I wish to introduce you to one of my favourite thinkers.   Matthieu Ricard holds a doctorate in molecular biology from the Pasteur Institute, in Paris.   He is a multitalented scholar who interrupted his research into cell genetics to become a Buddhist Monk. He not only translates Buddhist texts but also acts as one of the chief interpreters for the Dalai Lama.   In addition he is a prolific photographer and has done sterling work in raising money for the underprivileged in India, Nepal and Eastern Tibet.

Much of the information in this blog is culled from an article in Tricycle which you can either read or restrict yourself to my personal interpretation!

Because Matthieu is immersed in scientific methodology I respect his capacity to interpret Buddhist texts and philosophy for the Western mind.   He has played an important role in the scientific study of Buddhism by being the first subject, who is a long term meditator, to be examined in an EEG machine.   I had read about this research about ten years ago and I was highly impressed when I learned about the results of his meditation on compassion when it was evaluated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.   The readings, when measuring Matthieu meditating on compassion, were the most extreme that had ever been witnessed. The needle measuring the requisite brain waves went right off the graph paper!    I was so impressed by this overt demonstration of the power of meditation that when a new course was offered in Mindfulness and Meditation by our local Stellenbosch University, I was the very first person to enrol.

Matthieu, in conversation with a journalist from Tricycle Magazine, says that one of the main pursuits of Buddhism is, “To bridge the gap between the way things appear and the way things are.”   So often our suffering is caused because we interpret events or conversations unrealistically.  Buddhism helps us to understand that events and happenings are not always as they may appear to us.   Most of our perceptions are from the interpretation we place on our sensations, rather than an accurate portrayal of reality.   So, one of the aims of Buddhist practice is to determine the difference between reality and our interpretation of events.    The study of Buddhism precepts is a therapeutic route to our realistic interpretation of our experiences.

A newspaper headline describing Matthieu as the “Happiest man in the world” has been oft quoted, and he was asked how he felt about this description.    “Of course, it is better than being called the unhappiest man in the world,” he replied.  Happiness, however, can be over-rated as a personal goal according to Buddhist precepts.

He then went on to say, “Thinking that happiness is just an endless succession of pleasant experiences seems more like a recipe for exhaustion than it is for happiness. Happiness is a way of being, not a sensation. If you are only looking for pleasure, then you need to know that there’s probably no way that the brain could sustain pleasurable sensations forever.”   He believes that genuine happiness is related to wisdom.   Pleasure by itself is over-rated.   Whilst there is nothing wrong with pleasure, it cannot be equated with true happiness.   For true happiness, a person needs to be attuned to reality and free from mental toxins such as hatred and craving.

Matthieu has some interesting things to say about evolution.   If we need to wait for genes to change for people to become more altruistic and compassionate, we may need to wait for 50,000 years.   However, if the wisdom of Buddhist psychology and philosophy can be culturally acquired then there can be a major transformation towards more peaceful solutions to conflicts in just a couple of generations.

It would be great if the current major trend of seeing more and more people with a Western cultural orientation assume the skills of mindfulness and meditation,  could lead to the evolution of a greater understanding between all cultures, and ultimately we could achieve greater understanding and altruism between people of different social and political backgrounds.

“So the idea is to gradually progress from a state of mind where unfavourable conditions prevail, to another state that is characterized by stable attention, inner peace and clarity, confidence, courage, openness toward others, benevolence, the ability to deal with emotions, and other qualities of a vast and calm mind,” says Ricard.

For Matthieu in conversation view:


Cape Town, South Africa, made history last year when it was the first major city to be threatened by a devestating drought.   Severe water restrictions and some late rains have slightly relieved the situation, but nonetheless strict restrictions on the use of water remain in place.   This is the reason why I find myself taking a swim at our local Gym, rather than having a shower at home.

Today after completing my couple of lengths in the Olympic size pool, I noticed two young men racing each other in the adjacent lane.   They were using a type of snorkel which I had never seen before, so my interest was piqued.  I asked them how this snorkel worked.   In a very engaging manner they explained to me that by grasping the mouth piece of the instrument, it allowed them to draw air without moving their head from side to side as they swam freestyle.   Cutting down on the head movement and maintaining their mouth slightly under the water, they were able to streamline their movements and consequently increase their speed.

Nicolas, a computer programmer and Jonathan, a sports scientist were about to set off on a two length dash to determine who would complete this distance in the shortest time.   I offered to be their ‘starter.’   “On your marks, get set, go,”   I exclaimed.   Off they went with Jonathan reaching the far side ahead, and Nick overtaking him on the return trip to reach the home base first.

One of the themes of my current research, which has already popped up from time to time in my former blogs, is to understand the competitive nature of mankind.   I spied an opportunity to derive some new data for this project, and so posed this question to my two subjects,   “Have you ever considered why the two of you enjoy competing with each other, or asked yourselves why you derive satisfaction from comparing your swimming abilities?”

I thought there might be some resistance to this intrusion into their privacy, but Nicolas was amazingly quick off the mark.   He postulated that this competitive instinct may well be an evolutionary attribute.  “Out there on the savannahs in days of yore it was the person with the quickest reflexes and greatest speed who would derive the main spoils of the hunt,” he explained.

This was a indeed a worthwhile angle to explore.   My immediate response was to see the merit of this explanation, but there was another way of looking at the conundrum.  “In today’s world, we are no longer dependent on hunting for our daily food.   Our social conditioning would have taught us more subtle ways of meeting our needs,” I countered.     Nicolas was once again quick torespond.   “If you want to attract your mate,” he suggested, “then you need to demonstrate your skills in a wide range of activities.   The more you draw positive attention to yourself, the more likely you are to be noted by members of the opposite sex and find yourself a mate, and spread your seed to the next generation.”

There was certainly a great deal of merit in his rationale, and his argument certainly worked for those who are looking for a mate.   However, it still does not help this 80 year old woman to understand herself.   She has spent the last week taking a one hour car trip to Somerset West, playing croquet in the sun for the next six hours, and travelling home in the evening for yet another hour.   I am not looking for a mate.   And I am very well fed.   So, why do I need to put in so much effort to compete in the Western Province Croquet Championships?