The monk, the philosopher and the cynic

Jean-Frangois Revel and his son, Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, set out to have a spiritual dialogue -- but the cosmic harmony was shattered when Christopher Hitchens showed up.


Chris Colin
March 10, 1999 8:19PM (UTC)

Philosopher Jean-Frangois Revel, in a plain gray suit and topped
with an imposing bald head, crossed a leg in his hotel chair with that
great French look -- half auteur, half politician. His 52-year-old son,
Matthieu Ricard, sat propped on an elbow on the bed, draped in
the rich red robes of a Tibetan Buddhist monk. The men exchanged funny
smiles, the kind that at once acknowledges nothing and everything about
the gulf between their existences. There was a book here, one sensed,
before the two even opened their mouths.

The book is "The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss
the Meaning of Life," recently translated into English (and 18
other languages) following enormous success in France. It records 10 days of
conversation between the renowned iconoclastic philosopher (author of
"Without Marx or Jesus," "A History of Western Philosophy from Thales to
Kant" and
"Why Philosophers?") and his son, a molecular biologist-turned-monk from an
inn high in the mountains of Nepal, overlooking Katmandu. The
dialogue -- which collides scholarly rigor with spiritual exploration --
covers all the contemplative bases, from secular ethics to faith, science,
activism and even psychoanalysis.

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Awaiting a presentation sponsored by Harper's magazine at the UC-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism that evening, the two Frenchmen spoke in their
hotel room about their U.S. tour. How -- after New York, Boston and San Francisco -- did they like Americans? "It is
more important how they like us," Revel laughed, half seriously. Many
Americans, the men agreed, appeared to be interested for strange reasons.

"The idea of father and son, the sentimentalities -- in Europe, it
doesn't play much. Here it's more important," explained Ricard. In France,
he claimed, people buy the book for the ideas. But in America, the familial
element steeps the book in either sentimentality or conflict; more
compelling than a famous philosopher is the promise of another family drama.

"The [American] reporters always ask the same question: 'How did I feel
when my son left for India?'" Revel mused.

But readers looking for drama will ultimately be disappointed. Ricard
and Revel present a radical departure from America's archetypal father-son
relationships, and anyone hoping for either tension or tender displays of
affection will find the book Spartan in this regard.

From their quiet tones and careful manners, it's evident that the two
transcended conversations about curfew long ago. They converse more as
colleagues than filial relations, patiently allowing each other to speak,
and responding with calmness, thought and occasional levity. "Kant was a
great thinker, but his style was worse than the [brochures] on United
Airlines," quips Revel at one point. "Be careful -- in America you might
be sued," Ricard replies.

"Yes, maybe, I hope so."

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As an avowed opponent of "totalitarian systems of ideology," Revel was
quick to express his wariness of prescriptive, totalistic visions like that
of his son's Buddhism. Yet despite fundamental disagreements with Buddhist
principles -- "the theoretical background of Buddhist wisdom seems to me
unproved and unprovable," he writes -- he concedes that he finds "very
striking similarities" between his son's beliefs and "many aspects of Greek
philosophy" -- the thinkers who have deeply influenced his worldview.

In contrast, Ricard invokes a down-to-earth ontology, grounding his
ethereal, transcendent views in colorful analogies. Pleasure without
happiness, he says, is "like a burning match, which has a tendency to
consume itself as it burns." Serious but genial, Ricard emanates an air of
irreverence that seems to ease the snarl of life discussions.

For all the patience Revel and Ricard have mastered, their conversation
had its hitches. Listening to these two men, speaking across religions,
across generations, seriously pursuing a common belief in communication,
there is a poignant sense of ships passing in the night. No amount of
cooperation can reconcile two distinct ideologies at their most radical
divergences. No length of discussion can transcend what is, in the end, too
many words too vaguely defined. Nothingness, the self, truth -- these
concepts simply reverberate within Buddhism and Western philosophy too
differently for resolution. One appreciates this book as one appreciates a
drop in a bucket.

And then there was the almost-empty bucket as it was presented at the
Harper's forum. That evening, Feb. 26, the Berkeley journalism school hosted a panel discussion moderated by Harper's editor Lewis
Lapham. Revel and Ricard, along with journalist (and Salon contributor) Christopher Hitchens; Rev. Mark
Richardson,
director of the Center for Theological and Natural Sciences; and J-school dean Orville Schell met before a full crowd of
journalism junkies, new agers, skeptics and Lapham lovers to air and
examine a few of the book's conversations.

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The discussion began calmly, with just enough academic panel-style
boredom to make it exciting. Lapham introduced the participants with his
trademark windiness, eventually relinquishing the floor to Revel. "We have
realized that we've ignored Eastern philosophy," Revel said, going on to
trace the Western world's "sudden and widespread interest in Buddhism."
Speaking slightly more personally, Ricard framed his turn toward Buddhism
as less of a defection from the West than a continuation of a larger
passion he originally discovered in molecular biology -- "an enthusiasm for
explaining external reality." Ricard went on to articulate his distinction
between happiness and pleasure, suggesting that the West's interest in
Buddhism might be related to the simple promise of increased happiness.

"Happiness should have a more lasting quality," he said, "so that once
you have discovered within yourself this sort of inner peace, a sense of
fulfillment, a sense of meaning, it doesn't really depend too much on
outer circumstances. Whether they are good or bad, we can somehow use
them."

The panel responded. Schell, Lapham and Richardson weighed in with
words about harmony, peace and the search for meaning.

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Finally it was Hitchens' turn. He leaned back, ran a hand through his hair and hit the ground running: "Many of us ... do not think that harmony is
the great goal, or unity or peacefulness, [and] actually quite like hard
questions for their own sake, and enjoy ... the life of the mind. I just
thought if I didn't say this, it's just possible nobody would."

Hitchens, who recently testified for Ken
Starr about the lunch-time Monica-laden commentary of his former friend,
Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal, seemed anxious to confirm his contentious reputation. For all his
graceful British badinage, Hitchens played the part of American jackass to
an obnoxious T. As though parading his own notoriety, he spoke with
breathtakingly hostile resolve. He called reincarnation "a pathetic
belief," nirvana of the mind "a kind of hell," and to the
question of how to live responded, "by disagreement." He was funny and caustic
and upset. He offered Buddhism little in the way of patient inquiry.

And yet Hitchens -- disharmony incarnate -- deserves a place in an
article about Revel and Ricard. Hitchens articulated the unspoken critique
hovering above their discourse; his was the voice pausing to ask, "Is this
even legitimate? Can this discussion occur?" While Revel may differ with
Ricard as consistently as Hitchens does, he has consented to a dialogue --
perhaps, for Hitchens, this is something like surrender. Perhaps the true
and stalwart cynic refuses to discuss, as he indeed did by the end of the
evening.

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It's unclear whether Hitchens was a wonderful or a terrible selection.
His was an entrenched, and arguably brave, resistance to the fuzzy vibe
floating above the panel discussion. His quasi-nihilism functioned as a perfect
foil to Ricard's impassioned devotion, but then maybe a foil wasn't in
order this time. Revel, despite profound disagreement with his son,
modeled his portion of the dialogue in a spirit of understanding and
curiosity, rather than one of antagonism and critique. On a strictly
pragmatic level, as both Hitchens and Revel would surely have it, the
former proved far more productive; not once did Revel refuse to answer a
question or address a point, not once did he substitute venom for
content.

Interestingly, Hitchens' tight argument brought him more than once to
fifth century B.C. Athens. He admitted to this being his favorite universe,
and spoke of it with surprising warmth. It was here -- citing Athens'
perfect ideology, its egalitarianism and freedom and beauty -- that
a truth about Hitchens seemed to coalesce in the evening. From his love
for Classical Greece emerged, conversely, a kind of antipathy for the
modern world. At least for an evening, his sole investment in the
present day seemed to be the reveling in its failures, being the first
and wittiest to pull back the curtain here and there. This was not a man
to accept a tradition built upon faith. Ricard watched him
calmly, but with a funny look. Maybe the look said, "I pity you, you who
hate yourself and everyone else," but maybe he was just looking.

"Do you disagree with everything, including yourself?" Ricard asked at
one point.

"Yes," snapped Hitchens.

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It had turned ugly. Revel, with his big red impressive face, looked
exhausted. Richardson looked angry. Ricard's grin had faded, and Lapham
and Schell seemed uncertain as to whether all this was OK. The
audience, in its gentle Berkeley way, seemed on the verge of either riot
or a standing ovation.

But this worked. This was discord, and this was entertainment, and
pleasure, and something less than happiness. There was vindication in
the air for Ricard, had he been the man to appreciate vindication.
Hitchens was the cynic at the love-in, the joker at the moment of
silence, and people seemed to sense that all the wit in the world wouldn't
get them anywhere deep. And while he may well have been the voice of
reason, the mind unwilling to be "blissed out," as he once put it, by the
warm glow of
Ricard's attractive, extra-rational vision, one couldn't help picturing
him in his next life, a mean little ant, scurrying around in a roomful
of Buddhas.


Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

MORE FROM Chris Colin

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