I discovered manga in the 1980s as an editor at the French comic publishers Humanoïdes Associés, well before amusing the sangha with my guides for cats and my cartoons. Fifteen years later, I was fortunate enough to be published in Japan and so to fall in love with the country, its culture and its inhabitants. In the meantime the “Japan pop” phenomenon, the culture of a generation revolving around “Japan cool”, anime, manga, video games, J-music and fashion, had gripped youth at the rate of a worldwide tsunami like the Anglo-American pop culture of the 1970s.

So, returning to zazen in the gaitan at La Gendronnière at the Spring Sesshin 2009, there naturally arose from the depths of my non-thought the intuition that there was an opportunity here to present our practice to this generation.

Encouraged by Roland Rech, I quickly contacted the organisers of the famous Japan Expo. For 11 years this has been the most important event of its type. For four days every year at the beginning of July, in the huge Parc des Expositions at Paris-Villepinte, it brings together hundreds of French and Japanese exhibitors: publishers of manga, anime or video games, record companies, fashion designers, sellers of all kinds of goodies, gadgets, toys, clothes, food, and also many cultural associations. Last year, to attract 180,000 visitors from France and all across Europe, plus 35,000 at the Chibi (mini) Japan Expos in October in Montreuil and in February in Marseille, the organisers invited Japanese stars onto the various stages for concerts, fashion shows, lectures, master classes and displays of traditional culture.

There is an astonishing atmosphere at the Japan Expo, very different from comics festivals because, in spite of the throngs, there is neither stress nor aggressiveness. It’s the same calm and well-behaved crowd that you find in Japanese cities, as if certain values of this culture are being expressed unconsciously in the social behaviour of these European “otaku” (a generic Japanese pejorative term used for these fans) fed on Nippon culture.

Originally created by and for enthusiasts who were ignored by the mainstream media, this inter-generational community spirit endures and still depends on voluntary help and sharing. So when I suggested to the young organisers (who use the term “zen” to describe their ticket machine) a demonstration of “True Zen”, the heart of the Japanese soul, at Japan Expo, their agreement was enthusiastic and in exchange for daily lecture presentations we got a large free stand and our ad on their official websites for the year.

With Geneviève in charge of graphics plus Serena, Sergio and myself, we quickly created about 60 posters on the practice for our “Butsu Zen Zone”. Text, drawings, jokes, diagrams, dojo and temple photos, images of the great masters along with edited photos of Master Yoda and Darth Vador in zazen and kinhin covered the walls of the stand. These posters carried clear, instructive and amusing information about our practice, awakening the curiosity of visitors who stopped, wondered and laughed. Such humour also proved to be extremely useful to reassure visitors, driving away any anxiety related to the idea of a cult. A video projector showed continuous images of manga about Buddhism and photos of temples, dojos and ‘cosplayers’ (fans dressed up as manga characters) in zazen posture, taken by ourselves. On an attractive table there were books available for reference arranged around a Buddha decorated with flowers, and leaflets on the practice in the different dojos were available for the public. There were zafus for introductions which took place face to face with one “teacher” for up to four “initiates” aged from 7 to 77.

We were able to staff the stands at Paris and Montreuil mainly with members of Neuilly and Tolbiac dojos, and then had the help of the major southern dojos near Marseille (where we did over 250 introductions, with fans sometimes queuing for a zafu!), so the participation of different sanghas was invaluable. It is a unique experience to present the practice I shin den shin to strangers, even for a near beginner!

In the lecture presentations, your humble servant, alias “Master Banana” came out with his microphone patter “Zen how-to-manual” style while monks and nuns did zazen perched on the lecturers’ table, dominating the room with their impressive motionless postures while a spectacular slideshow of Buddhist manga was projected over them. During this strange zazen, I simply presented our practice to the spectators, trying to enlighten, amuse and intrigue them. We finished by chanting the Hannya Shingyo to the beat of the mokugyo and bell, before opening up the floor for questions.

In spite of the noise and the crowd, Japan Expo seemed to be a very favourable setting for transmitting the Dharma. Thousands of people passed our stand every day and this young audience seemed very receptive to the practice because they are immediately interested in everything concerning Japan. They are young people with a passion for an imaginary world, sure, but they are also searching for meaning. Contrary to what many adults think, the values presented in manga are often the fine values of effort, apprenticeship, camaraderie and compassion, and many of them recall aspects of the bodhisattva or the master-disciple relationship. Familiarity with these concepts makes zazen more accessible for them. Furthermore it was clear that, despite using specific terms to explain shikantaza, the transmitted message was addressed above all to the body, allowing them to become aware of an inner dimension beyond their anxieties and the considerable background noise. In this way, the participants did not just receive theoretical advice but often left having been touched in the deepest part of themselves.

Bringing together serious words, images of traditional places of practice, and humorous contemporary illustrations allow us to make contact easily with the wider public and to play down the image of Zen which may be perceived as difficult, rigid, dry and even inaccessible. If a person’s initial contact with Zen involves smiling and enjoying an illustration, the first impression and the karmic momentum which could flow from it seem to us to be very positive. Even if seated zazen is demanding, what we presented is a strong but joyful practice, and we do not see any reason to leave the monopoly in Buddhist smiles and laughter to the Dalai Lama. The public must have been aware of this atmosphere at the Butsu Zen Zone, sensing the open-mindedness, joy and considerable humour. In short, it was a lot of fun!

In any case, it seems that the motionless beauty of the zazen posture in the middle of this friendly chaos has struck people’s minds because, after participating three times, we are now among the ‘events not to be missed at Japan Expo’ and the organisers insist on our continued presence.

So a big thank you to all the buddhas who have helped us with their posture and their smiles, as well as all those who will do so in the future.

For Maitreya and the next buddhas of manga, join us in joy at the Butsu Zen Zone!

Christian Kokon Gaudin (aka Master Banana to the otaku)

(Article compiled thanks to the piece on the Marseille Chibi Japan Expo by the otaku teacher Antoine and the help of Geneviève, Sergio and Serena.)