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
), 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

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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