A Brilliant Conversation

I wish there were more books whose format was simply a transcribed conversation between interesting people.  Jean Francois Revel and his son Matthieu Ricard are two very interesting people who sat and had a sprawling conversation about Buddhism and its relationship to the West.  The resulting book is called “The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life.” J.F. Revel was an author, philosopher, political & economic commentator, and was a-religious.  His son, Matthieu earned his Ph.D. in molecular genetics before becoming one of the more famous Buddhist monks living today. Their conversation touched on all aspects of Buddhism, with a special focus on why the West has become increasingly interested in Buddhism and what the Buddhism has to offer Westerners – spiritually, psychologically, and otherwise.

This is Jack Miles, in the book’s foreword, summing up the problem to be addressed:

Let me call [the] secular Western philosophy of life the philosophy of enlightened self-interest… Enlightened self-interest seems to hold as a necessary postulate that the world is real and the world’s goods really worth acquiring. A stock portfolio, a law degree, a flat stomach, an art museum membership card, a foreign vacation, a sex life, a baby – the list is long, and each item on it seems to have generated an advertising campaign, a market strategy, an expert adviser. Materialism is too narrow a word for the army of cultural imperatives that both preserve and besiege the Western self. Narcissism might be better, or solipsism, or cultural autism. Whatever word or phrase is chosen, it is clear that a revulsion has begun to set in. The news that the self which is served by all this effort, this calculation, this cultivation, this from-birth-onward preparation – the news that this self may be an illusion is news that, for the affected minority, seems already to have arrived. They welcome it less as revelation than as confirmation.

The book overall was a fantastic - if somewhat circumloquacious - conversation on many great topics.  It is crystal clear after reading Matthieu’s account that living the path is much different than reading about it (I am still mostly in the reading phase). I highly recommend it with the caveat that you should feel free to skip chapters that don’t pique your interest.  Oh and one more thing, FREE TIBET! Here are a few of my favorite passages:

Matthieu, Buddhist, doing his best Richard Dawkins impression:

Let’s take all-powerfulness, for instance. A Creator would have to be all-powerful. Either the Creator doesn’t ‘decide’ to create, in which case all-powerfulness is lost, for creation happens outside his will; or he creates voluntarily, in which case he can’t be all-powerful, either, as he’s creating under the influence of his desire to create…Can a Creator be a permanent entity? No, because after creating he’s different from how he was before he created. He’s become ‘he who created’. What’s more, if he creates the whole universe, that necessarily implies that all the causes of the universe must be present within him. Now, one of the bases of the law of cause and effect, or karma, is that an event can’t take place as long as all the causes and conditions for its arising are not assembled, and that it can’t not take place once they are. That means that a Creator either could never create or would have to be constantly creating. This sort of reasoning, and many others like it, can be applied to all the traditions that envisage a Creator who’s eternal, all-powerful, who exists intrinsically, and so on.

On the self:

MATTHIEU – 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.

On leaving science for a spiritual life:

MATTHIEU – My scientific career was the result of a passion for discovery. Whatever I was able to do afterward was in no way a rejection of scientific research, which is in many respects a fascinating pursuit, but arose rather from the realization that such research was unable to solve the fundamental questions of life – and wasn't even meant to do so. In short, science, however interesting, wasn't enough to give meaning to my life. I came to see research, as I experienced it myself, as an endless dispersion into detail, and dedicating my whole life to it was something I could no longer envisage.

On science and happiness:

MATTHIEU – It’s true that biology and theoretical physics have brought us some fascinating knowledge about the origins of life and the formation of the universe. But does knowing such things help us elucidate the basic mechanisms of happiness and suffering? It’s important not to lose sight of the goals that we set ourselves. To know the exact shape and dimensions of the Earth is undeniably progress. But whether it’s round or flat doesn't make a great deal of difference to the meaning of existence. Whatever progress is made in medicine, we can only temporarily treat sufferings that never stop coming back, and culminate in death. We can end a conflict, or a war, but there will always be more, unless people’s minds change. But, on the other hand, isn't there a way of discovering an inner peace that doesn't depend on health, power, success, money, or the pleasures of the senses, an inner peace that’s the source of outer peace?

Once again, bottom-up works better than top-down:

J.F. REVEL – Do you mean that the only way to attain lasting peace in the world is the reform of individuals? MATTHIEU. – To think otherwise is surely utopian. The reform of individuals would, of course, have to include our leaders as a first step!