Monday, June 22, 2009

Jean-François Revel & Mathieu Ricard's "The Monk & the Philosopher": Book Review.

Political philosopher, "Without Marx or Jesus" author, talks to his son, molecular biologist Ph.D. turned Tibetan monk. The result: dense, philosophical, fair-minded, and stubbornly opposed showdown. Empiricism confronts contemplation. While the results, as they've been since the Axial Age that found Socrates spearheading rational progress while the Buddha sought personal transformation, find neither contestant giving in, the two provide 300 stimulating pages full of insight.

They discuss in 1996, as Revel sums up halfway: "Buddhism's metaphysics, its theory of consciousness, its cosmology, and the repercussions of these great philosophical and metaphysical edifices on the conduct of human life" are the "problems" that engage Buddhists; Westerners, Revel contrasts, gave up "public debate" long ago on these issues, which may account for the interest aroused now in the West by the East. Revel, as a leading French intellectual and editor, finds that science took over from philosophy after the Renaissance; ethics seems to have been surrendered by philosophers retreating to academic quibbles, and religion has been consumed by its co-option with Islamic hegemony or its Christian desertion in most of today's Europe.

Jack Miles notes in his preface the lack of comparative coverage of Judaism and Christianity by Revel & Ricard; as Ricard served as the Dalai Lama's translator on a visit to the Carthusian monastery of La Grande Chartreuse, I would have also liked more than the page or two devoted to this fascinating detour. On one monk from the West who came East, Thomas Merton, Ricard puzzled me when he credited that dramatic 1968 pilgrimage of Merton "who was sent to the East by Pope John XXIII" (154)-- who died five years before Merton's final journey. Similarly, the previous dialogue between a Greek-trained positivist, Menander who ruled Bactria the second half of the 2nd c. BCE, and a Buddhist practitioner Nagasena, "Milindapanha" or "The Questions of King Milinda"--alluded to here but unnamed-- deserves clarification (and expansion) as an early predecessor for such a high-level meeting of minds.

Ricard's advantage? Unlike his monastic peers, he comes with a grounding in science and the West, as one from the unbelievers such as his father. Like his peers, his quarter-century of immersion in the Himalayan culture and languages affords him an enviable position for comparison and contrast with the Western ideas that formed him. Miles locates the clash of father's demands for Enlightenment-encouraged external proof for assertions as challenging the son's confidence that they can be traced along internal stages towards ego-dissolution into ultimately intangible but nonetheless existing-- if at a level beyond demonstration to an external device-- of nirvanic enlightenment. Miles defines "enlightened self-interest" as dynamically compelling Westerners on to a narcissism pretending to be a nirvana, one of "cultural autism" as we solipsistically confuse material gain for real wisdom. (x)

Ricard in my opinion's weak in refuting the Uncreated Creator argument, but he often gets the better of the contest; he provides a wealth of anecdotes and metaphors to balance Revel's tangible results via concrete reasoning. Metaphysics takes place on a different level, yet it's "an undeniable reality" as "contemplative experience" shows "the direct vision of a truth that the mind is obliged to accept because it corresponds, in that domain, to the nature of things." It's not irrational: "It simply goes beyond conceptual reasoning." (68) Revel can respect his son's assertions, but he denies their independently verifiable proof. Ricard counters that 2500 years of experimentation into the inner mind have revealed truths as persuasive as Revel's education that's built on 2500 years of progress into philosophy, politics, science, and ethics. Mind sciences in the East are not taken seriously by Revel-- and all but a handful of Ricard's former colleagues.

Revel constantly returns to the deleterious effects that an inward bent has done for the Eastern lack of progress, its despotism, its poverty, and its indifference to suffering on a physical level. For Ricard, the balance between medical progress and spiritual advancement's essential for the East, but he cautions how the Western consumers have lost their moorings in a welter of existential, Freudian, structuralist theory that cannot substitute for the loss of faith. He reminds his father that a prisoner must figure a way out of his chains before he can free his fellow inmates. Spiritual transformation within must precede the efforts of creating a better life for others; this follows, nonetheless, as an inevitable corollary for one is impelled to liberate others from suffering once freed. This teaching's a core truth to act upon for Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan bodhisattva models.

Perverted faith, they agree, has its dangers when monotheistic missionaries (Moghul India for Islam and Christianity) or polytheistic (as with the Hindu) regimes have decimated Buddhism in its homeland. Revel reminds us often of the failure of Marxism and political utopias; his skepticism about collective idealism whether in religion or doctrine, manifesto or dogma's bracing and relevant as Communist China's oppression of Tibet reminds both men of how power and profit strives to crush idealism and compassion. The rebirth by the painful transfer of teachings outside Tibet, as documented here sadly, may however allow more people in the West such as Ricard-- and us by extension who read this-- to learn or at least debate with the dharma. The Buddha himself told his listeners to test and sift what they heard, not to take on faith what had not been found true by experience, reflection, and application. This jibes well with Revel's rationalism, although he can never countenance Buddha's claims for an inner progress as provable by the same "scientific" proof as a lab experiment. Yet, Revel also tells us how the root of "theoria" itself rests in "contemplation."

The chapter on the dangers of cultural influences that dilute a spiritual tradition, however, proved skimpy compared to the satisfaction of earlier epistemological discussions, and the parts on Buddhism in the West suffer by comparison with their lack of heft. The second half of the book's markedly easier to read, however, after the foundations of investigation and debate have been built. I encourage readers to persevere until chapter seven. The scope shifts from interior to exterior terrain and the altitude's a bit easier to breathe in for those less skilled in moral and scientific discourse than these two formidably learned men!

For instance, psychoanalysis is lauded by Revel while Ricard warns: "It's no use to keep on stirring up the mud from the bottom of a lake if you want to purify the water." (260) Ricard offers the Buddhist alternatives to free one from the delusions of the ego; "the only good thing about negativity is that it can be purified and dissolved. All those sediments down in the unconscious aren't made of rock. They're just ice-- ice that can be melted in the sun of wisdom." (264)

Revel's not having any of this without measuring results: "All just metaphors!" Ricard hits another target with a fresh aim when considering how novelty drives the Westerner towards always another item, another idea, another goal that then itself recedes as one tries in vain to grasp it so as to prop up the ego, the "personality." Sacred art, he shows, doesn't let the imagination run riot. It calms the mind, whereas "Western art often tries to create an imaginary world." Rather than arousing passions, sacred art, dance, and painting give one objects to meditate upon "to penetrate to the nature of reality." Which, for a Buddhist, pulls beyond the commonsensical relative truth to an ultimate emptiness in a welcome void.

The nihilism that distorted 19th c. translations of Buddhism for Westerners Ricard corrects throughout; there's no escape from the world but a non-theistic, non-coercive re-orientation of the viewer towards its insubstantial nature vs. the everlasting quest for inner freedom from the tangibles that trap us. For Revel, these material gains outweigh the spiritual journey taken by an individual; the social progress and practical demands impel an activist to trust in real-world progress and not illusory esoteric exercises.

Perhaps, there's an impasse remaining at the conclusion. Two centuries of Westerners pursue "the idea that all human problems-- questions of personal happiness, personal development, wisdom, the ability to bear suffering or be rid of it-- could be solved through historical dialectic, as Hegel and Marx said." Anything interior or personal became demeaned as "ideological fantasies, illusory remains of the belief that happiness and equilibrium could be attained on an individual level. That desertion of personal wisdom in favor of collective transformation reached fever pitch with Marxism." (276) Revel knows intimately the dangers of true belief by non-believers in conventional faith. The intransigence and dogmatism endure within many even as popes and pashas are overthrown. The lack of morality and personal wisdom left by secularism in the West-- on both sides of the Iron Curtain-- account for the appeal that Buddhism may be finding today.

Both men would agree we live in a dissatisfied state. They differ on how to regain our comfort. Both stress morality, kindness, and compassion. Out of these common goals, the direction where they follow their paths converge. As Ricard sums it up: "What Buddhism could help to change is the overall attitude that consists in giving priority to 'having' over 'being'" (138); Revel agrees, but he also fears that Western distortions of Buddhism may lead to its dilution before its inner, if frustratingly for him, untestable promises can bear fruition. Ricard, calmly, invites us to try the path inside the mind to test his confidence in its healing: he cites the Buddha's "it is up to you to follow it" by one's own personal experience that leads into silence. Revel might prefer to see a brain scan, for his knowledge must be documented externally. Out of this standoff, the two men part ways, one on the way to wisdom, one to "scientific certitude."

(P.S. See Daisaku Ikeda's chapter on King Milinda in "Buddhism: The First Millennium." Also compare Pankraj Mishra's "An End to Suffering" for a post-9/11 perspective from an Indian who compares especially post-Enlightenment Western intellectual history to the Buddha in his historical and contemporary socio-political contexts. I reviewed both of these books on this blog and at Amazon US in August 2009; here's the link to Revel + Ricard for 6-29-09.)

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