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Wywiad z  Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée z  6 III 2005 roku

Przedruk z  "Dragon's Mouth" 2005/4 za uprzejmą zgodą British Taoist Association.

Interview with Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallée 06 03 05

DM: Can you tell us something about yourself and how you came to study the Chinese classics?

ER: I  was fortunate to be born into a  family which allowed me to do all the study that I  wanted to do. I  think I  was also lucky because my parents loved each other and they loved their children, and that is a  great basis in life. Because of that foundation I  did not have many of the problems that can occur at a  very deep level. I  was able to relax! I  was also very lucky to be born in 1949, which means that I  was 20 in 1969; it was a  prosperous time and there were no fears for the future, everything was open. For women it was even more open, I  was responsible only for myself - free to do whatever I  wanted to do. My parents were not very rich but they were able to help me to study, so I  was not constrained to make money to help my family. So I  feel that I  was very lucky.

At that age I  was thinking about all the usual questions of life and death – the meaning of life – where are we coming from and where we are going to. So the area of study that I  chose was philosophy, literature and classics.

I was a  bit wary of the scientific approach – though I  was very interested in biology, I  was afraid that it would not have an overview – and that I  would be forced to spend all my life working on one leg of a  spider. Because although the situation was very open and free for me as a  girl, the other side of that was that in the late 60s and early 70s there was really no hope for a  woman to become the boss! Not for another 20 or 30 years! I  don’t really enjoy being in command – but I  really hate to be commanded, especially by someone who is more stupid than me! So for all these kind of reasons I  decided to follow the literary and philosophical side of things, and to study languages, Latin, Greek and a  bit of ancient Hebrew. I  studied for a  masters degree in Etruscan history, so I  was not interested in the study of language for its own sake, but in order to understand the way of life and the vision of life of a  particular time. I  also continued to study philosophy, which I  found interesting, but it did not give me a  real idea of how to live.

I was brought up and educated as a  catholic, but when I  was a  teenager this had no real meaning to me. There were so many questions and I  was really looking for something that touched the reality of life – to give life some kind of meaning. I  met Father Claude Larre when I  was just 20, at the time when I  was questioning all this, and through that meeting I  was able to feel that there was some kind of reality in Christ. So I  remained a  catholic and I  have always basically remained a  catholic, though maybe not in the same way. I  began to discover Chinese thinking through Father Larre, who was a  Jesuit priest, although he never tried to tell me that I  should be a  good catholic! He was too clever to do that! And at that time I  had some kind of contradiction in my mind.

DM: So how did you meet him? Did you have the intention of meeting him?

ER: No. It was by chance. I  did not know who he was, and had no idea that he was a  sinologist. Of course I  knew a  little bit about China – but I  had no idea about Chinese philosophy at that time. What I  liked about Father Larre was not that he was a  sinologist, but that he was a  real human being. Someone with a  very deep sense of what it means to be human. He answered questions by really listening – and answering in an unexpected way – with life. He answered with the reality of life and not with concepts. From studying Western philosophy I  was completely fed up with concepts! It is very easy to play with concepts – but where does it take you? So I  was really interested by that – and that was the reason why I  continued to see him. He had spent more that 20 years in Asia, in China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Philippines, Japan – so he was really impregnated by that experience. And he was working at that time on his PhD thesis on the Huainan zi, and also starting a  translation of the Daode jing.

I started to see more of him and speak with him about China and the early philosophical texts of the Daoists. So little by little I  found myself completely immersed in Chinese – learning Chinese, writing Chinese, trying to translate Chinese, and I  began with the classical texts. The first text I  studied was the Laozi, which was Father Larre’s speciality.

DM: So how did you learn Chinese? Did he teach you?

ER: At first I  was interested by the way of thinking, because it was through this way of thinking, especially the thinking impregnated by Daoism, that it was possible to grasp the reality of life. This was Father Larre’s approach to China and Chinese. This reality of life was real at every level - real at the mental level, real at the level of spirit, but also real in the way to act in daily life. Studying Western philosophy and spirituality I  always wanted to know how to put it into practice, I  would want discuss that with everyone I  met – otherwise what is the point? That is why I  stopped my studies of Western philosophy. But through Father Larre’s presentation of Chinese thinking, I  felt that I  could find something that was possible as a  way of life.

At around the same time, 19969 or 1970, Father Larre met Dr. Jean Schatz, who was a  medical doctor and acupuncturist. So this brought the added dimension of medicine, which was interesting and important because I  saw it as a  kind of field of experiment with life - because we do something and we get a  result. So I  also began to study Chinese medicine, mainly the classical texts, and I  continued to study classical Chinese in the Daoist texts with Father Larre. I  also began to study modern Chinese, because it was a  necessity – not at University, because I  was still finishing my classical studies, and also I  thought that if I  wanted to study modern Chinese it was best to have a  Chinese teacher and then go to China. In 1974 I  spent one year in Taiwan. It was still difficult to visit main land China at that time because of the Cultural Revolution.

So I  worked with Father Larre, on the Daoist texts and also some of the basic medical texts, and I  also worked with Dr. Jean Schatz on Chinese medicine and how these medical texts are able to inform modern medical practice. Of course – we were always making links between the two - because it is the same language, the same philosophical background, the same people, and there are deep links within these texts. Gradually I  developed more knowledge of the texts throughout the years. In the late 70s, Father Larre and Dr  Schatz started a  study and translation group in Paris, studying texts from mainly the BC era.

Dr Jean Schatz died prematurely in 1984, and Father Larre and I  continued to work on all these aspects, trying to see the vision of life and the conduct of life. Because to understand a  text is not only to understand the grammar and the linguistics, but to understand what kind of meaning it had for the people who wrote it, the people who read it then and those who read it now. We know that we are no longer living in the same world as the one of our grandfathers - the vision of the world has definitely changed – we have a  complete shift in our vision of the world and we cannot go back. Things have changed. How much more so for those who lived in the early centuries BC? We cannot speak, we cannot see, we cannot act in the same way, with the same pattern, because it is not the same thing. Nevertheless, reality has not changed, and the way we react, the way we look at and experiment with this reality we still share with any human being of any time.

So we wanted to attempt to present this to Westerners - acupuncturists and others interested in a  kind of quest for a  vision of the reality of life, and the quest for the reality of life is not different for me from the spiritual life. Spiritual life is not a  dream – it is the deepest level of reality. We always have to go deeper into the reality of what we are and how we perceive reality. This is a  kind of spiritual quest. After that, choice is possible and there may be a  difference in the basic approach between Confucianism, Daoism and Christianity.

If we find that in the quest to understand reality we use the knowledge of the order of the Universe as a  model to gradually change ourselves - our body, our mind, our reactions - this may reflect the Confucian vision. But if we were to attempt to integrate, and perhaps disappear or blend into this reality as the One – this would be the Daoist way. Daoism has no real use of will and consciousness, which is strongly developed in Confucianism. We act not from our own will, but from simply being human. It is a  kind of merging into something greater than I  am, but which at the same time makes me greater – although this merging suggests the disappearance of individual consciousness. The Christian idea is more that reality is not consciousness, it is not the merging of consciousness into something other, because it is most important to model myself - my body and my mind - on love. This love relationship is seen as the way to go deeper and deeper into reality.

This is very basic of course! But there is some difference in these approaches. What we have to do is to go deeper and deeper into the reality of the way that we have chosen. And each way will not show you the same landscape. We cannot say that the ways are the same. Perhaps they are of equal value, nobody knows, but we know that they are not exactly the same.

This is important because nowadays there are people who in the name of some kind of illusion of universality, say Oh yes, it is the same mountain you are climbing! Perhaps, but not by the same path. But there are also many things that these paths have in common and it is certainly through Daoism that I  was able to be a  Christian, and to remain a  Christian! When you are in your own culture you see all the things that are wrong – and that is very difficult – but if you make a  kind of detour and look directly to the essential through a  different perspective – you are able to see more clearly, without being distracted by those pitiful, miserable little things – and after that you can come back, and see the way in your own culture.

So I  am still, and will always be completely fascinated by the Chinese classical texts, the Daoists texts of Laozi, Zhuangzi, because they for me they fill this expectation I  had over 30 years ago – this kind of grasp of something real at each level of the human dimension. Father Larre was very eager to present this Chinese approach to Westerners – not to convert them in any way – but just to enrich and to deepen their own understanding by knowing another way to look at reality.

DM: Would you say that he was a  contemplative? Because from what you say you both have a  deeper view than just an academic study.

ER: I  think this comes from a  vital need for spirituality - for a  reality which is not limited by what I  we can see. And what is invisible? We don’t know what it is. We don’t know how this compares to the idea of a  god in the sky. But what do you do when you are a  contemplative in a  monastery? What do you do when you are a  Daoist in the mountains? You look at what? You look at the clouds, you look at the sky, you look at heaven, but you look at what? You look at nothing, but that nothing is not just nothingness, it is a  kind of ultimate smallness where we can root something, where everything can be turned around – it is very delicate, impossible to explain – nearly impossible to live – and it is also the only option.

DM: You have spent many years studying the Laozi and the Zhuangzi and you teach from both of them. What do you see as the main differences in the two texts?

ER: They are completely different. The Laozi has a  kind of impact which is very broad because it is able to embrace so much in a  small sentence – you are able to bring a  lot of yourself to the text– so the richer you are the richer the Laozi is. You give the Laozi to someone with a  narrow mind and they will see it as a  collection of proverbs, or as just common sense, but if you give it to someone again and again over 20, 30, 60 years, they will always see something new. Something will be added. But added to what? To the Laozi? To the person? Perhaps. It will certainly add to understanding. So the Laozi is quite unique from this perspective. And also you may embrace the Laozi in this way.

The Zhunagzi is of a  different dimension. There is a  kind of unity in the Laozi, even if it is not one text, but in the whole 33 chapters of the Zhuangzi, there is more a  feeling of a  community of thinking than of one person’s thought. What I  like so much about the Zhaungzi is that you really feel a  personal quality, more than with the Laozi. For me the Zhuangzi is not a  book for people in the mountains, it relates to daily life. As I  said before, if a  book has value it must relate to daily life. The state of consciousness is really what makes us human.

DM: And a  sense of humour!

ER: Oh yes! It points things out which are a  part of our daily experience but which we may never notice. The Laozi is more an attempt to teach something.

DM: What are the main teachings that come through to you in the Zhuangzi?

ER: The main teaching is that we are all part of it – nothing is excluded! Nothing is excluded because the reality is that everything is together in time and space. There is this kind of unity. And that is not a  concept, or a  function or vision of the mind, it is what really makes sense of our lives. We are just a  specific expression of this reality for a  specific time - and there is a  sense of joy when we are really one with that. And at the same time working with this concept of unity is the best way to govern and the best way to have good health.

Living for ourselves is to impose limitation. Limitation to the body and to the consciousness, because we refuse to be what we really are. The reality is that we are just a  part of the unity of everything – the wholeness of everything - but as a  potentiality, rather than something tangible. Not to be selfish, not to be separate is something that we also find in Confucianism – to have no personal will. To have a  personal will is in a  way an aberration. In the name of what? If you say in the name of heaven, then it is better to have the will of heaven.

This kind of basic vision leads to a  way in which to conduct life – which is to come back to oneself by a  kind of renunciation of the ego or all the personal manifestations of the self. I  don’t need self - because the best of life is what I  share! The sign that this is correct is that I  find some kind of deep joy even if it is borne out of hard times and difficulties. But inevitably - in Christianity or any kind of spirituality or religion - there is a  double aspect. There is also the fearful side of human beings, the feeling that we have to escape death in one way or another. And at the same time there is something that is able to sustain people to live with that. If I  escape life – by not considering what I  experience between the moment I  am born and the moment I  die – in this case I  escape death. Now this is very difficult, because we touch on something that can only be realised within the consciousness and the life of the individual. So it is not what is said – or what is believed – it is the way that any human individual is able to live it. And this is not easy! I  am sure that there are real Daoists. Not so many – but I  am sure there are people who are living in that way and with a  cosmic mind.