during adolescence, which cannot always be satisfied as we would wish, leave us troubled and lost. We no longer completely accept the very powerful life force or libido within us. Hence, in a world of increasingly free moral standards, where there are enormous possibilities for self-expression and many opportunities to travel, the majority of you no longer dare to live fully. And once you no longer completely assume the life force within you, you begin to fear death. But the fear of death is an illusion; do not be bothered by the fear of dying. What is really important is to free yourself from the fear to live.
There are two faces to this fear of living: one is the fear of what is inside us; the other is the fear of concrete situations and of the consequences they can bring about. Very quickly, our fear of living turns into a fear of suffering. We feel that it is better to live less, so as to suffer less. Look inside yourself; see what is there; ask yourself if this is how you feel. Private interviews and group meetings with those who come here to our center have shown me how true this is. You are afraid to live because to live means to take the risk of suffering. This fear is rooted in past experience, which showed you that the more you lived, the more unhappy you became. Not only because your enthusiasm may have led you to put shoes into the bathtub but because when you fell in love at the age of eighteen, you ended up suffering so much. Consequently, a certain decision tends to surge up inside sometimes unconsciously, sometimes quite consciously I don’t want to suffer like that any more.” Now that is a very fine decision to make but it leads to another one which is totally false, “so I will never love again” or “so I will never put myself into dangerous situations again.” The fact is you must realize that if you commit yourself to the path of knowledge, if you want to gradually pierce the secret of suffering, it is essential to take the risk of living and of suffering.
Your childhood vitality and perhaps even your exuberance often brought about rebuke. You heard statements like, “You shouldn’t do that!” or “How dare you do that!” And so this vitality or exuberance became associated with value judgments. Spiritual teachings also seem to greatly condemn the richness of life; they recommend asceticism, austerity, renouncing the world, going into monasteries or hermits’ caves and to top it all off, “death to oneself” or “the death of the ego.” I personally was quite surprised to see an austere man like Swami Prajnanpad insist so strongly on the importance of daring to live, laying oneself open and rolling with the punches. It did not seem to go along with my understanding of Hindu spirituality. Yet there is a real risk here, one that I barely escaped on numerous occasions. It consists in trying to camouflage one’s fear of living behind noble but untrue words. And so you fight against a feeling of suffocation in relation to your desire to lead a vast and full life, one rich in experience. We run the risk of deluding ourselves by turning our spiritual ideals into an excuse for our fear to live.”
In this interview, the noted Western Buddhist teacher Matthieu Ricard (“the happiest man alive”) discusses the influence of Dejardins, and his films of Tibet:
Here Dejardins himself reflects on his time with Ma Anandamayi, a great Indian saint: