A Biologist-Turned-Buddhist and His Philosopher Father on the Nature of the Self and the True Measure of Personal Strength
“You first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist.”
By Maria Popova
For the past few centuries, Western philosophy has maintained that human beings are driven by enlightened self-interest — a view predicated on the needs and desires of a solid self. Meanwhile, Eastern philosophies and spiritual traditions have long considered the self an illusion — a view with which modern science has recently begun to side.
These contradictory conceptions of the self as a centerpiece of identity and success, per the Western view, and as an illusion, per the Eastern one, are what French philosopher Jean-François Revel and his biologist-turned-Buddhist son, Matthieu Ricard, explore in their extraordinary conversation, published as The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life (public library).
What makes the conversation particularly compelling is the unusual pairing of perspectives — it is not only an intergenerational dialogue between a father and a son who both possess enormous intellectual potency, but a dialogue between Western philosophy and Eastern spirituality with a strong emphasis on science. The scientific perspective, in fact, comes not from Revel but from Ricard, who gave up a promising career as a molecular biologist — he had worked with Nobel laureate Jacques Monod — to move to Nepal and study Tibetan Buddhism. Doubly significant is Ricard’s route to Buddhism: Raised in the strongly secular home of two prominent French intellectuals — his mother, Revel’s wife, was the painter Yahne Le Toumelin — he grew up with only an intellectual curiosity toward religion and turned to Buddhism not out of disappointment with Western faiths but out of what his father calls “a state of indifference to any religion, a kind of religious weightlessness.”
So in 1999, when Revel traveled to Ricard’s home in Kathmandu and the two sat down for this remarkable intellectual encounter, it was the philosophical rather than the religion dimensions of Buddhism that took center stage as the father and son contemplated such immutable human concerns as free will, the meaning of life, the value of scientific progress, and the pillars of the good life. As they speak, each addresses the other as much as he is confabulating with himself, which results in a masterpiece of the art of conversation at its most elevated and ennobling — an exchange of dynamic contemplation between and within minds, driven not by the self-righteous slinging of opinions but by a deep commitment to mutual understanding and to enriching the shared pool of wisdom.
One of the most pause-giving dimensions of the conversation deals with this notion of the self and its illusory nature. When Revel takes issue with the Buddhist concept of reincarnation, pointing out its mystical and scientifically ungrounded suppositions, Ricard emphasizes its metaphorical and philosophical importance over its literal interpretation. Embedded in that notion, he suggests, is the key to unmooring ourselves from the tyranny of the self in the here and now:
It’s important to understand that what’s called reincarnation in Buddhism has nothing to do with the transmigration of some “entity” or other… As long as one thinks in terms of entities rather than function and continuity, it’s impossible to understand the Buddhist concept of rebirth.
Since Buddhism denies the existence of any individual self that could be seen as a separate entity capable of transmigrating from one existence to another by passing from one body to another, one might well wonder what it could be that links those successive states of existence together… It’s seen as a continuum, a stream of consciousness that continues to flow without there being any fixed or autonomous entity running through it.
Ricard likens this concept to “a river without a boat descending along its course” and is careful to point out a common misconception: Although Buddhism denies the existence of the individual self, it doesn’t deny individual consciousness. He explains:
The fact that there’s no such discontinuous entity being transferred from one life to the next doesn’t mean that there can’t be a continuity of functioning. That the self has no true existence doesn’t prevent one particular stream of consciousness from having qualities that distinguish it from another stream. The fact that there’s no boat floating down the river doesn’t prevent the water from being full of mud, polluted by a paper factory, or clean and clear. The state of the river at any given moment is the result of its history. In the same way, an individual stream of consciousness is loaded with all the traces left on it by positive and negative thoughts, as well as by actions and words arising from those thoughts. What we’re trying to do by spiritual practice is to gradually purify the river. The ultimate state of complete clarity is what we call spiritual realization. All the negative emotions, all the obscurations that render the underlying wisdom invisible, have then been dissolved.
Echoing the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki’s assertion that “the ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow,” Ricard argues that this recognition of individual consciousness is central to the dissolution of the ego-shell:
It’s not a question of annihilating the self, which has never really existed, but simply of uncovering its imposture. Indeed, if the self did have any intrinsic existence we’d never be able to bring it from existence into nonexistence.
A nonexistent self can’t really be “abolished,” but its nonexistence can be recognized. What we want to abolish is the illusion, the mistake that has no inherent existence in the first place… whatever we judge to be disagreeable or harmful. But as soon as we recognize that the self has no true existence, all these attracting and repelling impulses will vanish… The self has neither beginning nor end, and therefore in the present it has no more existence than the mind attributes to it.
Ricard, who has since written about the secret of happiness, considers how our natural, everyday experience of the “I” mutates into the illusion of the self, from which all of our suffering stems:
There’s a natural feeling of self, of “I,” which makes you think “I’m cold, I’m hungry, I’m walking,” and so forth. By itself, that feeling is neutral. It doesn’t specifically lead to either happiness or suffering. But then comes the idea that the self is a kind of constant that lasts all your life, regardless of all the physical and mental changes you go through. You get attached to the idea of being a self, “myself,” a “person,” and of “my” body, “my” name, “my” mind, and so on. Buddhism accepts that there is a continuum of consciousness, but denies any existence of a solid, permanent, and autonomous self anywhere in that continuum. The essence of Buddhist practice is therefore to get rid of that illusion of a self which so falsifies our view of the world.
When his father probes how one is expected to effect positive change in the world without a sense of personal agency — another common critique by those who misunderstand the foundational philosophies of Buddhism — Ricard responds:
The wish to allay others’ suffering, which may inspire a whole lifetime’s work, is an admirable ambition. It’s important to distinguish between negative emotions, like desire, hatred, and pride, that solidify still further our self-centered outlook, and positive ones, like altruistic love, compassion, and faith, that allow us to free ourselves little by little from those negative and self-centered tendencies. Positive emotions don’t disturb our mind, they reinforce it and make it more stable and more courageous.
In a sentiment that calls to mind David Foster Wallace on the dark side of ambition, Ricard makes an important distinction between the two types of ambition:
Positive ambition — the pursuit of others’ well-being by all possible means, the fervent wish to transform oneself — is one of the cardinal virtues in Buddhism. In fact, Buddhists nurture one main ambition without any limits, that of removing the suffering of all living beings throughout the whole universe. That sort of ambition stops you succumbing to inertia and makes you strong-minded and determined. So the distinction between the positive and negative, selfless and self-centered sides of ambition is important. You could say that ambition is positive if its aim is to help others. That’s the simplest definition. Conversely, ambition is negative if achieving it is detrimental to others, and an emotion is negative if it destroys your own and others’ inner peace.
He illustrates this with a verse from the eight-century Buddhist sage Shantideva:
All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.
Is there need for lengthy explanation?
Childish beings look out for themselves,
While Buddhas labor for the good of others:
See the difference that divides them!
With that great Eastern capacity for holding paradox and fusing contradictory concepts into a unity of wisdom, Ricard argues that shedding the ego-shell actually requires first fortifying our ego — more than that, he suggests, true altruism is the product not of selflessness but of a strong sense of self:
Buddhism’s goal of uncovering the “imposture of the ego,” this ego that seems so powerful and causes us so much trouble while having no existence in itself. Nevertheless, as a first step it’s important to stabilize this feeling of a self in order to distinguish all its characteristics. You could say, paradoxically, that you first need to have an ego in order to be aware that it doesn’t exist. Someone with an unstable, fragmented, amorphous personality has little chance of being able to identify that powerful feeling of “me,” as a prior step to recognizing that it doesn’t correspond to any real entity. So you need to start with a healthy and coherent self to be able to investigate it. You can shoot at a target, but not in fog.
But it’s important not to think that once the imposture of the ego is unmasked you find yourself in a state of inner nothingness, to the point that the destruction of the personality renders you incapable of acting or communicating. You don’t become an empty container. It’s quite the opposite. When you’re no longer the plaything of an illusory despot, like the shadows in Plato’s cave, your wisdom, love for others and compassion can be freely expressed. It’s a freedom from the limitations imposed by attachment to a self, not at all an anesthesia of the will. This “opening of the eyes of wisdom” increases your strength of mind, your diligence, and your capacity to take appropriate and altruistic action.
Revel contrasts this with the West’s “cult of the self” and our civilizational emphasis on “the strong personality” as a hallmark of success, questioning whether there can be a common ground between cultural and philosophical traditions so diametrically opposed in this regard. But Ricard, once again, meets the problem with semantic lucidity that melts away the apparent conflict:
If by personality you mean exacerbation of the ego, simply to have a strong personality seems to me, unfortunately, a highly dubious criterion of success. Hitler and Mao Tse-tung had very strong personalities.
Echoing Bertrand Russell’s famous assertion that “construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult… and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it,” Ricard adds:
It’s important not to confuse strong individuality and strength of mind. The great teachers I’ve been able to meet had indomitable strength of mind. You could say they had very impressive personalities, and that they radiated a sort of natural strength that everyone who met them could perceive. But the big difference was that you couldn’t find the slightest trace of ego in them. I mean the kind of ego that inspires selfishness and self-centeredness. Their strength of mind came from knowledge, serenity, and inner freedom that were outwardly manifested as an unshakable certainty. They were worlds apart from Hitler, Mao Tse-tung and the like, whose powerful personalities arose from an unbridled desire to dominate, and from pride, greed, or hatred. In both cases, we’re faced with immense power, but in the first that power is a flow of constructive altruism, while in the second it’s negative and destructive.
The Monk and the Philosopher is a remarkable read in its totality, addressing with enormous depth and dimension such aspects of the human experience as happiness, suffering, education, ethics, and love. Complement it with D.T. Suzuki on how Zen can help us cultivate our character and Jack Kerouac’s Zen-inspired meditation on the self illusion and “the golden eternity,” then revisit Albert Einstein and the Indian philosopher Tagore’s historic conversation entwining Eastern and Western perspectives with great mutual curiosity and goodwill.
Published May 26, 2015