That day, the weather was very nice in Paris. Matthieu Ricard lived with friends who hosted him during his visits to the capital and was preparing to join the Dordogne to find his “dear mother”, according to his expression, Yahne Le Toumelin, painter, Buddhist nun, too. With a smile on his face, he overflows with joyful energy and laughs a lot. He graciously agrees to answer questions, without trying to hide. But behind the smile, the cat can scratch, and the monk knows how to make it understood that a reflection seems to him inappropriate or quite simply stupid. He refutes the idea that he would be the “monk of sores”, as there were court abbots.
As the conversation progresses, we feel that his gaze is already turned towards Nepal and his hut perched at an altitude of three thousand meters, facing the Himalayas. It’s true, he can irritate some people with his calm assurance, his “answer to everything” side, his total adherence to Buddhism and Tibetan culture. But it is impossible to doubt his sincerity, his deep commitment and the authenticity of his research. He is there, his two feet firmly anchored to the ground, and releases for his interlocutors the solidity and the tranquility of a rock that one supposes acquired in contact with his two masters who are now deceased: Kangyour Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. He rubbed shoulders with them and served them for thirty years, and it was with them that he studied the great Buddhist texts and deepened his practice of meditation. In the sunny living room, it is not a great distant sage who speaks, but a quiet man.
From the Institut Pasteur to the Himalayas, your trajectory may seem enigmatic…
Matthew Ricard: There is not much enigmatic. Let’s say it’s unexpected, maybe.
You talk about a dissatisfaction in your adolescence…
Matthew Ricard: At the time, I didn’t feel it as dissatisfaction. I was interested in different things from those of my parents: ornithology, navigation, photography, mountains… From 13-14 years old, inspired by my mother Yahne and my uncle [le navigateur Jacques-Yves Le Toumelin, ndlr], I started to discover Buddhism, which was not well known at the time. It is especially by reading Ramana Maharshi, the life of Milarepa translated by Jacques Bacot, or the Padma’s Dict (the life of Padmasambhava), which my father had given to my mother when I was born, that I discovered spirituality. But these readings were not connected to a living tradition. It was when I was able to travel, at 20, that things changed.
Was it really the trigger?
Matthew Ricard: Yes. Arnaud Desjardins, a friend of my parents, had organized a screening of his films1. When I saw the faces of these masters and hermits, it was as if I saw twenty Socrates alive. I said to myself, “I’m going! And I left. I had the good fortune to meet a lot of remarkable people in my teenage years – philosophers, artists, scholars… But I was disconcerted, because there seemed to be no correlation between their genius and the fact of behaving like a good human being. Everything changed with the meeting of Kangyour Rinpoche, in Darjeeling. There, suddenly, I saw what I imagined to be human perfection.
1. The Message of the Tibetans by Arnaud Desjardins (2014 Pocket reissue).
You could have found this while doing a retreat in a monastery in Europe…
Matthew Ricard: Who knows ? It probably exists, but I couldn’t find it.
You could compare it to a spiritual thunderbolt…
Matthew Ricard: Yes… If you met Saint Francis of Assisi, there would be a little something, wouldn’t there?
To the point that you wanted to go back there as soon as possible…
Matthew Ricard: When I returned to France, I finally had points of reference capable of inspiring my life. I started to practice a little, morning and evening. My master was very present in my thoughts, like a perfume that lingers in the air. It gave another color to my thoughts, to what I was doing. I had the feeling of a direction, of a hope that animated my life. Every step had a meaning. The following year, I had a month’s vacation, and crack! I left again. The last one-way trip was the culmination of a maturing process.
Which lasted seven years…
Matthew Ricard: Yes. Kangyur Rinpoche told me the first year: “Don’t rush. When you have finished what you have started, you can decide. You know, when an apple isn’t ripe, if you pull too hard, you break the branch. When it is ripe, it falls into your hand as soon as you touch it. It is no longer a decision that makes you dizzy, but the last step that takes you over a hill.
And how did you move from the scientific world – from your work at the Institut Pasteur – to the spiritual world that called you?
Matthew Ricard: I owe a great debt to François Jacob, who gave me a taste for scientific rigor. When I became interested in Buddhism, I discovered that one of its aims was to bridge the gap between appearances and reality, which seems to me close to the scientific approach. The science of the mind aims to identify the causes of suffering, to determine whether it can be remedied. It all seemed very pragmatic to me! I remember a meeting at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] with scientists. Stephen Kosslyn, then Harvard Professor of Psychology, began by making a statement of humility at the experimental data Buddhists were bringing to the field of psychology… There are treatises on the theory of perception dating back to the IVe century !
You can be opposed to the mysterious manifestations, such as the reincarnation or the non-putrefaction of the body of the spiritual masters after their death, which are far from rationality…
Matthew Ricard: There are areas that do not overlap with the mainstream science. But that doesn’t stop talking about it! No mechanism can explain the phenomena of transmission of thoughts that I have witnessed, and it seems difficult to approach them with scientific methods, which require that the phenomena be reproducible under controlled conditions. As Wolf Singer told me2 “I don’t doubt your testimony, but I don’t know what to do with it. So let’s keep an open mind and see what happens.
2. Wolf Singer, German neurophysiologist, co-author with Matthieu Ricard of Brain and Meditation, dialogue between Buddhism and neuroscience (Pocket, “Evolution”, 2018).
How do you place your notoriety in this trajectory? You have become a “star”…
Matthew Ricard: Nothing would have happened without The Monk and the Philosopher3. I hesitated to accept this offer, telling myself that it would take me away from what I was doing, but things just happened. Kangyur Rinpoche’s eldest son advised me to accept everything. It showed me the artificial side of notoriety, since you become recognizable overnight without having become better. A lesson in humility. I do not regret these active years. But I wonder what it would have been like if I had spent those twenty years in a hermitage instead of clowning around! So now, if I have a few more years to live, I want to go back to my roots.
3. The Monk and the Philosopher (Pocket, 1999) is a dialogue between Matthieu Ricard and his father, the philosopher Jean-François Revel. A great bookstore success, it has been translated into twenty-one languages.
We can ask ourselves the question of a contradiction in your life. Stripping down, retirement, versus conferences, fame, TV…
Matthew Ricard: For about ten years, the reason that led me to travel was for humanitarian projects. When I am asked to do an interview, I agree to share with joy ideas that are dear to me, but it weighs on me. Two years ago, I resumed my work of translating Tibetan texts. At 76, I can freak out at any time! What’s the point of making one-year projects? I have nothing to write that is more inspiring than the texts that I am translating at the moment. If I survive my 98-year-old mother, whom I am currently caring for in Dordogne, I will return to my hermitage in Nepal, until my last breath. I don’t want to die in an airport!
This conjunction between mother and son, nun and monk, is extraordinary…
Matthew Ricard: I know of several examples in the Himalayas. But in the West, I imagine that this is not frequent!
With your father, it was less obvious…
Matthew Ricard: It’s true. But we found commonalities that I didn’t expect. Apart from the metaphysical side, he saw clearly why Buddhism interested Westerners. Unlike the Greek philosophers and starting with Spinoza, he said, most have stopped teaching us how to lead our lives well. They preferred to build great intellectual edifices. For him, Buddhism seemed to fill a void left by modern philosophers. In the United States, I heard him advocating Buddhism, which was supposed to be my job!
As a Westerner, how did you perceive your masters and live with them, in this very particular mode of operation, particularly in relation to money, to donations from the faithful, in the face of the immense surrounding poverty?
Matthew Ricard: As for my masters, Kangyur Rinpoche was living on three pennies in a small cabin with his family when I met him. In Tibet, a wandering monk, he lived on alms. In Tibetan culture, it is a joy for the laity. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, my second master, lived twenty-five years in caves and hermitages. I could clearly see the difficulties of the populations among whom I lived in India and Nepal. But I couldn’t do much, living on the equivalent of 50 euros a month myself. On the other hand, as soon as the money came through books, with Rabjam Rinpoche4 and some friends, we started the humanitarian projects that became Karuna-Shechen. More communist than me for the redistribution of goods, you will not find! 98% of what I earned went back to serving others. However, I kept half of my father’s inheritance to take care of my mother, and it was very good for me, because at 98, she has nothing.
4. Rabjam Rinpoche, Abbot of Shechen Monastery, Nepal.
You have served your second master, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, even helping him in the most intimate aspects of life…
Matthew Ricard: I was doing this with immense joy, to be his disciple. For thirteen years, I received his teaching. I was there all the time, I accompanied him, I lived with him and it was the least we could do to help him, to be useful. It was a huge privilege.
Autofocus: Matthieu Ricard talks about Kangyour Rinpoche
“There emanated from Kangyur Rinpoche, my “root” master, a peaceful benevolent force. Love, wisdom, knowledge, nobility, simplicity, fortitude, coherence… In the presence of a remarkable being, the best thing is to open our heart, our soul, and let ourselves be imbued with his qualities, then to persevere, throughout life… An authentic spiritual master has nothing to gain or lose, but everything to share. He seeks no recognition, no personal advantage. In the East, the choice of master is therefore based on knowledge and experience. Imposters have little chance of emerging and, if they tried the adventure, they would quickly be discredited. Through photography, I am delighted to have been able, for half a century, to highlight the inner beauty of the spiritual masters I have met and the outer beauty of the world in which they lived. »
Notebooks of a wandering monk