Jean-François Revel, Matthieu Ricard

A biologist turned Buddhist in conversation with a philosopher about the meaning of life. If that isn’t interesting by itself, they happen to be son and father. (respectively) World views separated by time and distance. What really works is that Matthieu Ricard and Jean-François Revel have absolute clarity on the points of view they represent, and yet, are not in the discussion to force their perspectives on the other.

The scope of the discussion includes scientific research, metaphysics, politics, psychoanalysis, and obviously religion as both share their perspectives on these topics. In many cases, they seem to arrive at the same destination, but via different paths. 

Outside of religion and the utopian state, Western philosophy (generally) has largely held on to the notion of identity and a refined form of self interest, while the East has (generally) has held the self to be transitory. In fact, Buddhism sees this illusion of the self as that which colours our view and is the chief source of all unhappiness. The ‘imposture’ of the self is what Buddhism seeks to uncover. The West, aided by developments in science, believes that progress in the general human condition itself will automatically better the individual. The argument against that is while it might indeed do that, happiness is probably still not an end result.

It could be a conditioning bias, but I was particularly impressed by the father’s (JF) range of understanding, and at times found the Buddhist perspective too dependent on analogies and metaphors. Of course, it could be because this perspective is also very clear that it is developed from subjective experience and not the “can be tested by anyone and will produce the same results” methodology and proof that traditional science is based on.

This is also connected to my key disappointment that I have still (like JF) not been convinced on the metaphysical aspects of Buddhism – chiefly reincarnation, and seeing consciousness as a flow that can be accessed by an entity even after what we call death. The other part I was not able to reconcile is the claim that the self can be seen objectively. But like I mentioned earlier, these are probably results of subjective experiences that one has to strive towards.

The book is a fantastic read, and is sure to broaden the reader’s thinking on a score of subjects, including the pursuit of happiness.

The Monk and the Philosopher