I recently spoke with Loic Vuillemin, the Switzerland-based freediver who happens to be an ordained Zen Buddhist monk, and has set a number of Swiss National Freediving records. Loic will be a member of the Swiss National Team that will compete at the 2019 AIDA Depth World Championship in Nice, France from 2-15 September 2019.
The first impression of Loic Vuillemin is of a man on a mission. A tall man, with rangy features, his shaved head contrasts with the long goatee. Sitting in a sparse room in Sharm -el-Sheikh, Loic smiles widely and his face lights up, genuinely happy to sit down and talk to DeeperBlue.com. Introductions completed, Loic shares a story about his journey…and how a Zen Buddhist Monk became a Champion Freediver.
“It is a spiritual state to be breathless. The limits to be crossed are not physical.”
DeeperBlue.com: Brother Loic, there are many Buddhist disciplines and points of origin in the Far East. What is your school and how long have you been practicing?
Loic Vuillemin: I’m officially a Soto Zen monk, which is a Japanese style of discipline. As you understood, Zen is now influenced by Occident teachings, so I could say I am from one of the first Occidental Zen patriarchs, the son of monk… like in the old days, maybe.
Soto Zen is the largest of the three traditional sects of Zen in the Japanese Buddhist tradition. It is the 13th Century Japanese offshoot of the Chinese Caodong school and it emphasizes Shikantaza meditation with no objects, anchors, or content. Practitioners strive to be aware of their stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference.
Born in the Oakland, California, USA, Loic’s father, who is Swiss, was participating in a Fellowship at the university. Loic’s father is a practicing Zen Buddhist monk and his mother is a Daoist practitioner. His family moved back to Switzerland when he was about 5 years old. Now 42, married and with an 11-year-old daughter, Loic was exposed to a multitude of cultures and Buddhist traditions from an early age.
DB: When did you become interested in becoming a Zen practitioner and what led you to become ordained as a monk?
LV: So, my father became an ordained monk when I was about 12 years old. I started my study of Zen around then and when I was about 16 years old declared I wanted to study to become a monk. Zen was a form of social survival for me, allowing me to understand my place better. I asked for my ordination when I was 19 years old and was ordained at the age of 20. I have been a monk for 22 years.
DB: Do you meditate often as part of your Zen practice?
LV: I practice formal and informal meditation. Sometimes I dress in my robe and accouterments and perform the ceremonies and blessing duties a monk should perform. Other days, I just simply sit and meditate. Generally, I meditate once a day, from 30 minutes to 2 hours, with early morning or early afternoon times my favorite. Back in the temple, I would meditate up until 10 hours a day.
DB: Why freediving? Was this something you had wanted to do for a long time, and who are some of your instructors or idols?
LV: So, like many, I have seen Le Grand Bleu (The Big Blue) and it started the dream, but I thought freediving was a matter of destiny and discovered only many years later that one could take courses. My mom always said I was like the Jacques Mayol of the movie… I liked Enzo a lot also!
I took a Scuba course with Rodrigo Salsas about 5 years ago while at Playa del Carmen, in Mexico. Julien Borde at Pranamaya Freediving School in Playa del Carmen was my first freediving instructor. Rodrigo Salsas was my scuba instructor, but was very supportive of my freediving; since we met he has become a freediver too!
The communion between diver and buddy warmed my heart. My life was often lonely and I didn’t have a lot of buddies.
I then trained with Louisa Collyns in Ibiza, perfect and very sweet instructor, safety-oriented. (Louisa Collyns is a renowned freediving instructor, champion freediver and DeeperBlue.com staff writer). She suggested that I look for Steven Keenan in Dahab, which I did. I trained with Steven Keenan to become an AIDA Level 4 freediver and an instructor. Because of his training, what I call my debt to him, I am very safety oriented.
I mainly just get inspired by people and tune into the admiration I have for them. Davide Carrera, mystic Davide I like to call him, obviously Herbert Nitsch (I’m an unconditional fan and could definitely buy his action figurine to put on my holy altar) and Arnaud Gerald. Some of my Dahab buddies were really inspiring like Tony Helm from Greece and David Mulheron from Australia. I learned a lot from Marco Nones, and I like to train with Marco… but do not really need coaching for now.
DB: So, that is a stellar roster of some of the best freedivers in the world training and influencing your journey. Why competition?
LV: Competition is like my monk task, the thing that I need to achieve to be able to talk to the world and eventually be listened to. When I met Daan Verhoeven and we made some pictures together, I told him I was the deepest monk. He asked me how deep I was diving and answered ’50 meters’ at that time. Daan then said, “OK, then you are halfway.” I came to a realization and understanding from that, and I admit wanting to take the Swiss National records, just to pay back my country…. but I don’t think I’ve ever competed to win.
When my Zen master would say that I was having a competitive mind, I would answer that I just have the spirit of competition. Competing is awesome, mostly in freediving. So in fact, I never compete against, I compete with… myself, or others.
DB: A lot has been written erroneously that you are trying to break a freediving depth World Record. What is your true goal?
LV: No world records for now unless a monk category would open. Again, I am interested in taking the Swiss National records in Constant Weight (CWT), and Constant Weight No Fins (CNF).
I currently hold the Swiss record for Constant Weight Bi-Fins (CWTB) of 62 Meters, which I achieved on April 15, 2019, and for Free Immersion (FIM) 84 Meters, which I achieved on July 27, 2019. I hold two Swiss depth records, but maybe today (The 2019 Caribbean Cub was underway during our interview), one of my Swiss buddies has already taken the CWTB for himself. Yeehaw, this is gonna be fun to take it back!
I think the records are the goal, I must admit that is not what common people expect from a monk, but the journey is like peregrinations (a long and meandering journey) since I left my monastery. In a way, I wish I’ll go beyond all that in a few years and maybe go back to the exclusive practice of zen.
Freediving and the competition process has allowed me to not fear confrontation anymore. I believe freediving has helped tremendously to stand for myself, the path, and the faith and way I represent. Maybe it helps me to be a good and atypical zen master, more than just a simple monk.
DB: How does your family react to your freediving? Your wife and daughter, your parents?
LV: My wife was worried for me at first…so, I was in a competition and I was not feeling exactly right at depth. I was just a few meters from the tag, but I could not clear a block in my ear…so, I turned early and returned without injury. When I told my wife this, she was relieved to know that I would take safety over success and she felt more confident in my freediving. My parents are very supportive…of course my mother worries, but she always tells me ‘Loic, I love you’ and her support is reassuring. My daughter loves that I freedive.
DB: How has freediving enhanced your spirituality?
LV: Well, it has certified my intuition. So it made me more confident. Doubt is not the best friend of monks. I’m not this attached to the form my spirituality takes… but I must defend the etiquette of course.
DB: Advice to other freedivers, or those interested in becoming a freediver?
LV: Take a course with a good instructor who is known to be a good person. Don’t go see hard coaches. Choose an instructor who is known as being a very good safety diver.
Buddha never taught us about breathing. If you want to learn it or teach it, become certified.
DB: What are some of your personal best (PB) depths/times?
LV: My goal is to increase all this 15% by the end of this year.
- Constant Weight Bi-Fins (CWTB): 62 meters (current Swiss National record).
- Constant Weight No-Fins (CNF): 55 meters … I just started training for this recently. This 55-meter dive was only my third dive in CNF.
- Constant Weight (CWT): 76 meters.
- Free Immersion (FIM): 84 meters (current Swiss National Record).
- Static (STA): 5mins 56secs
- Dynamic (DYN) I really haven’t done this since my instructor course, and I don’t like to mix PB’s and requirements.
DB: Any last thoughts?
LV: I am trying very hard to make it to the 2019 AIDA Depth World Championship and I appreciate all the support and warm feelings. I could also use sponsorship and funding. That is the goal behind my recent YouTube video which we made to raise a little awareness about what I am doing. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org