The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Lifeby Jean Francois Revel, Matthieu Ricard
Jean Francois-Revel, a pillar of French intellectual life in our time, became world famous for his challenges to both Communism and Christianity. Twenty-seven years ago, his son, Matthieu Ricard, gave up a promising career as a scientist to study Tibetan Buddhism not as a detached observer but by immersing himself in its practice under the guidance of its… See more details below
Jean Francois-Revel, a pillar of French intellectual life in our time, became world famous for his challenges to both Communism and Christianity. Twenty-seven years ago, his son, Matthieu Ricard, gave up a promising career as a scientist to study Tibetan Buddhism not as a detached observer but by immersing himself in its practice under the guidance of its greatest living masters.
Meeting in an inn overlooking Katmandu, these two profoundly thoughtful men explored the questions that have occupied humankind throughout its history. Does life have meaning? What is consciousness? Is man free? What is the value of scientific and material progress? Why is there suffering, war, and hatred? Their conversation is not merely abstract: they ask each other questions about ethics, rights, and responsibilities, about knowledge and belief, and they discuss frankly the differences in the way each has tried to make sense of his life.
Utterly absorbing, inspiring, and accessible, this remarkable dialogue engages East with West, ideas with life, and science with the humanities, providing wisdom on how to enrich the way we live our lives.
The New York Times
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Jean Francois So let's come back to the question, is Buddhism a philosophy or a religion? Or philosophy and religion? What strikes me is this. Buddhism, on the whole, has a very positive image in the West. It's true that right now people's feelings toward Buddhism are reinforced by the sympathy they feel toward the Tibetans, with all the sufferings they are going through, and also by the impact the Dalai Lama's personality has had worldwide and the affectionand even venerationthat he arouses everywhere, even in parts of the world unfamiliar with Buddhism. But quite apart from that recent political limelight, Buddhism has been treated with considerable respect in the West for a long time. It's always been seen as a rather unadulterated and straightforward doctrine that can therefore be accepted by a critical mind. It fits with Western rationalism, to which it adds a moral and spiritual dimensiona dimension of wisdom, or even more, not incompatible with criteria that have been evolving in the West with the modern scientific outlook since the Enlightenment and eighteenth-century rationalism. But when you come to Asia, that ethereal vision of Buddhism is put to the severest of tests. Someone like me is struck, or perhaps I should say shocked, by many aspects of the way Buddhism is practiced that I can only qualify as superstitious. Prayer flags, prayer wheels, belief in reincarnation like that three-year old we met the other day who's supposed to be a reincarnated lama.
Matthiew Yes, the whole idea of reincarnation, especially, is something we'll need to talk about to clarify. But first, let's go through your points in order. I think the mainreason Buddhism has been seen in the West as so intellectually acceptable is that it tackles the basic concerns of any living being. The core teachings of Buddhism are not at all exotic, nor are they influenced by cultural factors of the sort that caused you such surprise. They simply analyze and dismantle the mechanisms of happiness and suffering. Where does suffering come from? What are its causes? How can it be remedied? Gradually, through investigation and contemplation, Buddhism gets down to the deep causes of suffering. It's a search that concerns any human being, Buddhist or not.
J.F. Can you define what you call suffering?
M. A state of deep dissatisfaction, which may be combined with physical pain but is first and foremost a mental experience. As everyone knows, different people can perceive the same things in completely opposite ways, either as pleasant or as unpleasant. Suffering arises when the self, the 'me' that we cherish and protect, is threatened, or doesn't get what it wants. The most intense physical sufferings can be experienced in very different ways according to our state of mind. Moreover, ordinary goals in life, like power, possessions, the pleasures of the senses and fame, can procure temporary satisfaction but are never permanently satisfying. One day or another, they're bound to turn into sources of unhappiness. They can never bring lasting fulfillment, or an inner peace untouched by outer circumstances. Pursuing such worldly goals all our lives, we have no more chance of attaining true happiness than a fisherman has of catching fish by throwing his nets into a dry riverbed.
J.F. The Epicureans and the Stoics both said the same thing, in exactly the same terms.
M. That state of dissatisfaction is characteristic of the conditioned world, which, by its very nature, can only bring ephemeral satisfactions. In Buddhist terms, you'd say that the world or 'circle' of rebirths, samsara, is pervaded by suffering. But this isn't at all a pessimistic way of looking at the world, it's simply an observation. The next step is to look for remedies to that suffering, and for that you need to know what causes it. At the initial level of investigation, Buddhism concludes that suffering is born from desire, attachment, hatred, pride, jealousy, lack of discernment, and all the states of mind that are designated as 'negative' or 'obscuring' because they stir the mind up and plunge it into a state of confusion and insecurity. These negative emotions, in turn, arise from the notion of a self, a 'me' that we cherish and want to protect at all costs. Attachment to the self is a fact, but the self that is the object of that attachment has no true existence; it exists nowhere and in no way as an autonomous and permanent entity. It exists neither in the different physical and mental parts that constitute an individual, nor somewhere outside them, nor in their combination.
If you object that the self corresponds to the meeting of those parts, that amounts to conceding that it's just a simple label that the intellect imposes on the temporary meeting of various interdependent elements. In fact, the self doesn't exist in any of those elements, and when they separate the very notion of it disappears. Not to unmask the imposture of the self is ignorance, the momentary inability to recognize the true nature of things. It's that ignorance, therefore, that is the ultimate cause of suffering. Once we manage to get rid of our erroneous understanding of the self and our belief in the true and solid existence of phenomena, once we recognize that this 'I' doesn't really exist, there's no more reason to be afraid of not getting what we want or being subjected to what we don't want.
J.F. That part of the analysis is common to Buddhism and to numerous Western philosophiesto the wisdom of classical times, let's say. In France, it crops up again in Montaigne and then in Pascal, along with an intended apology for Christianity.
M. It could be because of that initial simplicity of basic Buddhism that the Western world feels an affinity for its teaching and can easily get into it straight away.
J.F. I myself feel that what's attracted certain Western philosophers in Buddhism is the idea of being able to attain a kind of serenity. I don't want to use the word 'apathy', because of its negative sense. It's more a question of what some psychological schools called 'ataraxia', to use a rather pedantic word. Ataraxia is an imperturbable state that the wise man has to attain, according to Stoicism; it's to no longer be exposed to the unpredictable effects of the good and bad that come up in daily life.
M. It's very important not to confuse serenity and apathy. One of the characteristics of a stable spiritual practice is not to be vulnerable to outer circumstances, whether favorable or unfavorable. The practitioner's mind is likened to a mountain that the winds can't shake; he's neither tormented by the difficulties he may come across nor elated by his successes. But that inner equanimity is neither apathy nor indifference. It's accompanied by inner jubilation, and by an openness of mind expressed as unfailing altruism.
J.F. That's the element common to all traditions of wisdom. You could easily be describing the Stoic sage. Nowadays, in our scientific age, philosophers have abandoned the ideal of wisdom, in which the philosopher would provide his readers or listeners with recipes to help them attain such wisdom. So it's perhaps not surprising that Buddhism has acquired a certain authority in the West these days. But the attraction of Buddhism seems to go a bit beyond this treasure shared by all wisdoms, to a fusion of the self in some sort of undetermined state.
M. It's not at all a matter of a fusion or extinction of the self in some amorphous, undetermined state, but of lucidly recognizing that the self has no true existence and that it's the source of all your problems. Here, Buddhism offers a very abundant range of methods by which to attain the inner peace that flows from letting go of that belief in a self. It doesn't stop at just describing all the states that arise in the mind, but shows how to transform them, to 'liberate' them. Before we talk about those methods, I'd like to say a little about the ego, the attachment to the self as the basic expression of ignorance and cause of negative emotions. Buddhism recommends a very detailed investigation of the notion of ego, of the way we perceive ourselves as a 'person' and phenomena outside ourselves as solid 'entities'. The very root of all negative emotions is the perception we have of ourselves as a person, as an 'I' that is an entity existing in itself, autonomously, either in the stream of our thoughts, or in our bodies. But if this self really exists, where is it? In our bodies? In our hearts? In our brains? Could it be spread out over the whole body? It's not difficult to see that the self doesn't exist anywhere in the body.
J.F. I feel as if we're going back to the time when Western philosophers wondered where in the body the soul could be housed. Descartes traced its localization to the pineal gland. Isn't that rather a puerile question? Consciousness of a self exists, without it having to reside in this or that part of the body!
M. That's why the next step is to ask yourself if the self is somewhere in your mind, in the stream of your consciousness. That stream can be divided into past, present, and future thoughts. The self can't be the totality of all those moments, because such a totality doesn't exist at any one particular moment. The past thought is dead, it no longer exists. How could the self belong to what's only a memory? The future hasn't yet come about, so the self can't be in a nonexistent future either. Only the present is left. Now, to exist, this entity we call 'me' must have some definite characteristics. But it has neither color, nor form, nor localization. The more you look for it, the less you can find anything. So finally the self seems to be no more than a label attached to an apparent continuity.
Such analysis makes it possible to weaken the belief we have in an all-powerful entity, the self, which is what makes us want whatever is desirable and abhor whatever isn't. The feeling of being an autonomous 'me' normally sets up a break between 'myself' and 'others'. That alternation of attraction and repulsion gives rise to myriads of thoughts and negative emotions, which are expressed as words and actions and build up our suffering. To discover as a direct experience, through analysis and especially through contemplation, that the self has no true existence is a highly liberating process. I think many Westerners have found investigation along these lines very useful, and all the more so in that it comes along with an incredible variety of techniques with which to work on one's thoughts, so that one need no longer be enslaved by them. But that we'll come back to later.
J.F. It would be interesting to hear some details of those techniques.
M. In theory, there are said to be eighty-four thousand approaches, or entrance doors, in Buddhism. The large number is to indicate that, in fact, anyone can start wherever they are. To climb Mount Everest, you could set out from the traffic jams of a Parisian suburb or from the lush greenery of a Nepalese valley. The goal is the same, but the ways you might travel are different. In the same way, on the spiritual path we all have to start at the point where we find ourselves, each with a different character, set of dispositions, intellectual and belief structure. Everyone can find the particular means tailored to their needs, allowing them to work on their thoughts, gradually set themselves free from the yoke of the negative emotions, and finally perceive the ultimate nature of the mind.
J.F. That point of view, although the methods aren't necessarily always the same, is also one aspect of a certain tradition of Western philosophy. How to impose some discipline on one's own thoughts is one of the major themes of classical philosophy. But modern philosophy is much more focused on understanding how the mind functions than on changing it.
M. Buddhism combines knowledge of how the mind worksthere are whole treatises on the subjectwith knowledge of its ultimate nature. Such knowledge has a liberating effect on the belief in a self. The range of techniques used to that end are both effective and varied. One initial approach consists of applying antidotes to the negative emotions. You try to develop patience to combat anger, non-attachment to combat desire, and to analyze the mechanisms of cause and effect to combat confusion, or lack of discernment. Giving free rein to the emotions, hatred for example, can only give rise to more hatred. History, whether of individuals or nations, clearly shows that hatred has never resolved conflicts.
J.F. Well, that depends for whomunfortunately, in the never-ending story of human war, violence, and crime, there have also been winners. As for eradicating hatred, that's something you find in the Gospels.
M. Of course! It's not surprising from a spiritual point of view to find such parallels with Western traditions. But let's come back to hatred for a moment. Take the example of someone who, in a fit of anger, hits you with a stick. No one would even think of feeling angry with the stick, that's obvious. But are you going to get angry with the person attacking you? If you think about it, the person is being consumed by a blaze of anger, of which the source is ignorance. They've lost all control over themselves. In fact, the most appropriate reaction would be compassion, just as you might feel for a sick person or a slave. You can't really blame it all on them. In the last analysis, the true enemy, without any right to your pity, is anger itself.
J.F. Yes, but you're rather forgetting the practical side of things. It might well be that before you've had time to get through that brilliant bit of reasoning, the person's knocked the very life out of you! So
M. Of course, the best thing would be to avoid the confrontation by neutralizing your aggressor, or by running away. None of this excludes the use of whatever means might be appropriate, and any necessary force; but never with hatred. Deep within ourselves, it's important to maintain invincible compassion and inexhaustible patience. It's not a matter of either passively submitting to the mercy of anyone who attacks us, or trying to eliminate them by force (there'll always be more to come), but of discovering that our major adversary is the desire to harm otherssomething we'll need to combat mercilessly. That's what we have to understand and, as much as we can, get others to see, too.
J.F. Wait a minuteyou'll soon be taking me through the entire Buddhist teaching. But you haven't yet answered my objection about superstitions.
M. We're coming to that, but first let me finish this overall picture. The use of antidotes is an effective method, but it has its limits. There are an infinite number of negative emotions, so to thwart them all would need an infinite number of antidotes. A second approach therefore consists of trying to grasp the nature of thoughts and trace them to their very source. A feeling of hatred, for example, can seem extremely solid and powerful, and can create a sort of knot somewhere in our chests and completely change the way we behave. But if we look at it, we see that it's not brandishing any weapon, it can't crush us like a boulder could, or burn us like fire. In reality, the whole thing began with a tiny thought, which has gradually grown and swollen up like a storm cloud. From far away, summer clouds can look very impressive and solid. You really feel you could sit on them. But when you get inside them, there's hardly anything there. They turn out to be completely intangible. In the same way, when we look at a thought and trace it back to its source, we can't find anything substantial. At that very moment, the thought evaporates. This is called 'liberating thoughts by looking at their nature,' meaning to recognize their 'emptiness'. Once we've liberated a thought, it won't set off a chain reaction. Instead, it'll dissolve without a trace, like a bird flying through the sky.
J.F. That's an optimistic view of things, which belongs to a universal tradition of reassuring wisdom.
M. Don't make any mistake about itsimple though it might seem at first glance, the liberation of thoughts is neither an optimistic view of things nor a collection of recipes without any basis or outcome. The techniques it uses are derived from a 'contemplative science' thousands of years old, built up at the cost of considerable effort by hermits practicing for many hours a day over twenty or thirty years of their lives. It's inevitable that, without taking some first steps in the context of their own experience to see what it's all about, some people will feel doubtful about any knowledge obtained using such unfamiliar methods. Every science has its own instruments. Without a telescope, you can't see the craters on the moon. Without contemplative practice, you can't see the nature of mind.
J.F. Let's go back, then, to the inconsistencies I can't help seeing between Buddhism's purely philosophical aspects and the superstitious beliefs associated with it in practice, here in Asia. The day before yesterday, for example, we saw a three-year-old child being presented in your monastery in Kathmandu who's recently been recognized as the reincarnation of your late teacher, Khyentse Rinpoche. What was the process by which it was decided that the Rinpoche has reincarnated in that child?
M. Continuing consciousness after death is, in most religions, a matter of revealed truth. In the case of Buddhism, the evidence comes from the contemplative experience of people who are certainly not ordinary but who are sufficiently numerous that what they say about it is worth taking seriously into account. Indeed, such testimonies begin with those of the Buddha himself. First of all, it's important to understand that what's called reincarnation in Buddhism has nothing to do with the transmigration of some 'entity' or other. It's not a process of metempsychosis because there is no 'soul'. As long as one thinks in terms of entities rather than function and continuity, it's impossible to understand the Buddhist concept of rebirth. As it's said, 'There is no thread passing through the beads of the necklace of rebirths.' Over successive rebirths, what is maintained is not the identity of a 'person', but the conditioning of a stream of consciousness.
J.F. But doesn't metempsychosis exist in Buddhism? I thought the migration of souls was one of its most basic doctrines.
M. Buddhism speaks of successive states of existence; in other words, everything isn't limited to just one lifetime. We've experienced other states of existence before our birth in this lifetime, and we'll experience others after death. This, of course, leads to a fundamental question: is there a nonmaterial consciousness distinct from the body? It would be impossible to talk about reincarnation without first examining the relationship between body and mind. Moreover, since Buddhism denies the existence of any individual self that could be seen as a separate entity capable of transmigrating from one existence to another by passing from one body to another, one might well wonder what it could be that links those successive states of existence together.
J.F. That's pretty hard to understand.
M. In fact, it's seen as a continuum, a stream of consciousness that continues to flow without there being any fixed or autonomous entity running through it.
J.F. A series of reincarnations without any definite entity that reincarnates? More and more mysterious.
M. It could be likened to a river without a boat descending along its course, or to a lamp flame that lights a second lamp, which in turn lights a third lamp, and so on; the flame at the end of the process is neither the same flame as at the outset, nor a completely different one.
J.F. Those are just metaphors.
M. We'd have to begin by studying the different ideas, ancient and modern, about the relationship between mind and body.
J.F. Yes, that's certainly going to be one of our major subjects for discussion. But I'm still wondering about some other aspects. Prayer flags, for example. In the purest and most straightforward religions, or let's say those that keep the furthest away from any superstition, prayer is something very personal. The idea that some mechanical object that you cause to turn, like a prayer wheel, or a flag that gradually frays in the wind, could take the place of actually praying, looks to me like prayer at its most miserable, its very lowest point. I can't understand how a doctrine as subtle as Buddhism could encourage such beliefs!
M. In fact, such customs are far from superstitious. They simply reflect the richness of the means employed by Buddhism to keep on reviving our presence of mind. All four of the natural elements are used as remindersthe wind to flutter prayer flags, the fire of a lamp flame from which the rising hot air turns prayer wheels, the rocks on which mantras are carved, and the water of a stream to turn the paddles of a water-driven prayer wheelso that everything we do, every element of nature, whatever happens to be within our sight, can incite us to inner prayer, to altruistic thoughts. When a Tibetan prints those prayers and hangs them up to flutter in the wind, he thinks, 'Wherever the wind passing over these prayers may go, may all living beings there be freed from their suffering and the causes of suffering. May they experience happiness and the causes of happiness.' He renews his Bodhisattva vows
M. A Bodhisattva is someone who's set out on the path toward perfection, toward the state of Buddhahood, in order to be able to benefit others. The vow that Bodhisattvas have taken isn't centered on themselves. They don't think, 'May I be freed from suffering, from all the worries of ordinary life, and from the vicious circle of samsara.' Their vow is altruistic, born from their contemplation of the suffering that all living beings are going through. 'For the moment I'm powerless to relieve the many sufferings of living beings; may I attain the wisdom that will allow me to help them all free themselves from the causes of suffering.' You use the support of things outside yourself so that everything you see, everything you hear, brings back to mind this altruistic attitude and provides material for reflection. Nature itself thus becomes a book of teachings. Everything incites us to spiritual practice. It's also a very human way of not forgetting the Buddha's teachings.
J.F. Are you sure that, for average Buddhists, that idea means anything? Don't they just think that the prayer wheel's doing the praying on their behalf?
M. Perhaps not all Tibetans know the doctrine and its symbolism in detail, but I don't think they turn prayer wheels in the hope of achieving their ordinary wishes for prosperity or success. They have in mind the notion of accumulating merit. 'Merit' is a positive state arising for a while in the mind that helps to counteract negative states of mind. I think that the predominant idea for them is therefore that of purifying the stream of their consciousness by an 'accumulation of merit', to reinforce the positive stream that flows toward wisdom. That's why people do prostrations, walk respectfully around sacred monuments, and make offerings of light in the temples.
J.F. In Catholicism, to light a candle in a church implies the very superstitious idea that the candle can earn us the grace either of a saint, of the Holy Virgin, or even of God himself, and grant our wishes. It's superstitious to the point that you often see people who are neither practicing Catholics nor even believers offering a candle when they visit a cathedral.
M. Such customs are useful outer supports allowing believers to communicate with an inner truth. I know from experience that when ordinary Tibetans offer thousands of butter lamps (the equivalent of candles) they're well aware that the light they're offering symbolizes wisdom dispelling darkness. The prayer they'd be making as they offered lamps would go something like, 'May the light of wisdom arise in myself and all living beings, both in this life and in lives to come.' Even very simple people are aware of the symbolism. The same goes when they're reciting mantras.
J.F. What exactly is meant by a mantra?
M. Etymologically, 'mantra' means 'what protects the mind'not from some calamity or other but from getting distracted and from mental confusion. A mantra is a short formula that's repeated numerous times, like the Prayer of the Heart in Orthodox Christianity, which is accompanied by constant repetition of the name of Jesus. Such techniques of repetition are found in all religious traditions.
J.F. Yes, but they're hardly their spiritually most elevated aspect, are they!
M. Why not? Reciting helps to calm the superficial movements of the mind and thus to see its underlying nature more clearly.
J.F. I suppose it might. But let's get back to the question of reincarnation. You used the metaphor of a river without a boat. What I find hard to take in this whole idea is, on the one hand, this notion of an impersonal river, flowing from one individual to anotherregardless, by the way, of whether those individuals are human beings or animals
M. Or yet other forms of life
J.F.Or other forms of lifeand on the other hand the fact that the goal of Buddhist practice is to dissolve the self in nirvana, meaning, if I've understood it right, a complete depersonalization of any remaining spiritual element. Under such conditions, how could it possibly be announced that some particular individualmeaning someone with a high degree of personal specificityhas reincarnated in some other particular individual? Given that there are more than six thousand million human beings on earth, plus I don't know how many tens of billions of animals, etc., there must be that many rivers in circulation. And to pick out the concrete, individualized temporary form into which one or other particular river has flown after the death of the preceding incarnation seems to me a totally impossible undertaking. Except, in fact, by resorting to methods of identification that are magical or subjective, of a supernatural order, which to me aren't terribly convincing.
M. First of all, we can and do talk about an 'individual' consciousness, even if the individual doesn't exist as an isolated entity. The fact that there's no such discontinuous entity being transferred from one life to the next doesn't mean that there can't be a continuity of functioning. That the self has no true existence doesn't prevent one particular stream of consciousness from having qualities that distinguish it from another stream. The fact that there's no boat floating down the river doesn't prevent the water from being full of mud, polluted by a paper factory, or clean and clear. The state of the river at any given moment is the result of its history. In the same way, an individual stream of consciousness is loaded with all the traces left on it by positive and negative thoughts, as well as by actions and words arising from those thoughts. What we're trying to do by spiritual practice is to gradually purify the river. The ultimate state of complete clarity is what we call spiritual realization. All the negative emotions, all the obscurations that render the underlying wisdom invisible, have then been dissolved. It's not a question of annihilating the self, which has never really existed, but simply of uncovering its imposture. Indeed, if the self did have any intrinsic existence we'd never be able to bring it from existence into nonexistence.
J.F. So you want to abolish something that, from the start, doesn't exist.
M. A nonexistent self can't really be 'abolished', but its nonexistence can be recognized. What we want to abolish is the illusion, the mistake that has no inherent existence in the first place. The following analogy is often given. If, in dim light, you saw a piece of mottled rope and took it for a snake, you'd feel afraid and perhaps try to escape or drive the snake away with a stick. But if someone then switched a light on, you'd see immediately that it wasn't a snake at all. In fact, nothing has happened; you haven't 'destroyed' the snake, as it never existed in the first place. You've simply got rid of an illusion. As long as we perceive the self as a real entity, we'll tend to try and draw to us whatever we judge to be agreeable or beneficial, and to push away from us whatever we judge to be disagreeable or harmful. But as soon as we recognize that the self has no true existence, all these attracting and repelling impulses will vanish, just like the fear of that piece of rope mistaken for a snake. The self has neither beginning nor end, and therefore in the present it has no more existence than the mind attributes to it. So nirvana isn't the extinction of anything, but the final knowledge of the nature of things.
J.F. If that's how it is, how and why does this illusion of a self build up?
M. There's a natural feeling of self, of 'I', which makes you think 'I'm cold, I'm hungry, I'm walking', and so forth. By itself, that feeling is neutral. It doesn't specifically lead to either happiness or suffering. But then comes the idea that the self is a kind of constant that lasts all your life, regardless of all the physical and mental changes you go through. You get attached to the idea of being a self, 'myself', a 'person', and of 'my' body, 'my' name, 'my' mind, and so on. Buddhism accepts that there is a continuum of consciousness, but denies any existence of a solid, permanent, and autonomous self anywhere in that continuum. The essence of Buddhist practice is therefore to get rid of that illusion of a self which so falsifies our view of the world.
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