Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life

Posted by nliakos on June 27, 2012

by Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard (Schocken, 1998, translated by John Canti) (originally published as Le Moine et le Philosophe: Le Bouddhisme Aujourd’hui by NiL éditions, 1997)

Jean-François Revel is a writer and editor in Paris; his son, Matthieu Ricard (they never explain how the son’s last name is different from the father’s) is a Buddhist monk in Nepal. The book is a transcription of conversations between the two. I expected more of a two-way dialogue, but it is actually more like the father interviewing the son about Tibetan Buddhism (if they had not changed the subtitle, I would have figured that out).

I found Revel rather aggressive at first. He seemed to be trying to get Ricard to admit to some faults in Buddhism, trying first one way and then another to discredit it. For example, in one chapter he asks his son if “a real synthesis….something more than a mutual tolerance” is possible between Buddhism and the West. Ricard responds that some Westerners are using Buddhist techniques in an effort to understand their own religion better. Revel calls that “syncretism–mixing up bits borrowed here and there from different doctrines” and sniffs, “hardly the most elevated form of thought!”  I’m not sure what the difference between synthesis and syncretism is, but I guess they must be kind of similar. It wasn’t clear to me what Revel found distasteful about Ricard’s response, exactly.

Revel also keeps harping on the question of whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. He concludes that it’s a philosophy, and then he returns to the question as if he can’t accept that. He is constantly comparing Buddhist thought or practice to this or that Western philosopher, either ancient or modern. So I did, after all, learn something about the history of Western thought.

Revel is an atheist and a believer in the power of science to improve people’s lives, but he readily admits that while science and technology can improve people’s quality of life, they do nothing to increase the amount of happiness in the world or decrease the amount of suffering, which is the goal of Buddhism. As I read, it occurred to me that in fact, science and technology are responsible for making our lives worse in many ways: they enable us to kill more efficiently and more horrifically; they are the source of deadly pollution and habitat destruction; they help us to destroy whole populations of other living beings (think: coastal redwoods, fish, tigers, snail darters, etc.); and even in helping us to live longer, they are responsible for the overcrowding of the Earth. No one is happier in his or her human relationships because of some new technology or scientific discovery–as convenient or as interesting as they are. It is a mistake to think that a longer, healthier life is necessarily going to be a happier life.

In the end, Ricard has not budged from his position, but Revel has “become more appreciative of Buddhism as a system of wisdom…. Buddhism fills a gap left vacant by the desertion of Western philosophy in the area of ethics and the art of living.”

I did not understand every detail, but it was interesting and I did learn a lot, not only about Tibetan Buddhism but also about the history of Western thought.

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