Arnaud Desjardins: Cultural Bridge-builder

Arnaud Desjardins: Cultural Bridge-builder Toward the East Moves On

Rene Wadlow


            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.  By 1974 documentaries on French TV had been largely replaced by US series dubbed into French, and Desjardins left television production to concentrate on writing and teaching.  He created a center for cultural reflection and inter-faith dialogue not far from where I live in the mountains of south-central France. He died on 10 August 2011, but the need for cultural bridge-builders toward unfamiliar but deep spiritual traditions continues, and people with his writing and visual skills are especially needed.


            His role in France can be compared to that of Alan Watts in the USA — a first-class presenter of Asian thought but having not very original ideas when it came to his personal reflections on the issues of life and society.  Dejardins 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.(1).  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 and 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 UN and the European Commission.  While at “Science Po”, Dejardins met teachers and other students who were interested in the teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. (2) 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 film maker 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.


            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.  Dejardins 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.


            Reconciliation was the central theme of Desjardins’ writings, of his inter-faith 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.


            Arnaud Desjardins is a film maker and writer well worth knowing for those who  know  French.




(1)   For Watts’ autobiography in which he discusses his early Asian cultural interests see:

Alan Watts In My Own Way (New York: Vintage Books, 1973, 466pp.)


       For the biographic aspects of Arnaud Desjardins and a good bibliography of his writings and the writings of others on the same people see Jacques Mousseau Arnaud Desjardins: L’Ami spiritual (Paris: Perrin, 2001, 368pp.)


      For a series of interviews which deal with his life and experiences done with a journalist who works on spiritual issues see Gilles Farcet Confidences Impersonnelles (Paris: Criterion, 1991, 189pp.)


(2)   For a good overview of the life and teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff see James Moore Gurdjieff: A Biography (Rockport, MA: Element, 1991, 405pp.)


      For a recent biography of P.D. Ouspensky and his relations with Gurdjieff see Gary Lachman. In Search of P.D. Ouspensky: The Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff (Wheaton, IL: Quest Books, 2004, 329pp.)





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