The Monk and the Philosopher

All the successful techniques for manipulating matter originated mainly in the West but the greater achievement of manipulating the mind – I am justifiably proud to claim – originated in India. In my opinion, the mind has precedence over matter. For the moment I will sidestep the other matter that it is a mistake to make a distinction between mind and matter – there isn’t in my opinion. But for the moment, I will treat them as being different as most people do.

One of the greatest privileges of being in a great institution of learning like Univ of California at Berkeley is that one gets to attend wonderful lectures. So that’s how I got to meet Matthieu Ricard one evening in early 1999. He and his father, Jean-François Revel, were on a tour following the release of the American edition of their book, “The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life.” Harper’s magazine was sponsoring a panel of speakers at the UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism. Among the panelists were the philosopher (Jean-Francois Revel, the father), the monk (Matthieu Ricard, the son), and the skeptic (Christopher Hitchens, the holy ghost), Amen!

I had had the pleasure of meeting Hitchens some time before at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre during his conversation with Gore Vidal (as I wrote about here before.) Then I had congratulated him on his take on Mother Teresa (the Merciless.) This time around I did not get to chat with him because I was more interested in meeting Matthieu. In any event, the hall was packed way beyond capacity and it was hard to get around in the North Hall where the panel was held.

I had figured that it would be a popular event and had indeed gone there a good half-hour before the scheduled time. But guess what! When I got there, it was already overflowing. Still I pushed on and got to the auditorium. It was standing room only. Yet, way out there in the front row I could see an empty seat. Could it be, I asked myself, that it was not being kept for anyone but everyone assumed that it was reserved? As it turned out, when I went up to there, I was told that the seat was free. So I got myself a front-row middle seat, all eager for the treat.

Here’s the background. Mattheiu, the son of one of the most celebrated French philosophers, Jean-Francois Revel, got himself a PhD in microbiology at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He was a rising star in his domain until he went off to India and learnt Buddhism and became a monk. Some years later, he tried to explain to his father, the philosopher from the Western tradition, what it was all about. Father and son spent 10 days in dialog and the transcript of that conversation was the book, TMatP.

It has been many years and so the details are hazy. The moderator was either the dean of the journalism school, Orville Schell, or the editor of Harper’s, Lewis Lapham. I also recall that one of the panelists was some guy from the Graduate Theological Union or something like that. It doesn’t matter. The panel discussion was excellent.

Revel was the first to go. I clearly recall one of his statements. He said in his heavily French-accented English, “The purpose of philosophy is to answer the questions of how should we live, how should we treat others, and how should we govern our society.” The man was as impressive as he was reputed to be. He explained that as a Western philosopher he was not exposed to the thinking of the East.

When it came to Matthieu’s turn, he was as one would expect a Buddhist monk to be: a study in calm and composure. Years of contemplating impermanence and change, of compassion and loving kindness, cannot but affect how one carries oneself. He spoke with a lightness of being that clearly indicated that he was solidly centered in his understanding of what was important. Hitchens tried his best to get a rise out of him but failed. I think that there probably is no polemicist in the world today who can match Hitchens. But in this case, Hitchens looked as if he was a schoolboy trying to pinch an elephant.

I don’t recall now what exactly the debate was about – or even if there was debate on any substantial issue. It was just a book launch after all. But afterwards, I walked up to Matthieu and introduced myself. Meeting him was not just a handshake – he put his arm around my shoulder as we walked towards the exit. As can be expected from someone who has mastered the art of being in the present, he was talking to me now and that was all that mattered.

You can get to meet Matthieu, thanks to the magic of the web. A few weeks ago, he delivered the “Tech Talk” at Google. If you have an hour to spare, I guarantee you that you can do worse than to listen to the talk. “Change your mind, change your brain.”

I wish I had the time to transcribe that talk. I bet you dollars to donuts that you will learn more from that talk than from reading huge tomes.

I’ll be back with my commentary on his talk. Maybe.

Author: Atanu Dey


7 thoughts on “The Monk and the Philosopher”

  1. Atanu: Many thanks for the link to this wonderful lecture. This is a very nice follow up to your previous post about the effect of meditation on attention span. Peace!


  2. The purpose of philosophy is to answer the questions of how should we live, how should we treat others, and how should we govern our society. Interestingly that is very close to C.Ram-Prasad’s characterisation of Chinese Philosophy vs. Indian Philosophy in his latest work “Eastern Philosophy”. Buddhism in India has been a dharmic school of thought, and is concerned as with its fellow philosphies, with meta-reality, while in China, it has been concerned with meta-ethics.

    Thanx for the video link.

    Hitchens is a great guy, and is in search of a philosophy.


  3. … All the successful techniques for manipulating matter originated mainly in the West…

    You are wrong Atanu. “The west” is a pseudo construct and never existed. The Greeks never looked beyond the adriatic sea. They considered the people who lived beyond to be barbaric tribes. In contrast, the Greeks have always looked up to the civilizations of Persia and India in respect.

    The very first of the Greek scientists, Pythagoras – has personally visited India and learned from here. Many others have followed. A lot of scientific knowledge flowed both ways between India and Greece, throughout history.

    India needs to own up to its rich scientific past. It is time. We have far more claims to Greek cultural heritage than most of the Europeans.

    You are pandering to “orientalism” – the biggest lie that’s floating around which equates the “west” with materialist progress and the “east” with spiritualism. This is plainly wrong. Both India and Greece were deeply philosophic and scientifically inclined at the same time.


  4. All the advances in the manipulation of matter has been done by the West so far — Europe and the US. I was not talking of ancient advancement in philosophy or science.


  5. You are talking about the Industrial revolution ? This is something that happened in the last 500 years. We in India just missed the bus. We were doing NOTHING during this time – no spiritual advancement, no philosophical innovation, plainly nothing.

    We don’t have an excuse for not having industrial revolution. The last 500 years are the black-mark in our history, we just have to ignore it and march ahead.

    We have a rich heritage that we need to claim – both in terms of materialist science and spiritualist philosophy. We have been wasting 500 years on both the fronts.


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