Book Review: Revel and Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher

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The Monk and the Philosopher shows how religious disputes can and should be conducted, with the utmost mutual respect and civility. The dialog in this book presents a head-on clash between radically different understandings of the nature of reality, with a very religious Buddhist monk (Matthieu Ricard) on one side and a very non-religious academic (Jean-Francois Revel) on the other. They happen to be father and son, but that can’t be the only reason for the courteous character of the debate. Disagreements like these often elicit expressions of disdain or frustration even within families.

Lately I’ve been following another religious dispute where some deny what others take as obvious self-evident truth, and the picture in that case is quite different. I’m speaking of the debate in print and online regarding whether Jesus existed a historical person or not. In that exchange many on each side vilify the other, blithely throwing out accusations of incompetence, ulterior motives, and even insanity. I’ll be publishing an article about that firestorm in the upcoming months. Those combatants are mostly either Christian or closely connected with Christianity. Does Buddhism inspire more civility and respectful behavior, and less self-defensive reactivity about beliefs, than does Christianity? Indeed, at one point in this book Revel suggests that historically, religious intolerance arose with monotheism (115). Whatever the explanation, this debate between a monk and a philosopher can be held up as a shining example of how to thoroughly yet respectfully probe and dissect an alien belief system.

Revel, the “philosopher” in this dialog, is not partial to any religion and is skeptical of any metaphysical beliefs, but he’s curious and open-minded. He’s skilled in asking the right questions and in calling out inconsistencies, convoluted logic, and fallacies  in the monk’s answers. He learns a lot about Buddhism in the process, and the reader of the book is along for the ride.

But I do not recommend this book as an introduction to Buddhism for someone who knows nothing about it. Like any major religion, there are many variants of Buddhism. Some Buddhists are more “religious” in the sense of devotion to metaphysical beliefs and ornate ritual practices. For others, Buddhism is a reservoir of practical wisdom for living a happy and fulfilling life, and a community of like-minded individuals who support you along that path. The monk in this dialog stands at the extreme religious end of the Buddhism spectrum, which creates one serious problem: he presents his variant of Buddhism as the only true Buddhism (and you thought it was only Christians who do that Smile). For example:

[Ricard] There is a school of Buddhism called the ‘Mind Only’ school which says that, in the final analysis, only consciousness exists, and everything else is a projection of consciousness. But it’s a monism that’s been refuted within Buddhism itself. (120-1)

The other school of thought was “refuted” and thus is to be dismissed as a heretical sect. Ricard’s branch of Buddhism that refuted the other one is “Buddhism itself” or the only true Buddhism.

Throughout the book, Ricard uses phrases like “Buddhism speaks of …” and “according to Buddhism …” but when he does so you can never tell for sure if the statement really pertains across the board to Buddhism writ large or applies just to his own variant or what he himself considers to be normative Buddhism.

Ricard never uses phrases such as “I believe …” or “Buddhism believes ….”  He avoids the word “believe” like the plague because he considers his beliefs to be knowledge based on “evidence” gained from “contemplative experience.” He talks this way about what most of us would consider highly speculative metaphysical beliefs, such as reincarnation, streams of consciousness passing through people and things from one life to another, people suffering now from the result of things they did in a prior life, and so forth. Anyone who is inclined to see Buddhism as not a religion will be disabused of that notion by reading this book. Ricard is as tightly tied to an extensive metaphysical belief system as is any Christian priest, prelate, or seminary professor.

One of those core beliefs is reincarnation. I’ve always wondered: if there is no self, what is reincarnated?  I’ve read books by learned Buddhists explaining the doctrine but have never found it explained in a way that makes sense. Revel sees this problem too and drills into the same logical inconsistency. Ricard is unable to address it and tries to skirt the issue.  This exchange is a great example of how one of them tries to evade a question and the other can see the evasion, makes a very respectful attempt to call it out, and good humoredly abandons the line of argument when he sees his interlocutor has no good answer.

[Ricard] First of all, it’s important to understand that what’s called reincarnation in Buddhism has nothing to do with the transmigration of some ‘entity’ or other. It’s not a process of metempsychosis because there is no ‘soul’. … Over successive rebirths, what is maintained is not the identity of a ‘person’, but the conditioning of a stream of consciousness.

[Revel] But doesn’t metempsychosis exist in Buddhism? I thought the migration of souls was one of its most basic doctrines.

[Ricard] Buddhism speaks of successive states of existence; in other words, everything isn’t limited to just one lifetime. We’ve experienced other states of existence before our birth in this lifetime, and we’ll experience others after death. … Moreover, 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.

[Revel] That’s pretty hard to understand.

[Ricard] In fact, 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.

[Revel] A series of reincarnations without any definite entity that reincarnates? More and more mysterious. (30-1)

How to explain evil is another area in which Ricard’s Buddhism doesn’t have a good answer to one of Revel’s questions.  When Ricard’s response dances around the question without answering it directly, Revel lets that slide and simply responds to what Ricard’s response does say.

[Revel] If man’s essentially ‘good’, how can you explain that there’s so much violence in the world?

[Ricard] The idea of man’s true nature can be understood as a state of balance, while violence is a state of imbalance. The proof that violence isn’t part of man’s deep-seated nature is that it causes suffering in both victim and perpetrator. Man’s deepest wish is for happiness. … No murderer has ever felt even the slightest peace of feeling of fulfillment after indulging his hatred by killing — at most there’s sometimes a rather short  and unhealthy feeling of jubilation. In the longer term, it’s quite the contrary – murderers often find themselves in a state of profound confusion and anguish that sometimes leads them to suicide.
It’s also possible to become desensitized to crime … Isn’t it said of inveterate killers that ‘there’s nothing human left in them’? …

[Revel] I’m personally a bit less optimistic than you are about the remorse of great criminals pushing them to the point of suicide. Remember that Stalin, Mao, and Franco all died in bed, and Hitler killed himself because he’d been beaten – not at all because he felt the slightest remorse for the crimes he’d committed. … (180-1)

Revel goes on to offer his own answer to the question.  You might not agree with him, but at least it’s a direct answer. Ricard doesn’t put Revel’s view down but just puts in a plug for his own.

[Revel] I’m very pessimistic about the eradication of evil. Unlike Rousseau, I believe that humans are bad and that it’s society that makes them good, as long as society is constituted according to law. From time to time, some types of society can make man a little less bad. Why? Because evil’s irrational.

[Ricard] And against nature, too. (181)

On the other hand sometimes Revel has no good answer to a query from Ricard. In such cases he’s up front about it, and Ricard doesn’t gloat. The exchange regarding the meaning of life is an example. Revel openly admits he doesn’t have a solution. He asserts that there are three main ways that people in the West find meaning in life:  philosophy, religion, and utopian social revolution. He asserts that the second two of these have lost their power to provide meaning. Social utopias such as communism have failed, and so has religion:

[Revel] Well, of the three ways of finding some meaning in it all, religions, or at any rate Western religions, are simply no longer truly practiced. … It’s no longer possible to maintain that the hope of an afterlife can compensate for social suffering, unemployment and the disorientation of youth. There are no longer any priests who can go and gather together the young on the public housing developments and tell them that if they’re good they’ll be spared two years of purgatory. That doesn’t work anymore, it’s over. … (294)

To Revel all that’s left today is philosophy, and that has a fatal flaw:

[Revel] So what’s left? A return to wisdom according to the good old recipes of the past. …

[Ricard] In the end, we more or less agree that what gives meaning to life isn’t just an improvement in material conditions, as we’re not just machines. Nor is it just some rules of conduct, as a façade alone isn’t enough. It’s a transformation of our being through wisdom.

[Revel] Not quite. I believe that all the systems of wisdom with which we try to make life bearable have their limits. The biggest limit of all is death. … That always brings us back to the fundamental difference between wisdom doctrines or quests for life’s meaning with a secular connotation and those with a religious one.

[Ricard] … if you find the wisdom that gives meaning to this present life, the same wisdom will give meaning to future lives. …

[Revel] … But I still think, all the same, that there’s a huge difference between that attitude [focusing on the present] and the idea that your existence can be prolonged into future lives. That implies a totally different view of the cosmos.

[Ricard] … Giving meaning to life through wisdom and inner transformation is to achieve something outside time, just as valid in the present as it will be in the future, whatever that might be.

[Revel] What you say is doubtless true for Buddhism, which isn’t a religion based solely on the hope of an afterlife. But it’s obvious that a Muslim only lives in the idea that he’ll go to Paradise if he respects the divine law. Like all Christians by definition, whether Catholics or Protestants. … (295-7)

After some more give and take Revel states plainly what he believes is possible and its limits:

[Revel] I don’t believe in the immortality of the soul so I actually don’t think any true fulfillment’s possible. I don’t think that any human being who knows himself or herself to be mortal and who doesn’t believe in an afterlife can experience a feeling of total fulfillment. Relatively, perhaps, it’s possible, in terms of some temporary objectives that don’t rule out a degree of consummation. But I think that complete solutions to the meaning of life simply don’t exist — outside the great transcendent solutions, whether religious, para-religious, or political, in which I myself can’t believe.

[What is feasible is what] I’d call the wisdom of resignation, which doesn’t mean one of sadness, and is based on the opposite idea – the feeling that this limited life is all we have. It’s a wisdom of acceptance, and consists of building oneself up in this present life using whatever means are the least unreasonable, the least unjust, and the least unethical, but knowing perfectly well nonetheless that it’s only a temporary episode. (298)

He ends this whole discussion not by asserting the last word in the argument or by discounting anything Ricard has said, but with a good-natured expression that they have agreed to disagree. To Ricard’s final statement asserting that “Buddhism adheres to the idea of a continuity of successive states of existence …” Revel responds:

[Revel] Well, there you are. And since your hypothesis is more optimistic than mine, I’m sure our readers will feel better if I let you have the last word. (299)

The book covers a wide variety of topics, and these are just a few representative examples of the character of the dialog. My overall assessment of what I learned from the dialog parallels that of Revel:

[Revel] I have become more and more appreciative of Buddhism as a system of wisdom, and more and more skeptical about it as a system of metaphysics. (301)

Many Christian theologians leave me amazed at how much metaphysical drivel they can write with absolute confidence in the rightness of their beliefs, but it somehow seems out of place in Buddhism. Of course I have seen that before in some Buddhist writings, but it stands out starkly here in the light of cross-examination by an incisive interlocutor.

Nevertheless, I also agree with Ricard’s approach to assessing the value of any “system of wisdom” or religion:

[Ricard] Once we are committed to a spiritual path, it is essential to check that over the months and years we are actually freeing ourselves from hatred, grasping, pride, jealousy and above all from the ego-centeredness and ignorance that cause them. That is the only result that counts. (309)

The instructor of a meditation class I once took had a similar answer for the question of what’s the point of meditating and how do you know if you’re actually accomplishing anything by meditating: she said that you judge your success by whether or not you’re becoming a kinder person.

Buddhism as a way of life helps take you in that direction, and the metaphysical beliefs such as they are don’t hinder that. The story seems to be more mixed for Christianity. Revel has a point about monotheism: there’s a tendency in monotheistic religions such as Christianity for people to develop a degree of intolerance for other viewpoints, more so than in Buddhism. But that’s another topic for another time.

If you’re interested in Buddhism or in discussions of religion and the meaning of life in general, you can hardly go wrong reading this book. But if you’re new to Buddhism, be aware that there is much more diversity within Buddhism than Ricard would lead you to believe.

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