is a French-Tibetan monk and the Dalai Lama’s French interpreter. He’s also the founder of the humanitarian organization Karuna-Shechen.
October 27, 2011
KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: Matthieu Ricard is a French-born, Tibetan Buddhist monk and a central figure in the Dalai Lama’s dialogue with scientists. He was dubbed “The Happiest Man in the World” after his brain was imaged. Matthieu Ricard resists this label. But he has written a provocative book in which he explores happiness not as a pleasurable feeling but as human flourishing — a way of being that gives you the resources to deal with the ups and downs of life and that encompasses many emotional states, including sadness. This hour, we experience Matthieu Ricard’s way of being. And we take in his very practical teachings for cultivating inner strength, joy, and direction.
MATTHIEU RICARD: You cannot, in the same moment of thought, wish to do something good to someone or to harm that person. Those are mutually incompatible like hot and cold water. So the more you will bring benevolence in your mind, at every of those moments there’s no space for hatred. It’s just very simple, but we don’t do that. We do exercise every morning 20 minutes to be fit. We don’t sit for 20 minutes to cultivate compassion. If we want to do so, our mind will change, our brain will change. What we are will change.
MS. TIPPETT: From APM, American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being: “The Happiest Man in the World — Meeting Matthieu Ricard.”
The author of several globally best-selling books, Matthieu Ricard resides at the Shechen Monastery in Nepal. There he also coordinates a number of humanitarian projects. And he has been the Dalai Lama’s French interpreter for over 20 years. He had a secular upbringing in France, with an artist mother and a famous philosopher father. Growing up, he had lunch with the composer Stravinsky. The photographer Cartier-Bresson came for dinner at his family home. And Matthieu Ricard was surrounded in adulthood by brilliant scientists. He began his professional life in the cellular genetics laboratory of a Nobel Prize-winning biologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. I sat down with Matthieu Ricard a couple of years ago in Vancouver, Canada, at a gathering with the Dalai Lama, Nobel laureates, scientists, educators, and social activists.
You know I interview people who do many different things and who come from many different traditions and professions and I always ask as a starting question, if you’d tell me a little bit about the spiritual background of your life.
MR. RICARD: Spiritual background.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, which is, if you ask someone that in the United States, even if they’re not religious, you always get a really interesting story but …
MR. RICARD: Really?
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, really interesting. But I think in France it’s a different …
MR. RICARD: I don’t think it will be that interesting story.
MS. TIPPETT: I mean I know your father was a philosopher but even was there any kind of secular spirituality?
MR. RICARD: Well, not — I don’t know. Spirituality for me if you look at the roots means something to do with the mind, dealing precisely with the mind and the way you experience the world. Well you know, I was just like any of those boys in France. I was raised completely agnostic. And, but when I was 15, 16, I start reading a lot. I also, have an uncle who was a great explorer who’s still alive.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, what was he, a solo yachtsman or something?
MR. RICARD: Jacques-Yves Le Toumelin is a — he was the last of the great solo navigator on sail without any engine. So he went around the world after the Second World War on a 10-meters-long yacht. And he was one of the four, five classics of those who circumnavigators of the globe, you know, taking their time and beautiful adventures.
So while he was doing the circumnavigation, he was also reading books about Hinduism, Sufism, and he became a kind of, you know, I wouldn’t say mystic but certainly it was something that we would discuss a lot when I was going for holidays in his home. So I started reading about all those great traditions, and even including Christian mystics like the early orthodox writings and Meister Eckhart and, you know, everything you can think of. And it’s something that really mattered to me. At the same time, there was no living tradition. There was no connection except to reading and discussion, which was, of course, is an important step.
MS. TIPPETT: Right, but it was very quite cerebral.
MR. RICARD: Very cerebral. Although there were some aspirations and some kind of respect, but I didn’t know how to formalize that. But I was still, you know, a quite a sort of politically very leftist type.
MS. TIPPETT: Yes, well, and also really when I read about your parents and the world you grew up in, it’s quite a charmed childhood when you were surrounded by brilliant people and artists, great thinkers.
MR. RICARD: Well, that recognition of the difference came a little bit later. So the turning point — the factual turning point when I was 20, I then saw a series of documentaries with one of the Dalai Lama’s interpreter. For months and months, all the great masters of 2,000 kilometers of the Himalayas outside Tibet, the great Tibetan master who had fled the Chinese invasion from Bhutan to Sikkim to India to Dharamsala. And at the end of the one of the documentaries, there was a series of faces of contemplatives — some great masters some simple hermits — just in sort of meditation looking straight at the camera. Probably, they were not looking at the camera, but they were meditating and someone filmed them in silence. And that sort of building up of the strength of that — those faces, the strength of their presence, the strength of the silence, and what was so very remarkable was they’re all very different physically — some very aesthetic and skinny ones, some more round faces, some young, some older. But there was a common quality that’s hard to describe, but it’s something to do with inner strength or passion, unwavering quality of awareness, and all those things which constitute a true spiritual teacher.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: And it’s sort of like you hear about Saint Francis of Assisi, you hear about Socrates, you hear about Meister Eckhart, and you wonder how they look like. And there, there was those alive now. So I thought I must go there. So there I was, you know, going to train in India, finding Darjeeling, and meeting those great masters.
MS. TIPPETT: You know, I was really intrigued, um, let’s say this, I had a very different experience but your story reminded me of this. When I was in my 20s, I was working in divided Berlin and I ended up working in these very elevated circles of political strategy and military strategy. And my spiritual journey started when I kind of recoiled at the contrast between the importance of the issues and the intellectual and strategic substance of these people, the contrast between that and the very small inner lives a lot of them had. And I read a kind of similar observation that you wrote because you were surrounded by them. You met Stravinsky and Buñuel, but you said you can be a genius in your fields and yet remain a dreadful person in daily life.
MR. RICARD: Well, yes. I don’t want only to accent the dreadful person; what I mean is that there was no obvious connection.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. But so what’s so fascinating to me is you were — what you were attracted to was this embodiment, these lives of integrity. And it was really experiential rather than intellectual at that point.
MR. RICARD: Yes. It struck me, you know, retrospectively almost, I started thinking why are all these wonderful people, great scientists, musicians, philosopher, painters, ordinary folks, you know, you find a good distribution of everything, wonderful warmhearted people, you know, it is so good to be with them and then you know people who are grumpy and not very altruistic and so forth. So therefore, it didn’t seem that to become a scientist or to become a philosopher will make you necessarily a good human being.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: Now, a spiritual teacher if you say, “Oh, he’s a great spiritual teacher, but wow besides that, he’s so grumpy,” it doesn’t work. It can’t. It’s what not you’re looking for, for saying he’s an authentic spiritual teacher. So there has to be a perfect adequation and also it has to be not a facade. There are so many, you know, unfortunately of those who look very impressive, but then if you scratch beneath the surface or if you wait long enough, you will see that there are sides of them that’s not fit with what they are supposed be. So the messenger has to be the message and it has to be integrally the message.
And what is most remarkable having lived then for almost 40 years with great spiritual masters is that, for instance, my second great teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who was one of the teachers to the Dalai Lama, and I was day and night with him because I became close disciple and attendant, one of the two monks who would — I would sleep in his room at night, help him to get up if he needed so. When he would wake up to do his meditation at four in the morning, I would wake up and serve him hot water, whatever. So all the time, when he was giving teaching, when he was traveling, when he was meeting kings, when he was meeting farmers, and over 15 years to see that absolute coherence and consistency in every aspect of that person’s life. Like the Dalai Lama, you see him in public, in private, in any circumstance, he’s just an extraordinary good human being. There’s no hidden side of it. So that was most inspiring. We say, that’s what I could become. Here is someone who did it, so therefore it’s possible.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today: “The Happiest Man in the World — Meeting Matthieu Ricard.”
MS. TIPPETT: Matthieu Ricard first became widely known in the West with the publication of the 1998 book The Monk and the Philosopher. It documents a dialogue between him and his father, who took the pen name Jean-Francois Revel and was a pillar of 20th-century French intellectual life. Asked by his father as their dialogue opened why he left his promising scientific career for a Buddhist’s path, Matthieu Ricard says this: “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, 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.” Ricard continues, “At the same time I was becoming more and more interested in the spiritual life in terms of a contemplative science.”
MS. TIPPETT: There’s a book that was published that was in the form of a dialogue between you and your father, The Monk and the Philosopher it was called. It’s really clear that he was very proud of you, he was very proud of what you were accomplishing.
MR. RICARD: Well, not in the beginning.
MS. TIPPETT: Well, nobody — when you were heading towards your career in science as a cell biologist and you were — you presented your dissertation to Nobel winners, and you were working in the Pasteur Institute. And then, you know, he writes you abandoned your career in order to commit yourself completely to Buddhist practice. And it seems to me that he felt where you could have pursued this career in science and you could have made discoveries about things that were new, and instead you went back to something that had been around for thousands of years.
MR. RICARD: Yeah, he thought that was a waste. I mean, a waste of potential. But what I really, really am grateful is that he didn’t show that. And so there was no slamming of doors when I left, both my boss, Francois Jacob, Nobel Prize winner. He didn’t understand either. But when I saw him 25 years later, he keep on looking at me and say, “Oh, you look good. You look good.” So, not too bad.
MS. TIPPETT: But I think what intrigues me is the line that was there for you, because I think for you it was less of a departure from your curiosity, your passion for discovery as a scientist. You know, here is something you wrote in another book that was a form of a dialogue, The Quantum and the Lotus, which I really loved. “Is there a solid reality behind appearances? What is the origin of the world of phenomena, the world that we see as ‘real’ all around us? What is the relationship between the animate and the inanimate, between the subject and the object? Do time, space, and the laws of nature really exist? Buddhist philosophers have been studying these questions for the last 2,500 years.”
MR. RICARD: Yeah. I mean, for me, this idea how you can go from Pasteur Institute to the Himalayas? What a break.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: There’s no break. And of course you would change rooms, you change clothes, you move from one place to another, but there’s a continuity in what you do unless you are forced by a tragic, traumatic event or you become mad. So in my case, I was very happy to get Pasteur Institute. I think that scientific training helped me a lot to have, at least have some kind of rigorous mind. But then that was it. You know, to stay another few years, then I would have felt sort of like an animal caught in a trap. That was no more what I aspired to. And then fortunately, I didn’t have to wait ’til I was retired at 62 or something to start that.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. So, you know, Einstein felt that Buddhism was perhaps the religion of the future that could reconcile the best insights of science and spirituality and …
MR. RICARD: You know, it’s amazing that quote of Einstein is typically Einstein style, but I could never, never trace it to a precise speech or something. But everyone agrees that it sounds very much like Einstein’s writing or speech.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. I haven’t heard it so much as a quote as an idea, more of where his mind was going.
MR. RICARD: But it’s a beautiful quote. And it’s really sad that it’s the one that fits with the possible vision that can reconcile everything.
MS. TIPPETT: That it can reconcile these things or hold them together in a creative tension. And then it really intrigues me because I think that this mind and life initiative of the Dalai Lama that you’re also a part of is a 21st-century manifestation of that idea. So, talk about that.
MR. RICARD: Yes. You see, the Dalai Lama himself has always been so interested in science. He said, possibly had I not been Dalai Lama, I would have been an engineer. He says when he sees tools, he has a hard time keeping his hand off. He’s teasing. But from an early age, he was a very curious mind, very inquisitive mind. And so, when he came in exile, one of his wishes was to meet with great scientists. He met with Karl Popper, with great quantum physicists, and then more and more, we took psychologists and neuroscientists.
So when they saw that, some of them got the idea of creating the Mind and Life Institute. Francisco Varela, a great neuroscientist, Adam Engle was a former businessman, chairman of Mind and Life, to facilitate this dialogue. First of all, was just to bring them together and have these wonderful small-scale dialogue, five or six scientists, maybe 20 observers, and that was it. But then it quickly turned out that the discussion was so lively, so enriching from both sides, they were not just coaching the Dalai Lama, they were also learning a lot from his kind of mind. And that it became bigger, some public events start to happen, like the first one at MIT. It was Investigative Minds was in 2003 …
MS. TIPPETT: When Jon Kabat-Zinn was involved in that.
MR. RICARD: … was groundbreaking. There was 1,000 scientists there and Nobel Prize winners and so forth. But also, the idea of starting a research program that because Buddhism considers itself as an empirical approach of the functioning of the mind, the mechanism of happiness and suffering. And so, empirical means, you know, we can certainly work with scientist without any risk of feeling threatened by that because if something is false, it’s false. What’s the problem with that?
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: So in 2000, following one of the meetings that was devoted to destructive emotions, the first one to myself to have participated in Dharamsala for five days. Now half way through the week is only sort of morning, is typical of common sense approach said, well, all this is very nice but what can we contribute to society?
MS. TIPPETT: Some of the scientist present at that exchange responded to the Dalai Lama’s challenge by creating a rigorous research program using scientific protocol to investigate the tangible physiological effects of meditation. Some of the most highly influential studies have been done by Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Such research might one day yield new understanding of the mind, of the ultimate nature of human consciousness. But even the earliest experiments with serious long-term meditators began to change the field of neuroscience by providing original evidence that the human brain alters across the life span, a capacity known as neuroplasticity.
MS. TIPPETT: You were one of those meditators often referred to as Olympic meditators. As you said, people who have meditated more than 10,000 hours or something.
MR. RICARD: Yeah, I think I would calculate it at roughly at 40,000 but probably most of them like completely distracted. I don’t know. But numbers, I did — But yes, because I was at that first meeting and I was from both worlds, I volunteered because I thought it was fun and I was very interested and curious.
MS. TIPPETT: And this was with Richard Davidson.
MR. RICARD: Richard Davidson. So, I was the first guinea pig, let’s say. And then this program has taken strength and now many labs. There’s at least five or six major laboratories in the United States and in Europe who are now doing very in-depth research, not only in long-term meditators, but also — which is more probably relevant to our work — with short-term meditation like eight weeks, 20 minutes a day, what change does that bring and that also gives remarkable results.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. I’ve seen pictures of you hooked up to all the electrodes. It looks like some kind of alien headdress. So, OK, help me understand what’s been learned, at least part of what’s been learned. What surprised the scientists? As you say, it’s no surprise that there’s a physical correlate, that you’re meditating and in that moment they might see something happening in your brain. But I think that one of the learnings that challenged some thinking was that these changes were permanent, right? That even when you weren’t meditating, the gamma waves were present and were different.
MR. RICARD: Mm-hmm. Well, you see, first of all, I think it was very much needed to show that long-term or even short-term mind training — you spoke of neuroplasticity. What does that mean? Plasticity means the brain can change functionally and possibly structurally following a training. Actually, this is one of the major discovery in neuroscience for the last 20 years, not only at all with meditation. Twenty years ago, it was thought that the adult brain can’t change anymore because it will make a huge mess so complex that you cannot fiddle around with that. Then they found that birds that learn new songs, brain changed. Musicians that play 10,000 hours of violin, the area of the brain that has to do with the coordination of the fingers is vastly increased. That London cab drivers who have to learn 20,000 street by heart, the area that deals with topology is vastly increased.
So what about compassion? What about focused attention? Basically it is just another skill. Of course, it’s a skill that matters more in your life. You know, compassion obviously matters more than learning 20,000 streets except for taxi driver probably they’ll need both. But those are such basic human qualities that if you can cultivate them, you can imagine how crucial it is. And so, to establish that meditation is not just like a nice relaxation where you empty your mind — those clichés that are still attached to the notion of meditation. That’s why we prefer maybe the idea of mind training, and to rest in the perfect transparency and the freshness of the present moment is not a strenuous exercise, but is something that requires experience.
Now the question about the ultimate nature of consciousness, that’s not what we are looking for right now. There’s no way I can — science right now could address that question except on the philosophical level. But if you want, we can go into detail about the Buddhist reasoning about why nature of consciousness could be something else.
MS. TIPPETT: That’s what I’d like. I’d like to know how you think about it and it’s clear that there’s one way that science can define it at this point. How do you explain what they found?
MR. RICARD: So you have what we call primary phenomena, you know. Look at matter. You know, the famous question of life is where there is something rather than nothing. Well, you say, well, there is something, whatever it is. You just have to acknowledge that the phenomenal world is there. Now, consciousness, you can study it in different ways. What we basically call the third-person approach means looking from the outside, and the first-person approach, looking into your experience.
So third-person approach is very clear. It’s what neuroscience does better and better. Whenever people think of emotions or just life, something happen in their brain. And you can describe that in increasingly sophisticated detail. And when someone sees red or someone feels love, you could describe right down to the most single neuron what’s going on if you had the power of investigation. But you have no clue what it means to see red, feel love as an experience.
So that’s the first person. I mean, a great neuroscientist told me, there’s no mind, there’s just brain function. OK, fine. Brain function. But we have experience; nobody can deny that. And actually, that experience is primary to anything. There was no science without experience. We could not conceive of the brain without experience. Without experience, forget about the world.
There is something very fundamental. That’s the basic cognitive quality of mind. You can call that basic awareness. You can call it fundamental aspect of consciousness. The most basic quality that you know rather than you don’t know. Just like in matter, there’s something rather than nothing.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: In Buddhism, we call it the luminous aspect of mind, not that it shines light in the dark, but luminous because that’s what illuminates your world. It’s like a torch light, a light that allows you to see things. But light is the fundamental thing that doesn’t change. If light shines on a heap of garbage, it doesn’t become dirty, it just reveals it. If light shines upon a diamond, it doesn’t become expensive, it just reveals the diamond. So there’s a fundamental component that is basic consciousness.
So now you can say that from that perspective that this is also a primary phenomenon. So that’s the Buddhist reasoning. It corresponds to experience and just an open possibility for investigation.
MS. TIPPETT: We did find some documented words of Einstein that evocatively echo Matthieu Ricard’s perspective and this conversation. In a letter to a man at the World Jewish Congress, Einstein wrote: “A human being is a part of the whole called by us Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts, and feelings, as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion. Not to nourish the delusion but to try to overcome it is the way to reach the attainable measure of peace of mind.”
Part of this quote from Einstein is included in “The Universe in a Grain of Sand,” a chapter from Matthieu Ricard’s book The Quantum and the Lotus. Read an excerpt at onbeing.org. And on our blog, discover the adventurous backstory to verifying this quote; and see an image of Einstein’s actual letter from 1950. You can watch a video of my entire unedited conversation with Matthieu Ricard or download a free MP3 of this show. Find those links and much more, again — onbeing.org.
MS. TIPPETT: Coming up, Matthieu Ricard’s intriguing definition of the meaning of happiness. Also, his take on the relationship between humor and wisdom. I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, On Being, I’m with Tibetan Buddhist spiritual teacher Matthieu Ricard. I sat down with him in Vancouver, Canada, at a series of gatherings with the Dalai Lama together with scientists, educators, and activists. His 2000 book, The Quantum and the Lotus, captures a dialogue he had about science and Buddhism with astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan. Thuan was born Buddhist in Vietnam and became a scientist. Ricard grew up in a secular family in France, trained as a scientist, and became a Tibetan Buddhist monk.
Both were intrigued by correlations they traced between the way quantum physicists describe matter and energy and the way Buddhists understand the interdependence and impermanence of human experience and all of life.
MR. RICARD: So it was another great encounter. I met Trinh Xuan Thuan in Andorra.
MS. TIPPETT: OK.
MR. RICARD: We were both invited to some summer university. And immediately he said, you know, I’m born in Vietnam, born a Buddhist. I always wanted to have a dialogue about Buddhism and astrophysics or modern science. We did. That was wonderful. The most fascinating thing I learned through this dialogue was precisely about something very deep about the nature of reality related to interdependence …
MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.
MR. RICARD: … and impermanence. And interdependence, of course, in modern physics is slightly different. There’s non-localization.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: The fact that if one photon or particle split into two, and they shoot out at physically any distance in the universe, they still remain part of a whole.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: So there’s something there that is still not separate.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: So that was a credible insight for me because interdependence is not just the fact that things are related, but also that, therefore, they are devoid of total autonomous, independent existence. Anything beautiful, ugly, I don’t know, red, blue, any characteristic comes to relation. Relation could define an object, like take a rainbow in the sky. Well, it looks very beautiful, very, very vivid and clear. You would think that that rainbow as something existing on its own.
Now, behind you, you mask the rays of sun and there is not a speck of existence of that rainbow that remains. It’s all gone because you remove something, an element of set of relation that crystallize that rainbow somehow as a phenomena. The idea is the same for every single phenomena, nothing exists on its own. And that’s has profound repercussions in Buddhism, not only as a philosophical idea but also the way we grasp to the world. If you grasp to something that’s being mined, therefore, that object exists on its own.
MS. TIPPETT: And I mean, would you also say that a human analogy would be this phenomenon of globalization?
MR. RICARD: Well, and at least to what the Dalai Lama calls the sense of universal responsibility …
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: … and now more and more leaders are speaking of interdependence, and I hear that word again and again and recently in Bill Clinton’s mouth about the world is interdependent.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: And it is true. We are interdependent — even, I would say, even more deeply than what we mostly think. But that leads to also the sense of — interdependency is at the root of altruism and compassion. That’s one of the consequences of understanding interdependence. You know, if you think of separate entities, well, I’m a separate entity as well. So, what do I do? I create a small bubble, a self-centered bubble, and I take care of my own happiness because after all I’m this separate entity so I just have to build my own happiness. And that’s fine.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.
MR. RICARD: Everyone will become happy in their own bubble and then the world will be fine. But if it will work, OK. But this is not working, why? Not just because of moral issue because it’s bad to be self-centered, because it’s dysfunctional because it’s at odds with reality.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: So it doesn’t work.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right. I want to talk about happiness. You’ve been labeled the happiest man in the world coming out of these Davidson experiments.
MR. RICARD: Totally, totally artificial. I issued about 1,000 disclaimers but nobody cares.
MS. TIPPETT: You did? They didn’t get covered. I did identify with some of the things that you’ve written that — when you were younger, you thought that happiness was not necessarily a very laudable goal.
MR. RICARD: I didn’t have no idea about it basically.
MS. TIPPETT: Right. But it, you know, you’re worldly wise and rational. We also live in this culture where the word happiness gets completely watered down. So I want to just talk about how you define happiness, because we have to put a lot of preconceptions aside.
MR. RICARD: Yeah, it is very important because that’s why also this word is so vague.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, it’s a problem.
MR. RICARD: And, you know, you can buy this toothpaste and you’d be happy and good luck.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: So, I think we should clearly see what are the inner conditions that foster a general sense of flourishing, of fulfillment, that the quality of every instant of your life has a certain quality that you appreciate fully. So, you see, it’s very different from people — or sometimes imagining that constant happiness will be a kind of euphoria or endless succession of pleasant experiences.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: But that’s more like a recipe for exhaustion than happiness.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: And also, if you look at the parameters, it’s very different. Pleasure depends very much on circumstances, what triggers it. Then it’s a sensation anyway. So, sensation change from pleasurable to neutral and to unpleasurable. I mean, even the most pleasurable thing, you eat something very delicious. Once is delicious, two, three times, OK. And then 10 times, you get nauseous. You are very cold and shivering. You can, you know, have a bonfire, such a delight. But then after a few minutes, you start, OK, then you move back. It’s too hot. Most beautiful music, you hear five times, 24 hours is a nightmare.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. RICARD: And also, it’s something that basically doesn’t radiate to others, you can experience pleasure at the cost of other’s suffering. So it’s very vulnerable to the change of other circumstances. It doesn’t help you to face the other circumstances better. Now, if we think of happiness as a way of being, a way of being that give you the resources to deal with the ups and downs of life that pervades all the emotional state, including sadness.
MS. TIPPETT: Right
MR. RICARD: If we think of sadness as incompatible with pleasure, but it’s compatible with what? With altruism, with inner strength, with inner freedom, with sense of direction and meaning in life? Those aren’t sad things. But if you don’t fall in despair, still you maintain that wholeness and that sense of purpose and meaning.
MS. TIPPETT: And so does happiness also the way you describe it as something that can encompass sadness and grief?
MR. RICARD: Can what?
MS. TIPPETT: Can encompass, contain these feelings?
MR. RICARD: It can encompass every mental state except those who are just opposite which is like despair, hatred, precisely the mental factors that will destroy inner peace, inner strength, inner freedom. If you are under the grip of hatred, you are not free. You are the slave of your own thoughts. So that’s not freedom, therefore, this is opposite to genuine flourishing and happiness.
MS. TIPPETT: So I imagine that people ask you how do I become happy? What do you say? How do you respond to that?
MR. RICARD: Well, clearly by first saying yes, outward circumstances are important, I should do whatever I can. But I should certainly see that at the root of all that, there are inner circumstances, inner conditions. What are they? Well, just look at you. Now if I say, OK, come, we’ll spend a weekend cultivating jealousy, now who is going to go for that?
We all know that even though that’s part of human nature, but we are not interested in cultivating more jealousy, neither for hatred, neither for arrogance. So those will be much better off if they were not — didn’t have such a grip on our mind. So there are ways to counteract those, to dissolve those.
I mean, you cannot, in the same moment of thought, wish to do something good to someone or harm that person. So those are mutually incompatible like hot and cold water. So the more you will bring benevolence in your mind, at every of those moments there’s no space for hatred. It’s just very simple, but we don’t do that. We do exercise every morning 20 minutes to be fit. We don’t sit for 20 minutes to cultivate compassion. If we want to do so, our mind will change, our brain will change. What we are will change. So those are skills. They need to be, first, identified, then cultivated. What is good to learn chess, well, you have to practice and all that. In the same way, we all have thoughts of altruistic love. Who didn’t have that? But the common goal, we don’t cultivate them.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: Do you learn to piano by playing 20 seconds every two weeks? It doesn’t work. So why, by what kind of mystery some of the most important quality of human beings will be optimal just because you wish so, doesn’t make any sense.
I have a friend who is 63 years old. He used to be a runner when he was young. He gave up running. Now, a few years ago, he started again. He said, “When I started again, I could not run more than five minutes without panting for breath.” Now, last week, he ran the Montreal Marathon at 63. He had the potential, but it was useless until he actualize it. So same potential we have for mind training. But if we don’t do anything, it’s not going to happen because we wish so.
MS. TIPPETT: What you’re talking about is a life discipline and it has to do with every day as well …
MR. RICARD: Well, I mean, my — you know, I was struck by that that we need to put that in action in a way. Action doesn’t mean like frantically running around all day long, which I have been doing a bit too much, but — being exemplifying that in our life. So that’s what led me — my only regret some years ago was not to have hands down trying to serve others. So when I have the possibility of doing that, I jumped into that and I’m absolutely grateful and delighted that I can. Now we have — we treat 100,000 patients in the Himalayas, India, Tibet, and Nepal. We have 15 kids in the school that we build. It’s not huge compared to some other big organization, but at least we did our best. So my motto in a way will be to transform yourself to better serve others.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: If you see the humanity in the world, grains of sand that bring everything to a halt — it’s corruption, clashes of egos, human factors more than resources. So, how to avoid that? There’s a lack of human maturity. So it’s not a vain or futile exercise to perfect yourself to some extent before you serve others, otherwise it’s like cutting the wheat when it’s still green. And nobody is fed by that. So we need a minimum of readiness to efficiently and wisely be at the service of others. So compassion needs also to be sort of enlightened by wisdom. Otherwise, it’s blind.
MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, On Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today: “The Happiest Man in the World” — with biologist, Tibetan Buddhist monk, and spiritual teacher Matthieu Ricard. I sat down with him at a conference in Vancouver, headlined by the Dalai Lama.
MS. TIPPETT: This gathering that we’re at and I think you find yourself in many gatherings like this where there’s a collection of wise people, people who are practicing these things and finding an integrity. And here, you know, the Dalai Lama was here, there were a number of Nobel Peace Prize winners and several people have said, and I hear this also in conversations I have, that we might be on the cusp of some kind of spiritual evolution. That people may, in fact, human beings may in fact be learning something. And I think the fact that science is taking these spiritual disciplines, these spiritual technologies, like meditation, more seriously, are one manifestation of that. And yet, we will go back to the places we live in and there’s also outside gatherings like this, we’re then confronted again with a great deal that’s wrong in the world. I don’t — I wonder what your perspective is on where we are as a species, as a planet right now.
MR. RICARD: I think ideas change slowly, but sometimes there are tipping points. For instance, the environment, I don’t know, 35 years ago or 40 years ago when Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring came out, you know, I was a teenager, a bird-watcher. And for us, it was a revelation.
MS. TIPPETT: Yeah.
MR. RICARD: But we were just this kind of lovers of nature and nobody cared for that, and we thought are just crazy ideas. Now it’s a major occupation. It took certain number of years, but it was all there already. So ideas like we should work towards a more altruistic and compassionate society is taking momentum because also now is not more a luxury, it becomes a necessity.
So what is in the evolution pressure is when it is sort of necessary for survival. So in ancient times, it may be fine for tribes to fight each other over hunting grounds or whatever. Nowadays, with precisely this interdependence, this globality, we are all part of one family. That’s not just a nice, naive image; either we are all loser or all winners in terms of survival. Now we can’t say it makes sense for just one nation to be powerful, rich, and so forth. If the whole world is starving, we’ll create immense wars and difficulty. And the environment can only be a chance national solution. So hopefully, evolution wouldn’t take hold quickly enough so that altruistic behavior become — not just seemingly altruistic behavior, which is selfishness in disguise.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: But real concern for all. Because after all, true altruism is a genuine consideration for all sentient beings, whether they are your tribe, your relatives, your own gene lines — forget about that, it has now to be concern for all that lives.
MS. TIPPETT: Something that I am — I see as a characteristic of you — OK, so you’ve issued disclaimers that you’re not the happiest man alive.
MR. RICARD: I just want to say that, it’s just taken by English newspaper. It’s not based on scientific data. I apologize to my scientist friends. It is better than to be labeled the most unhappy person in the world, fine. But it’s based on no scientific evidence.
MS. TIPPETT: OK. But let me just say this, a quality of you and of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, and other very wise people I’ve come across, spiritual people, serious people, is also of very robust sense of humor. He’s always laughing. He’s funny. And even before I met you, when I’ve seen pictures of you, you know, you always have a smile on your face. And I want to know, where does humor come into this, to wisdom?
MR. RICARD: Well, humor comes with, you know, when you’re not, first of all, if the ego is not such a target that is always there, exposed to all the arrows of praise and blame and criticism and all that and you are not too much, you know, susceptible to that, basically you don’t care to start with. Nothing to lose, nothing to gain from all this noise of, “Oh, you are such a great guy” or “You are just a bastard.” What does it mean? It’s like egos, it doesn’t care. So it gives a sense of less vulnerability — it’s a real strength. People think that a strong ego is a strength. Strong ego is ultimate vulnerability. You are so preoccupied with a strong ego, you can’t sleep anymore.
MS. TIPPETT: Right.
MR. RICARD: But if this ego is transparent, it’s fine. So it’s sort of lightness. And then also because you have this real confidence, not come from strong ego, you are much more available to others, so open to the world. You know, I see that in Tibet very often. Sometimes you find a very difficult situation — no car when we do those projects in schools and clinics, we get stuck in the middle of a river with our car. You know, big stream, it’s raining, you know, everybody will just — you can imagine some people screaming, you know, upset. Usually, it ends up everyone is on top of the car cracking into laughter. Such a — the thing is such a funny thing. So there’s a kind of, you know, we do our best. And these things happen. And why should you take it too seriously because we will survive that hopefully. And after all, what’s the problem? Just one part of the journey and it’s so much more fun if you take it like that than, you know, making all these tantrums about things.
It’s just precisely what we were mentioning before, the way you interpret the world. I gave this example, which struck me: I was sitting outside our monastery once and it was monsoon time in Nepal, a lot of mud and water. And we had put some bricks about 20 to 30 meters to go from one brick to the other to cross that mess. And one person came, a foreigner, and that person was just screaming, “How disgusting this place.” And I was sitting there and she’s going to scold me for it just there — so OK. Then five minutes later, another person came, two ladies, and she was just hopping from one to the other, “Oh, it’s so nice. It’s such fun. And when there is rain, there’s no dust.” And she was in exactly the same situation, and she has a sense of lightness and humor. The other one was just like grumbling like crazy about it. So, same situation, different perspective.
MS. TIPPETT: All right. That’s your last word. Thank you so much.
MR. RICARD: Thank you.
MS. TIPPETT: Matthieu Ricard is founder of the humanitarian organization Karuna-Shechen. He’s served as the Dalai Lama’s French interpreter for over two decades. His books include Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill and The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet.
MS. TIPPETT: At onbeing.org, you can see the documentary footage of Tibetan faces that changed the direction of Matthieu Ricard’s life. And find some of the photography that he’s created these past 40 years as he’s immersed himself in the light and the humanity of the Himalayas — images from the monastery in Kathmandu, where he currently resides, and his bamboo schools.
Finally, as always, you can download this show or watch and listen to my unedited interview with Matthieu Ricard. Like us at facebook.com/onbeing. Follow us on Twitter; our handle: at Beingtweets. Again, there are links to all of this at onbeing.org.
MS. TIPPETT: This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer.
Trent Gilliss is senior editor. Kate Moos is executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.
MS. TIPPETT: Next time, Jean Berko Gleason, a pioneer in understanding how children learn language. We have a playful and wide-ranging conversation on the human gift not merely to be conscious, but to comment on that. Please join us.