Matthieu Ricard was born into an intellectual family in France in 1946. After receiving a Ph.D. in cellular genetics he decided to forsake his scientific training to go to India to meet a spiritual teacher. Ricard ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk and spent many years as both a student and attendant of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the most respected Tibetan teachers of our time.
Since his teacher’s death in 1991, Ricard has helped implement projects to build schools, clinics and orphanages in Tibet, Nepal and India. He serves as the French interpreter for His Holiness the Dalai Lama and has translated a number of Tibetan Buddhist texts. He has also found time to author best-selling books on the interface of Buddhism and science and to publish collections of his photographs of the Himalayan masters, people, culture and landscapes. (A review of his new photography book, Tibet: An Inner Journey, appears in this issues’s Reviews section.)
Following the publication of his new book Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill (Little, Brown, and Company), we interviewed Ricard in Berkeley, California, in May 2006. To begin the interview, we got down on our knees to pay respects to him, but Ricard instantly implored us, “No! Please don’t bow to me; bow to the Buddha.” The monk then joined us on the floor and we began the conversation in a gale of laughter.
—Ronna Kabatznick & Margaret Cullen
Matthieu Ricard: My recent book on happiness is intended to help people identify and investigate the mechanisms of happiness and suffering—and to see them in the light of wisdom. It should not be labeled a “Buddhist book” in the sense that it will be of interest only to those who follow Buddhist teachings. If a Japanese scientist discovers a new type of subatomic particle, the particle doesn’t become Japanese. People who investigate the mind through the Buddha’s teaching will find truths that are human, truths that are universal.
Inquiring Mind: Does the happiness you write about require the kind of renunciation that you have chosen as a monk?
MR: Renunciation is a much misunderstood concept. Renunciation is not about depriving ourselves of that which truly brings us joy and happiness—that would be absurd. Rather, it is about abandoning that which causes us inexhaustible and relentless distress. It doesn’t mean that everyone must become a monastic. However, shining the light of monasticism on our situation can be very revealing. What is a monastic? He or she should be someone who is no longer interested in the worldly preoccupations of gain and loss, pleasure and pain, fame and obscurity, praise and blame. A monastic should be less likely to perpetuate those preoccupations and not be overly concerned with having many possessions, keeping up a household, or holding a job.
IM: When you chose to enter a monastery, wasn’t there a feeling of deprivation or of loss?
MR: From what? From a cage? Renunciation is not depriving yourself of anything, but rather eliminating the nuisances that prevent you from achieving your potential. Renunciation is probably the wrong word. Why not say “inner freedom”? You are freeing yourself from sources of dissatisfaction and, as a result, happiness naturally arises. It is very fulfilling to become free of entanglements, there’s no question about that. But real freedom doesn’t depend on becoming a monastic, though this may help some people a lot. The question we all have to ask ourselves is, how much are we tied up with usual everyday concerns that cause us suffering?
IM: Would you consider the desire for happiness to be a wholesome desire?
MR: Desire is a purely neutral drive. You can have desire for anything—to save the planet, to free all sentient beings from suffering. These are desires and aspirations to do noble work. But when desires become entangled with craving, experience shows that craving leads to suffering.
IM: How do desires turn into craving?
MR: Desire usually starts with an image. If the image is enticing and promises pleasure, it triggers a chain reaction. There is a thirst to attract or to obtain the object seen in the mental image. From that point, we start superimposing on reality. We begin to perceive only the desirable qualities of the object, and soon all its negative aspects and consequences become invisible.
For instance, if you see candy that looks delicious, you don’t see that you might get sick by eating too much of it, or that it’s bad for your health. In fact, the actual experience of eating candy is not all that pleasurable if you eat too much. But all too often, there is no recognition of the changing nature of pleasure. All you see is the complete desirability of what you want, which is why objects of desire become obsessions.
Getting what you want does generate some elements of pleasure, but that pleasure triggers new craving because the pleasurable sensations are ephemeral, or become neutralized and fade away. Nonetheless, you remember an object of desire as something pleasurable and you want to renew it; the memory establishes a cycle of wanting in the brain. So at some point, which is very interesting in neuroscience, the pleasure can wane and yet the wanting continues. When you build up a strong desire for something and it’s not even enjoyable, then you’re really caught.
IM: So many of our desires become habitual even when they’ve ceased to give us pleasure. The Buddha said, “It is easier to conquer an army of a thousand a thousand times over, than it is to change one habit.” What is your experience?
MR: We may conquer a thousand external enemies, but the one to conquer is within. Shantideva, the author of The Way of the Bodhisattva, said, “To try to cover the whole Earth with leather is a hopeless task. But to put on shoes of leather is equivalent to covering the Earth.” Our enemy is not outside; the only and ultimate enemy is hatred inside. If hatred disappears, then the notion of enemy also disappears. We cannot hope for some magic solution or potion that will rid us of all the thoughts and moods that cause suffering. These are deeply conditioned and require years of practice to overcome.
IM: Must it always take many more lifetimes to purify conditioning?
MR: It can be much faster than that. It depends on our wisdom and the intensity of our practice. We need to see into the deep nature of mind and learn how to let go of thoughts more quickly. Instead of having thoughts invade the mind with anger or desire, we need to cultivate immediate awareness of these thoughts and reactions so that they will not overpower our mind. When the habitual thoughts have no impact and don’t lead to chain reactions, the habit becomes irrelevant.
IM: When we want to let go of unpleasant mental states such as anger and fear, isn’t there a risk of using suppression or denial?
MR: It makes sense to want to get rid of mental toxins once there is recognition of how much trouble they create. At some point we grow impatient and say, “Enough is enough.” The problem now is that we’re impatient and get upset if we can’t get rid of the aversion.
We need to be patient and persevere as we practice to gradually eliminate mental poisons. Anger is part of the normal light and shadow of life. First we need to accept that this is the way things are right now. But this is just a beginning. Then we need to see anger like any other phenomenon. For instance, let’s say I enter a new house that has features that I do not want. I don’t have to get upset. I can acknowledge that some things are broken, it’s not well painted, or that I have a lot of work to do. If I throw a fit but don’t try to change things, I’m like the person who wants to immediately get rid of anger and then gets upset that it is still there. Realizing that there is anger and it makes a lot of trouble is an important first step.
We can be mindful and accept that we are in an undesirable situation, but we do not have to just accept it forever. That would be a defeatist approach. Also, if we revolt against ourself, we will become even more upset. There is no need to add critical judgments, such as “I don’t like myself. I’m hopeless.” That is only compounding the problem. It’s more skillful to realize, “This is the situation; there are plenty of ways to resolve it with insight and perseverance. It may take time, but I’m going to dissolve that unwanted state of mind.” This is not a “let it be” approach.
IM: Although these are the most skillful ways to resolve situations, do you see any role for constructive anger? Is anger necessarily afflictive? You talk about constructive anger in your book.
MR: I’d rather call it indignation, because that makes it clear that there is no such thing as “constructive” anger. The word anger always carries the wish to harm. Indignation means not accepting injustice, unfairness, massacres or other unacceptable behaviors that cause suffering. Indignation is the opposite of indifference or lack of concern, and it can imply using energetic means to change a situation.
IM: How is indignation different from compassion?
MR: It’s not different. That’s why the wrathful deities exist in Buddhism. They represent extreme forms of compassion. When a mother sees her child about to be run over by a car, she’s not going to softly suggest, “Please get out of the way.” She’s going to grab the child so he doesn’t get run over.
IM: But if there is indignation, isn’t it possible that one will be angry at the perpetrator, whereas with compassion, there would be no anger?
MR: What we need is a strong response, not anger. If our response has a component of harmfulness, even if it’s supposedly meant for good, it has a negative component. We are better off doing the same active intervention without anger. All we really need is to understand the causes and circumstances that lead to suffering. Then we can swiftly prevent the suffering from arising or do our best to remedy existing suffering. The only reason to speak of “constructive anger” is to counter the notion that the absence of anger is passivity.
IM: What are some of the afflictive emotions that you personally have found challenging?
MR: Laziness. My only regret is not practicing enough. I could die at any moment.
And, at the same time, I find myself involved in a number of humanitarian projects in Asia. His Holiness the Dalai Lama once told me, “If you really have the confidence that you can become like Milarepa, the Tibetan saint, it’s better to give up everything and spend twelve years in total solitude. But if you don’t, it might be advisable to balance your life between useful activities and contemplative practice.”
IM: You seem to be a truly happy person. Were you happy as a child?
MR: A very candid friend of mine said, “You are the wrong person to write a book on happiness, because you never really suffered.” Other friends of the family say that I was quite a nuisance sometimes. I don’t remember having traumas or dramas, and if I did have any, I don’t remember being totally sunk in despair because of them. But of course, I was not always beaming with happiness. As a teenager I felt I had potential for something, but happiness did not mean much to me. I had no clue what kind of potential I had or where it could lead. Maybe it was the potential for happiness.
When I first began to meet enlightened Buddhist teachers, I think I recognized an extraordinary difference in the quality of their very being. This quality was not the same as that of the great musicians, thinkers or poets, each of whom had a particular genius but was not necessarily a perfect human being. This was so obvious to me that I thought, “I want to live in the presence of such people and be inspired by them. I will try to follow in their footsteps.” I have a long, long way to go, maybe thousands of lifetimes, but I feel as though I’m heading in the right direction. It is this sense of a direction that gives meaning to life and transforms the journey into a joyous effort through the ups and downs of life.