Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Happiness: A Guide to LIfe's Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard

“Happiness” is a word, like the word “love”, that seems to have as many different meanings and nuances as there are people to utter them. For a writer to do it delve into the subject of happiness requires either a large degree of foolhardiness or a lot of courage. Matthieu Ricard, the author of this book, has a lot of courage.

My immediately preceding post reviewed a book by B Alan Wallace, one of the most interesting and persuasive teachers in the Buddhist tradition today. I have to say that if he has a challenger within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it would be Matthieu Ricard. Like Wallace, Ricard came from a privileged background. His mother was an artist and his father the well-known French intellectual Jean-Francois Revel (author of Without Marx or Jesus). Matthieu grew up in the artistic and intellectual milieu of Paris in the 1960s. He eventually entered into the study of biology and received a post at the prestigious Pasteur Institute. There he was a graduate student of the Nobel prize-winning biologist Fran├žois Jacob. However, despite his fast track to a successful career in Paris, he ventured to India and studied in the Tibetan tradition. After finishing his doctoral work, he moved to Tibet and undertook the life of a Buddhist monk. Since then he has served as French language translator for the Dalai Lama, and he serves as another bridge, like Alan Wallace, between the intricate and sometimes daunting world of Tibetan Buddhism and Western culture.

Ricard’s East-West pedigree makes Happiness work. Ricard undertakes a survey and appreciation of happiness from Western traditions and from Buddhism. The book considers a number of different possibilities for the source of happiness, and each perspective receives fair consideration. However, like any sensible person, he is quick to distinguish between mere pleasure, the fleeting happiness of a desire fulfilled, and something that runs much deeper. As you follow Ricard through the book in his consideration of the elements and possibilities that make up happiness and that can destroy it, you are in the hands of someone who has drunk deeply from wells both East and West.

As one considers the Buddhist project as a whole, from the time that the Buddha set forth the Four Noble Truths, you can fairly summarize it by saying that it seeks the path to happiness. The First Noble Truth speaks of dukka (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) and its pervasiveness, and the remainder of the Truths and the Noble Eight-fold Path are Buddha’s prescription for overcoming unhappiness. The flip is to say if we are not suffering, we should be happy. The Buddhist tradition from the Buddha himself to Ricard supports this assertion. Ricard carefully considers all of the ways in which our attitudes can get in the way of happiness. Ricard is not promoting some mindless idiot’s conception of happiness, but one that is deeply rooted in the workings of the mind and the values of compassion and loving-kindness. As a comprehensive path to happiness, the Buddhist tradition is as rich (if not richer) than any path that I know of. Ricard carefully lays forth this path while comparing it to Western conceptions that sometimes challenge it, but quite often complement it.

If you want to consider how to develop “life’s most important skill”, then you can’t expect to do better than this book. It is the equivalent of sitting at the feet of a wise sage who discourses about happiness in a well-organized, systematic, and accessible manner. Once again, Ricard uses his knowledge of the Western tradition and the Tibetan tradition to draw out the insights of each for the benefit of all.