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

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Jean Francois-Revel, a pillar of French intellectual life in our time, became world famous for his challenges to both Communism and Christianity. Twenty-seven years ago, his son, Matthieu Ricard, gave up a promising career as a scientist to study Tibetan Buddhism -- not as a detached observer but by immersing himself in its practice under the guidance of its greatest living masters.

Meeting in an inn overlooking Katmandu, these two profoundly thoughtful men explored the questions that have occupied humankind throughout its history. Does life have meaning? What is consciousness? Is man free? What is the value of scientific and material progress? Why is there suffering, war, and hatred? Their conversation is not merely abstract: they ask each other questions about ethics, rights, and responsibilities, about knowledge and belief, and they discuss frankly the differences in the way each has tried to make sense of his life.

Utterly absorbing, inspiring, and accessible, this remarkable dialogue engages East with West, ideas with life, and science with the humanities, providing wisdom on how to enrich the way we live our lives.

384 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1997

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About the author

Jean-François Revel

59 books75 followers
Jean-François Revel was a French politician, journalist, author, prolific philosopher and member of the Académie française since June 1998.

He was best known for his books Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun, The Flight from Truth : The Reign of Deceit in the Age of Information and his 2002 book Anti-Americanism, one year after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. In the latter book, Revel criticised those Europeans who argued that the United States had brought about the terrorist attacks upon itself through misguided foreign policies. He wrote thus: "Obsessed by their hatred and floundering in illogicality, these dupes forget that the United States, acting in her own self-interest, is also acting in the interest of us Europeans and in the interests of many other countries, threatened, or already subverted and ruined, by terrorism." In 1975 he delivered the Huizinga Lecture in Leiden, The Netherlands, under the title: La tentation totalitaire (The Totalitarian Temptation).

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 135 reviews
Profile Image for Jon Gauthier.
129 reviews213 followers
February 5, 2017
This book is the first Western introductory Buddhism book I've read that speaks clearly to me.

As a cognitive scientist, I'm interested in Buddhism for reasons both intellectual and spiritual. For example, here are some of the intellectual-level topics I want to address in a study of Buddhism:

— What position does Buddhism take on consciousness and the "hard problem?" How does the Buddhist story of consciousness integrate with reincarnation belief?
— What are the consequences of removing the illusion of "self" for psychological science? How much is our theory blinded by this illusion?
— How will a self-labeled Buddhist react to claims about the parallels between it and ancient Western philosophies (e.g. Stoicism)?

In reading Buddhist teachers (at least, those who write in English), these questions are rarely properly addressed. One of the two following things is bound to happen:

1. (mostly in intro books) Authors focus on the more easily understandable and less philosophically heavy tenets of Buddhism. See e.g. some books on "mindfulness" or the Buddhist "books" which are more like collections of lists.
2. Authors attempt to address these questions at some level, but their responses are often muddled by imprecise metaphor and contradictory claims.

The discussions between Revel and Ricard are the first I have found which really address the intellectual issues, at least in a sort that speaks on Western terms and in a scientifically grounded way.

Mathieu Ricard is a trained scientist, and his father, Jean-François Revel, is a philosopher. The two share a foundation in Western dialectic, which is what makes this book so unique and informative. Revel certainly doesn't pull any punches, and his son is always understanding and prepared with a thorough answer.

The discussion is often quite philosophically rigorous, and the topics covered include some of the big questions I listed above. That rigor is for better and for worse, of course. I found the chapters on topics in philosophy of mind fascinating, but they were pretty jargon-heavy and might not be useful or interesting to someone without a cog-sci background. The discussion was pretty light on other topics—for example, the two did not attempt to elaborate Buddhist ethics and the full meaning of "suffering." I can't evaluate the discussions on metaphysics since I have zero experience in this sort of discourse, but they were interesting at the very least!

(See Ladan's review for a few nice quotes which hint at the theoretical breadth of this book — consciousness, metaphysics, morality, etc.)


For me, this was a great initiation into the more formal theoretical background of Buddhism.

The only substantial disappointment was in some of Ricard's rhetoric. While he is clearly willing to play ball in the discussions and face up to tough questions, he often seems to lapse into a sort of stereotypical Buddhist-monk behavior, drawing vague pictures with metaphor and example rather than keeping the common ground of the discussion. I was frustrated to find, in the middle of some of the most rigorous discussions, responses from Ricard which seemed at best opaque and at worst (though I doubt it) question-dodging.

I highly recommend this book to fellow cognitive scientists, and more generally those curious about some of the theory underlying Buddhism. Don't forget to keep up a daily meditation along with your reading! :)

3.5 stars, rounding up.
19 reviews
August 28, 2012
The concept is promising: a Buddhist monk justifies why he left a promising scientific career in France to become a monk in Tibet to his well-connected father, all under the guise of an intellectual discussion on religion and rational secularism. And both men are extremely well-educated, bright and articulate. My heart just wasn't in it. Try as I might, I just couldn't get past the father's irritating, narrow-minded elitism. The son offers wonderfully clear explanations of Buddhist tenets, but I couldn't help but be annoyed by his wholesale dismissal of Western spirituality. He complains he didn't find spiritual role models among his family and friends - and then proceeds to drop a dazzling array of names in the arts and intellectual elite. Did it ever occur to him that he might look in churches and monasteries rather than cocktail parties? This refusal to investigate our own (Western) spiritual traditions and the insistence on claiming the traditions of others worries me: an odd sort of cultural imperialism. And didn't the Dalai Lama specifically recommend that we look at what our own traditions have to teach us?
Profile Image for darío hereñú.
112 reviews12 followers
January 29, 2012
Para mi gusto, se acerca (peligrosamente) al libro ideal. Ideas que disparan ideas más reaccionarias, filosofía, las todopoderosas ciencias duras, el entrecruzamiento del pensamiento occidental y oriental y lo que genera y degenera en ese desmadre. El diálogo entre padre e hijo, entre un filósofo y un científico y posterior monje budista, el ateísmo de uno y el desapego del otro, el constructor de ideas y el desarmador, el brillante intelectual y la sabiduría antiquísima del otro, la ignorancia occidental por todo lo oriental de uno y la aceptación del otro sobre la talidad de todos los objetos que nos circundan (no es todo samsara en esta vida).
El libro es harto simple. Un diálogo en la cual ambos van exponiendo sus pareceres, sus puntos de vista y quizás lo mejor: ambos asumen los límites que existen aun hoy en la ciencia y en la religión (aunque no creo que el Budismo sea una religión per se, Siddharta Gautama no exigió jamás que crean en su palabra: es más, que se atrevan a ponerla en duda) para dar respuestas a los seres humanos.
Extrañamente, el monje es quien me ha generado mayores sorpresas. Por momentos, su visión holística del ethos humano resulta sobrehumana.
Al punto que en cierta página (dato al pasar: entre las páginas 105 y 111) oblitera -en solamente un párrafo- el corpus de una religión. Siglos de hermenéutica, de ortodoxia, de milagros, de castidades, de claustros monacales, de verdades reveladas, de dogmas, quedan literalmente inútiles si las confrontamos con esas 112 palabras.
Entre los mejores libros que he leído en esta vida.
Y probablemente en la próxima.
Profile Image for Jacob Elder.
5 reviews12 followers
March 3, 2016
I had some difficulty determining how I felt about this book by the end. It began with so much potential and was really an interesting way of introducing Buddhist teachings and ideologies through a Western lens. I began thoroughly engaged and immersed in the efforts of the son (or the monk) to properly convey his understanding of Buddhist wisdom to a skeptical and scientific community.

However, as the book went on I became a bit disenchanted with some of the patterns. As the father begins to press with some of the most challenging questions regarding Buddhism, especially about the metaphysical aspects of the practice, his son prevaricates the questions and returns to seemingly the same suggestions time and time again. It felt like it became redundant, as the father often only scratched the surface, and didn't press the son further when a truly challenging or difficult topic to address arose. While I was excited about the book at the beginning, it became tiresome as it went on, due to the father's lack of insistence upon pressing further on the most compelling questions and what felt like rather weak answers by the son towards his father's inquiries (especially in the metaphysical discussion).

All in all, it's a decent read. I feel it could be shortened, as there was quite a lot of redundancy in the son's questions and it lost it's intrigue when the son returned to similar answers many times over. Nevertheless, it's an interesting introduction into Buddhism for the Westerner who has an affinity for science and empiricism, and a penchant for skepticism.
Profile Image for Nuno R..
Author 7 books56 followers
October 29, 2018
A work of intelectual honesty, of inter-cultural respect and of father-son love. Through these pages, Jean François-Revel does not hold back any of his hard questions about spirituality and religion, nor does his son Matthieu Ricard try to dodge them. The result is a frank, deep talk, about some of the most fundamental questions that humans have studied and meditated about for thousands of years. All in a reunion of two sharp minds, that took place near the high mountains that are now the home of the son, a monk that became one of the voices of Tibetan Buddhism worldwide and has been called "the happiest man in the world".
Profile Image for Jon Boorstin.
Author 6 books54 followers
June 14, 2015
This is a fine investigation of Buddhist philosophy by an eminent French humanist and his son, a Buddhist monk with a phd in biology. They know what a proof is. Beautifully balanced and fair minded, with an ear for the resonances between different schools of thought. Should we strive for personal success, or is that striving a snare and a delusion? What is success, truly? And how to be truly fulfilled? These two men love each other and respect each other's views. Honest and illuminating.
Profile Image for Ladan.
69 reviews
February 6, 2009
"If man is no more than his neurons, it's hard to understand how sudden events or deep reflection and the discovery of inner truths could lead us to completely change the way we see the world, how we live and our capacity for inner joy. Any such major upheaval would have to be accompanied by an equally deep and sudden major restructuring of the complex circuits of neurons that determine our habits and behavior. If, on the other hand, consciousness is a nonmaterial continuum, there's no reason why it shouldn't be able to undergo major changes quite easily, and much more flexibly than a network of physical connections formed during a slow and complex process."

"What we're talking about here is the idea of a permanent Creator entity, sufficient in itself, without any cause preceding it, creating things as a voluntary act... Let's take all-powerfulness for instance. A Creator would have to be all-powerfful. Either the Creator doesn't 'decide' to create, in which case all-powerfulness is lost, for creation happens outside his will; or he creates voluntarily, in which case he can't be all-powerful, either, as he's creating under the influence of his desire to create... Can a Creator be a permanent entity? No, because after creating he's different from how he was before he created. He's become 'he who created'."

"Colors, sounds, smells, flavors, and textures aren't attributes that are inherent to the objective world, existing independently of our senses... What is the true nature of the world as it exists independently of ourselves? We have no way of knowingm because our only way of apprehending it is via our own mental processes. So, according to Buddhism, a 'world' independent of any conceptual designation would make no sense to anyone. To take an example, what is a white object? A wavelength, a 'color temperature', moving particles?... None of those attributes are intrinsic to the object, they're only the result of our particular ways of investigating it. Buddhist scriptures tell the story of two blind men who wanted to have explained to them what colors were. One of them was told that white was the color of snow. He took a handful of snow and concluded that white was 'cold'. The other blind man was told that white was the color of swans. He heard a swan flying overhead, and concluded that white went 'swish swish'. The world can't be determined by itself. If it was, we'd all perceive it in the same way. That's not to deny reality as we observe it, nor to say that there's no reality outside the mind, but simply that no 'reality in itself' exists."

"If spiritual values stop being an inspiration for a society, material progress becomes a sort of facade that masks the pointlessness of life. Of course, to live longer is to profit from an increased opportunity of giving meaning to life, but if you neglect that opportunity and just aspire to a long and comfortable existence the value of human life becomes altogether artificial."
Profile Image for Eugénio Outeiro.
Author 1 book2 followers
August 13, 2012
O monge, Matthieu Ricard, brilha desde a primeira página. O filósofo, Jean-François Revel, sabe fazer as perguntas certas para que o resultado final seja uma visão bastante funda do budismo em geral, e da tradição tibetana em concreto.

Acho que o livro consegue mostrar à perfeição os pontos comuns entre a filosofia, como conhecimento mais teórico, e o budismo, como conhecimento baseado na prática contemplativa, que serve de base a todos os seus conhecimentos. É curioso ver, nesse sentido, como o filósofo não entende, e insiste no pouco que lhe convence, a metafísica budista.

Não dou cinco estrelas só porque, de um ponto de vista mais vital, acho que falta coração. Ou por outras palavras, vi-me levado à leitura do livro, entre outros muitos atrativos, porque se tratava de um conversa entre um pai e um filho, e no entanto, as conversas, levadas sobretudo da mão do filósofo, passam totalmente por cima das pessoas reais, de carne e osso e com sentimentos, que participam delas.

Dum ponto de vista mais terrenal, é preciso dizer que a ideologia liberal do filósofo, e a situação de ocupação do Tibet, dão lugar a críticas ao comunismo que, sem deixar de serem justas no que diz respeito à situação concreta, são muitas vezes extrapoladas de forma gratuita (por parte do filósofo) a toda a esquerda mundial. Reconheço que isso não me resultou agradável.
Profile Image for Leland Beaumont.
Author 4 books31 followers
December 16, 2012
The relationship between father and son is always complex. Fathers want the best for their sons, and sons balance a natural tension of wanting to learn from father, and live up to his father’s expectations, while exploring all that is new and exciting in the world. It is a respectful yet powerful tension between old and new, experience and novelty, obedience and autonomy, belief and curiosity, advice and adventure. This tension is richly realized throughout the remarkable dialogue created by these two brilliant men. The monk shares and explains what he learns from his years of conscientious practice of the Buddhist traditions. The philosopher critically analyzes what the monk presents and compares it to the philosophical traditions of the West while struggling to learn from his son.

The philosopher-father begins by asking the monk-son why he decided to leave a promising career as a molecular biologist to commit himself completely to the Buddhist practice. “In short”, he answers, “science however interesting wasn’t enough to give meaning to my life.” Based on the limited exposure he had to the contemplative lifestyle through extraordinary documentary films by Arnaud Desjardins, he saw that the monks were the most sincerely happy people he knew of, and he wanted to explore and experience their authentic lifestyle for himself. “I had the impression of seeing the living beings who were the very image of what they taught.” He goes on to say, “here were beings who seemed to be the living examples of wisdom.” He met the Tibetan Buddhist lama, Kangyur Rinpoche and eventually studied with him for years until the teacher’s death in 1975. He went on to study with Khysntse Rinpoche for 12 more years and was ordained as a monk in 1979. The younger monk seems wholly content with his decision.

“Suffering is the result of ignorance,” he learned, and “ignorance, in essence is belief in a truly existing self and in the solidly of phenomena”. However skeptical at first, observing the perfect being of his teacher convinced him of this truth and inspired him to absorb himself in the practice. He went on to learn that negative emotions arise from the notion of a self, the “me” that we all cherish, however, “attachment to the self is a fact, but the self that is the object of that attachment has no true existence; it exists nowhere and in no way as an autonomous and permanent entity.” Destructive thoughts, such as hatred, are “liberated by looking at their nature”, recognizing that thoughts have no substance, and releasing yourself from the illusion of their grip.

To dissolve a thought, begin by breaking the flow of thoughts for a few minutes. Just remain in awareness of the present moment, free of any conscious thoughts. As thoughts reappear, begin to examine the nature of discursive thoughts, looking for their source and substance, until you reach a state of ‘not found’ where thoughts vanish without leaving a trace. With the thought dissolved you can enter a state of inner simplicity, clear mindfulness, and awareness absent of any concepts. The monk attests that “working on oneself inwardly in this way gets rid of hatred, desire, jealousy, pride, and everything else that disturbs the mind.”

The extraordinary introspective skills and beliefs of Buddhist monks are the results of years of conscientious practice guided by “contemplative science.” The philosopher is skeptical, and refuses to accept evidence that is not materially observable by anyone wishing to see for himself. The monk compares the feats of Buddhist contemplatives to the skills of an Olympic athlete, who after many years of training, can jump 8 feet high. Certainly the ability to jump that high is extraordinary, and greatly exceeds the ability of any untrained athlete. We would not believe this was possible if we could not go to a track meet or watch coverage on TV and see extraordinary athletes repeating this amazing skill. The skills of highly trained monks are equally extraordinary, but not observable by others. However we can consider reliable testimony by many credible practitioners who have no reason to mislead or deceive. “A statement can be accepted as valid”, the monk argues, “when there are substantial reasons for believing the person making it”. In addition, we can directly observe the serenity of these expert practitioners.

“Action on the world is desirable”, the monk tells his father, “while inner transformation is indispensable.”, “This opening of the eyes of wisdom” he says referring to dismissing the illusions, “Increases your strength of mind, your diligence, and your capacity to take appropriate and altruistic action.” This requires a strong mind, an unshakable certainty, and a radiant personality, without the slightest trace of ego, selfishness, or self-centeredness. “If a prisoner wants to free his companions in misfortune, he must first break out of his own chains”, the monk assures us, “It’s the only way to do it”. The philosopher asks, “Do you mean that the only way to attain lasting peace in the world is the reform of the individuals?” The monk replies, “To think otherwise is surely utopian.” “In any case,” the monk elaborates, “the first thing is to make peace within oneself — inner disarmament; then peace in the family; then in the village; and finally in the nation and beyond.”

“Western efficiency is a major contribution to minor needs” the son proposes to his skeptical father, “What Buddhism could help to change is the overall attitude that consists of giving priority to ‘having’ over ‘being’. It’s a matter of establishing a new order of values, giving priority to the quest for inner well-being.” Buddhism provides a vision of tolerance, open-mindedness, altruism, quiet confidence, a science of the mind through which all people, including westerners, can find their own inner peace. Buddhism simply offers to share an experience with anyone who wishes. The point isn’t to convert people but to contribute to their well-being.

A disturbing chapter describes the Chinese invasion, occupation, and on-going destruction of Tibet, its people, and its culture since 1950. Millions of Tibetans were slaughtered, and 6,150 monasteries were destroyed nearly annihilating this unique and most peaceful culture. Despite this genocide the strong will of the Tibetan people still survives. The Dalai Lama lives in exile with about 100,000 Tibetans who still seek a peaceful return to their homeland. He often says, “Tibet has no petrol for engines, like Kuwait, but it does have petrol for the mind which should justify other countries coming to its rescue.” He points out the advantages to be gained in making Tibet a buffer state, a haven of peace in the middle of major Asian powers. He passionately advocates for support from the most powerful nations and patiently awaits their action.

The monk offers us many more pearls; each explored in much more depth in the book:
 Truth is strong enough by itself to convince, and should never be imposed by force.
 The goal of nonviolence is specifically to diminish violence. It’s not a passive approach.
 Evil has no more existence than a mistake; it is only an incorrect perception of reality.
 The great virtue of sin is precisely that it doesn’t have any true existence. There’s therefore no negative action or thought that can’t be dissolved, purified, or repaired.
 The idea of man’s true nature can be understood as a state of balance, while violence is a state of imbalance.
 It’s obvious that unless a sense of responsibility develops in all the individuals sharing this planet, it’ll be very difficult to apply any democratic ideals.
 Enlightenment is the discovery of the ultimate nature of both oneself and phenomena.
 Mastery of oneself, like so many other qualities, is only something of true value when it’s based on the right motivation and metaphysical principles.
 What Buddhism calls meditation is a gradual discovery, over years of practice, of the nature of the mind and how mental events appear in it.
 It doesn’t make much sense to think that because a truth is an ancient truth it’s no longer worth bothering about.
 In spiritual practices the difficulties come at the beginning, and in worldly practice the difficulties come at the end.
 Without wisdom, reason will just argue about human happiness without ever actually bringing it about. Education needs to be more than just the accumulation of knowledge; it should really be education on how to be.

In the end each man gains a deeper understanding and appreciation for the other’s beliefs, but neither abandons his chosen path.
Profile Image for Chris.
65 reviews1 follower
July 15, 2021
Het is de tweede maal dat ik dit boek lees, de eerste keer was ongeveer 7 jaar geleden. Toen ging veel boven mijn petje, nu heb ik maar bij enkele stukjes moeten passen. Heerlijk vond ik deze discussie tussen de westerse filosoof en de oosterse monnik. Herkenbaar ook. De kritiek van de filosoof op het Boeddhisme vond ik soms heel terecht en ik vond dat de monnik daar niet altijd afdoend op reageerde. Hij bleef bij zijn dogma's steken. Met beeldspraak en argumenten die ik soms letterlijk ook bij andere monniken heb gelezen. Al bij al kwamen ze tot een mooi vergelijk en dit sterkt me in de overtuiging dat het Boeddhisme echt wel een weg is die van de Westerse wereld een aangenamer leefplaats zou maken.
Profile Image for Gautham Shenoy.
30 reviews11 followers
December 18, 2013
This wonderful book is a dialogue between a philosopher father and a buddhist son about the ideas from the eastern and western traditions that concern themselves with the meaning of life. Jean-Francois Revel appears to be well versed with not only the works of the contemporary modern philosophers but also of the ancient greeks and the roman schools of thought. And he uses his knowledge to probe into the metaphysics, ethics, and practice of buddhism. The son, Matthieu Ricard was groomed to become a molecular biologist. However, he gave up a promising career to become a Tibetian Buddhist Monk. In this book, the philosopher asks more question to the monk than the other way around, but then it probably is justified since the aim of the philosopher was to analyse and compare while the aim of the monk was to understand and explain.

In the initial few chapters, the question on whether Buddhism is a religion or mind-science or a way of life has been addressed. Comparisons between Buddhism and the ancient greek philosophy of the stoics is drawn. The recent affinity of the west towards Buddhism is analysed. In these chapters, the idea of Buddhist meditation and it's importance is also dealt with very carefully. One of the important take-aways from these chapters , to me was the realisation of the fact that to live a good life, one needs to see things as they are and not in the way we want them to see. The entity which enables us to experience reality is our mind. And the life-experiences that we encounter will end up being labelled good or bad based on how our mind perceives it. Hence it is very important that we train our minds to see things as they are. This is the purpose of the contemplative science of Meditation. To understand the ultimate nature of mind and to free it from impurities such as hatred, jealousy , anger among other afflicting emotions.

The subsequent chapters talk about the reason why Philosophy in the west failed to provide solace to the people post 18th century since the role of the ethics was relegated to the field of politics which predominantly consisted of theorising and implementing utopias while the role of knowledge was relegated to science. Since religions were losing a hold on the laity, there was very little guidance that people could draw from philosophy on living a good life. This is one of the reasons why wisdom-oriented doctrines such as Buddhism, or the ancient philosophy of the stoics is re-emerging in the western world.

As someone who has been interested in Philosophy for several years now, I found this book to be a refreshing read which helped me understand the different goals of the eastern and western schools of thoughts and hence appreciate the consequences of these thoughts that have manifested in terms of the respective cultures.
Profile Image for Camilo.
51 reviews
January 13, 2018
Good topic. Did not enjoy the book’s style

3.5 Stars.

Sadly the book did not meet my expectations. Although it does a good job at laying out the basic concepts of Tibetan Buddhism (at least for someone that had not read anything about them), there were several elements that made the reading tedious or at least less enjoyable to me:
1. It often feels more as the Monk “VS” the philosopher, rather than “AND”. The father often criticizes Buddhism and very frequently highlights how its ideas are really not that original as “XYZ” philosopher or school of philosophy had already exposed a similar or equal idea. To me this was a big “SO??” As I don’t think he son was boasting Buddhism uniqueness or originality... it sounded more like a father trying to prove his son that what he was doing was just not as great as he thought it to be.
2. Notwithstanding the above, i felt that the son also wanted to portray Buddhism as having an answer for anything that the father could ask for and was not willing to accept it may have outdated practices or things that (at best) seem inconsistent, based on the fathers’s questions and comments (I.e. a discussion on ancient rituals around the middle of the book comes to mind) . To me, this reinforced he feeling of one VS the other.
3. References to China’s occupation of Tibet are often forced into the narrative and seem unnatural... not saying this is or is not an important point but I would have preferred that the book left out all political stances out... just not what I wanted for this book

On the positive side, I liked:
1. The fact that it highlights how philosophers role in society was not only an theoretical one but also they “should” play the role of an example. That is, philosopher’s life should be aligned with what they preach so they provide an example to their followers/adherents. This was in contrast to the religious idea that you can lead a life that is different from the “correct” /“proper” way because at the end of the day we will all be forgiven by asking for it from a “cleric” or by God’s grace.
2. Emphasis on the need to actually dedicate time to meditation practice and not just theory and reading about it. Theory is not enough to understand contemplative practices
Profile Image for Marcel.
18 reviews6 followers
July 19, 2016
Interessant concept: een filosoof, Jean-François Revel, voert gesprekken met zijn zoon Matthieu Ricard, een boeddhistische monnik met een achtergrond in de westerse wetenschap. Meestal stelt de filosoof vragen, om het boeddhisme beter te leren kennen, om het in een hokje te kunnen duwen (is het een religie of een filosofie?), en vergelijkt en passant de antwoorden van de monnik met de westerse filosofie, met name die van de epicuristen en de stoïcijnen.

Dit levert een mooi beeld op van het (Tibetaans) boeddhisme van binnenuit en de bijbehorende metafysica en meer wereldse denkbeelden. De monnik luistert geduldig en probeert zijn vader, die een westers, kantiaans en bijna materialistisch wereldbeeld aanhangt, alles zo helder mogelijk uit te leggen. Gelukkig nuanceert Matthieu het beeld dat westerlingen nogal eens van het boeddhisme hebben als een passieve, tot apathie neigende religie, waarin de volgelingen enkel op willen gaan in het nirwana.

Wel vraag ik me bij de filosoof af in hoeverre hij op de hoogte is van het huidige discours: hoewel Jean-François enkele malen de filosofie van de levenskunst benoemt, trekt hij toch duidelijk een scheidslijn in de achttiende eeuw, waarin volgens hem de filosofie het doel is kwijtgeraakt van de persoonlijke groei. Kennelijk was de levenskunst ten tijde van het oorspronkelijke verschijnen van dit interviewboek (1997) nog niet zo populair, met filosofen als Wilhelm Schmid (wiens boek Philosophie der Lebenskunst in 1998 uitkwam), Martha Nussbaum en Alain de Botton en hier in Nederland Joep Dohmen en Paul van Tongeren.
9 reviews1 follower
December 11, 2013
A very interesting dialogue.

I could feel my sympathies alternate between the monk and the philosopher. Jean-Francois' erudition comes through, and as I already agree with what I think his views on religion and ideology are, I could empathise with his stance. On the other hand, my personal experience of the effectiveness of meditation at self-transformation allowed me to understand more deeply what Mattheiu said. I felt that he was somewhat more defensive of Buddhism than Jean-Francois of Western intellectual thought.

Personal reflections:
I think that truth does not contradict itself, and that the two talked past each other at times. The monk is talking about an introspective but systematic observation of the nature of subjective experience; the philosopher, about the systematic and empirical investigation of the world through intellectual contemplation and experimentation. The two approaches do not contradict each other. That they are not integrated into a single whole by the monks or the philosophers is tragic for everyone else, as life without the first is unexamined and unfulfilled, and without the latter is nasty and (usually) short. The unfalsifiability of statements of subjective experience is what necessitates introspective understanding; the inaccessibility of the truth of the physical world to the raw senses is what necessitates theory and experiment. It is only together that they can make life pleasant as well as fulfilling.
Profile Image for Steve Voiles.
244 reviews2 followers
April 23, 2017
This is a fascinating situation where an esteemed scientist has left science to become a Buddhist monk, rising to the inner circle of the Dali Lama, while is father is a respected philosopher of western thought. The two undertake an extended dialogue in an effort to understand each others' thinking and spiritual values.
This is a very learned conversation between two high educated people and, as such, become difficult to read for those of us with less specialized educations. Still, if you are interested in the difference between Eastern and Western thought, this is a book packed with information you would be hard put to find anywhere else. I found it challenging but well worth the effort.
20 reviews1 follower
August 6, 2011
As a Easterner, when I first pick up this book, I am expecting to read a comparison of the Buddhism and Christianity. After reading it, I am shocked to find out that not only does it provide a comparison, but also that my original concept in Buddhism is totally wrong.

If you have a little knowledge or you want to know the real thinking of Buddhism, I strongly recommend you to read this book. If you are a Buddhist, this book provides a good contrast between Eastern and Western thinking.
Profile Image for Joshua.
133 reviews1 follower
December 28, 2011
I read this after loving Matthieu Ricard's book, Happiness. Ricard is a genius biologist turned Buddhist Monk and his father is the brilliant French philosopher, Jean-Francois Revel. This book is a conversation between the two! What could be more interesting? Unlike other "free-thinker vs. religious person" books where I have always taken the side of the free-thinker, I was on the side of both parties here so it was that much more enjoyable. I consider myself a spiritual free-thinking atheist. Buddhism is not a religion but an atheist metaphysical way of being so I can relate.
81 reviews
October 20, 2013
I don't think I learned anything new and I struggled with the dialog format. but it did address some of questions I had about Buddhism. Explicitly asks and answers questions like whether it considers itself a religion, whether it is nihilistic and how it sees reincarnation. a soft filing out of the details in compact and accessible portions of wisdom. the summary of western philosophy is no less valuable than the Buddhist view which dominates. In the end I can recommend it highly. :-)
Profile Image for Elia.
136 reviews8 followers
November 24, 2015
A solid introduction about Buddhism structured in a QA. What makes it interesting is the authors backgrounds, and the fact that none of them get to drag long enough without being challenged, whether by expected or unexpected reasoning. The book is very broad allowing readers of the west into a curated insight.
11 reviews4 followers
October 27, 2016
The book had a promising script and I loved the first third into it. After that I felt like more of the same was being repeated and by the end the read got heavier.
Profile Image for Luis.
30 reviews1 follower
March 28, 2018
Interesting discussion about Buddhism.

It stays at the intellectual realm from both sides. It lacks beauty or poetry.

Ultimately becomes dull.
13 reviews
January 14, 2022
Jean-Francois Revel is one of the most prominent and revered philosophers and atheists in France. His wife was a lyrical abstractionist painter and art critic. In his own words, their house hosted the most prominent thought leaders and artists in Europe. Mattieu was training as a molecular biologist with French Nobel Laureate François Jacob, when he was on a field trip to Nepal and Tibet. He met Kangyur Rinpoche and other Tibetian masters and it completely shifted his focus in life. He talks about how even the most renowned people he met in France suffered from the same anxieties, issues, and tendencies as any ordinary person. Meeting the masters showed him that there was a different way to lead life and he spent 20 years meditating and learning from them.

In this book, his father brings forth all his intellectual rigour and training as a philosopher to ask fundamental questions about the "human condition". Mattieu uses his training as a scientist, meditatator, and Buddhist to explain how the buddhist tradition views these issues. Set in the majesty of the Himalays, this book helps unify two very different approaches to finding meaning in life.
Profile Image for Eduard Barbu.
72 reviews2 followers
July 4, 2018
“The monk and the philosopher” is a dialogue between a father (the philosopher) and his son (the monk) who lives a Buddhist reclusion in Tibet. The father, Jean-François Revel, is a known French intellectual who fought against the Communist utopia and who is strongly rooted in the Western liberal and rational tradition. In his youth, the son (Matthieu Ricard) was a promising talent who completed his doctoral study under the prominent scientist Jacques Monod ("Chance and necessity" is his most known and read book). I give the book three stars. In fact, the part where the father talks rates between 4 and 5 stars and the part of the son 2 stars. I have never seen in my life a person raised in the best rational tradition of the West (as Matthieu Ricard was) that is so ignorant of this tradition and embraces uncritically the strange Buddhist metaphysics. For Ricard, the Western science and philosophy do not matter, the improvement in people material and cultural living conditions have no real value. What truly matters is to cultivate your mind through meditation. According to him, the poor peasants in Nepal who go to sleep empty stomach live a better life and are happier than the people of the West. Of course, Ricard presents the Buddhism as a perfectly coherent and non-contradictory doctrine. This is not true as there are strong doctrinal differences between the Tibetan Buddhism and Zen Buddhism for example. I think that Buddhism is an interesting tradition that will have a growing influence on the Western thought. The introspection techniques perfected in thousands of years of meditation are a treasure of humanity. However, there are concepts developed by the Buddhists that are hard to understand and digest (for example the concept of no-self and karma). Karma, in particular, is a concept originated in the Indian philosophy preceding Buddhism. It implies that people's diseases and disabilities are the consequence of bad karma in previous lives. There are many appalling statements in the book that follows from the concept of karma. In sum, the book should be read mainly because of the Revel's reflections on the Western culture. The son's take on Buddhism can be easily ignored as there are much better books that explain this doctrine. Another thing that bothers me is that Matthieu Ricard always poses as the happy sage. If you perform a Google search with the keyword "Matthieu Ricard" you will find thousands of photos of him ridiculously laughing at the camera.
Profile Image for Chau.
11 reviews
August 31, 2018
Mình thực sự hứng thú về cuốn sách này vì cả đề tài của nó và về bản thân của hai nhân vật chính trong cuốn sách, người cha là một triết gia và người con xuất thân là một nhà khoa học trong lĩnh vực sinh vật là phật tử thị giả cho đức Dalai Lama. Cuốn sách thật sự là nơi gặp gỡ giữa khoa học, triết học hiện đại và tính khoa học, triết học trong phật giáo.

Rất nhiều câu hỏi lớn của triết học tây phương liên quan đến siêu hình học, đạo đức, giáo dục, vai trò của khoa học kỹ thuật với hạnh phúc nội tại của con người, về bản ngã, linh hồn, bản chất của tâm, Đấng sáng tạo, bản chất của thực tại, etc. đều được thảo luận (sơ lược) trong cuốn sách này.

Rate 5* cho tính cởi mở, chân thực, và tính đa dạng ý kiến!
Profile Image for J.P..
79 reviews3 followers
May 3, 2020
Me gustó la forma en que está escrito el libro, tipo una conversación bien estructurada y con argumentos.

En el libro se plantean las principales dudas existenciales y como el budismo responde a éstas. Otra cualidad del libro es la parte o preguntas del filósofo qué viene siendo como un escéptico a cualquier tipo de religión, lo que hace que la "conversación" sea interesante y con respuestas al actual pensamiento del occidente.

En fin, un libro recomendable para aquellos que les guste el budismo, la filosofía y el desarrollo espiritual.
February 27, 2018
I “the egotistical me” have become interested in reading about Buddhism as mindful meditation is a sprout of this seed. Mindful meditation helps one focus on the present and also detaching ones say the reasoning-self from the feeling-self (basically breaking down contemplation narrowly).
Of course the book deals with the basic philosophy of Buddhism and questions its relevance in today’s time and not the meditation technique.
Questions like whether Buddhism believes in the existence of God? Is Buddhism a religion, per se, as it emphasizes more on values like compassion, love and kindness? What constitutes consciousness and how it is formed shaping our behaviour in response to the outer world?
They also deal with detachment, the concept of it as they discuss various issues. For Buddhism to succeed in the west, it requires to be harmoniously incorporated in to the political system. As per me Buddhism/(meditation and contemplation) is the best anecdote for an individual’s mental clarity but on a societal level it comes across as too pacifistic. The brunt of what has been felt by the Tibetan people by the hands of Chinese ironically both atheistic in their own way. Also as the monk opines, I feel (may be wrong here!) that he is somewhat blindsided of what and how the aggrieved feels and behaves. For instance, when they talk about pschyo-analysis and how Freud interpreted the consciousness to be a product of our innate being and its interaction with the outer world, the thought is dismissed as a circumstantial reason which is symptomatic rather than substantial. For example, if a child is abused by his father, the child may not need help later if he could perceive how his father is in the true sense and therefore generate compassion instead. Perhaps an enlightened soul empathises with detachment in the true GANGSTER way :D
I also disagree that inventions and means to ensure a comfortable life for people is of little assistance as the true goal of all should be to reach nirvana, so in the bigger picture any sort of assistance is temporary other than the change in the mode of viewing things. Though it is reasoned, I would state that there is substantial amount of research which states that poverty can change the way people think and feel in a grave and depressing manner.
Pain though an illusion may be very real for someone, the behaviour causing it ingrained in their system over lifetimes as per Buddhism. And of course the best thing is, to contemplate, reason, meditate, experience and then accept, till that point its merely doctrinal for that individual and that is the sweetest principle ever.
Profile Image for Manu.
347 reviews48 followers
February 15, 2017
A biologist turned Buddhist in conversation with a philosopher about the meaning of life. If that isn't interesting by itself, they happen to be son and father. (respectively) World views separated by time and distance. What really works is that Matthieu Ricard and Jean-François Revel have absolute clarity on the points of view they represent, and yet, are not in the discussion to force their perspectives on the other.
The scope of the discussion includes scientific research, metaphysics, politics, psychoanalysis, and obviously religion as both share their perspectives on these topics. In many cases, they seem to arrive at the same destination, but via different paths.
Outside of religion and the utopian state, Western philosophy (generally) has largely held on to the notion of identity and a refined form of self interest, while the East has (generally) has held the self to be transitory. In fact, Buddhism sees this illusion of the self as that which colours our view and is the chief source of all unhappiness. The 'imposture' of the self is what Buddhism seeks to uncover. The West, aided by developments in science, believes that progress in the general human condition itself will automatically better the individual. The argument against that is while it might indeed do that, happiness is probably still not an end result.
It could be a conditioning bias, but I was particularly impressed by the father's (JF) range of understanding, and at times found the Buddhist perspective too dependent on analogies and metaphors. Of course, it could be because this perspective is also very clear that it is developed from subjective experience and not the "can be tested by anyone and will produce the same results" methodology and proof that traditional science is based on.
This is also connected to my key disappointment that I have still (like JF) not been convinced on the metaphysical aspects of Buddhism - chiefly reincarnation, and seeing consciousness as a flow that can be accessed by an entity even after what we call death. The other part I was not able to reconcile is the claim that the self can be seen objectively. But like I mentioned earlier, these are probably results of subjective experiences that one has to strive towards.
The book is a fantastic read, and is sure to broaden the reader's thinking on a score of subjects, including the pursuit of happiness.
Profile Image for Chloe.
10 reviews1 follower
September 11, 2020
The book I'm reviewing today is The Monk and The Philosopher by Matthieu Ricard and his father Jean Francois Revel. Matthieu Ricard was a french biologist who fled to the mountains and became a Tibetan Buddhist monk over 40 years ago. The philosopher is his father Jean Francois who has a firm western style philosophy background. The fact that they are father and son just makes is such an interesting contrast worth looking into anyway.

Straight out of the gate in the forward lies an explanation of my interest in such a book in the first place: "for American science and philosophy, Buddhism has generally not been on the agenda." This is certainly true of my experience. I loved my philosophy classes, just about every one of them satiated my quest for intellectual fulfillment. But after having gone through all my courses and getting my degree I felt somewhat robbed because I somehow seemed to have missed the details that had gotten me into philosophy, namely how to live the good life. Toward the end of my schooling I spent a lot of my free time studying buddhism and stoicism in addition to my courses in metaphysics and probability theory. I had finished without really getting any formal exposure to the subject material. Actually, we wrote a paper on the 8 fold path in my intro course back in community college, but nothing else later on. Anyways, this book in so many ways has shown my thought processes throughout the years as I ping ponged my way between western and buddhist philosophy.

One thing that irked me a bit about this book is that Ricard is a Tibetan Buddhist and so constantly speaks in the name of buddhism as a whole about certain aspects that I'm sure are not representative of the other branches of buddhist thought. Lately I have largely confined my study to early buddhist thought as shown through the Pali Canon. My thinking is that I can use the early writing as a litmus test for everything that comes after, determining whether or not such additions to the main canon really fit with the teachings of the buddha. It's not that big of a deal since the basic teachings are essentially the same, but one should understand that Ricard's perspective is filtered through a particular flavor of buddhism. Also I should mention that even early buddhism is still being researched and debated about.

A wise friend once told me that there are as many religions as there are people. I wonder if Ricard has had to make a western translation of the rights and rituals that go on in a lot of buddhist sects. With regard to iconography, art, devas, and superstitious behavior he gives us an interpretation that brings everything back down to earth in the sense that all such expressions/behaviors are actually just buddhist thought in practice. A deva for example is not some deity, but actually can represent a quality of mind which allows one to remember certain aspects of the path. A mandala is a sandy representation of the universe that is wiped away after completion as a way to represent the impermanent nature of things.

With regards to faith, Ricard likens it to confidence in his teachers. Though he himself has not witnessed past lives, examining the character of his teachers over the years lead him to believe such things. This is a kind of blind faith in my opinion and a distortion of the concept of faith/confidence in buddhist thought as I understand it. Having confidence for me has been about believing that it is possible through training to reduce or possibly even eliminate one's suffering. All the other metaphysical ideas are up in the air and we'll just have to wait and see but they are doubtful propositions at my current understanding. I can't know his experiences. I did like, however, the connection to ritual and how it can remind one of certain aspects of the path as a sort of every day mnemonic device. The wheel of life is a fascinating example of this:

It represents the dharma in an easy to remember way, but is not supposed to mean that these realms actually exist (in my opinion.

One of my main criticisms of Buddhist thought on my first pass was that it was a path of passivity where you essentially seek to lobotomize yourself, never feeling pain or joy again. My understanding has improved greatly since then. Jean Francois echoes my criticisms and makes the same mistake in claiming that the path does not lead to action in the real world. Ricard reflects the the notion that the path is about cutting out the roots of suffering: craving, attachment, and negative mental states. This practice naturally allows the wholesome mind states to flourish. Additionally, there are specific practices of compassion and loving kindness to cultivate these states, so it's not as drab as I used to think so many years ago. As far as action is concerned, sorting out your psychology facilitates wholesome actions in the real world. Sure you can help others without your own meditation practice, but perhaps you do so grudgingly or with the expectation of reciprocation, fighting and feeding parts of your ego. The practice encourages action rather than passively bouncing off of the river rapids of sensory phenomena and the reactive mind. The idea is that a person who has freed their minds from greed, hatred, and delusion will naturally want to act in the world without such hindrances.

There were some strange parts about consciousness being separate from the brain but both speakers make metaphysical assumptions about free will that I feel don't hold up. Often the idea that we have the ability to make a choice at any given moment gives the illusion that our will is free in some way but we are clearly conditioned beings, subject to cause and effect. Ricard states that the current science of the mind makes a metaphysical assumption that the brain gives rise to the mind, that it is based on a physical substrate only. As Sam Harris would gleefully retort, even if a disembodied consciousness were really what the mind is, it would still be subject to cause and effect or indeterminism, but certainly could not be considered free. This is actually two different problems mushed together that sill have no satisfying answers. I've found that believing that I can make a choice at any time to arrest anger or hatred before it arises helps me to do just that. It clearly doesn't mean that my will is free, I am just somehow lucky enough to have gotten the idea in my head that I can change certain parts of myself. I'm a self changing machine. Moving on. Ricard and Jean Francois come to a stalemate about this issue of the physical basis of consciousness because buddhist thought makes an experiential claim that may require years of meditative training to test out whereas modern science makes its claim a priori. Again, there are a lot of claims being thrown around on both sides and I won't claim anything until I experience it.

Overall a fascinating read that confirmed my observations that Buddhism has engaged and continues to challenge philosophical ideas in a relevant, practical way.
Profile Image for Simon Lee.
14 reviews
June 20, 2018
Not easy to understand . Requires deep knowledge in science , Spirituality and philosophies to completely understand. A good book nonetheless.
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