Matthieu Ricard: Renaissance Monk

Features Issue 25 Aug, 2010

Matthieu Ricard is the son of  renowned French philosopher-writer Jean Francois  Revel. Originally trained as a scientist, he worked as a researcher in the cellular genetics department of the prestigious Pasteur Institute with Francois Jacob, who won the Nobel Prize for medicine. In 1967, Matthieu Ricard met the Tibetan Buddhist master Kangyur Rinpoche in Darjeeling, India. Over a period of several years, Matthieu increasingly devoted himself to Buddhist practice, also studying with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche for twelve years in Bhutan and Nepal; helping to develop Shechen Monastery in Boudha; serving as translator for the Dalai Lama; writing, taking photographs for, and translating nearly a dozen Buddhist books; making one film; guiding several philanthropic projects; and occasionally giving Buddhist teachings. He currently resides at Shechen Monastery in Boudha. The following is an edited interview with ECS Editor Sujal Jane Dunipace. (All photos in the article were taken by Matthieu Ricard.)

Sujal: Tell us about your decision to devote your life to Buddhist practice.
Matthieu: I was twenty years old when I met Kangyur Rinpoche in June 1967. Its hard to describe how important this meeting was. The presence of the person speaks for the authenticity of who the person is. Sometimes you meet very talented, famous, powerful or rich people, but you’re not inspired by the person. Kangyur Rinpoche was radiating goodness. It was his person, his being, that made such an impression on me: the depth, strength, serenity and love that emanated from him and opened my mind. This was a simple, direct experience, but also so profound that I always find it difficult to describe. You can recognize human and spiritual perfection when you see it, but the usual words that come to mind just aren’t enough.

It was only after getting back from India, during my first year at the Institut Pasteur, that I realized how important that meeting with my teacher had been. That quality of his kept coming back to my mind all the time. I became aware that I’d found a reality that could inspire my whole life and give it direction and meaning, even if I still couldn’t say exactly how. I went back to Darjeeling every summer during my vacations. I wasn’t sure about what I was going to do. I asked Kangyur Rinpoche his advice. He said, “Before making any big decision, finish what you started.” Over five or six years my path became increasingly clear. I was twenty-six when I finished my PhD. I realized that while I was with my teacher I could easily forget the Institut Pasteur and everything about my life in Europe, but while I was at the Institut Pasteur my thoughts would always be flying off to the Himalayas. So I took a decision that I’ve never regretted since: to go and live where I wanted to be! It was all joy, no hesitation, completely harmonious.

I didn’t move from Darjeeling for seven years. I lived with my teacher until his death in 1975, and then continued to practice in a small hut just above the monastery. It was an important period of complete practice and study. I was completely cut off from the world in the sense that I had nothing of what people usually hear as news. I mostly remember this as an incredibly happy time. It was very simple, getting rid of unnecessary things. The life of renunciation is not depriving yourself, being unhappy all the time because you don’t have ice cream or don’t go to movies! It is mostly about renouncing the causes of suffering. Now I listen to the BBC and engage in lots of different activities, but these are the kind of things that one can drop the next day, just close the door and go back to the hermitage.

S: How did you come to Nepal?
M: I began studying with my second main teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who was living then in Bhutan. I became one of his disciples and attendants. Once when I had thoughts of joining a three-year retreat, he told me, “While I’m alive, stay with me.” It was such an incredible teaching to be with this living example of dharma. Khyentse Rinpoche was trained in all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism (Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu and Geluk). He was one of His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s main teachers.

Khyentse Rinpoche had been a wandering yogi who spent thirty years in meditation in caves and hermitages, but his first teacher came from Shechen Monastery in Kham, eastern Tibet. Shechen had one hundred and sixty branches that were all destroyed during the Chinese invasion of Tibet. Tibetans refugees have rebuilt many of their monasteries in exile. Khyentse Rinpoche wanted to re-build Shechen in Nepal to preserve its rich spiritual heritage. He chose Nepal because it is a sacred place, with the great stupas of Boudhanath and Swayambunath. Personally, I love being here. There is everything from the tropics to the highest mountains.

S: What was it like when the building of Shechen Gompa began?
M:  When the building was started, back in 1979, there was nothing around the stupa, just rice fields and the mountains. The Chini Lama [traditional ruler of Boudha] had the only phone; if you did prostrations then he’d let you use it! Back then it was about Rs 3000 per ropani of land; now it’s about 25 lakhs!

We had fifty artists here at first, making paintings, frescoes, copper statues, and filling them with relics, mantras, stones from various holy places etc... Most people don’t realize that there’s as much work inside a statue as outside. Everything was done the traditional way. Although the original Shechen in Tibet was a Nyingma monastery, the frescoes at Shechen  in Boudha are non-sectarian. After the artists, more and more monks came. Now, under the inspiration of Rabjam Rinpoche (who is Khyentse Rinpoche’s grandson and the 7th incarnation of the founder of Shechen in Tibet) Shechen is flourishing as an educational and charitable institution.

S: Shechen has many projects: the clinic, the art school, and so on. How did those come about?
M: As the Tibetan refugee community became prosperous, it became clear that the time had come to do some social work. Rabjam Rinpoche was also very inspired by the humanitarian works of Mother Theresa and Princess Diana. In addition, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has always said that Buddhist communities should devote themselves more and more to charitable projects.

With the help of a few remarkable people, we started Shechen clinic, which is enthusiastically managed by Dominique Marchal, in 2001. We now have 3500 patients per month, about half of them getting services for free. It was the same with the Tsering Art School, which is directed by a wonderful artist, Konchok Lhadrepa, helped by very competent people. It offers a six-year course in traditional Buddhist painting. We also have a philosophical college, headed by Khenpo Gyurme Tsultrim, which hosts one hundred monks studying for nine years. And we have established and support eight schools and eighteen clinics in India and Tibet.

S: How did you become an interpreter for the Dalai Lama?
M: I met His Holiness several times when Khyentse Rinpoche was offering him some teachings. Once, I happened to be in France, when His Holiness visited Paris in 1989, and I translated for him. Since then, whenever he has needed a French interpreter, he was kind enough to call me. It is an incredible opportunity to be in his presence for some days or weeks. There is a perfect harmony between what he says and what he is, between the inside and the outside. He is always kind and completely the same with a president, a gardener, or on his own. There is no element of show in his manner; he is always meditating on compassion and trying to implement that. To be with him is the best teaching one can have.

S: Tell us about your books.

M: Really, they just happened. Once, someone called me to talk about doing a book based on a dialogue with my father. I thought I’d never hear from them again. But my father accepted and we had wonderful conversations [published in 1997 as The Monk and the Philosopher, which sold 360,000 copies in France and was translated into 21 languages]. Similarly, The Quantum and the Lotus, another dialogue, was triggered by a meeting with the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan, and our last photo book, Buddhist Himalayas, was born of a collaboration with another photographer, Olivier Follmi. In October, A Plea for Happiness, was released in France, with already 90,000 copies in print.

Strangely enough, there is a big debate about happiness in France. Some French intellectuals say that they are not interested in happiness. On the other hand, His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book, The Art of Happiness, which says that happiness is the goal of life, was also extremely popular in France. How can people have such different ideas about such an important concept? It seemed to me that they were not speaking about the same thing and I thought it was worth trying to  clarify the concept of genuine happiness. From a Buddhist viewpoint, sukha, authentic well-being, means not merely a pleasurable feeling, but a deep sense of serenity and fulfillment that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind. It is a way of being that underlies and suffuses all emotional states, that embraces all the joys and sorrows that come one’s way. It’s a state of being that one can definitely cultivate. We are not born wise or learned. Sukha is something that’s a result of an inner transformation.

S: Other than the obvious fact that you are French, why are your books especially popular in France?
M: I don’t know why, but Buddhism is really growing in France. There are about five million Buddhist sympathizers in France, even though only about 50,000 are actually practicing it.

S: You’ve stated that you think westerners are interested in Buddhism in part because of our wish for exchange and openness and because of the greater access to accomplished teachers who left Tibet. What else makes Buddhism so attractive to westerners these days?
M: People need a practice they can apply every moment in life. In monotheistic religions, there are some people who trust God at every moment of their lives, but not many any more. In Buddhism your mind and the practice must become one; this is very appealing.

Psychoanalysis is sometimes rather depressing; in many cases, it involves a huge effort that brings uncertain results. Its difficult to become a better person by thinking about yourself day and night. There is a 2500-year old tradition in Buddhism to try to understand how the mind works and deal with the arising of thoughts and emotions in the present moment, not through ruminating the past. People are able to use that, to move towards genuine happiness. Buddhism is essentially a contemplative science.

S: How have you continued your scientific work with your Buddhist practice?
M: Besides the discussions on science in The Quantum and the Lotus [subtitled “A Journey to the Frontiers where Science and Buddhism Meet”], I’ve been involved in the Mind and Life Institute meetings held between the Dalai Lama and prominent scientists over the past twelve years.

For three years, a number of research programs have been started to study how many years of mind training changes the brain. The scientists, such as Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin [Madison, Wisconsin, U.S.A.], have been working with practitioners who have done at least 10,000 hours of meditation. They are trying to find out how meditative states focusing on attention, compassion or pure awareness act on the brain. Paul Ekman, the world expert in reading emotions and facial expressions, is also involved. They have got people spending hours in the MRI [magnetic resonance imaging machine], or with 256 electrodes attached to their heads. Preliminary results indicate that mind training does change your brain in a durable way. Meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree! This could be a very useful contribution from Buddhist practice to the world. I think there will be good and robust results that show that contemplative practice can contribute something meaningful to everyone’s life.

S: With your background and situation, do you feel you have a particular role to play?

M: I hope to serve as a small bridge. In the Mind and Life Institute project, I can help to devise some experiments and to interpret between the meditators and the scientists, not only for the language, but also for the ideas.

Beyond that, I have no particular agenda, just to make use of what I have learned. It is said that the best way to repay one’s teacher’s kindness is to practice.