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  • Writer's pictureStanislas Wang-Genh

A new lease on life for the Zanmai project

Updated: Jan 15, 2023

Oaxaca, Mexique

OAXACA. I dare anyone to pronounce it correctly on the first try. On the phone with my relatives, it sounds like: "So?... haha... you put your zafu in Wouax-aka?" or "You are staying a long time in Oua-zaka, huh..."

But that's not it. It has to sound like an interjection that expresses astonishment, delight: "Wouah-Rhaka!" Not to mention the little throat movement that attacks the second syllable. You have to relax the muscles to release the air from the lungs as if you were gagging. It sounds like the Arabic ع. "Wouah-Rhaka!... Wouah-Rhaka!... Come on, one more for the road! Wouah-Rhaka!!!"

Perhaps you didn't click for a speech therapy session but to find out what I'm still doing here since the day I arrived on October 28th of last year.

Another beautiful day. Right now, I'm standing on the rooftop terrace of Co404 Community Hostel. There are garlands of papel picado (garlands of all colors that are put up for the feast of the dead) waving frantically above my head as if to dodge the violent blows of these warm gusts. It's a sign that the dead are here. And I feel like I am with them and can share in their secrets. I lie on a padded Transatlantic, my eyes closed and my cheeks burned by the sun. I savor the shrill sound of this vivid skirmish.

What a moment of grace. And yet, this is nothing! It's only the gratuity that comes on top of the generous retribution that these first eight months of travel have already brought me. And all the cheerful sweetness that comes from it, friends, ricochets off the walls of existence and comes back to me in all the forms that it is capable of creating. Another beautiful day, without beginning or end.

When I arrived in Oaxaca, I did what those old tired dogs do when they turn around a couple of times before lying down. Here, everything meets the expectations of a long-distance traveler in need of comfort, companionship and a fixed place to rest.

Everyone knows that this is the fabulous land of the digital nomad. But hush, not a word! We don't want it to get out. In the co-working space of the hostel: graphic artists, video artists, developers, designers, web project managers, SEO managers who spend a few hours a day working for big American companies (Apple, Reddit, Google, Uber, etc.). The rest of the time, it's yoga in the cool morning hours, mezcal and cumbia in the warmth of the long evenings. I watch one of them sitting in front of one of these complex software programs, AirPods screwed into his ears, twirling the hairs of his beard between the fingers of one hand, tapping the rim of a kombucha bottle with the other. The rhythmic movements of his head suggest music that infuses his creativity. When the afternoon is not devoted to a nap, everyone is busy weaving their local network to create the opportunity to leave everything behind one day and come live here.

The hostel is perfect. Spacious rooms in a rehabilitated building, decrepit walls and purged of any decorative ornament, exposed bricks. Each object is in its place and the whole answers very roughly to the rules of wabi-sabi.

On the roof terrace, a huge American kitchen with a cozy living room. The hub of activities where the beautiful, creative and wild youth chat.

All the boxes are checked, I rent a room for a month. I will spend the end of year celebrations here.

I had arrived in Wouah-Rhaka on the first day of the week-long festival of the dead, Dia de Muertos. A great start, I tell you. In a few hours by plane, I went from Los Angeles, too big and too fast, which absorbs you as if in an abyss and slaps you in the face as you leave, to Oaxaca, whose every street tells you with an accent of pineapple and coconut flavors: "Hola amigo, what a good fortune to welcome you to my humble pavement. These beautiful colored walls covered with lovely frescoes are just for your pretty eyes. And may the gentle warmth of the air accompany you to the next intersection. On the way, let yourself be tempted by a glass of tejate or mezcal... depending on the time."

While the locals are busy hanging the last garlands and adorning altars with copal, sugar skulls, or even bread of the dead, I put my bags and my Zhou Zhou at Casa Jalatlaco. As soon as I arrive, I meet Becca and Anthony, an American couple from Portland, OR who live in the habitación across the courtyard and who will become my dear friends.

I spend the week in the magical atmosphere of a festival that never ends: parades, dancing, trumpets, fireworks, joy, make-up and costumes. I discover the natural goodness of the people here and visit what there is to visit in the surroundings. For some time I had been looking for a place to settle down to write and to soak up the atmosphere. Very quickly, I know that this is the place. This is also where I want to organize my first conference and initiation to zazen practice and where I want to create a Zen group.

One evening, with Becca, Anthony and other friends, we meet Laura who has just given a magnificent aerial dance show with her company in the neighborhood of Xochimilco. I tell her about my conference project and she offers the Circulo space, a beautiful interior courtyard that serves as a cultural center that she manages in the heart of Oaxaca. I talk to her about the language problem for my conference, and she tells me about her friend Margaux, a French woman who has been living here for years and who would be happy to be the Spanish interpreter.

It's in these moments that I appreciate the magic of good things. Give the baker a smile and you'll never starve. Give money when you don't have it and your pockets will be full the next time it rains.

It's quite a thing to organize this conference. Starting with the creation of a poster to publicize the event. So I took all my non-talent as a graphic designer and put it to work. The final result was very well-received — only excellent feedback! The poster is original and eye-catching, everyone that I have met says: "Oh, you're the monk from Oaxaca? I saw your beautiful poster!" Some have even tried to take it down and frame it. The basis for the poster is a very famous picture of Master Taisen Deshimaru in zazen posture which dates from the seventies. I reworked it with local colors. Instead of his face, I put a Mexican calavera (skull and crossbones) with a hat and flowers with long red petals instead of eyes. His monk's robe and kesa are colored in yellow ochre and reworked with white pencil, which gives the whole a graphic spin. With a stroke of the magic wand, the gray background of the photo is replaced by a turquoise background that jumps out at you. And the contours of the poster are marked by a frieze with colorful patterns. As for the typography, I download several fonts and that's it. This great disguise is a nice attempt to add a new perspective to this reputedly austere practice.

After having made a hundred prints, I walk the streets of Centro, Reforma and Jalatlaco on a poster campaign that lasted several days.

Nearly fifty people came to this conference, which lasted almost three hours. In the days that followed, we officially created the first Zen practice group in Oaxaca with about ten people. Three zazens a week with an initiation session on Tuesday evening and a teaching on Saturday after the zazen.

I am impressed by the involvement of the group in wanting to create this place of practice. There is a real desire to sit down. Some people come, just looking to sit with others and they have found the right place. They have no problem with rituals and ceremonies either. I am impressed with the way they offer incense or chant the sutras. They put their hearts into it.

Even though the churches are full to capacity around here, one can sense many people longing for a spirituality that might remind them of the ancestral practices that once united the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Amuzgos, Chinanthecs, or Chocos. And the passage of several generations has not erased the karma of the Spanish-Catholic colonization.

With the members of this new community, we created a Facebook page and have continued to print posters because every week, municipal employees pass by with their scrapers and we have to start the job again.


This is also the reason why I have stayed so long in Oaxaca. I really want this zazen group to take shape. Some of its members express a beautiful enthusiasm and are actively involved in growing this community. There is this feeling of being at the beginning of something and it's very beautiful. My hope is that by the day I leave, the group will be confident enough to share the zazen and posture initiations with the community at large. At each zazen, I come with something new to teach and walk them through the gestures, the sounds, the rituals, the chants. We even talked about the idea of organizing a Jukai (receiving the precepts) ceremony when my father comes in April, if he comes to Oaxaca. To be seen...

In addition to the activities of the zazen group, I have had the chance to do zazen initiations in several hotels in the center of Oaxaca — now, some people come regularly to practice zazen with us. People know me as the monk of Oaxaca, which I find very amusing.


Up until now, I have been on the road continuously by bike. The only stops I made were to spend two weeks in Zen monasteries in the USA. My visit to Oaxaca and the creation of this zazen group have completely changed my way of traveling. From now on, there is no question of passing so many weeks in solitude. This is not at all the purpose of the Zanmai project which is to meet people and share the zazen posture.

This is the reason why I parted with my valiant Zhou Zhou, which, I won't hide it from you, broke my heart. I didn't think it was possible to get attached to a bike like you can to a pet. I have ridden thousands of miles on his steel frame and he has never let me down. I had a whole system in place, a kind of dashboard that allowed me to quickly access certain items like my GoPro, my camera, my bug spray, my bear spray, my headphones, etc. Every day, I took at least 15 minutes to clean the chain, gears and chain rings. Zhou Zhou is now in the hands of Margaux, who has a dream of traveling through South America by bike. She bought the whole package: the bike, the panniers, the helmet, the tools, the tent, the mattress and the camping gear. I was so lucky to find her because having to send everything back to France would have cost me almost a month of my travel budget. Today, Zhou Zhou is in good hands.

I find myself very light with everything that fits in a 60-liter backpack. From here on out, I'm going to take buses and trains and the occasional hitchhike to travel to different cities in Central and South America and continue on my journey. The idea is to find five or six cities like Oaxaca where I will organize a conference and zazen group. And given the state of my accounts, I will sadly have to skip the Asian continent and instead focus my efforts on South America during my last year of travel before I arrive in my final destination of Japan.

The big question is how to keep in touch and support this growing international community despite geographical distance. Hence, the creation of the International Zanmai Community (IZC). The goal is to use modern tools (Zoom, social media, etc.) to maintain a regular exchange : to practice zazen together online, to share in the teachings and to help develop Zen groups. The IZC is attached to Ryumonji Temple and is an integral part of Master Taisen Deshimaru's lineage.

Long live the IZC!

Corrections and proofreading: Haley Dolan

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