The Monk and the Writer

Pico Iyer and Matthieu Ricard Explore Happiness

by Felicia M. Tomasko

Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard has had the opportunity in the past month to carry out his contemplative practice of meditation. After 40 days in his small hermitage in the mountains in Nepal, he was held up an additional week in the high-altitude kingdom due to political insurgency. He crossed battle lines at 3 a.m. in order to board a plane. Upon arriving in his home country of France, he spent 10 days and nights in a hospital room at the bedside of his father, the celebrated philosopher and writer Jean-François Revel (with whom Ricard coauthored The Monk and the Philosopher), before Revel died on April 30.

While he felt it pretentious to say that he drew upon his years of training to endure this intense stretch, Ricard did notice a confirmation of his practice, and commented that it was helpful to feel some sense of inner resources. Ricard described his experience in France as a continuation of his retreat. “To help and serve my father and be with him, in a way it’s a profound time. I don’t feel sad, depressed, or despondent.”

This experience of finding serenity even in the midst of sorrow is the subject of Matthieu Ricard’s newest work, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill. While they were both in Zurich, writer Pico Iyer invited Ricard to dialogue in Santa Barbara. More than many Buddhist monks who themselves embody the ideals of creating equanimity in the mind, Iyer feels that Ricard uniquely “dissolves the difference between East and West.”

Some of this comes from Ricard’s unique background: He grew up in Paris, his parents a prominent intellectual and a painter. He earned a PhD in molecular biology from the Institut Pasteur, but had already met his first Buddhist teacher, Kangyur Rinpoche, a meeting that changed Ricard’s life due to the palpable force of compassion and serenity he felt emanating from the older man. Ricard left Paris for India in 1972 on a search for finding a different sort of truth than what’s seen through a microscope.

Ricard describes himself as a happy person, and insists it is a skill cultivated through practice. He wrote Happiness to dispel what he describes as misunderstandings about happiness. Rather than happiness coming from acquiring or achieving, Ricard maintains that happiness is a mental skill, a deep pervading state of joy and steadiness that can actually be developed. Some of the misconception around happiness may come from a point made by Iyer: “Pleasure and happiness, we think of them as being interchangeable.”

But the experience of true happiness, according to Ricard, is akin to “the depth of the ocean, where essential happiness comes,” as opposed to the storms, or even the beautiful weather on the water’s surface. The ability to dive into the ocean’s depths comes from honing one’s powers of perception. Doing so requires attention and practice.

Throughout the book, Ricard provides practical exercises for actually cultivating these practices, such as imagining one situation seen from two different states of mind to feel the impact of perception. He also devotes pages to exploring recent scientific research, of which he has been a participant and subject, using brain-imaging techniques to investigate the effects of training the mind through meditation. These experiments have provided profound insights into our understanding of the nature of the mind. Iyer feels that Ricard is someone who himself embodies these qualities of the mind, of loving, kindness, altruism, and compassion. Iyer said of Ricard, “As soon as I met him, I felt calm.”

4•1•1 Matthieu Ricard and Pico Iyer will be discussing Happiness (Little, Brown, and Company, 2006, 281 pages) at the Victoria Hall Theater on Saturday, May 13, at 3 p.m. Call 893-3535.

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