THEOSOPHY, Vol. 87, Issue 4
May-June, 1999
(Pages 163-170; Size: 15K)


[4th article in this series]

From the works of HPB, theosophy offers a synthesis of religion, philosophy and science (as stated in the second object) that is rarely attempted in a public forum, even today. She is also credited by many for bringing eastern philosophy into western thought as never before. The following episode relates an appealing attempt at such a reconciliation of thought in light of current western trends in Buddhism.

A FORUM on the meaning of life, held by Harper's Magazine in February 1999 in New York City, featured an artist, a scientist, a philosopher, and a Tibetan Buddhist monk: composer Philip Glass, Cornell physicist Brian Greene (known for his string theory that unifies all of theoretical physics), author and philosopher Jean-Francois Revel, and western-born molecular biologist-turned-monk Mattheiu Ricard. As one may expect, the artist spoke of motivation, the scientist of accurate descriptions and intellectual advancement, the philosopher of the historical context and ethics, and the monk of wisdom, compassion, and interdependence.

The synthesis of science, philosophy and religion clearly defined the intent of the panel, but the monk captured the moment from beginning to end. He clearly demonstrated a meaning of life that warms the heart, leaving the others to their colder but empirically provable worlds of scientific reality. His best counterpoint was by the philosopher, "Ultimate reality is a matter of speculation." The underlying dynamics were recognizable by theosophical students who find similar discourse within their own work. Key to this panel's dynamic, however, was a book that brought together the ideas of the philosopher and the monk, bridging eastern and western beliefs in an intimate exchange that defies apathy or pigeonholing.


The unique dialog between Ricard (French-born monk) and Revel (French writer and philosopher), lasting some 40 hours, was taped and transcribed with minor editing for a best-seller in France (on the list for more than 35 weeks) -- The Monk and the Philosopher --and recently was published in the United States (Schocken Books, New York, 1999). Facilitating this conversation, the monk had received his Ph.D. in molecular biology when he left a promising research position to study Buddhism in India in 1967 and now resides at the Shechen Monastery in Nepal. The French philosopher, an atheist known for challenging communism and Christianity, is the former editor of political weekly L'Express and author of such books as Without Marx or Jesus, The Totalitarian Temptation, and How Democracies Perish. They are also, and in some ways most interestingly, father and son, as philosopher and monk respectively.

In an earlier promotional interview broadcast on National Public Radio's New York and Company program, father and son described the dialog as a first-time discussion on the topic of philosophy and religion, beyond what they typically spoke of, which was the politics of the Tibetan-Chinese crisis. More specifically, it was a venture of inquiry into why the son had chosen such a different path as they worked through common misunderstandings between East and West.

Together father and son, philosopher and monk, discuss the many perplexities that form their synthesis: differences in intellectual satisfaction and life goals, what knowledge and experience are (as seen through science and metaphysics), types of consciousness, the relationship between mind and body, death and reincarnation, the misconceptions of what nirvana and emptiness mean, superstitions and other reproaches to Buddhism, cultural views of historical evolution, nonviolence and tolerance in theory and practice, and the implications of suffering and happiness.

Jack Miles, Pulitzer Prize-winning author who wrote the book's introduction, notes that while Revel is not wholly convinced by all his son's explanations, he hesitates and listens long enough so that, through his own skepticism, other skeptics can also "enter into the emerging, extremely broad cultural debate." Even the casual observer relates to the father-son relationship and senses the exchange is a remarkable opportunity.

Miles further observes that the dialog subjects Buddhism to relatively rigorous scientific and philosophical cross-examination, which Revel often relates within a traditional historical context, especially in regard to Hellenic moral philosophies. With his son's formal training in the "very science to which Revel has such a philosophical commitment to," Miles goes on to say "intellectual respect as well as paternal devotion requires that the father take the son seriously as the latter makes life commitments that call the scientific world view into question." Miles points out that the scientific traditions that pervasively underlie most belief systems today -- that which Ricard himself finds consistent with his beliefs but now secondary to his spiritual path -- were ones which Ricard knowingly chose not to assume as the final truth. He makes a subjective choice out of what the scientifically inclined more often consider objective reasoning, thereby reminding them that they too are choosing.


The philosopher in Revel points not only to the desire to understand his son's choices, but also an interest in the growth of Buddhism in Europe and the Americas. He sees this trend as a result of, first, the end of great western philosophical systems that attempted to give a whole view of the world and, second, the failure of the great political ideologies in the 20th century which linked goodness and happiness to the formation of a perfect society (or the hope for it). As political solutions have failed to satisfy the search for ideals, the personal search is coming back in vogue.

"That conjunction of intellectual contemplation of truth and the attainment of happiness through wisdom, with justice in mind, [starting with Socrates and Plato] continued in Stoicism and Epicureanism and was only seen for the last time at the end of the seventeenth century in Spinoza's Ethic," concludes Revel. Politics then became the focus, where the building of a perfect society would provide justice, happiness, and truth. More recently the trend has been that reason and progress (both ethical and scientific) would bring happiness.

He continues, "The trouble with so-called scientific socialism, in fact, was ... that it was a utopia. Utopias, by their very nature, confront human reality with a model that is rigid, ready-made, planned in the abstract down to the last detail, and conceived without taking account of anything empirical. So human reality finds itself forced by the utopia, right from the start, into a role of resistance to the model, a role a priori of conspiracy and treason. Now, intolerance, Buddhism teaches, is never a vehicle of good, whether in politics or ethics. Constraint, proselytizing, even propaganda, are to be strictly avoided, it tells us. In the post-totalitarian age in which we live, that is perhaps another reason why the West is so attracted to it."

Important to westerners, in particular a feature of the American national self-image, individualism is at the root for this search, which son Ricard readily agrees to as an integration of the self (once realized) into the whole. Individualism, which Ricard qualifies as that which is not limited to self-centeredness or other entangling characteristics, has the potential for finding the power to bring about spiritual unfoldment, and the resulting inner freedom leads one to the ability to help others.

During the forum, Ricard repeatedly returned to the idea of inter-relatedness, concluding the evening by saying, "love and compassion make no sense without others." After using an example familiar to most theosophy students of the analogy of viewing ourselves as one finger on a hand and therefore inseparable, he emphasized how we all have the same rights and we should not be drawing lines of separation.


Ricard seems to have succeeded in relating to his father that he underwent an inner transformation rather than an initiation into religious doctrine. And similarities in the father's and son's thinking are noted, though the significance of the differences in their views is often downplayed by the son. What father and son have in common most of all is what led each to his lifelong commitment -- the search for truth.

While Ricard had found intellectual fulfillment in western approaches that he had begun to explore, he found the path to inner transformation among the Tibetan Buddhists: "Here were beings who seemed to be living examples of wisdom." His love for science was moreover a love for discovery and he found the spiritual quest more significant, despite his father's efforts to point to the advances in biology he could have been part of.

His philosopher father counters point by point the many correlations between Ricard's explanations and the ancient philosophy of Socrates and others. HPB also had made these connections:

The Buddhistic tenets which can never be better comprehended than when studying the Pythagorean philosophy -- its faithful reflection -- are derived from [the ancient Mysteries] .... The mastery of every doctrine of the perplexing Buddhist system can be attained only by proceeding strictly according to the Pythagorean and Platonic method; from universals down to particulars. The key to it lies in the refined and mystical tenets of the spiritual influx of divine life. (HPB, Isis Unveiled, I, p. 289.)
The transformation of the being through wisdom, while acknowledged by Revel, is limited, in his view, by any system of wisdom depending on its concept of death or immortality. Any search of wisdom is precarious and temporary if limited to the present life, notes Revel: "That always brings us back to the fundamental difference between wisdom doctrines or quests for life's meaning with a secular connotation and those with a religious one."

Revel continues, giving insight into the West's trouble with reincarnation, "I do in fact think that the problem of wisdom is today, here and now. I have to try in any given circumstance to conduct myself according to the rules that I feel -- by experience, reflection, and whatever I've learnt from the great thinkers -- will be the most effective. But I still think, all the same, that there's a huge difference between that attitude and the idea that your existence can be prolonged into future lives. That implies a totally different view of the cosmos."


Revel, who believes only in the here and now, sees no ultimate fulfillment in life, whereas his son sees it not only achievable for this life but for successive ones. Holding distinctly different views of immortality, Revel nevertheless sees in Buddhism the sense of happiness and ethics missing in today's religions and philosophies.

"Buddhism's quietism is just a myth," Revel notes as his greatest surprise after the dialog. He also no longer views Buddhism as a religion in that it has no personal god, no dogma, and no revelation. Eastern philosophy offers ethics and behavioral guidance, to him, but lacks theoretical foundations: "Wisdom will always be a matter of conjecture.... Wisdom is not based on scientific certitude, and scientific certitude does not lead to wisdom. Both, nevertheless, exist -- forever indispensable, forever separate, forever complementary." The contemplative nature of Buddhism, he says, requires a leap of faith unacceptable to scientific understanding.

Ricard defines Buddhism as a metaphysical tradition, from which a wisdom applicable in every instant and in all circumstances is derived. Ricard also comments on the spread of Buddhism, acknowledging that it will not be practiced in the West as in the East: "Buddhism seems to be able to provide the means necessary to instill in all of us a degree of inner peace ... using Buddhism's fundamental truths in such a way that the potential for perfection we all have within us can be actualized."

"Happiness, here," explains Ricard, "is not just some agreeable sensation but the fulfillment of living in a way that wholly matches the deepest nature of our being. Happiness is knowing that we have been able to spend our life actualizing the potential that we all have in us and to have understood the true and ultimate nature of the mind. For someone who knows how to give meaning in life, every instant is like an arrow flying toward its target."

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Ordinary and Deep Ecology

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