There are various immigrant and global religious communities in Bordeaux but they could also be found in most major cities, so to remain within our theme, globalization, immigration and changes, I will focus on one small region that boasts a much greater variety. I wish to survey the extraordinary spiritual wealth to be found in the Dordogne-Périgord that, not coincidentally, is my birth place.
The idiosyncrasies of the Périgord in the field of spirituality can be organized as follows:
1. First, they derive from the trove of prehistorical vestiges that, once they became known (in the 19th century and in the first half of 20th) and fashionable, attracted to the area a great number of outsiders in search of meaning. These treasures were themselves the results of a specific type of geological formation. Indeed geology and the mutations of the world economy in the 20th century are the foundations of the religious scene here.
The Christian centuries in the Périgord were rich but not that different from what took place in other French regions: a dense network of Romanesque churches, monasteries, and pilgrimage centers covers the Dordogne area but these are not really what caused the current upsurge.
2. The second reason is historical: it was the arrival of Tibetan Buddhists in the 1970s.
3. The third stage followed their settlement: New Agers of all persuasions came running down the old pilgrimage roads to shelter under the Buddhists’ psychic umbrella and to take advantage of empty and cheap stone houses all around.
Though I know the area quite well, I must confess I do not know much about the recent groups and my data come from Jean-Louis FAVART. He cannot be with us tonight for he had to accompany a pilgrimage to Notre Dame de la Salette. He is a marvelous priest, now the apostolic vicar of the cathedral in Périgueux, and he was a student of Monsignor Vernette, whom some of you knew well. Vernette was the specialist within the Catholic clergy (and at large) of new religious movements. When Jean-Louis became priest in Sarlat, the capital city of the Black Perigord, he decided to apply the message of Vernette and to organize a place of convergence for the local spiritual scene, not to take it back but to widen the dialogue. In 1994, with friends and the support of the diocese he founded the Inter-religious center Notre Dame de Temniac (Sarlat) that organizes regular conferences, retreats and exchanges with the major actors and specialists of the field.
It stands on the hill above my parents’ house. It is there that we met in January and decided to prepare this talk. By chance, or was it written on the wall?, a book came out in March on the same subject : Promenades spirituelles en Périgord. It owes many pages to Jean-Louis, but it only dwells on the new age groups under the heading “attention sectes”.
Now, let me go into more detail.
First then, try to picture this little paradise called the Périgord, one of the most visited areas in Europe. Its most beautiful spots are all within a 60 km radius. Then, try to picture the spiritual hub which itself is only within a radius of barely 10 miles.
The Dordogne is the name of the river and of the administrative region, département, and Périgord is the name of the historical region, the cultural unit. It includes several sub Périgord, the most famous, because of its beauty and originality is the Black Périgord, around Sarlat.
It is a country of narrow valleys between dry hills, covered with short trees, mostly a type of Mediterranean oak, and bigger chestnut trees. It is also the kingdom of walnut trees on the slopes and the plains of the two river valleys. The other river is a tributary to the Dordogne: the Vézère. It is most famous for the pre-historical sites dotting its banks, all strictly within the boundaries of the Black Périgord.
The whole Périgord displays picturesque medieval villages, often clustered on hilltops or on cliffs right along the rivers, many painted caves or mineral ones, and an incredible number of fortified castles and Renaissance châteaux, with the highest density in Europe. It did not bear the brunt of the 20th century wars as much as the northern and eastern part of the country, even if some towns were razed by the Nazi to revenge the maquis or guerilla activities, and so in the fifties the Périgord looked pretty much as it must have centuries ago: good buildings but not well kept and fairly poor peasants.
When I mentioned the evolution of 20th century economy, I was implying the creation of the Common Market that accelerated the rural exodus. Yet, unlike other areas hit by the disappearance of farmers, the Périgord cleverly managed to capitalize on this evolution. Its climate is temperate, its location easy to access, and most of all its particularly rich and well-preserved architectural heritage drew thousands of foreigners, often of the very well-off type. The locals are also, I must say, a very friendly and tolerant bunch of people who at first were rather amused by the eccentrics cavorting around but then soon realized the benefits they could make by catering to them and to the thousands who came in tow and who gave an original color to the tourist industry.
International artists, writers, came to visit and spread word back home of the merits of the land and the record life expectancy of the remaining Natives. The Dutch were the first to come in droves in the late 50s and 60s, followed by the Belgians and the English. They bought houses or whole villages and restored them. All along many Americans also visited the area.
One of these seekers, the philanthropist Bernard Benson, planted the axis mundi of the correspondences between East and West here by gradually giving almost all his land to Tibetan Buddhists.
My mother knew him well since she worked for the Tax service and helped him file his income tax returns. She always talked about his extravagant look and vintage cars. I met him too. He died in 1995 at the age of 74 or 75. He was English but had settled in the US. Some say he worked in computers but my mother said he owned a company that fabricated missile heads and he had told her that working in the armament industry convinced him that we were running towards total destruction. In the 60s he thus bought a beautiful 15th château to retire from the world in this Périgord that several admirers considered the only region able to survive the nuclear holocaust thanks to its deep caves (however no one built a survivalist arsenal in their depths. Remember what Henry Miller wrote in 1958 at the beginning of the Colossus of Maroussi on the Dordogne he had visited before going to Greece:
“Actually it must have been a paradise for many thousands of years. I believe it must have been so for the Cro-Magnon man, despite the fossilized evidences of the great caves which point to a condition of life rather bewildering and terrifying. I believe that the Cro-Magnon man settled here because he was extremely intelligent and had a highly developed sense of beauty. I believe that in him the religious sense was already highly developed and that it flourished here even if he lived like an animal in the depths of the caves. I believe that this great peaceful region of France will always be a sacred spot for man and that when the cities have killed off the poets this will be the refuge and the cradle of the poets to come. I repeat, it was most important for me to have seen the Dordogne: it gives me hope for the future of the race, for the future of the earth itself. France may one day exist no more, but the Dordogne will live on just as dreams live on and nourish the souls of men.”
The area where Benson’s château stands, Château de Chabans, is very precisely above the Vézère, right near the most prestigious prehistorical habitats of The Moustiers (Neanderthal man), and 3 km down, that of the Madeleine. Marie Madeleine is believed to have come here but it is better known for the human remains found there that granted its name to a whole prehistorical age: Magdalenian Age, 18000-10000BC. A few kilometers down the river one finds Les Eyzies and the Cro Magnon cave that gave its name to our most famous Homo Sapiens ancestor. On the other side, the chateau is 10 km from the most famous Lascaux Cave.
I have no time here to speak at length of the interpretations specialists have given of the Lascaux paintings: deer, mammoths, bulls, a man and a bird’s head: as you know many have seen shamanistic propitiatory drawings there and they have compared them with other paintings, in Spain notably, or now in the other two caves recently discovered, underlining spiritual and artistic networks. Migrations and mutations were already then the harsh conditions of those people but the Dordogne did provide an almost permanent shelter to many. Today’s neo-shamans pretend to feel the continuum of energy and knowledge pass through the rocks. I will not develop this more but this is to explain the strange fascination the Dordogne has held over people in the last 60 years or so.
Now, to return to Benson: he traveled to India along with Arnaud Desjardins, a documentary film maker who made Tibetan Buddhism famous in France. In India, Benson met various great masters and the Karmapa, the great spiritual leader of the Kagyupa School.
Convinced that the lamas needed an asylum, Benson invited them to the Château and gradually they settled in (an event that had been announced right in the 60s by a visionary poet and painter, Augiéras, who also lived in a cave, about 30 km away and whom we knew). It is thanks to Benson that France became the major refuge for Tibetan Buddhists. Still to this day, it is in France that their teaching centers are the most numerous: in a 1998 guide I found 58 major centers without counting their numerous affiliates. They all spread out from their original Périgord settlements.
Starting in 1974, Benson donated vast tracts of his property to the Karmapa. This act was to found the Dhagpo Kagyu Ling center. The Karmapa thanked Benson for everything he had done, but told him “I am nothing compared to other masters and they are the ones you should invite.”
Benson then gave land to several of them, keeping only the château for himself and his family. In 1980 he published The Book of Peace, written and designed for children mostly, an easy to understand parable on the cold war and imminent destruction. He spent a lot of energy distributing his book for free, and since he kept financing the Buddhists who restored old farm houses and attracted more and more French converts, he gradually lost a lot of money. He finally sold the château around 1990 to an Anglo-French couple, the Watts, who sued him around 1994, complaining that the price had been too high considering what a nuisance the Buddhists were. They also wanted to block the construction of a new meditation center that would have overlooked their property, and denounced the legality of the donation Benson had operated, on the grounds that the Buddhists were not just a religious organization but a cultural one and hence the deal was not justified. This went on appeal in Bordeaux and the Watts did not win their case. The Buddhists have very good lawyers and Buddhism had been incorporated as a recognized religion in the 80s, sparing its many offshoots to appear on the Parliament blacklist of sects.
Here are the 5 centers Benson begot, most on the Mulloland drive of the Dordogne, the Côte de Jor (just a few miles long though) that overlooks the Vézère:
1. Dhagpo Kagyu Ling center.
It is the most visible and the easiest to visit. It organizes many conferences and again two weeks ago when I drove past, there were dozens of cars from all over the country. It was the first Buddhist center to be recognized by the French state as a monastic congregation. It was founded in 1977 by Lama Guendune Rinpoché according to the instructions of the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa (the one who had met Benson), who came to consecrate it in person. In 1998 it counted around 1000 members and about 30 permanent residents ran it. Lama Guendune Rinpoché died on October 31, 1997, in Burgundy, in a center he had founded there.
The residents stick to the oral tradition and are involved in practice more than in intellectual pursuits, unlike the Gueloupa school, that of the Dalai lama. (The latter does not have a school in the Dordogne region but has one near Albi, east of Toulouse.)
It has remained within the perimeter of a traditional farmhouse. Only a stupa, dozens of flags in the neighborhood and large circus tents several times during the year testify to the non-traditional use of the premises. The Périgord has been a protected site for over 50 years where no building can pass muster if it does not comply with a strict architectural code, hence the practicality of using old buildings to set up radically different activities, as you will see on Saturday when we visit the Vietnamese Buddhist community near Duras (even though where we will be going is not a protected zone, the building code is also rather strict).
About 15 years ago the Dhagpo Kagyu Ling community wanted to buy a pretty château a couple of miles from Sarlat (so about 20 from Benson’s area) but the city was run then by a communist mayor and council who bought the château preventively… Jean-Louis told me they have just inherited a mansion here in Bordeaux (near barrière Judaïque) where Lama Puntso is meant to go live.
The center has several branches, or KTT, Karma Teksoum Tcheuling in the country and notably one here in Bordeaux (Salle 8, rue du Couvent).
When Gordon and I visited the center a couple of years ago we were a little struck by the extravagant size of a new project that would include a huge repository of Buddhist texts, meditation(s) rooms, conference halls, dormitories, etc. It has not been built yet, and Jean-Louis Favart thinks it was not built because the group seems short of money.
The major reason for the sort of lack of energy is that the new masters are all now fairly young since the founding generation has passed on (except for Thich Nhat Hanh. Indeed when the XVIth Karmapa died a great tension arose for two reincarnations were acknowledged: one called Orgyen Trinley Dorje, by Tai Situpa (the one officially recognized by the Dalaï Lama), one called Trinley Thaye Dorje, by the followers of the Shamarpa (Karmapa). The new Karmapa is thus still fairly young. The Karmapa had 3 nephews, one of them Shamarpa Rinpoché who came to Dordogne, and who is called the Regent. He runs a vast international network, almost like a
"...one called Trinley Thaye Dorje, by the followers of the Shamarpa. The new Karmapa is thus still fairly young. The Karmapa had 3 nephews, one of them Shamarpa Rinpoché who came to Dordogne, and who is called the Regent. He runs a vast international network, almost like a head of state. His brother is Lama Jigmé Tséwang Rinpoché who runs Dhagpo Kagyü Ling. Shamarpa, and the new Karmapa, came to Dordogne in 1999 and are coming back in July (2007)."
When he comes the bishop and the préfet (the major administrator of a department) are invited.
Another major reason for the slow realization of their project comes from the fact that more and more people have been coming to the Dordogne because of the shamanism roots, levitation, the 3rd eye and what not. When the lamas realized what was actually going on they decided to counterattack socially. The center is now more open to dialogue and ethics and is not just a meditation place. The lamas created an association “Exchange/sharing and action” in order to finance a school in Tibet and specific activities targeted at the teenagers here, notably the children of their members and also at the teachers to train them in dealing with suffering. They also operate an association for the end of life. When they inaugurated it they invited Jean-Louis, Marie de Henzel of IVI, and Sufi masters, in a great interreligious ceremony.
2. Chanteloube center:
After his father’s death in Darjeeling, Péma Wangyal Rimpotché came to Benson’s property and invited two masters to come and teach: Düdjom Rinpoché and Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoché, of the Nyingmapa school. So in 1980 they founded the Chanteloube center for 3 years retreats, in an old farmhouse originally on Benson’s property. They then opened two more retreat centers in the neighborhood. Chanteloube is not open for visits.
The teaching goes back to ancient Tibet, and is close to that of the Bon, a form of shamanism. The masters are Tibetan but their recruits are mostly French. Then in 1994 Chanteloube shortened the retreats it offered. On top of its teaching activities the center runs a publishing house, Padmakara, and an association for Tibetan orphans and another one for the economical development of exiled Tibetans.
3. Urgyen Samyé Chöling
Just a couple of kilometers from Dhagpo Kagyü Ling, at Laugeral, it was founded in 1977 by Düdjom Rinpoché, on a tobacco farm, and belongs to the Nyingmapa School.
The master lived in a house called la Péchardie, right on the road side until his death in 1987. He was then kept in salt for two years before being flown to Nepal to be kept in a stupa. Jean-Louis told me the police attended the ritual that was perfectly legal. In fact he was the only great master to die in Dordogne itself.
He is famous for his having translated the canon of Tibetan scriptures. It is in his house that the Dalaï Lama stayed when he visited the whole area in 1991. On that occasion too, many political authorities had come to attend, notably our current Secretary of State, the founder of French Doctors.
The center is now run by his son Shenpen Dawa Rinpoché.
4. Nehnang Samten Choling, at les Tranchats.
This center is to the north of the others, on the other side of Benson’s property, near a village that has now become very famous because of all this; Plazac.
The center was founded in 1975, by Pawo Rinpoché, basically for retreats. He remained there 9 years and left to found a monastery in Nepal where he died in 1991.
5. Sheshen Tennyi Darjeeling.
Of the Nyingmapa School, founded in 1982 by Dilgo Khyèntsé Rimpoché. For retreats.
Conclusion on Benson’s migrations’ legacy and the second awakening
What is most interesting is that for the first time in history, the masters of major Buddhist traditions all congregated to a single geographical triangle and had thus never been so close before, since, as I said earlier, the radius of that zone is barely 10 miles. In 1982 the Vietnamese came to the western edge of the Dordogne where we will go tomorrow. The Tibetans all got on well in the beginning, probably because of the influence of their benefactor. Benson worked with all in order to invite the Dalaï Lama. Yet, when he moved out to retire on the Riviera, the cement dissolved and since then the various centers have gone their separate ways in a fairly harsh power struggle. Masters and members move in and out sometimes in an obscure way, recruiting from all over Europe and setting up numerous centers elsewhere in the Dordogne and the rest of France. A Zen school opened in the north of the county and in 2002 a Kencho-ji temple opened too with Japanese residents. They bought a major Jesuit center, again another common mutation of religions.
Now that the masters have disappeared people come on a pilgrimage to the Périgord for it is believed that their presence can still be felt. The local stage remains thus strongly Tibetan and the third awakening owes its energy to that heritage.
3. The New Age awakening in Périgord
New Agers have read even more meaning into the zone through the recourse to geomancy and symbolical geography. The Périgord stands right on the 45th north parallel, so at an equal distance from the North Pole and the Equator, and barely east of Greenwich meridian, another strong marker. The concentration of great masters is felt to endow the zone with high energy and the stupas are seen as points of acupuncture. If you spend one night on Côte de Jor, you will live 20 years longer. Right there you can see a very Californian looking big wooden house named “Terre de Jor” which is a house of spirituality where people go for retreats.
Plazac, the village I mentioned earlier, is the mecca of a great many groups that I will not list and that as elsewhere have shifted shapes and locations. Its bell tower is seen as the 21st point of acupuncture in conjunction with the stupas. It houses a famous bio-coop (organic food cooperative). It is the county with the highest number of foreigners and associations of all kinds in the country.
The most interesting of these was Lune et Soleil, Sun and Moon, founded by a couple, Anne and Daniel Meurois-Givaudan. They came from Lille, she was an English teacher and he was a Jehovah’s witness. They wrote dozens of books in which they narrated their exploration of the achachic annals: how their subtle astral bodies allowed them to meet the Essenians and Jesus. They became famous when a talk show host invited them (Philippe Bouvard). They stand as the typical “mutants of the New Age”, meeting many entities and teachers.
Lune et Soleil had a college of twelve disciples. The husband used to come to Côte de Jor and they moved in. They soon founded a publishing house, again the typical recipe to finance any kind of spiritual activity: Arista which then became known as Amrita. Their autobiography Récits d’un voyageur de l’astral (narration of an astral voyager) sold by the thousands. They would organize massive fairs in Montignac (the small town near Lascaux cave) that looked like all New Age fairs in our world. Among the activities one could meditate on the dandelion: “Méditation du pissenlit”. In 1995 for example over 2000 people attended for several days, coming from all over Europe with the major New Age gurus of the time: Jean-Louis remembers in particular Patrick Drouot, Marianne Sébastien, Émile Moati of the Abraham Fraternity, and a Muslim also, many people who apparently did not really know what they were supposed to say. There was also an American Indian, or a wannabe: “Walking Eagle”… The message was traditional: one must precipitate the death of Christianity (Pisces) to herald the Age of Aquarius.
Lune et Soleil and the more sociable lamas organized various celebrations together, such as a neighborhood festival for the Tibetan New Year.
The couple split, about 10 years ago and they sued each other. When the gurus separated the members felt like orphans. After their divorce the two ex-partners continued their activities. Anne Givaudan continues to write books on the after life, channeling, walk-in (transmigrations), and one of her most recent books gives the messages sent by suicide victims to the living. The man went to Québec, founded another publishing house, Le Perséa, and has been writing many more books including the Gospel of Marie-Magdeleine in 2000.
The fact that Daniel Meurois left for Québec is a perfect link to my last item tonight: Raël, whom you all know, but maybe you did not know that it was in Dordogne that he built his successful group. It was not in the acupuncture triangle exactly but about 40 kms to the north, at la Gonterie-Boulouneix where he lived from 1975 to 78, transforming his house into a pilgrimage center. One of the UFOs trips is supposed to have taken place there.
Yet, if he came to Dordogne it was because someone had told him to, but he had to leave because he had a problem with his landlord, so he was not one of those attracted to the magic power of the land.
This land still produces new forms of spiritual practice, and we see this third awakening now turning into neo-shamanism performed in the caves, the geological peculiarities of the Périgord that had in the first place allowed Homo sapiens to enjoy the scenery and paint its animals on cave walls 17000 years ago. Many of these caves are deprived of any artistic or geological value and they remain open in the cliffs and woods. They are perfect for the adepts of primal screams.
Listening to Jean-Louis Favart and blending his stories with my own teenage recollections for you tonight made me realize I was a typical product of my region and time: the rural exodus led me away from a small farm to the city of Sarlat just when it became the first historical site to receive massive subsidies from the state for its restoration that was to last 40 years and which brought in millions of visitors. It is there that after starting to learn English I decided to become a specialist of the United States. I then went on to study the strange religions of California, not aware that the same ones were beginning to proliferate in my back yard and hills and caves. However, in the world of globalization, one is always more attracted to the distant and the exotic, and had I known then about the future local spiritualities, I would still have preferred to study those in Santa Barbara, Ojai and Salt Lake City.
Anchoring the Cesnur Conference here this year has been my trip back home. I am most happy to have been able to share these stories with you. In October Jean-François Mayer will be speaking at the Inter Religious center founded by Jean-Louis Favart, and I hope many more of you will follow suit to study as scholars the religious life of the Dordogne area. Let us thank Jean-Louis Favart for his open mind and marvelous actions to bring people of all faiths together. His last remark the other day was that Dan Brown had come last year to La Madeleine pre-historical site, on the Vézère, remember, so wait for the sequel of our presentation.