At a UK sesshin held at Gaunts House in the early 1990’s, during zazen, Jean said, “Please don’t die before me” – Jean had already held his 70th birthday party on Denny’s Barge in Bristol in 1991. Now nearly 20 years later Jean Baby has died after being very ill, unable to walk with damaged vertebrae and in a lot of pain, living in a ‘tres cher’ nursing home near to his house in Robertsau, Strasbourg where he returned in 1998. I heard from Guy Mercier at the beginning of December 2011 that Jean had moved into this nursing home and I decided I needed to see him soon. I visited him on the 29th December with my friend Marie-Odile and 3 days later he died on the 1st of January this year. I had the privilege of looking into his sparkling eyes and feeling his warm, gentle, loving smile, just as I had many times before. Even though he was experiencing pain and difficulties, his beautiful mind was still very clear.
I had not looked at my emails for some days and I was shocked to receive a text, the week after seeing Jean, asking me if I had seen Jean before he had died. I then discovered there were some emails circulating regarding Jean’s sudden death.
A crematorium service was held in Strasbourg, Monday 9 January at 10.45 am; as I was already staying in France and thanks to the French TGV system, it was possible for me to attend the service, getting up at 4 am and catching a direct train at 6 am from Lyon, arriving at 10.10 am in Strasbourg. The last words I heard from Jean were “See you again soon, Alan” – little did I know it would be so soon and under such different circumstances.
Probably around 100 people met in the crematorium, maybe more, the crematorium was completely full of people, for the service led by Luc Baby, one of his sons and also a Zen monk. When I arrived I saw Jan Pearse, who had decided to attend at the last moment, sitting next to our dear friend Steve Hodgson who had driven from Belgium for the service; many of you may remember that Steve was one of the first UK practitioners and translator at many of Jean’s sesshins.
From being a close disciple of Master Deshimaru, Jean had founded the first dojo outside of Paris in Strasbourg before coming to the UK in 1986 with Nancy Amphoux. It may just be a coincidence – as you come out of the station in Strasbourg, opposite La Gare, there is the Hotel Bristol with its name in lights!
Jean told me many years ago during a visit to Manchester that Master Deshimaru was invited by a Macrobiotic Society; Jean had been a keen macrobiotic and started his practice of zazen based on a picture of Master Kodo Sawaki, in the zazen posture, which was part of an article he had read. He told me he had practised alone for 2 years before meeting Master Deshimaru. He told us that on one occasion, Master Deshimaru had insisted that Jean eat a sausage, telling him, “We must not be too narrow!”.
When I met Jean again in December, on the altar in his room he had a small Buddha statue, a picture of Master Deshimaru and a picture of Master Kodo Sawaki in zazen posture, a small kyosaku, incense bowl and kotsu. At the side of his bed he had another picture of Kodo Sawaki with some children, the inspiration for his practice of zazen. He was happy to hear news of the UK sangha.
At the service, Luc welcomed everyone and various people made speeches and stood up to say something about Jean and his impact on their lives and the lives of other people. Emmanuel Risacher spoke on behalf of AZI; Jacques Foussadier spoke about the times he spent visiting the UK to create the calligraphies for ordinations. Many people acknowledged his influence and the respect and gratitude they had for Jean. Jan Pearse spoke and thanked Jean and Nancy for coming to the UK to bring us the zazen practice. Jean was supported during his illness by his long-time friend Beryl and friends Jerry and Michele.
The speeches were followed by some music and then we chanted the Hannya Shingyo sutra together as we paid our respects to Jean with shoko and gassho, lead by Olivier Wang Genh and Hugues Naas, both elder disciples of Master Deshimaru and originally from the Strasbourg Dojo. This was followed by some stunning music by Henry Purcell from “Dido & Aeneas” by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, directed by René Jacobs, with the tracks titled, “When I am laid in earth” and the final chorus “With dropping wings ye Cupids come” (these can be found on YouTube if you wish to hear them).
After leaving the service we went around the building to the actual crematorium section where we waited half an hour for preparations to be made. As the coffin passed in front of us, behind a glass screen, we once again chanted the Hannya Shingyo sutra together and offered shoko for Jean’s departure.
It was nearly 1 pm before we arrived at the Strasbourg Dojo to drink a toast in memory of Jean, certainly the most influential person in my life – and influential in many other people’s lives in France, Germany and the UK, and his influence continues.
I am very grateful to have seen him again before he died, to have known and practised zazen with him, to have been touched by his loving wisdom and compassion for others and for bringing our practise of zazen to the UK and creating the UK sangha. Jean almost lived until the 20th anniversary of Nancy’s death on the 29th February this year. Nancy and Jean would be very happy to see our Zen practice flourishing here in the UK with the many monks, nuns, bodhisattvas and people not yet ordained practising together in the UK dojos and groups.
After the cremation, as I took off my rakasu with Olivier Wang Genh, I said, “Mon maitre est mort”, My Master is dead. Olivier then said, “So now we must live!” with the spirit that Jean taught us and continue to honour Jean’s life and teaching. What he gave to us is a gift. As Jean once said on a sesshin, “The true fuse is to give oneself”.