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5/8/06


Mind Shadows      On Happiness: Jean François Revel, His Son, & Their Exchange About Buddhism: 10 days in an Inn above Kathmandu

Two able minds, one an agnostic humanist, the other on the Buddhist path, both believing the examined life is well worth living.

Jean-François Revel died Saturday April 29th in Paris, at 82. Having written over 30 books, he was a literary and philosophic lion--a prolific iconoclast as philosopher, writer, and journalist with a bite reminiscent of Voltaire and an empiricism in the tradition of Montaigne. Unlike many of his nation, he was a champion of certain American values, and was so even when European intellectuals praised Karl Marx and Chairman Mao. In his book Without Marx or Jesus (1970) he said "the revolution of the 20th Century will take place in the United States."* In the early 1990s he argued that French intellectuals seemed unwilling to face up to the threat of Islamic terrorism, and that they were the same people who had been enamored of Stalin. In How Democracies Perish, he warned that democracy is not a given in modern society, but echoed Edmund Burke in that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. He was one of the 40 Immortals, members of the Académie Française, which keeps the standards of the French language. He was born Jean-François Ricard, on Jan. 19, 1924, in Marseille. He first used Revel as a literary pseudonym. *(Before anybody wraps himself in the US flag, he should read America Against The World: How We Are Different & Why We Are Disliked.)

While teaching in Mexico in the 1950s he became familiar with North America, a familiarity which increased during extended visits to Canada and California. As an observer of the 1960s Civil Rights movement, he saw a profound social transformation taking place in the United States. In the USA he found a "complete contrast to the conventional portrayal then generally accepted in Europe." In particular, he was impressed with Americans' willingness to address and correct their own faults. Later, he attacked Europeans who said the United States had brought terrorists' attacks on itself through misguided foreign policies. "Obsessed by their hatred and floundering in illogicality, these dupes forget that the United States, acting in her own self-interest, is also acting in the interest of us Europeans and in the interest of many other countries, threatened, or already subverted and ruined, by terrorism," he wrote.

That provides some background on a very rich and intelligent life, but my interests here have to do with a dialogue between Revel and his son, a Buddhist, in a book titled The Monk and The Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life, a best seller in France. First, though, a little background on the son.

His son, Matthieu Ricard, studied biology at the Institut Pasteur under Nobel Prize winners, and was awarded a highly commended PhD in molecular biology. As the father, pointed out in the book, here was somebody steeped in the highest levels of Western scientific culture who turned from it to adopt Buddhism. Ricard sought something extra in his life; he abandoned a highly promising career for Buddhist practice. Matthieu Ricard explained that his scientific career resulted from a passion for discovery. He did not reject scientific research. Rather, he realized that such research "was unable to solve the fundamental questions of life--and wasn't even meant to do so. In short, science, however interesting, wasn't enough to give meaning to my life." He came to see research as "an endless dispersion into detail." At the same time, he became more interested in the spiritual life as a "contemplative science." Science remained fundamental to him but he concluded that wisdom lay elsewhere, in a way of life and seeing, rather than in only intellectual curiosity and discipline. He lives in Schechen monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal, and acts as translator during the Dalai Lama’s visits to France. He has written Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill and The Quantum & The Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet (this book co-authored with Trinh Xuan Thuan).

On his part, Jean-François Revel believed that "wisdom will always be a matter of conjecture. . . . Wisdom is not based on scientific certitude, and scientific certitude does not lead to wisdom. Both, nevertheless, exist -- forever indispensable, forever separate, forever complementary." For him, Buddhist metaphysics requires a leap of faith unacceptable to scientific understanding. The Tibetan Bardo Thodol, on the after life, is part of the metaphysics he encountered.

As for the son, Matthieu, he says that "Happiness . . . is not just some agreeable sensation but the fulfillment of living in a way that wholly matches the deepest nature of our being. Happiness is knowing that we have been able to spend our life actualizing the potential that we all have in us and to have understood the true and ultimate nature of the mind. For someone who knows how to give meaning in life, every instant is like an arrow flying toward its target."

Ricard argues what I have regularly said in this blog, that philosophers of consciousness and neuroscientists lack experiential expertise. Ricard says that little interest in contemplative science has developed in the West since the scientific revolution began. For thousands of years and with much effort, monks have spent many hours a day and twenty to thirty years of their lives exploring the mind, which has found its way into teachings available only to those trained to be receptive. Although analysis and experimentation will surely yield more results in cognitive consciousness, scientists and philosophers have yet to realize that the same methods do little to address David Chalmers' hard problem of consciousness which, as an example, is that we can read an explanation the brain's engagement in tasting an apple, while not explaining the experience of tasting it.

Here are excerpts from The Monk and the Philosopher.

Jean François' son Matthieu-- Buddhism gets down to the deep causes of suffering. It's a search that concerns any human being, Buddhist or not.

J.F.-- Can you define what you call suffering?

M.-- A state of deep dissatisfaction, which may be combined with physical pain but is first and foremost a mental experience. . . . Suffering arises when the self, the 'me' that we cherish and protect, is threatened, or doesn't get what it wants. . . . ordinary goals in life, like power, possessions, the pleasures of the senses and fame, can procure temporary satisfaction but are never permanently satisfying. . . .

J.F.-- The Epicureans and the Stoics both said the same thing, in exactly the same terms. More

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