Customer Reviews of The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life
Atheist, humanist father and Buddhist monk son hold a dialog
Western scientists and philosophically minded intellectuals often have contempt for religion, and some think it is a justified contempt that religious leaders have brought upon themselves by not living up to their principles - and by being ignorant of science, insisting upon theological premises and conclusions that no"philosopher" could accept.
So a culture at cross-purposes has been built up in the West. At times it has led to spiritual heartsickness and anxiety, the abandonment of hope that life has meaning. What people are left with on the whole is nihilism, the view that nothing exists except phenomena apparent to the senses, and that consciousness is an accidental product of matter, that one's mind does not survive death. Given the barren desert in which the spirit has to dwell, it seems courageous rather than merely materialistic that people just get on with trying to improve their standard of living, and it adds poignancy to the fascination with money and sex and celebrity, the recourse to entertainments and the love of sports.
This book, The Monk and the Philosopher, provides an antidote to the conflict between Western science and philosophy and traditional religion. It illustrates the highest possible vantage point from which to see meaning directly and simply, that is, a principial metaphysical tradition of wisdom, in this case, Buddhism.
The Monk and the Philosopher is a dialogue between a father who is an authority on Western philosophy (one of his books is entitled, From Thales to Kant) and a son who in his twenties took a doctorate in molecular biology at the Institut Pasteur and later became a monk in the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition.
From the very first exchange between father and son the book provides a surprising jolt of energy and clarity to the reader. Unnecessary things weighing on the mind fall away and one is welcomed into an invigorating world of essentials. The company of these two first rate minds, narrating the experiences of life that led them to the conclusions they hold - atheist humanism versus the view on the path toward Buddhist enlightenment, raises one's own capacity for "the examined life" that Socrates considered the only kind "worth living," and makes one feel the thrill of the mind working as a powerful instrument capable of cutting through sloth, avoidance and fuzziness to arrive at the threshold of a new awareness. (Like Keats, "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken").
These are conversational exchanges, challenging and harmonious, between a western philosophically and scientifically minded father and a son who has come out the other side of the scientific investigation of truth as residing exclusively in the deciphering of matter and has lived for thirty years with Tibetan Lamas, monks, nuns and lay people as an outstanding exponent of the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition. They are fascinating, civilized, candid, wise, funny, deeply tragic about Tibet, serene, and full of loving-kindness. The Frenchness of the two men is perhaps what contributes the "clear ideas", the capacity to express ideas with logical rigor at the same time as one is charming and entertaining one's interlocutor with the elegance and ease of one who knows the world and is able to maintain a healthy detachment from any sort of fanatical insistence upon one's standpoint. It is a family dialogue between a savant and a sage.
Certainly the deep compassion that radiates through the dialogue comes from the effect on both men, to one degree and another, of their privileged encounter with Tibetan Buddhist communities. Therein the experience of the worst that man can inflict upon his neighbor has been met with wisdom and compassion, so that the Tibetans are qualified to be the teachers of a western philosopher and a molecular biologist. What is profoundly admirable about these two brilliant companions in the search for truth is that they are eminently capable of learning from the wisdom and compassion of their Tibetan Buddhist friends
A divinely dialogue -- dream of a book
The book should be lauded for its sincerity and, most importantly, the clarity with which the two distinguished interlocutors discuss the most essential questions of living,dying and life in general. The two are eminently qualified intellectually -- one being a respected philosopher in the Western tradition and the other, a Western scientist turned Tibetan Buddhist. The father-son relationship brings a closeness and a directness to the dialogue, which is detached yet affectionate at once. In short, it is a divinely dialogue. This achievement would not be possible had it been conducted between two unrelated intellectuals. I particularly enjoyed the chapter "The red flag on the roof of the world" which is dealt with particularly sympathy to the Tibetan tragedy. While being sympathetic to the issue, they do not religiously sensationalize it. Jean Francois was particularly right in saying that for Tibetan Buddhists to have lasting impact in the Western world, it must fulfill two conditions. It should stand the test of logical thinking, and it should be "compatible" with the amazing and scientific technological development of the modern world. While Buddhism has fulfilled the first goal, it is yet to fully show that it has succeeded in the second. But it must be noted that Buddhism is increasingly showing its compatibility, particularly with the rise of Buddhism in the modern West and highly developed Asian countries like Singapore and Taiwan. Buddhism is not only compatible, but may prove to be a catalyst for a healthy and balanced development of the material world if practised properly. Modern world's craze for novelty will be eased while human beings may try to focus more on fundamental improvements in life. The problem with the human beings now is that -- thanks to the ignorance -- they tend to too many unnecessary things in their attempts to gain satisfaction. This not only fails to bring them happiness, but leads to disillusionment, dissatisfaction and immense waste of time and resources. Matthiew was particularly right in saying that the Eastern Buddhist tradition focusses "on being" while the modern thinking is centered mainly "on having." This is the fundamental difference, and as a Tibetan brought up by spiritual parents, I could not agree more with his point of view.
What a Find! -- Intellectual Insight into Buddhism
It's hard to find a good intellectual book on Buddhism. Many of the books out there are either written in the lighter "self help" style, are tartgeted at more serious practitioners or are a little too Zen for me to grasp without building some context first. For someone like myself, exploring Buddhism as an alternative or supplement to my traditonal protestant upbringing, I've been looking for a book that both (i) presents Buddhist philosophy in a Western context that I can relate to and (ii) keeps the discussion on a more intellectual/philosophical level. This book delievers. Make no mistake, the subject matter is pretty dense. However, the book delighfully readable due largely to it's "dialogue" format. Both father and son and eloquent, thoughtful and respectful communicators and tend to get right into the issues of interest to me just as I begin to wonder if they are going to touch on them. As a result, I felt a definite affinity with the authors. After reading several other books on Buddhism, I finally feel as though I have a foundation for understanding it. I have built my context and now I want to learn more. For that I am grateful and highly recommend this book.
the monk and the philosopher
The Monk and the Philosopher Gautama Buddha like Socrates used dialogue as his favorite method of teaching. This book also follows the Buddhas footsteps in being a dialogue between two highly intelligent individuals who happen to be father and son. The father is Jean-Francois Revel a leading French philosopher and Mathieu Ricard, a scientist turned Buddhist monk. Their conversation lasted for 10 days and covered a very wide range of Buddhist issues. Initially, the discussion focused on the controversial subject of whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy. The monk explained that it is more a philosophy than a religion, because it is not a dogma and allows flexibility of ideas. Moreover, it is a product of human mind who never made any claims to divinity. In fact the Buddha emphasized that his teachings be not accepted if wanting in logic and rationality. The acceptance of ideas should be like purchasing gold, the Buddha said. Before purchasing gold, "we rub it on a flat stone pound it with hammer and melt it in fire", so also every doctrine must be thoroughly examined for its validity and truthfulness. The collected sayings of Buddha (known as Sutras) cover one hundred and three volumes of the Tibetan canon, the Kangur. This is accompanied by another two hundred and thirteen volumes of commentaries written by eminent teachers and scholars. The reason for such a huge collection is the length of the time the Buddha taught without break from the age of thirty until his death at eighty. Although vast in its totality the core teachings are quiet concise. They analyze the most important problem faced by mankind - that of suffering. By suffering the Buddha meant mental anguish or agony, which is a translation of the word Dukha in Pali. According to the Buddha suffering arises when the self or the 'me' that we cherish is threatened and denied its wishes. The usual goals in life of power, wealth, fame and sensual pleasure, give only temporary satisfaction. One day or another they turn into sources of unhappiness. Pursuing purely earthly goals we have no more chance of attaining true happiness, "than a fisherman has of catching fish, by throwing his net into a dry riverbed." The Buddha warns that, "if you keep your hand in fire, it is no use hoping that you won't get burnt." The only way to save your hand is to take it out of the fire. The book briefly covers the remedy, which the Buddha advocates to overcome suffering. As suffering is born out of greed, ignorance, attachment, hatred, pride and jealousy they should be discarded and replaced by thoughts of virtue, loving kindness and compassion. The book does not describe the techniques of meditation in any detail, as this was not very appropriate for the purpose of discussion, but the basic principle is explained, which is to maintain awareness of the present moment, free of any discursive thoughts. Gradually, the meditator becomes better and better in the process and the negative thoughts become weaker and weaker and loose their confining solidity. Eventually, the process of 'liberation' occurs, when even if the negative thoughts arise, they pass through the mind without effect, "like drawing made on the surface of water". The mastery of the mind gives patience, and patience gives strength to act correctly, without being blinded by anger, revenge and aggression. A spiritually developed mind is also able to see reality as it exists, whether good or bad, without getting overwhelmed by emotion. To illustrate this a Zen poem is quoted which reads, "To her lover, a beautiful women is a source of delight; to an ascetic a distraction; to a wolf a good meal." A brief section concerns the most esoteric of Buddhist doctrines, which in Sunyata or emptiness. In it, it is claimed that visible world does not have any concrete existence or form. The concerned sutra states, "Emptiness is form and form is emptiness", implying that in final analysis the world does not have any intrinsic reality. If atoms are not "things", as Heisenberg states, then how can their accumulation in form of visible objects, become things? The closest modern physics comes to Sunyata is that, "Matter is energy and energy is matter". If all matter turns into energy then that would be emptiness in the physical sense. Buddha did not try to 'convert' anyone, as in reality there is nothing to convert to! The contemplative aspects of Buddhism are common to all religious. Its analytical approach leads to the understanding of the mind - useful for person of any denomination. The philosopher sums up his impressions by stating the west has trimphed in science, but wisdom is not based on scientific certitude, and scientific certitude does not lead to wisdom. Both are separate but indispensable for the welfare and well being of mankind. The monk sums up by stating that such a dialogue is useful, but can never be a substitute for the silence of personal experience, as Goethe had aptly stated, "silence allows nature to whisper to us". Through those whispers we learn the purpose of life. DR. VIQAR ZAMAN
Though, I am merely a layman regarding Buddhism, I found this book to be everything Ive been searching for. Ive read countless books on Buddhist philosophy and have yet to find so many answers to the questions that have driven my search. Though some of the content was difficult to absorb on one read, I found it was enlightening on a second and slower read. But, most of the text was a fluent enjoyable read. In closing if your searching for some answers that take Buddhist phiolosphy from monks and mystics to the everyday Joe, than this book is perfect.