This is a book* for many of those modern persons who hover on the brink of religion, those who wish to have faith but are unable to, and who say “Lord, I disbelieve, help thou my belief.” In a father-son dialogue recorded over a length of three hundred closely printed pages, the book exposes the basic questions involved in this perennial human predicament in its modern form. The father is the rationalist atheist philosopher Jean-Francois Revel (a penname) and the son, the Buddhist monk Mathieu Ricard.
Fundamentally, it comes down to a question of how one experiences life. Are life and the world for us the manifestations of a transcendent reality which is immanent in them and so in us too, and with which we are in touch, though we may not be conscious of it? For the religious, consciousness in life is the manifestation of a transcendent reality, and the life-task for it is to get close to thistranscendent reality by removing the egoistic obstacles that stand in the way. Such aconsciousness knows or has an inkling thatbasically we are in touch with reality as weare part of that reality. The task is to bring thisperception to full consciousness through themedium of action, or thought or meditation, or any other means which temperament, lifecircumstancesand the spirit of the age haveplaced at our disposal.
However, a majority of the modern intelligentsia does not experience life in this way. Ours is not a religious age as, apparently, all previous ages were. We do not feel that we are in touch with reality as we are part of reality, and that our task here is to make this feeling grow till it completely takes over our lives. We are strangers in the world and outsiders. If we are given to existentialist angst we express this by declaring with Jean-Paul Sartre that ‘man is a useless passion’. If we are of a scientific-rationalist temperament we say with Jacques Monod the Nobel Laureate, “Man must at last awaken to his solitude, his fundamental isolation. Now does he at last realize that like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world, a world that is deaf to his music, just as indifferent to his hopes, as it is to his suffering or his crimes.”
Fundamentally, it is this vision of Monod’s (without Monod’s and Sartre’s melodramatic gestures) that the father in this dialogue adheres to, and the son considers a very inadequate response to life and the world. The following exchange towards the end of the book sums up the difference in the two responses to life:
Mathieu: Do you think that transcendence defined as ultimate knowledge of the nature of things, can be perceived and realized in the present?
M: Why not?
J.F: Because transcendence, by definition signifies that life has no limit, and that you continue living after your physical, biological death.
M: Don’t you think that to know the ultimate nature of mind is a form of immanence?
J.F: No... I think the solution here depends on the attitude of each and every human being and on their personal choices.
Here it is clear that for Jean-Francois, ‘transcendence’ can be believed in only if there is empirical ‘proof’ of survival after death. The questioning human mind is separate from the world it questions and will believe in any kind of reality only on the production of the kind of scientific evidence it asks for. The existence of the mind and the world itself is not ‘evidence’ of a transcendent reality which is immanent in them. The circularity of his argument (which I will refer to later) does not strike the philosopher.
The previous reference to Jacques Monod is appropriate because the story of this dialogue has a ‘story-book’ beginning in the Institute Pasteur in Paris in which Monod worked. Mathieu, born in France in 1946, was a brilliant young researcher in biology at this institute in the late sixties. Born into the intellectual elite class of France, the crème de la crème, he completed a Ph.D. in biology and was expected to proceed to a distinguished research career. Instead, in 1972 he once and for all abandoned scientific research and took a flight to India. The reason—he had decided to study Buddhism and live according to its precepts under the guidance of a spiritual teacher, the Tibetan Lama Kangyur Rimpoche in Darjeeling. He had not taken this step on an impulse. In the mid-sixties, on seeing a series of films by Arnauld Desjardin on some great Tibetan Lamas who had fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet, Mathieu had felt irresistibly attracted to these striking personalities who seemed to him to embody a life perfected in a wisdom which had a transcendental source. After making several trips to India during the years he was doing research, and after several meetings with the Lama who became his teacher, he felt the pull of Buddhist wisdom more and more and took the final decision to leave in 1972. He had found a reality that could ‘inspire his whole life and give it a direction and a meaning in the direct contemplation of absolute truth, beyond all concepts’. He ‘felt like an arrow flying straight to its target’. The family was naturally taken aback by this decision, and at the beginning of the dialogue Mathieu is asked by the father as to why he could not combine an interest in Buddhism with a career in science, in which his research could have been of much benefit to others. The reply is that what he was interested in was not in getting dispersed in the details of scientific research, but in selftransformation, in ‘a perfection he wanted to absorb’. For Mathieu the mass of scientific knowledge had become ‘a major contribution to minor needs’, a reply that somewhat shocks his father.
This initial question of the philosopher and the response of the monk really set the stage for much of the contents of this long dialogue. For the philosopher, since human beings are set forever at a confrontational distance from the world, the most worthwhile human occupation is to pursue knowledge of the material and biological world so that the use of that knowledge can ameliorate the human condition by raising standards of living. The other human concern for him is the pursuit of wisdom, by which he means not the contact with a transcendent reality, but a pragmatic ‘adjustment’, practical wisdom, ‘the art of managing our set of psychological dispositions in their relationships with reality, so as to avoid all the excesses that in the final analysis make usmiserable’.
The role of the philosopher in these dialogues is to question and analyze, and of the monk to share and explain. The philosopher questions the monk about the Buddhist teachings in terms of all the classic questions of modern Western philosophy: Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? (based on faith or on reason? belief or proof?) What are its metaphysical and epistemological positions? (idealist, realist or critical realist? empiricist or rationalist?) Is Buddhist psychology an objective science or merely a set of ethical attitudes? What is Buddhism’s ethical approach? (quietist or activist?) and so on. Jean-Francois’ whole approach is based on the assumption that the philosophical life consists in the development of a set of concepts that corresponds to ‘reality’ and in using these concepts to lead a rational well-adjusted life, as well as in helping others to lead such a life.
Mathieu however is at pains to explain that Buddhism is not just a conceptual framework which claims to correspond with reality, whose validity could be settled by discursive theoretical argument, but a way of gaining clarity by the cultivation of contemplative awareness. When we seek the clarity of mind which gave us the original glimmering perception that we are not separate from reality but are in touch with it, as we are part of it, we become aware of all the contents of consciousness that obscure this clear perception. The Buddha’s teachings show how the primordial craving that is inherent in human beings, results in‘grasping’, and the frustrations and pain that go with grasping. Pain in turn manifests as the hindrances and pollutants of greed, hatred and delusion, and their various proliferations as explained in Buddhist philosophy.
These pollutants muddy the stream of our consciousness, or to use the traditional metaphor, ‘throw dust in our eyes’ and obscure our vision. The task is to wipe the dust from our eyes and ‘see things as they are’. This we do, not by taking flight into theory and constructing the perfect metaphysical system that ‘corresponds to reality’ or by discovering the correct epistemological method, but by being fully present with mindful and attentive awareness, in our experience. We do not try to theorize about our experience and about the contents of our minds from a detached point outside ourselves as embodied beings, but remain fully grounded in our bodies, feelings and thoughts and pay attention to what is happening to all these. When we do this, we realize how much we are entangled in them and determined by them. Our mental contents—alternately pleasurable and painful—engage us in a love-hate relationship. This very love-hate relationship energises us, gives us our identity, and makes us spring to life. Without the energy given by the perpetual interaction with my mental contents, I would sink into passivity. My very being has come to be dependent on them, constituted by them. (cf. ‘the observer is the observed. The thinker is the thought’: J. Krishnamurti). We see how this is true of our relationships with others. Thus I see that by myself, apart from the images reflected back to me by others ‘I’ am nothing; as selfimage‘I’ am empty. My self-image is a contingent affair dependent on the accidents of my interaction with others in different situations. It is totally dependent on things other than itself. This is the law of emptiness or dependent origination—since there is nothing that is not dependently arisen, there is nothing that is not empty. There is no entity that has ‘own-being’, since nothing can be known or defined except in terms of itself and of other things. Thus the tree does not exist by itself but only in relation to the soil from which it draws its nutrition and the air and sunlight from which it draws its energy. The entities which appear as solid, independent and enduring are thus only parts of processes of change and becoming.
When we begin to realize the truth of the law of dependent origination in regard to our own being, we begin to realize the destructive effects of grasping at the flux of mental contents, for in them there is no enduring entity to grasp at. Instead, we try to cease to grasp and begin to stay in that state of contemplative awareness and of emptiness. (cf. ‘Choiceless awareness’: J. Krishnamurti). When we do this, we begin to understand the nature of the enticing and repelling mental contents. Thus we begin to attain some clarity about the actual situations we are faced with.
This in brief is the Buddhist vision which the monk tries to share with the philosopher (though couched in terms somewhat different from those used here). Yet nowhere in the long dialogue does the philosopher give the impression of having come near grasping what the monk tries to convey, which is a certain dimension of spiritual depth and of an existential truth. The philosopher on the other hand remains at the level of discursive, representational and explanatory truth, which is analytical and comparative, tracing similarities and linkages between different philosophical doctrines. What the philosopher, true to his salt, seeks is intellectual coherence, the correspondence of his conceptual framework to ‘reality’, not the coherence of his whole being with reality, as the monk does. And this matter of the coherence of one’s being is not a matter of gaining more knowledge of oneself, thus becoming more coherent, but of perceiving and dropping one’s incoherences. While intellectual coherence may be interesting to a certain extent, and gives intellectual pleasure and technological control, it misses the dimension of depth which is not a matter of intellectual conceptualization, but of direct perception of our incoherence.
One central comparison which the philosopher returns to repeatedly in the dialogue is that of Stoicism with Buddhism. What the monk has termed, ‘pure awareness without any object’, which is the innate wisdom of non-grasping and the ultimate state of complete clarity, the philosopher equates with the Stoic doctrine of ‘ataraxia’, which he defines as the state of the wise man who has trained himself ‘to be no longer exposed to the unpredictable effects of the good and the bad that come up in daily life’.
This attitude is ‘designed to help us lessen as much as possible our vulnerability, not only to outer circumstances and life’s mishaps but also to our own passions’. The truth of the emptiness of the self the philosopher understands as the attempt to ‘annihilate the self so as to anaesthetize for ever the feeling of confronting adverse irksome circumstances, the feeling that there are moral choices to be made, mistakes to avoid’ etc. For him, this wisdom, like all systems of wisdom remains a ‘matter of conjecture’ without ‘theoretical foundations’.
In all this there is a complete misunderstanding of the Buddhist vision on three counts. Firstly, in Stoicism and Epicureanism (at least as presented by our philosopher) the transcendental dimension is missing. Stoic wisdom is for him basically a doctrine of moderation, of pragmatic adjustment to life’s circumstances so that we avoid ‘the excesses that in the final analysis make us miserable and dissatisfied’. I am not sure if this is a correct representation of Stoicism. Be that as it may, it is certainly a far cry from the Buddha’s assertion: “There is an unborn, an unmade, unbecome and incomposite. Were it not for this unborn, unmade, unbecome, incomposite, no escape could be shown here from birth, becoming, making, composition.” It was from the glimpse of this transcendental dimension the Buddha gave his disciples, that Buddhism eventually spread all over Asia, developed a wide range of schools, and became the basis for entire cultures for two millennia. Stoic philosophy however remained the doctrine of a small elite in the declining days of the Roman Empire and was submerged by the Christianization of Europe. Moreover, it never developed either the incomparably detailed and subtle analyses of the psychological-ethical dimensions of the human mind which the many schools of Buddhism did, nor did it develop their emphasis on praxis. The two are thus hardly comparable.
Secondly, the Buddhist vision is definitely not one of ‘anaesthetizing one’s feelings and of rendering oneself invulnerable to adversities’ by ‘annihilating the self’. On the other hand, as the monk tries to explain, the state of complete clarity which is reached when the emptiness of things is existentially (and not discursively) understood, results in the development of positive feelings that reach out towards the world in a state of openness. The Buddhist teachings tell us that these are the positive qualities of generosity, forgiveness, patience, courage, vigour, concentration and wisdom and (beyond even these virtues) the‘immeasurables’ of friendliness, joy, compassion and peace. As for us, the use of these terms in our age incurs (very legitimately) the charge of ‘bad faith’, and we cannot use them. But we do know that only in non-grasping, there is a possibility of being open to ‘things as they are’. And it seems to us that only from such a state of mind can authentic unforced action emerge. Though towards the end of the dialogue the philosopher does say that it is a misunderstanding to dub Buddhism as a quietist doctrine, there is not on his part a clear appreciation of the spirit-enhancing ethical quality of the Buddha’s teaching, which is generated by contemplative awareness.
Thirdly, there is the matter of ‘foundations’. According to our philosopher the theoretical metaphysical background of Buddhist wisdom is unproved and unprovable, since like all ethical systems, it is devoid of ‘theoretical foundations’. Again, this assertion is based on a misunderstanding of Buddhist ethics and wisdom, which are not based on any metaphysical speculative system. One of the corner-stones of the Buddha’s teaching is his opposition to metaphysical speculation for its own sake, which he termed unprofitable, and as ‘not leading to freedom’. Instead, he termed his teaching a ‘Come and see thing’, a path whose efficacy had to be tested out in practice by committing oneself to it. (In fact, two of the leading schools of Buddhism, Madhyamika and Zen, are based on explicitly antimetaphysical stances).
The insistent search for ‘foundations’, the theoretical grounds for belief in an indubitable reality which can be shown to be either consciousness-independent (realism) or consciousness-dependent (idealism) or a reality interpreted by consciousness (critical realism/critical idealism), is the result, according to the Buddhist teachings, of one of the four primordial ‘graspings’—that is, of grasping of ‘views’, or philosophical systems (the others being grasping for sense pleasures, for moral rules and for a belief in an unchanging self). This kind of grasping of philosophical positions is one to which our philosopher is markedly prone. He does not see that his professedly ‘anti-metaphysical’ naturalisticmaterialistic stance is itself a metaphysical one, since materialism is a belief about the‘ultimate nature’ of the world, and all such beliefs about the ‘ultimate’ nature of things are metaphysical.
Though the search for foundations has now been given up by many thinkers, the belief in a pre-given ‘objective’ reality which is supposed to be the real foundation of all our knowing is still very strong in philosophy. This is because philosophy in modern times has to a large extent been preoccupied with describing the basis for scientific knowledge which needs a working belief in the objective existence of an external world. Without such a pre-given ‘objective’ world, Science seemingly will have nothing to think about. The belief is that the spectacular successes of modern Science cannot just be the result of a subjective human approach, but must have a basis in a real ‘objective’ world.
However, what exactly is Science? Certainly it does not represent the whole of human experience. Rather, it reads experience in terms of certain networks of concepts called theories. These concepts are not pre-given in an objective ‘factual’ world. Rather, as Einstein has said, the axiomatic basis of theoretical physics ‘cannot be abstracted from experience, but must be freely invented’. It is a truism that theories are constitutive of facts; facts are ‘theoryladen’. The pen with which I write is a pen for me; it is a toy for a baby. And in the baby’sworld it is every bit as efficacious as a toy as itis as a pen for me. A freely falling stone is atotally different kind of object as seenthrough the Aristotelian, Newtonian andEinsteinian theories, and will again changewhen another more ‘efficacious’ theorycomes along. The ‘foundation’ of scientificknowledge shifts with shifting theories. As Hannah Arendt has said, “Scientistsformulate their hypotheses to arrange theirexperiments and then use these experimentsto verify their hypotheses; during this wholeenterprise, they obviously deal with ahypothetical nature.” In this sense Science isself-referential, and has its own criteria ofvalidity which are relevant in its field but notoutside it. Science has no ‘foundations’outside its terms of reference. Science doesnot discover the world but a world.
As the monk puts it simply to the philosopher when he says that the Buddhist vision lacks the objectivity of Science, “What do you mean by objective knowledge? The nature of elementary particles can’t be known independently of the systems we use to measure them.” Hence, as the theories of Science are verified in practice through experiments, the Buddhist teachings can be‘verified’ in actual living by committing oneself to them, or by observing the qualityof the lives of those who live by them.
It is ironical that the philosopher’s own commitment to one particular type of foundation for our knowledge of the world—the naturalistic-materialistic one—has led in modern times to a historical development that he much laments: the growth of totalitarian Utopias that ruthlessly expend great numbers of human lives in the pursuit of their visions. One can see that in a very real sense the seed of such a development is already contained in a vision of the world which views it as ‘mere’ matter totally accessible to the abstract hypothetical– deductive instrumental method of Science and malleable by the technologies generated by this method. If all entities in the world including human beings and the societies they form are basically such malleable stuff, there is nothing to prevent scientific reason from reaching out to its ultimate limit of‘perfection’ by working out and trying to put into practice grandiose schemes of social engineering for the perfect society which is what the totalitarian states were.
These are basically the themes around which much of this very revealing dialogue revolves, though there is much else besides: the prospects for Buddhism in the West, the fate of Tibet which has fallen under Chinese domination, the attitude of Buddhism to modern problems and approaches such as that of material amelioration, psychoanalysis, political and institutional reform, the craze for novelty for its own sake and for the indiscriminate production and consumption of goods etc. The monk responds to the philosopher’s questions on these issues from his central vision of contemplative awareness, and the need to realize that. He holds to his position that this is the central task of life, though political reform, psychological therapy, material progress etc., have their due place in the light of the truths revealed by contemplative awareness.
Towards the end of the dialogue, there is a revealing exchange when the philosopher, responding to the monk’s question as to what gives meaning to life for him and what trend of thinking he represents, responds by saying that he does not represent any trend of thinking. He only ‘does his best to understand the systems that exist or have existed in the past and that is hard enough’. Here he reveals that incurable discursiveness and inability to commit himself to any integrating response to life, which is the besetting sin of the intellectual and to which all of us in the modern world with its corrosive skepticism are prone, in greater or lesser degrees. There is a Greek proverb which says, “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In terms of this proverb, our philosopher is a fox and the monk a hedgehog. The philosopher knows a great number of things, but the monk knows the one big thing that matters. However, our philosopher too must be given credit for the balance, toughness and clarity of his mind. He gives short shrift to both the obscurer varieties of modern avant-garde philosophies and to attempts to squeeze philosophies of life out of scientific theories, terming such attempts ‘just nonsense’.
At the end of it all, the father and son agree to disagree, but one strong feeling that we get about the quality of their extended dialogue is that of the bond of affection that exists between them. This enables them to discuss their very different views with a sense of humour and a lightness of touch which tells us that here there has been a meeting of hearts, though not of minds. And let us hope that this book will bring many hearts and also minds together.
* The Monk and the Philosopher: East meets West in a Father-Son Dialogue. Jean Francois Revel and Mathieu Ricard—translated by John Canti: Thorsons 1999