Thoughts on “The monk and the philosopher”

“The monk and the philosopher” (1998) is a unique book. It contains a number of presumably-edited ‘dialogues’ between father and son Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard, the former a French philosopher and the latter a science PhD turned Buddhist monk, also known more recently as the happiest man in the world (somewhat tongue in cheek). (I strongly recommend Ricard's Happiness, which is how I happened on this book.) They discuss, of course, the meaning of life and other matters, largely couched in the context of Buddhism and its attraction to a once-scientist.

This book, or rather Matthieu's words, really opened my eyes in many ways to the ideas behind Buddhist philosophy; in fact, my misconceptions are basically quoted in the book as being how not to think about Buddhism:

[J.-F.R.] You sometimes hear people wondering how Buddhism could help bring peace, as it's a philosophy of detachment that encourages withdrawal from society. Monks live alone in the mountains and pray for others, but in fact they do nothing for humanity. (§6)

As I've expressed it to myself, that to achieve ultimate happiness and enlightenment we'd all end up living in caves in the mountains, and where does that leave our civilisation? This is a reductio ad absurdum view of Buddhism that doesn't accurately capture their advice for living at all. (More on this later.)

Indeed, the book contains a wealth of knowledge that fascinated the philosophical layperson part of me:

[J.-F.R.] Ataraxia is an imperturbable state that the wise man has to attain, according to Stoicism; it's to no longer be exposed to the unpredictable effects of the good and bad that come up in daily life. (§2)

Not only did I not realise that Stoicism was an ancient philosophical movement (hence the term ‘stoic’), but how great is the word ‘ataraxia’?

One aspect of the book that struck me quite forcefully was the unbreachable dichotomy between how consciousness is viewed in modern scientific versus Buddhist terms. I personally lean quite strongly towards the reductionist view of consciousness as discussed by those such as Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennet, whereby our consciousness can be explained purely in terms of emergent properties of the way our brains take physical inputs, process them, and form symbols to represent objects in the world that is perceived. (To sum it up perhaps too pithily, consciousness arises from the feedback loop caused from the fact that our brains have symbols for themselves.)

Douglas Hofstadter in particular (in I am a Strange Loop) discusses the idea that other animals probably have a lesser consciousness than humans, and insects perhaps not at all, but he would never argue that a rock, say, has a consciousness at all. Whereas from the Buddhist perspective (and other eastern religious of similar lineage, I believe), consciousness is a phenomenon that arises from processes outside of what we'd term the physical world; Mattieu Ricard discusses the idea of a ‘field of consciousness’ that presumably pervades everything (even inanimate matter) and gives us the spark of life, or a soul. (Reincarnation can be seen in this light as maintaining a continuity of consciousness across lives, where a reborn soul picks off from a previous thread in this ethereal medium.) Occam's Razor effectively debunks this argument for me, but the Buddhist experience and the truth which they see is hard to disregard lightly. However, Jean-François refutes this somewhat in another section of the book:

[J.-F.R.] It's no good taking the sincere aspiration that people might feel for some spiritual system as any proof of its authenticity; it might well be fake, because the sad fact is that human beings have an unfortunate dendency to feel strong inclinations for all sorts of strange things. (§12)

That the self, or even reality itself, is an illusion is a common gross idea shared across Buddhism and other related philosophies (including the yoga texts). The philosopher summarises such thoughts:

[J.-F.R.] The influence that I can have on the course of events is an illusion; it brings me enormous hopes and disappointments, and makes me live in constantly alternating joy and fear which torture me internally If I can reach the conviction that the self is nothing, and that in fact I'm only the channel of a certain stream of reality, I'll attain a degree of serenity. [...] Alas, however, our actual experience rebels against such reasoning. (§19)

How intuitive it is that our minds reject the idea that our minds are free! Although this isn't presented in terms of free will, it's a great way to address that debate as well. (Again, I'm fairly into the camp that free will is an illusion, as well.) This statement covers more than just free will, however. Our worldly possessions, our fame or how we are perceived by others, our memories and nostalgia, is all a form of artifice. This shouldn't be viewed as nihilism because of the intrinsic altruism and avoidance of suffering that is part of Buddhist life. My mind still spins in circles trying to put my own consistent slant on the whole system, however.

Back to the Buddhist teachings that align more strongly with my own viewpoint.

[M.R.] At the same moment as committing yourself to the path, you should have the intention to attain Buddha-hood for the sake of all beings. You transform yourself in order to acquire the capacity to help others free themselves from suffering. (§5)

Altruism is discussed a lot in the book, but this quote summarises it all for me. There's no point in enlightenment if you're doing it on your own. In other words:

[M.R.] It's quite useless to liberate ourselves alone from suffering if all the living beings around us continue to suffer.

And to further reinforce that the solitary retreats that are common of the spiritual masters aren't the end goal: (and this applies more generally to other aspects of, say, the extreme physical abilities from yoga practises)

[M.R.] ‘The goal of asceticism is mastery of the mind. Apart from that, what use would asceticism be?’

Krishnamacharya himself espoused the view that demonstrating advanced yoga techniques was a useful form of propaganda. But now I'm digressing. The main thread here is that we belong to the world and environment in which we live, and our ultimate rôle should be to perfect ourselves and our surroundings in this context. How can we hope to achieve this? The tidy non-answer to such a question is to simply do it. Mattieu summarises the forms of laziness that prevents this from happening:

  1. To spend all your time eating and sleeping
  2. To tell yourself ‘Someone like me will never manage to perfect themselves’
  3. To waste your life on tasks of secondary importance, without ever getting down to what's most essential

Finally, the philosopher's closing to the book resonates with me quite strongly:

Wisdom is not based on scientific certitude, and scientific certitude does not lead to wisdom. Both, nevertheless, exist — forever indispensable, forever separate, forever complementary.

I find I must agree with Jean-François's viewpoint, that a greater understanding of the philosophy and psychology behind Buddhist leads to a great appreciation for its power as a path to live by. Nonetheless, its metaphysical aspects simply do not gel with a modern view of science. I also find this with yoga. So how does one draw the line? As best as one can.