He meditated for 10,000 hours, wrote a bestseller with his famous father and became France’s most celebrated Buddhist – and its most contented citizen. Ode visited Matthieu Ricard to learn about “the science of the mind” and how it might end human suffering.
Tijn Touber | April 2007 issue
A telephone at each ear and a laptop on his knees: Behold the Buddhist monk who wanted to lead a quiet, meditative life but begrudgingly became a media star. The book he wrote with his father, The Monk and the Philosopher, turned Matthieu Ricard into a celebrity, particularly in his native France. Now – having just arrived from his home in Nepal – he’s sitting in a luxurious apartment in Paris with a journalist from the Netherlands. Cheerful, relaxed, the epitome of calm – yet with a telephones in either hand.
Life can certainly take surprising turns, particularly if you’re Matthieu Ricard and you find yourself part of the Parisian jet set as a young man, only to reject that lifestyle. His father, who died last year, was the philosopher Jean-Franois Ricard, who wrote a number of bestsellers, including Without Marx or Jesus, under the name “Jean-Franois Revel.” He wasn’t exactly pleased when his son announced at the age of 25 that he wanted to become a Buddhist. After all, like his father, Matthieu doesn’t do anything halfway. He travelled to Nepal, donned a red habit and spent time in monasteries under the guidance of various teachers to master the central theme of the Buddha: putting an end to all suffering – beginning with one’s own. So was young Ricard so unhappy? “No, not at all in fact,” he says. “I actually had everything a young man could want.” His parents were a wonderful couple who appeared to have a magnetic attraction, drawing all kinds of interesting people into their lives. Poet AndrŽ Breton, dancer Maurice BŽjart and painters Leonora Carrington and Yahne Le Toumelin were his mother’s close friends. When his father organized dinners, the guest list included the likes of filmmaker Luis Buouel, politician M‡rio Soares and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Not exactly a boring crowd to grow up around. “And yet,” Matthieu muses from the large divan in his mother’s apartment, “something kept gnawing at me. I often had the uneasy feeling that life was slipping through my fingers – as if I was only using a fraction of my potential. But I had no idea how to tap into the hidden possibilities.” Moreover, Ricard saw that the genius many of his parents’ friends possessed didn’t necessarily make them better people: “Despite their artistic, scientific or intellectual qualities, they weren’t any nicer or more altruistic than anyone else.” Where, Ricard asked himself during his younger years, can I find wise men like Plato or Socrates who can teach me practical wisdom? Who can show me the deeper meaning of life and give me a noble goal to live for? The answer came from an unexpected place. One day while visiting a friend, he saw film shorts about the Tibetan lamas. These made a deep impression. “I remember thinking: ‘If it’s possible for a human being to achieve perfection, then this must be it.’ I also realized at that moment that I’d never be able to meet Plato or Socrates. But these men were directly approachable.”
Not long after, he traveled to northern India. There, at the foot of the Himalayas, he met his first teacher, Kangyour Rinpochee, in the summer of 1967. “I stayed with him for three weeks, although we couldn’t exchange a word with one another. I simply sat across from him and intensely enjoyed the friendly serenity he radiated.” Back in Paris, it began to dawn on him how important that meeting had been. At the time, Ricard was working as a molecular biologist at the prestigious Pasteur Institute, where he did research under Professor Franois Jacob, who had won the Nobel Prize in Medicine two years earlier. Jacob put Ricard in contact with science giants such as Jacques Monod and AndrŽ Lwoff, but the young researcher’s thoughts continued to drift. “I kept thinking about the lama,” he remembers, “particularly about his way of being. Finally I had found someone who really inspired me, who could give my life direction and meaning.” In 1972, Ricard decided to go live with the lama so he could dedicate himself to studying what seemed to be most essential: the science of the mind. Today, grinning widely, he says: “I never regretted it for a moment.” In India and Nepal he came in contact with people completely different from the Parisian elite he grew up with. Says Ricard: “These people are much less focused on themselves. In the West, there’s a strong emphasis on personality – on the individual – who must find an original way to express himself no matter what. Western artists, for example, must continually reinvent themselves and allow their fantasy free reign. They try to create imaginary worlds and elicit strong emotions. But Tibetan artists use their art to simply try and fathom the nature of reality. There are wonderful artists there, but their personalities remain completely in the background. They are essentially anonymous.” After his first teacher, Kangyour Rinpochee, died in 1975, Ricard met his second teacher, Khyentse Rinpoche, whom he stayed with for 12 years. “Rinpoche” is an honorary title given to special lamas, meaning “the precious one in humankind.” In 1979, Ricard was officially initiated. “It gave me an overwhelming feeling of freedom. I had definitively left the busy, externally focused Western world behind and could finally spend all my time awakening in anonymity.”
For years, all went according to plan. Ricard was given every opportunity to meditate and study. He learned to speak Tibetan, translated ancient texts, met inspiring spiritual people – including the Dalai Lama – had time for humanitarian projects. Based on MRI scans performed on the longtime meditator’s frontal lobes, he was also pronounced the happiest man in the world. The tests showed that he and other meditators – who had logged more than 10,000 hours on the mat – showed more evidence of upbeat emotions on the left side of their brains, and lower-than-average levels of negative emotions on the right. Here was scientific evidence that Ricard was achieving his spiritual objective: awakening.
But then the world came knocking at his door. It started with a telephone call from his father’s publisher, who’d had the brilliant idea of bringing father and son together for a discussion about all kinds of intellectual and social issues – a dialogue he hoped would ultimately lead to a book. Although his relationship with his father was good, Ricard was initially afraid of being “ripped to shreds” by this savvy philosopher’s sharp intellect. “On the other hand,” he says, “I also saw it as an enormous challenge to see how well I could bring the Buddhist concepts out in the open and whether they would stand up.”
So in the summer of 1996, Jean-Franois flew to Nepal to spend a few weeks with his son. They took long walks in the mountains and had extensive discussions about everything relevant: God, religion, politics, ethics, psychology, love, death and happiness. At that time, father and son couldn’t have known that the published version of their conversations would become a hit. The Monk and the Philosopher was an instant bestseller in France. The senior Ricard – who had been publishing books since the 1950s – had never had a bestseller. He and his son were invited to a myriad of television shows and radio programs. The book was translated into 23 languages and was on the bestseller list in France for nine months.
The power of the book is not just in Jean-Franois’ deep analysis but in Matthieu’s clear explanations of complex concepts. His Western, scientific background enables him to clarify ancient Buddhist principles in a way people can understand. The book has contributed to the boom in Buddhism in the West, particularly in France. Ricard says it’s more than just a fad: “It has to do with the fact that the essence of Buddhism is not so much “Buddhist” but universal. In that respect, Buddhism is more like a science of the mind than a religion.”
Moreover, to Ricard, Buddhism is timeless. He believes modern-day psychology could learn a lot from Buddha’s insights into freeing ourselves from suffering. “Psychology doesn’t recognize the fundamental roots of suffering, and only focuses on the circumstances or the negative emotions that are caused by those circumstances. But those are really not relevant because there’s always a circumstance or emotion that crops up. The much more interesting part is to ask yourself what’s behind that negative emotion and what an emotion really is.”
According to the Buddha, every negative emotion is the result of a misconception of reality. Because most people aren’t able to fathom the reality behind the symptoms – which Buddha calls “emptiness” – they hang on to manifestations: thoughts, emotions, concepts, material things, etc. “Because a lot of people don’t see reality for what it is – namely, an illusion that stems from emptiness – they adopt a distorted self-image,” Ricard says. “People identify themselves with these tangible phenomena and actually think they are their job, body, religion or mind. They thus become attached to a mirage, also referred to as the ‘ego’. Because you can lose your job, body, religion or ideas, most people live their lives in perpetual fear. This fear then leads to the emergence of all kinds of nasty qualities like hatred, desire, envy, anger and pride.”
Paradoxically, you need to have an ego first in order to realize that it doesn’t exist. According to Ricard, that is the first step towards breaking away from your false identity. Despite 35 years of chipping away at it, he says he is still not completely free of his built-up ego. Is that modesty? Perhaps, given that even the Dalai Lama says that he too has a long way to go, while Ricard says he is quite sure the Dalai Lama is truly enlightened.
If that’s the case, how did the Dalai Lama pull it off? How does a person become enlightened? Ricard answers, “The mechanism with which you free yourself from the illusion of the manifestation of things – including your own thoughts and emotions – is called ‘freeing your thoughts.’ In order to truly free yourself from the tyranny of the mind, it’s not enough to identify or recognize your thoughts. You have to learn to interrupt the flow of your thoughts so you can observe them from a distance. Then you realize that thoughts are neither lasting nor intrinsic. They don’t have a life of their own. They are not flesh-and-blood beings that can hurt you. They only have as much power as you give them.”
When you do this often, he says, the process of “freeing your thoughts” becomes second nature, and thoughts and emotions dissolve as quickly as they arise. “At that point, you are completely in the present, fully in the now,” Ricard says. “Linear thinking no longer exists- from ‘a’ to ‘b’ to ‘c’ – but there is a direct, intuitive knowing. The result is that you find yourself in a clear, non-dualistic state that can be described as being awake or free from suffering.”
Buddha’s insights into the nature of thoughts and the emptiness they stem from are similar to those of quantum scientists. In quantum physics, it is also assumed that all phenomena come from a vacuum- the quantum field or zero point field – that carries the potential for every manifestation inside it. When you catch a glimpse of this underlying field, you “see through” the apparent reality. You see that everything comes from the same primal source to which it ultimately returns. Ricard says, “When the Buddha says: ‘Emptiness is form and form is emptiness,’ it is, from a theoretical perspective, no different than the wording ‘matter is energy and energy is matter.’”
Ricard’s mother, whose beautiful paintings decorate the walls of the Parisian apartment, pours tea. Like her son, she has exchanged haute couture for simple convent clothing. She radiates the same serene intensity. Both have chosen a disciplined life in which the priority lies in awakening from illusion. But is it necessary to go so far from Earthly delights in order to awaken?
Ricard believes it is, although he says that doesn’t mean that everyone has to don a monk’s habit: “The point is that there is so very much to distract you from your path to enlightenment. The greatest danger is the idea that you have all the time in the world. People often think ‘First I’ll do this or that and then I’ll get serious about spirituality,’ but it may be too late. Aside from that, when you don’t take the time for introspection and reflection, your life has no depth. As a result, you’re not able to give as much meaning and value to each moment of your existence, which is a pity.”
Ricard’s passion and intensity temporarily win out over his calm. He heats up, throws his red scarf from his shoulders and says with genuine fervour: “Every moment is so precious because it can be used for your development on the path to awakening. This is not an egotistical pursuit because only then can you help deliver others from their suffering. The best way to improve your own destiny is to concern yourself, above all, with the destiny of others. When you stop nursing and protecting your ego, a lot of energy is released and you have much more influence on your surroundings.”
Ricard should know. When he’s not meditating or involved in spiritual study, he spends nearly all his time managing a large number of humanitarian projects. He invests the money he earns from his books and volumes of photography into such projects, sponsored by his monastery; these help build schools, bridges and hospitals in Tibet. The projects require his constant attention and present a challenge to his serene composure. His telephones ring constantly.
Nevertheless, Ricard feels no “love thy neighbour” sense of obligation. Because of his Buddhist background, he looks differently at Christian concepts like “guilt,” “penance,” “good” and “evil.” “From a Buddhist perspective there is no contrast between ‘good’ and ‘evil,’” Ricard notes. “In fact, evil, as we define it in the West, doesn’t even exist. It is only an illusion, a skewed view of reality. The true nature of beings is in fact perfect, even when that perfection is clouded by the veils of ignorance. Nor do the concepts of ‘sin’ or a ‘fall from grace’ exist. The only thing that happens is that we forget our original nature. We simply doze off, and become numb.”
According to Ricard, the illusory contrast between good and evil are particularly tricky because many people make God responsible. “If you see creation as the work of God, ‘good’ and ‘evil’ quickly become absolute truths – unchangeable dogmas that dominate the mind.” He doesn’t believe in a “divine creator” of the universe. “But,” he says, “if you associate God with the absolute truth or endless love, I can very much relate to that.”
It’s time for me to return to the Netherlands. Ricard walks me to the taxi stand on the nearby Place Victor Hugo. With his red habit and bare right arm, he makes a striking figure. “A flag of Buddhism” he calls his attire. He has chosen to be a full-time monk, but reassures me that, in his view, this step is not necessary to lead a fulfilling life. “You can have a rich spiritual life while meditating only a half-hour a day.
“However,” he adds in a warning tone, “meditation is not the same as sitting for a moment to feel blissful. It is also an analytical approach to fathoming the nature and the functioning of the mind. It’s also important to stay ‘awake’ between meditations so you don’t revert to old patterns.”
Ricard believes that in our era a contemplative life is essential – not only for ourselves, but particularly out of compassion for our fellow human beings who are suffering. “It is more important than ever for people to awaken to their own Buddha nature. Without spiritual values, material progress will only end in disaster. But understand what I’m saying here: I’m not at all in favour of some sort of antiquated back-to-nature movement. The important thing to me is quality of life. Nomads in Tibet don’t get anywhere near as much ‘profit’ out of life as an American businessman, but they know what they have to do so as not to waste their life. They know what they have to do to wake up.”
But, Ricard stresses, you don’t have to be a nomad in the Tibetan highlands to taste the true treasures of life and be happy. “Every being strives for happiness. Happiness is our birthright. Every being has the ability to become a Buddha, to attain liberation and acquire perfect knowledge.”
The taxi pulls away. In the mirror, I see people turn to look at Ricard as he disappears in the crowd. Do they recognize him from television, or is it the red habit that gets their attention? Regardless, he more than fulfills the honorary title he has chosen for himself: the flag of Buddhism.