Compassion Is a Skill to Be Developed Through Practice
by Krista Tippett, host
Matthieu Ricard looks on as Dilgo Khyentse Yangsi Rinpoche makes a point to children in Vancouver, Canada. (photo: Linda Lane/Flickr, cc by-nc-sa 2.0)
The title we’ve given this week’s show, “The ‘Happiest’ Man in the World,” is slightly tongue-in-cheek. It appeared in a British newspaper after the publication of scientific study results on Matthieu Ricard’s brain. He dismisses this label and has issued many good-natured disclaimers. We’ve revived it here, however, because of the lovely way in which Matthieu Ricard fills that phrase with a whole new range of savvy, satisfying meaning.
I certainly found myself identifying with Ricard’s descriptions, in his own writing, of his youthful, worldly-wise dismissal of “happiness” as a goal. I too was dismissive, well into adulthood, of the very word “happiness” and its overwhelming associations with the dream-come-true state that ends movies, for example, or the happiness as “having it all” American way.
But Matthieu Ricard puts words to what I’ve learned as I’ve grown older. He accomplishes that as much with his ideas as with his presence. He is a slightly incongruous yet wholly comfortable Frenchman swathed in the lavish gold and red of Tibetan monastic robes, with practical shoes beneath. He is at once sophisticated and mischievous, intellectual and childlike — something, that is, like his teacher the Dalai Lama. It was a privilege to experience them both at a series of gatherings in Vancouver, British Columbia, where they were in conversation with Nobel laureates, scientists, social activists, and educators. We converted a tenth-floor suite at the Shangri-La Hotel, aptly named and somewhat surreal, into a production suite for this interview, which you can view as well as hear on our site.
I am fascinated by the way in which science is interwoven with Matthieu Ricard’s life story as well as his current work with the Dalai Lama and his very definition of the spiritual quest. He is one of those so-called “Olympic meditators” — people who have meditated tens of thousands of hours and whose brains have been studied and yielded important new insights into something called neuroplasticity — the human brain’s capacity to alter across the life span. This is a fairly recent and fairly dramatic — and not uncontroversial — discovery that came about as a result of research involving the Mind and Life Institute — a fascinating dialogue with scientists from many disciplines that the Dalai Lama has been hosting for many years.
Matthieu Ricard actually began his life as a molecular biologist, working with a Nobel Prize-winning biologist at the prestigious Pasteur Institute in Paris. His decision to leave France for a Buddhist monastic path greatly perplexed his father, Jean-François Revel, a philosopher who was a pillar of French intellectual life. But as he describes in a literary dialogue with his father that was published as The Monk and the Philosopher, Tibetan Buddhism was less of a departure in his mind than in his father’s.
He had become drawn to the spiritual masters, who would later become his teachers and eventually his peers, leading lives of integrity. And there was a very personal, full-circle integrity in his love of the natural world that had manifest itself in part in biological research — and in his appreciation for Buddhist spirituality as a life shaped by what he describes as “contemplative science.” I am utterly fascinated by the echoes between science and spirituality that Matthieu Ricard has continued to pursue and that we discuss together in this show.
Will neuroscience one day be able to not merely describe the movement of neurons and brain chemistry but add its own vocabulary to the meaning and nature of human consciousness, as related to or distinct from the brain? And how can we not be fascinated by the evocative echoes between the way quantum physicists have come to describe energy and matter and the way Buddhist philosophy has always described the interconnectedness and impermanence of human experience and all of life? Our understanding of the intersection of mind, life, body, and however you want to define the human spirit continues to unfold and develop, and is one of the most intriguing frontiers of this century.
Krista’s TED Talk at the United Nations and the Charter for Compassion (Live Video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
when: Thursday, November 18th, 2010
time: 11:00 a.m. ET
where: United Nations (New York, New York)
Well, we’re live streaming another event, and this one should be a must-see simply because of the line-up of speakers, including Karen Armstrong and Krista. Oh, and it’s a TED event, which almost always means great speakers! The topic? Creating a compassionate world.
Words matter. They shape the way we see ourselves, interpret the world, and treat others. And as essential as compassion is across our traditions, as vivid as many of us know it to be in particular lives, the word “compassion” is a problem — watered down in culture, suspect in the field of journalism, too safe and too sweet for the power that the 21st century needs unleashed in this virtue. Krista will name that — break “compassion” open into its kindred and component qualities and describe its universe of attendant virtues. In ideas and images drawn from her conversation partners across the years, she will suggest an expanded definition of “compassion” as vital, visible, and embodied.
Please join us here or on our live events page and watch our stream from the United Nations. We’ll continue to send real-time updates when the stream goes live on our Facebook page and through our Twitter stream. Keep an eye out!
by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
I stumbled upon a perplexing puzzle as we were fine-tuning our upcoming show with Buddhist teacher and author Matthieu Ricard. Krista had included a quote in the script by Albert Einstein that needed to be fact checked. This seemed pretty straightforward…at first.
Albert Einstein is one of those famous people who gets quoted a lot, sometimes inaccurately. My colleagues at SOF were already familiar with this from producing two companion programs about Einstein back in 2007.
Following is the quote from Einstein as it appears in The Quantum and the Lotus, a book Matthieu Ricard wrote together with astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan:
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the ‘Universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Plug this quote into Google and you get hits galore, including references to this 1972 New York Times article. But if you look at the typed version at the beginning of this post, you’ll notice some differences — specifically the last two sentences. So where did the quote come from exactly, and in what context did Einstein originally write or say these words?
My search led me to Dear Professor Einstein, a collection of Einstein’s correspondence that features a version of the quote in question, which closely matches the copy we obtained from the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Through Facebook, I contacted the book’s editor, Alice Calaprice, who explained that Einstein had penned his famous words in 1950 to Robert S. Marcus, a man who was distraught over the death of his young son from polio. Calaprice concurred that people often misquote Einstein — and that primary sources are the key to setting the record straight. “When we don’t have originals to prove otherwise,” wrote Calaprice, “falsehoods are sometimes inadvertently repeated even by scholars.”
To that end, Barbara Wolff, an archivist at the Albert Einstein Archives, sent us the actual image of the handwritten versions of Einstein’s letter in German and English below. I wonder about who translated Einstein’s words and whether some meaning may have gotten lost.
As I’ve resurfaced from all this Einstein sleuthing, I’ve been pondering my responsibility as producer to verify the quote’s accuracy. But, as I look at Einstein’s handwritten letter with its scrawls and cross outs, I’m reminded that language and ideas are not fixed like cement. Still, it’s my job to get it right.
What’s funny is that after all this effort, we debated ditching the quote altogether. Matthieu Ricard is such a rich voice, did we really need to bring Einstein into the conversation? In the end though, we corrected the quote, and kept Einstein, “sounding more than a little bit Buddhist,” as Krista put it, in the final script read.
Special thanks to Barbara Wolff and the Albert Einstein Archives at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel, which holds copyright for these archival materials.
The Impressionable Faces of Buddhist Silence
by Trent Gilliss, online editor
Tomorrow, our latest production with Matthieu Ricard will be released via our podcast. His journey to the Himalayas and studying under some of the great Tibetan Buddhist monks and the current Dalai Lama was inspired by the films of Arnaud Desjardins.
What struck him and became the catalyst for his lifelong journey, as he told Krista in a hotel room in Vancouver, was a particular point in one of these documentaries when he saw “a series of faces, of contemplatives … in silence” — of all shapes and sizes.
I wanted to see those faces. The video above is excerpted from the 1966 film, Le Message des Tibétains: Le Tantrisme (deuxième partie). For the quick skinny on the portrait sequence Ricard mentions, skip to 50:05 in the clip.
Ricard describes the influence of Desjardins’s films in greater depth in The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue between him and his father, Jean-François Revel, a French intellectual who is well-known for his challenging critiques of Communism and Christianity:
Matthieu Ricard: …what triggered my interest in Buddhism was in 1966…
Jean-François Revel: You would have been twenty then.
M.R.: I was still at university, and just about to go to the Institut Pasteur, when I saw some films made by a friend, Arnaud Desjardins, as they were being edited. They were about the great Tibetan lamas who had fled the Chinese invasion and taken refuge on the souther side of the Himalayas, from Kashmir to Bhutan. Arnaud had spent several months on two trips with an excellent guide and interpreter, filming these masters at close quarters. The films were very striking. Around the same time, another friend, Dr. Leboyer, came back from Darjeeling where he’d met some of the same lamas. I’d just finished a course and had the chance of taking a six-month break before starting my research work. It was the time of the hippies, who’d set out to India overland hitchhiking or in a Citroen deux-chevaux, through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. I was also drawn to the martial arts and had thought of going to Japan. But the sight of the pictures brought back by Arnaud and Frederick Leboyer, what they told me and their descriptions of their encounters there, all helped me make up my mind to head for the Himalayas rather than anywhere else.
J.F.R: So it was Arnaud Desjardins’s film that started it all off.
M.R.: There were several films, The Message of the Tibetans and Himalaya, Land of Serenity (which included The Children of Wisdom and The Lake of the Yogis), four hours in all. They include long sequences of the great Buddhist teachers who’d just arrived from Tibet — what they looked like, how they spoke, what they taught. The films gave a very alive and inspiring account of what it was like.
J.F.R.: You said they left a strong impression on you, personally. Why?
M.R.: I had the impression of seeing living beings who were the very image of what they taught. They had such a striking and remarkable feeling about them. I couldn’t quite hit on the explicit reasons why, but what struck me most was that they matched the ideal of sainthood, the perfect being, the sage — a kind of person hardly to be found nowadays in the West. It was the image I had of St. Francis of Assisi, or the great wise men of ancient times, but which for me had become figures of the distant past. You can’t go meet Socrates, listen to Plato debating, or sit at St. Francis’ feet. Yet suddenly, here were beings who seemed to be living examples of wisdom. I said to myself, ‘If it’s possible to reach perfection as a human being, that must be it.’