Book Reviews

cover image
Thai language version of:

Le Moine et le Philosophele Moine

Bouddhisme Aujourd’hui

In English, The Monk and the Philosopher.
Jean-François Revel & Matthieu Ricard,
Thai translation by
Ngrampun Vejjajiva

2000. 346 pp.

ISBN-10: 974-8304-75-2 (TP)

Loving and learning

Interview by Atiya Achukulwisut

(Bangkok Post, December 18, 1999)

Buddhist monk Matthieu Richard talks about his way of life and the conversations with his father that resulted in ‘The Monk and the Philosopher’, recently published in Thai.
    “Happiness is knowing we have been able to spend our life actualising the potential that we all have in us, and to have understood the true and ultimate nature of the mind,” so writes Matthieu Ricard in his book The Monk and the Philosopher.

The statement is a reflection of the author’s life.
Born in France, Mr Ricard left behind what other people might consider immense potential. He finished a PhD at the age of 26 and had a promising career in science in the research team of Francois Jacob, eminent winner of the Nobel Prize for biology, at the prestigious Instituit Pasteur. Instead he became a Tibetan Buddhist monk in the Himalayas.
    Mr Ricard is now 53, and has been in the monkhood for more than 20 years.
He notes that, “For someone who knows to give meaning to life, every instant is like an arrow flying towards its target.”
    His latest book, The Monk and the Philosopher is a collaboration between Mr Ricard and his father, Jean-Francois Revel - a prominent philosopher and newspaper editor. The book is an international best-seller.
    The dialogue, based on conversations between the father and son during their 10-day retreat in Kathmandu, Nepal, explored some of the most fundamental questions in human belief systems. Is Buddhism really nihilistic at the core, as many Westerners believe? Why has it become increasingly popular in the West? What is the real meaning of incarnation?

Mr Ricard recently visited Thailand to speak at the book launch – and talked about his life.

Q: What prompted you to leave a promising career in science and become a Buddhist monk?

A: I didn’t become a monk right away. In the beginning, I met a remarkable spiritual teacher. I went back and forth between the Himalayas and the Instituit Pasteur, where I was doing some scientific research.
    For me, the discovery of the meaning of life or a truthful path was a natural continuation of natural science. After some years of going back and forth, I decided I would like to devote my time to the deeper contemplation—a study of how the mind works.

Q: What sparked your interest in Buddhism in the first place?
A: A friend of mine made a documentary movie about some spiritual teachers who fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet. I saw the images and I was struck by what we didn’t often find in Paris—great sages. You may come across great intellectuals. I myself grew up among great scientists, artists, philosophers and musicians. They are very good in their own fields. But that doesn’t make them better human beings. You can be a great pianist and very angry. You can be an accomplished scientist but a bad family member. A spiritual master cannot be like that. You can’t be a spiritual teacher and angry all the time, because that goes against the main point of being a sage. Therefore, I felt I could find in great spiritual teachers a whole picture of what constitutes a very good human being. They become a living example by what they are, not what they are good at.
    When I was going back and forth, people around me didn’t know what to make out of it. They could see I was interested in those things, but they didn’t know to what extent. When I decided to stay there, my father was a bit shocked. As for my colleagues at the Pasteur institute, perhaps they just thought it was up to me. I went back to the institute last year after 25 years. I met my old colleagues. I found out some of them are still doing exactly the same subject of research. We sort of looked at each other. Seeing them, I thought, what I am doing is quite okay!

Q: What made you stay?

A: It wasn’t just one thing. You can attain an inner peace by sitting near a lake, going for a walk, reading a nice book or listening to music. But that is superficial. You just calm down the waves. But to be disturbed by no more waves, you have to calm down the wind. The wind comes from the mind’s work. Why do we have destructive emotions, like anger, pride, jealousy, greed, or attachment? That is the wind. You can calm it down a bit. But unless you deal with the root cause, it will blow again and destroy us. We should explore deeper into the root of the mind and where these emotions come from. That is what I call contemplative science—how the mind works. What is the nature of reality? Why do I think this is beautiful? Is it beautiful for everyone? Is it my mind that makes it beautiful?
    It is a deep transformation. If that happens, then you have a different vision of reality. It will remain no matter how pleasant or unpleasant, favourable or unfavourable the circumstances are. It gives greater freedom, too, to interact with others because you are no longer dealing with them in terms of attraction, repulsion or other strong feelings of ego.
    The transformation takes time. We have been used to functioning that (old) way for so long. It is like a roll of paper. If you roll it for a long time, and you try to flatten it, it will curl again.

Q: Is there any conflict between your background in Western scientific belief and a quest for the nature of the mind?

A: Science means knowledge. Why should it be limited to phenomena which we can measure? Authentic knowledge is science of the mind. Do we want some kind of fulfillment or happiness? Do we want to be free from fear and frustration? That is as interesting to know as how the plants grow. It is even more central to us because we deal with our mind all the time from morning to evening. If you know how it works, it suddenly makes a difference.

Q: The impression from the book is that your father does not seem convinced Buddhism can do that for all of us.

A: My father is a brilliant intellectual. He appreciates completely the wisdom aspect of Buddhism. Experience aside, many people have some kind of inertia. It is a bit like swimming. You can be an expert in the theory of swimming but if you don’t go into the water to actually swim, the knowledge is not complete.
    I have come closer to my father by doing this. We’ve developed a kind of complicity. The only thing I don’t understand is what makes him not want to try something. He doesn’t have to become a Buddhist, of course. Maybe there is something hidden in every sentient being, including him, a deep reflection, that they do not feel like speaking about or bringing outside.
    When the book came out, we had a conference in Japan mostly with scientists. One astronomer mentioned that we are fearful to go really deep into ourselves to see what we are. There is a kind of fear to cross that threshold. Why? Maybe it is the ego. It may cause us a lot of troubles but we just love the enemy (the ego). Or perhaps we are not sure if our life will be worse without it. It is better to live with an enemy we know. I think it is a pity. From my experience, it is very liberating.

Q: Do you believe in incarnation?

A: What is more interesting is whether consciousness is only the brain. If it is just the brain, then no person can be reincarnated. Many neuro biologists would say that it is just the brain. Slowly, more and more complex structures happen and eventually you are conscious of something, beginning with intuitive reaction then more sophisticated intelligence, such as a value in beauty.
    That is very much like a computer. But can computers think? Computers may work so well they can beat Garry Kasparov at chess but there are a few things they can never do. A computer never asks what is going to happen to it after the plug is pulled. It can beat Mr Kasparov at chess, but it has no idea how to play chess. I believe the faculty of consciousness is a sign that there is something more than a computer-like brain.
    There is a cause and effect to everything. You sow rice seeds, you get rice plants. Each moment of consciousness must he preceded by a cause of conscious nature. That is why Buddhist philosophy stipulates there must be a stream of consciousness just as there is a stream of matter. A mind cannot create a stone and a stone cannot create a mind.

Q: Have you had doubts about the path you chose?

A: When you have a sense of direction, even if the way is long and sometimes hard, you have the joy to walk. You know that every step brings you closer.
I would have had doubts if I found something inconsistent, stupid or crazy. But I did not. I know the extent of my defects. I have no doubt about them. I want to change them.
    Maybe I have some doubt about my capacity to do it. But then, it depends upon my determination and strength. I may have to acknowledge that I don’t have enough but that is my condition. It is nothing to get depressed about.
As far as the rightfulness of the means, so far I have found it wonderful.

Q: How did the book project begin?

A: I hadn’t gone back to France at all after several years in Tibet. I visited my father from time to time. We discussed mostly the situation in Tibet. He is a writer (Mr Revel was a former editor of the news magazine Le Point), one of the first French journalists to write about Tibet in the 1970s when nobody really cared about it.
    We never thought about an in-depth project (together). I respect his position and do not want to impose my own ideas on him. When a publisher called me in Nepal and proposed I have a dialogue with my father, my thought was he wouldn’t do it. But I told the person to check with him. I thought I would never hear about this again.
    One month passed. The publisher called again from France and said he was happy to do it. I was both happy and surprised. He came to Nepal. We spent 10 days in the mountains at a small inn. We walked in the forest and talked in the morning, or in the afternoon. It was the first time we had had a deep discussion. It was very fresh and constructive for both of us.

Q: You mentioned that one of the book’s proposes is to promote the cause of Tibet and to help the country find peace at long last.

A: The only hope is the fact China itself is changing. The international community obviously does not have the political will to come up with a strong position, not as strong as they have for trade issues. Most Western leaders only tell the Chinese that they have to preserve Tibetan culture and not be too harsh in terms of human rights, but no one has said that according to international law they are occupying a foreign country.
    Tibet is a nation that ruled out, from the beginning, the idea of using terrorist activities. They are penalised for that. If some groups do something bad, plant bombs or blow up plants, the international community says we have to solve the problem. So how about those nice Tibetans? Well let’s hope for the best for them.
What Tibetans are asking for is very simple. The Dalai Lama has said more than 100 times: Let’s consider if we could be part of China and have some kind of autonomy of internal affairs, maybe like Hong Kong, so Tibetan people can live the way they want. That is not asking too much.

Q: What are the best things you received from the collaboration with your father?

A: I think it helps me clarify some ideas, which I have learned from my teacher and try to practice. But when you have to express them in front of a strong Western intellectual, you have to be clearer and much more precise.
    I was also very happy to share these ideas because they are dear to me. I don’t want to keep them just for myself and pretend to be a great practitioner. I treasure what I believe. I am also happy I could share it with a lot of people through the book.
    My father is an open person, not like many people in the West who just bash down religions. He has his ideas but he listens. He answers. He asks questions. I think that is intellectual integrity.

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