11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2002
This book records an extended conversation between a top French philosoper and his son, a former PhD scientist that worked for a Nobel Prize winner who gave that up and became a buddist monk and aide to the Dali Lama. I am not sure why, but I found myself drawn to this book -- and have found it to be quite rewarding. For me at least, the book operates on at least 3-levels: first is that this book provides a good insight to what Tibetan Buddism is all about and how it is taught -- something I had come across before, but not in this detail. The conversation basically contrasts various western philosphies with Tibetan Buddism - but the emphasis is on Buddism and you don't have to be a philosophy student to appreciate it. Reading this book puts me in a calm state of mind -- not unlike reading the bible (there are many paths to Nirvana!).
The second is the father-son angle which is interesting not least because the son has taken on the celibate life of a monk which has implications for father and son, however this is not a big issue in the book; the father clearly loves his son and has accepted his son's path - somewhat grudgingly I suspect.
The third angle is the characters. The father is a larger-than-life big brassy, bold, top French academic, a philospher. [French philophy has itself been criticized in recent year s(particular by a top American scientist) as being overly trendy, pompous and ignorant in trying to adopt modern scientific concepts and apply them to philosophy -- while failing to really understand the original concept. This type of issue is not apparent in this book though]. The son on the other hand was a successful and proficient science student that became disillioned and went in search of a more rewarding life [from other sources it seems to me that France, like Britain became fascinated with Himalayaa. For France the 60's and 70's led were times of TV documentaries and slide shows of Nepal and Tibet, and of course the Dali Lama's flight to Paris would have been a huge in the French news]. The son is able to provide a unique insight having the background of a professional western scientist and a trained Tibetan monk with access to the Dali Lami himself. THe father-son relationship takes that a step further by providing a philosophical perspective. A triangle: science, philosophy and religon/Buddism -- the big picture.
I pick it up, read a few chapters and then leave it until I feel in the mood to read it again. I have almost finished it now. You don't have to be a Buddhist or philosopher to enjoy this -- but it is not a light, fast read, it would be easy glaze over reading this if you were not in a receptive mood.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
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! (P.S. See also Ricard's elegant exchange with astrophysicist Thinh Xuan Truan, "The Quantum and the Lotus," reviewed by me 5-12.)
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," reviewed by me when reprinted in August 2009. 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 this book recently.)
13 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on February 16, 2005
So, what is the meaning of life ??
This book confronts two very different views on the meaning of existence in a fascinating way. The first thing that really appealed to me while reading was the open, friendly way in which the discussion takes place. This is not just because it is a father and a son speaking, it's also because they both represent philosophies that are open to other views and willing to listen and discuss their standpoints. If all religions were as inclined as buddhism (if buddhism indeed is a religion) to debate and discuss their teachings and dogmas, we would live in a more peaceful world indeed.
The son, the monk, moved to Himmalaya in the 70's because he felt the west could not satisfy his spiritual seeking. At the beginning of the book I was very moved by this story, and by his criticism of western materialism which is right on target. But the further I read, the more I felt that the father, the philosopher, also had some very serious points in his criticism of the buddhistic metaphysics, and of the ascetic hermit life as an ideal.
The problem is, it seems to me, that the buddhist devotes his whole life to feeling compassion with his fellow beings, but there - also - is something very arrogant in this concept of compassion. Buddhism in fact teaches us that suffering, when it comes down to it, is our own fault. It is a product of ignorance - the fully enlightened never suffers - and of bad karma from previous lives. So buddhist compassion seems to say: I feel compassion for you, but not because of the pain you suffer, but because of your ignorance.
The problem with this view upon suffering - that it ultimately derives from ignorance - is revealed in the example of Tibet. The chinese occupation and destruction of Tibet shows us that suffering is real and calls upon not only meditation, but action - don't forget the Dalai Lama is also a diplomat.
And how could karma have anything to do with this, Tibet being the spiritual society it is (was) ?
Another problem with buddhist compassion is that it is best practiced far away from people who actually suffers - namely in caves or monasteries. Shouldn't the enlightened devote his life to helping his fellow beings ? Isn't it immoral to let the poor peasants in Bhutan and India pay for the monasteries and the monks (these peasants actually think they will go to heaven for the good karma they get by doing this) ?
In conclusion I think this book shows us, that spirituality is simply necessary for us to live full lives. But also that we should try to change the world for the better by acting, and that science and politcal power actually therefore also are good tools we should use to create a more prosperous and peaceful world for everybody.