A Patch of Blue Sky


Matthieu Ricard © David Ulrich

A Conversation with Matthieu Ricard

Present: Matthieu Ricard, Caroline Pfohl-Ho, David Ulrich, and Christian Rhomberg, at the Rhomberg home in Hong Kong on September 15, 2005.

DU: Matthieu, thank you for offering us time in your busy schedule. We are trying to understand how a larger intelligence is available to us, and how we can come together to contact this intelligence. Philosopher Jacob Needleman asks: “How to come together and think and hear each other in order to touch, or be touched by, the intelligence we need?” He speaks of people coming together to “share their perceptions and attention, and through that sharing to become a conduit for the appearance of a spiritual intelligence.”

MR: You see, first of all, there are many understandings of even the word intelligence. Usually there are two parts in Western education. One is the acquisition of as much information as possible, of geography, science, and this and that, and second is the so called development of intelligence, which is posited as the faculty of reasoning and of understanding, that typically those famous IQ tests are supposed to show you. You are trying to develop a tool of reasoning, of making associations, of analyzing situations— which is really only a tool. And a tool, like a hammer, can be used for building or can be used for destroying. And, as the Dalai Lama often says, a typical example of that is 9/11—an extremely smart use of intelligence, with the means to create enormous human devastation. An intelligence that did not hesitate to use human beings as bullets to destroy other human beings. So that’s a typical example of a sharp intelligence which, without the proper motivation, can be an enormous tool of destruction. Intelligence itself is just like strength, skill, energy, money or whatever and can be used to destroy or to build. Intelligence can be accompanied—especially in education—with the development of human values, an acquisition of the crucial importance of the motivation that underlies every one of our actions. We cannot predict the outcome of many of our actions because there is a limitation in what we know—how things are going to unfold, to happen, and the consequences. Yet even the most
dumb person can check his or her motivations. Am I doing this just for myself, out of selfishness or to actually harm others, or I am doing it for the double welfare for myself and others?

So we come to the idea of the total need of actually first developing human values and the right motivation, which is loving-kindness. We are part of others in a way, so we cultivate love for everybody including oneself. That’s a very important component of life and of education. And so intelligence alone—it’s great to have it—but without the values, it can’t be anything.

Now there is another aspect of intelligence that is a deeper understanding which is linked with wisdom and relating to the deeper nature of mind, and also of understanding the nature of phenomena, because those are interdependent. That kind of intelligence is more like a type of wisdom, which has a clear insight into the nature of reality and of your own mind and consequently of the minds of others.

If you clearly identify in your own mind the wish to be safe, the wish to be happy, the wish to be flourishing, then you can also appreciate that and understand that in others’ minds. I would say that kind of insight is more than intelligence. Insight is deeply linked with values, with the distinction between destructive and constructive emotions and states of mind. And also a correct perception of reality is very important. If we superimpose our mental constructs onto reality and say, for instance, things are permanent and I want myself, my dear ones, my possessions to last… Whereas in the constant dynamic flow of transformation, all of our perceptions of reality are going to suffer from that attitude. All of a sudden we are confronted with sudden change and then your superimposition will collapse and cause suffering. So insight is broader into the nature of things and also the quality of things, in terms of consequences of happiness and suffering. So that is true intelligence, or true insight, or true wisdom.

DU: It’s entering a larger flow. We enter a larger connection with other people and with the world at large.

MR: Well, larger in the sense that you begin to realize what it is. Not that you are making it larger than what it is. But you realize that for instance loving kindness and happiness cannot be a self- enclosed phenomenon. Selfish happiness is a contradiction. If you are suspended in space, love and kindness and compassion would have no meaning. Real happiness can only occur through and with others. Precisely because your understanding of interdependence and cultivation of loving kindness is a fundamental component of happiness. That is why selfish happiness does not work. That is also why a fundamental understanding of reality is important. Because interdependence and loving kindness are closely connected. Why? If you realize that you cannot have happiness without the happiness of others, because of the fundamental interdependence between self and others and between you and the world, then you understand the value and the essential need for developing loving kindness and compassion. So its not just an abstract notion, developing loving kindness; it is also at core of yours and other’s happiness. So a larger perspective

means actually understanding things as they are. It does not mean fabricating a sort of wishy- washy cosmic consciousness. It’s understanding that the real fabric of reality is interdependence— for phenomena, for living beings, and for the environment. And hence the Dalai Lama often emphasizes the concept of non-violence: to human beings, to animals, and the environment, because they are totally linked. You cannot disassociate them. If you disassociate them, you run into trouble.

DU. Yes, I feel that the concept of interdependence is very much in line with what we are thinking about—and especially the recognition of our interdependence and the need for coming together. When we come together, when we recognize compassion and genuine connection with each other, it seems to bring greater insight, it seems to being greater realizations. I am artist and I often work individually—but I find that when I collaborate with others and I really open to their insight and energy, it brings something greater to the moment.

MR: Sure. That makes sense. And you see interdependence also then comes with the notion of what we call universal responsibility. It’s a win win, lose lose situation. I was listening to Kofi Annan (UN Secretary-General) this morning when he was trying to push his reforms. And he said, “now, either we raise together or we fall together.” That’s a different way of expressing the notion of universal responsibility and interdependence. In the time of tribes, you could consider that when one tribe wins the hunting grounds, there was a winner and loser. Nowadays, If you harm a situation, the ecology, or a group of people you harm everybody and you harm yourself in the end. So it is now the time when precisely those values of interdependence and universal responsibility, which are based on genuine loving kindness towards each other, should triumph over just selfish, very narrow-minded attitudes. If you seek immediate reward—filling your pockets now—you don’t care about the environment or the next generations.

But you see this has to start with changing your own mind. So I think the ultimate… I always think that the real nutshell is transforming yourself to better transform the world. It’s a sort of formula. It’s the epitome of all that. You cannot really do humanitarian works, change your psyche, do something constructive without first eliminating some kind of mental toxins from your mind that makes you individually work in selfish ways. So in that sense independence and the change of your mind to loving-kindness, openness and so forth is how universal responsibility can be applied.

DU: How does interdependence take place in the teacher/student relationship? Is there a passage of knowledge, a passing of intelligence? In Buddhism certainly there is the connection to the wisdom of the lineage and would that represent a kind of intelligence?

MR: Sure, you know that one of the many obstacles to learning is pride. I know enough or I am smart or I don’t need you. So humility we say is like water: the waters of quality always gather in the lowest place. Not on the top of the peak. The peak is pride. And your place is humility—a genuine humility that gathers all the waters of quality you receive. You can also see the example of the fruit tree. When it branches out, loaded with fruit, it tends towards the ground. When there is no fruit, it can raise to the sky. So likewise, humility does not mean a self-depreciation. I am zero. I know nothing. Everyone is smarter than me. That is stupid. That’s not how you do anything. Humility is a sense of knowing how much you still have to learn and an appreciation of the qualities of those who know better. The teacher, in turn, is someone who has developed this quality of knowledge of the path and has nothing to gain or lose in having or not having disciples. It is natural, spontaneous, like a mother who would like to help a child to know that if you put your hand on a burning plate, you’re going to get burned. So, teaching is a spontaneous outflow of wishing to share in a beneficial way. Not because there is something to be gained from it. It’s simply natural genuine concern. If you know something, you want to share it. It comes naturally.

So it is that—a genuine earnest interest and wish to learn with openness, humility, and confidence. If you ever go mountain climbing, then you know at some point you have to rely on what the guide says. If you tell him you’re too smart and resist him, its not going to work. At some point, you have to trust. Once you have chosen your guide, you cannot change your mind halfway. That’s why it is important to properly choose your guide. If you choose a crook, then you’re both in trouble. (laughter)

DU: That reminds me of the wonderful little book, Mount Analogue by René Daumal.

MR: Oh yes, René Daumal was a friend of my mother’s (Painter, watercolorist, Mme. Yahne Le

DU: Was he? He talks about mountain climbing and how we depend upon our guides and we depend upon each other.

MR: That’s why it is very important if you can learn spiritually from someone else, that it be someone who is authentic, someone who really knows more than you, not the blind leading the blind. It is a matter of confidence and trust. It’s not blind faith, but confidence in someone who knows more than you when you have recognized as much as you can that it is authentic. Then you have to trust at some point, because it helps you to grow. You have to be confident, that with this person, I can progress on the path. That’s all you really need, not a blind devotion or submission.

DU: Do you think that a community of seekers helps us in our search for intelligence? I find that
when I am working with others, again I feel that something more is available then when I am working alone.

MR: Well, you know there are different things to that. And It’s not like there are some vibes going around all over the place which I think is a bit spooky. It’s more like—we have a saying: community simply reinforces your sense of commitment, of engagement, of discipline almost. When I’m meditating otherwise I just may want to do something else. Like lie down. So if you are in a group, there is a kind of common discipline. We have an image for that that is very nice. In India they use the Kusha grass for making brooms. You have a thousand fibers of Kusha grass. Individually, they cannot make a broom. If you gather them together you have an efficient broom. So this notion of sangha, of community, is actually companions traveling together on the path. And they help each other when someone is weak, or not always going in the right direction. You see the strength of their commitment, their practice, or you see their weakness. Somehow the whole thing helps you together. Its better to be ten companions traveling in the forest than just alone… Someone knows some pitfalls, some other ones have more presence. Someone is weak in the way, someone is strong in the head. The whole thing works better together. So I think the notion of community, as friends, of companions, is certainly most helpful.

This notion of emergence is important also. A crowd does not behave the same way as one hundred separate individuals. There is something more coming up than the simple sum of each individual capacity. That is what we call an emergent phenomenon When what emerges from a hundred persons or elements is more than just one plus one plus one, etc. equals 100. You have one plus one plus one equals 120. Because there is something more that emerges. That’s a very important concept also.

DU: Could you talk more about this idea of emergent phenomena?

MR: The emergent phenomena usually is dependent upon its basis or cause. Without its basis it is not an emergent phenomena. It has a quality of a life of its own. It’s simply that there is a quality that is more than the arithmetical sum of each element. In biology it is very clear, a single neuron doesn’t do anything. Suddenly when you have 20 billion neurons, and there is the basis of what we call at least the normal action of intelligence—which is not intrinsically present in the neurons— what emerges is the brain faculty of consciousness. In the same way in physics, the quality of one single element has specific qualities that change or transform when related with others or when placed under the lens of observation. A particle, for instance, can become a wave when subjected to our methods of observation. When alone, it goes back to its intrinsic state of being a particle. When particles are together and are then separated, even by a large distance, and one changes the polarity of its spin, the other will change instantaneously, and does so faster than the speed of light. The two together are inseparable, interdependent.

In other words, elements on a lower level combine to produce something that is more than the intrinsic quality of the element—new qualities appear, and that is an emergent phenomenon. And also an element on a higher level can influence the elements on the lower level. We call this downward causality, which implies that consciousness can influence the mind or the body—and brain function or intelligence affects the individual neurons. So we might say that emergent phenomena tends upward to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, but is informed by its basis, which is the consciousness and intelligence that guides it. Causality is not one way. If we say that in upward causality, elements on a lower level combine to form something on a higher level, then downward causality implies that something on a higher level influences the lower level. You can call this a reciprocal causality. Thus causality is mutual, both upward and downward, and intelligence shapes reality as reality shapes intelligence. Human beings both are formed by, and form their environment. On the ascendant or emergent side, the environment and body influences the mind, and on the descendent side, consciousness influences both the mind and the body.

CPH: How is devotion understood in Buddhism?

MR: It is a kind of conviction that the qualities of compassion and loving-kindness can be developed, that you can know the nature of the mind, and that the luminosity that you recognize in spiritual masters can be attained. Its simply that you begin with an appreciation of what your teacher has to offer. It is a kind of respect and a keen interest. You recognize and trust in their authenticity. You recognize that they embody a kind of luminosity, a clarity, a wisdom. And that is something that you want. So it follows that you develop a yearning and an aspiration for that kind of clarity and luminosity. There is something here that you want—to put the teaching into practice yourself. Through training the mind, they have eliminated some of what we call the toxins of anger, self-interest and so forth. There is a clarity and alertness, and you know it is authentic. So you develop a faith that turns into a conviction to follow the path. Once you put the teaching into practice and verify for yourself the effectiveness of what is taught, you develop a deep conviction to the path. That is devotion.

And there is another side to devotion. When you are in contact with a person who radiates loving-kindness and compassion, you are drawn to follow the path, to learn to embody
those qualities in yourself. In Buddhism, the lineage is like a series of small candles, each one representing a person on the path. Some candles are strong, some weak and are easily blown

out in the wind and so on. But the candles are lit, one to another, and the flame stays alive and strong. You know it is not any one single candle that carries the flame, but the sort of ongoing succession of them. The ultimate goal is personal transformation. The candles stay lit through the transformation of the individuals on the path. This becomes a sort of luminosity of the mind, an awareness that can be shared.

Tibetan masters have been known to say that if the student does not surpass the teacher, then it is the teacher that has failed.

DU: (Matthieu notices my book on the table, The Widening Stream; the Seven Stages of Creativity, and comments on it.) And one final question, you are an artist, a photographer. What role does creativity play in the formation of intelligence?

MR: Creativity is all too often just a manifestation of your emerging tendencies. You are this way or you are that way. And these emerging tendencies come out through your creativity. Very often creativity is confused with a spontaneous expression of one’s habitual tendencies and conditioning. The artist says, “look at me.” It is selfish and narrow-minded and can be confused with knowing the nature of your own mind. It does not free us from our conditioning or from ignorance, nor does it help develop loving-kindness and compassion. Really looking at these emerging tendencies, looking at the tendencies of your own mind is very exciting, more interesting than going to the movies. Learning to shed the skin of one’s habitual tendencies, conditioning, and negative emotions—and discover the real nature of your mind—is true creativity. Now there is another side to what we call intuition or inspiration. And there is nothing mysterious about it. Sometimes with nature or with art, you experience greater insight, a real moment of enlightenment, or a luminosity that connects you with the world or nature or others. By understanding the nature of your own mind, you naturally come to what we call intuition and insight. These moments come from your practice, from developing loving kindness and compassion, and they are moments of what I would all genuine wisdom.

Consciousness is an experience. It goes deeper and deeper into the experience, behind mental constructs and behind the veil of your emerging tendencies. You come to your natural wisdom. So intuition or inspiration is really the experience of your own wisdom. It is like seeing a small patch of blue sky amidst the clouds—and you try to widen that patch through personal transformation.

Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk at Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu and French interpreter since 1989 for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Born in France in 1946, he received a Ph.D. in Cellular Genetics at the Institut Pasteur under Nobel Laureate Francois Jacob. He first traveled to the Himalayas in 1967 and has lived there since 1972. For fifteen years he studied with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, one of the most eminent Tibetan teachers of our times.

He is an active member of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization dedicated to collaborative research between scientists and Buddhist scholars and meditators. He is engaged in the research on the effect of mind training and meditation on the brain at various universities in the USA (Madison, Princeton, and Berkeley) and Europe (Leipzig). He has been called the ‘happiest man alive” by several neuro-scientists who have studied his brain.

With his father, the French thinker Jean-François Revel, he is the co-author of The Monk and the Philosopher (Schocken, New York, 1999), and of The Quantum and the Lotus with the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan (Crown, New York, 2001). Matthieu is the author of Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill (Little Brown and Co 2007) and Why Meditate? (Hay House 2010). As a photographer, he has published several albums, including The Spirit of Tibet (Aperture, New York), Buddhist Himalayas (Abrams, New York) and Bhutan: Land of Serenity (Thames and Hudson, 2009).

Interview first appeared in Parabola Magazine, Vol.37, No.2, Alone and Together

For further information about Matthieu Ricard, please visit: matthieuricard.org and karuna-shechen.org.