The Monk and the Philosopher

Almost a year ago, I wrote about one of the most influential books I've read. Now, I'm revisiting another one: The Monk and the Philosopher.

The premise is that the man on the right, Matthieu Ricard, is a molecular-biologist-turned-Buddhist-monk. Today, he's famous enough to have his own wiki page and TED talk on "the habits of happiness". The man on the left is his father, Jean-François Revel, wiki-famous for his work in Western philosophy and political commentary. In 1998, eight years before his death, the two met for a dialogue on their understanding of life. Each brought their own distinct flavor, but their common history and intellectual stature makes for a very thoughtful and rigorous discussion. The book is simply the transcript. 

In the first chapter, Matthieu (who is today the French translator to the Dalai Lama), talks about his transition from a promising career at the frontier of molecular biology to Buddhism and eventually monkhood. He earned his Ph.D. under a Nobel-winning geneticist, and only then decided to leave it all. In telling this story, he has some really simple, meaningful insights. 

Through his father's fame, he met many accomplished writers, artists, and scientists, and noticed this:

But at the same time the genius they showed in their particular field was not necessarily accompanied by what you would call human perfection. All their talent, all their intellectual and artistic skills, didn't necessarily make them good human beings. 
Despite my admiration, I couldn't help noticing that the mastery such people possessed in their particular field was often not matched by even the simplest human perfections - like altruism, goodness, or sincerity.

Since reading this book, I've struggled with the question: How does one achieve success and happiness? It seems the greatest people, who have done so much good for the world, are burdened by responsibility, and it's this weight that fuels them. I imagine Bill Gates goes to bed every night upset by the injustices around the world in basic healthcare and quality of life. Is he happy? Should he have to sacrifice his happiness for the good of others?

In the book, Jean-François, the father, agrees that these dissonances exist, but he thinks it's possible to live a life immersed in typical human pursuits while seeking deeper happiness. I think I agree with him, and I don't plan on moving to Nepal to become a monk anytime soon.

Matthieu feels that "the mass of scientific knowledge [has] become a major contribution to minor needs." Ouch.

Lots of questions. No answers. C'est la vie~