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Happiness is...

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A monk and a movie star: two very different lifestyles and so, you would think, two different paths to happiness. But actor Richard Gere and the French author and monastic Matthieu Ricard share a serious commitment to Buddhism, and they agree that real, lasting happiness is beyond conditions and circumstances. They held this lively, insightful conversation on the true nature of happiness at New York City’s 92nd Street Y.


Richard Gere: Let’s start by talking about where you came from and what led you to where you are now.

Matthieu Ricard: I was an ordinary guy, but I was fortunate to meet inspiring people from all walks of life. That gave me insight into what it is to be a good human being, and what doesn’t necessarily correlate with being a good human being. Since my father was a philosopher, the great Parisian intellectuals were often at our table, and since my mother was a painter, there were also many artists. I was learning to be both a scientist and a musician. At sixteen, I had lunch with Stravinsky. The man I worked under at the Pasteur Institute had won the Nobel Prize in Medicine. 

What struck me, though, was that there was no real correlation between the quality of the human being and their particular genius. You could be a wonderful pianist and yet be an incredible pain to be with! [Audience laughs] You could be an extraordinary gardener and impossible with people. You could be a profound thinker and vicious to all your family. Or you might be very nice. There seemed to be no correlation between genius and the everyday quality of the human being. I would have loved to play chess like Bobby Fischer, but I would not want to be like Bobby Fisher. I got a new and important perspective on this phenomenon when I went to India in 1967, where I met a large number of remarkable beings.

Richard Gere: What took you to the Himalayas for the first time?

Matthieu Ricard: I saw a documentary called The Message of the Tibetans, made by a French filmmaker named Arnaud Desjardins, who had spent six months in the Himalayas, filming all the great Tibetan teachers who had fled the Chinese invasion of Tibet. At the end of it, there was ten minutes, in silence, showing face after face of those great beings. I was completely amazed by their quality. They all looked different—some with big noses, some smiling, some a little bit strict—but there was a singular quality of being. They displayed human qualities that I thought I might like to have, qualities quite different from the kind of genius I had been exposed to. That’s what inspired me to first go there.

Then I did meet teachers in person. I found they had a strength that didn’t impose anything on you or put you down. It was an inspiring strength. They exuded tremendous kindness. Suddenly, I thought, if I could become something like that it would be a great thing to do with this life.

Richard Gere: How long did it take before you made the decision to go there for good?

Matthieu Ricard: I was at the Pasteur Institute, but my mind was always flying to Darjeeling, so I thought I’d better change the situation. When I finished my Ph.D., I decided to return to India and stay there. It was the right time; I had finished my work and published some scientific papers.

Richard Gere: You’re being humble. You walked away from the beginning of what would have been an amazing career as a scientist.

Matthieu Ricard: Yes, people ask me how I could have made such a radical break. I didn’t think of it that way. I just went where I thought life would be more fulfilling. There was a continuity between studying bacteria and studying the mind and the mechanism of happiness. I thought I was getting a good deal! [Everyone laughs]

Richard Gere: Eventually, you ended up studying closely with and translating for His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Can you say a little about that?

Matthieu Ricard: He was one of the most beloved teachers in the Tibetan world and a teacher to the Dalai Lama. He spent thirty years in retreat, not something we can all do. In the second part of his life, he put himself totally at the service of others. He would teach from morning to evening. He would teach thousands of people at a time, and even at lunch he would teach two or three people. He was so simple and also like a mountain, six feet five inches tall. I spent fifteen years with him and never witnessed any moment when he was harmful to others. He could be very strict with people, but never harmful. A guru is not someone who manipulates every instant of your life but someone who shows you what you could become.

Richard Gere: Did you have any traumatic experiences as a child, a time of intense suffering, that would cause you to seek the way to happiness?

Matthieu Ricard: Funny, a friend of mine told me, “You are the last person to write a book on happiness. You really didn’t ever suffer!” [Audience laughs]

Richard Gere: That’s true.

Matthieu Ricard: How do you know?!

Richard Gere: I have suffered! I know about suffering! [Everyone laughs] So, Matthieu, what’s the big deal about happiness? I mean, really.

Matthieu Ricard: Well, the word is admittedly vague. And the French intellectuals hate that. They say, We’re not interested in happiness. Even Goethe said that three days of unchanging happiness would be unbearable. [Audience laughs] Suffering is so nice; it’s changing all the time—all the colors and shapes, the intensity. But in fact, people mistake pleasurable feelings for genuine happiness. With pleasure, we jump on something, then we add something else, and something else, and then we collapse exhausted and depressed. People never think of happiness as a way of being because they are thinking of pleasure, which depends on circumstances. It’s conditioned. One ice cream is great; two is OK; three, you feel nauseated. That’s pleasure.

Richard Gere: You talk in your new book, Happiness, about moments of real happiness, not ice-cream-cone happiness, but the moments we remember in our solitude—the moments of making a child smile, a deep sunset that takes us away from ourselves, a moment when the idea of “self” evaporates, when we witness the basic life force of another being, or even our own, without the filter of the mind feeding us negative, toxic inputs.

Matthieu Ricard: This is our innate insight. We walk on the snow, under the stars, and wow, we feel good. There’s no inner conflict. When you make a gesture of pure generosity to a child, with no strings attached, asking for no praise or reward, you feel pure love.

At times like this you ask yourself, naturally, if you could be like that all the time. But when you get angry, when you think you’re 100 percent right, the next day you probably regret it. So slowly, when you start distinguishing the states of mind that nurture a deep sense of well-being and those that emit mental toxins that destroy the well-being in yourself and others, you ask whether you can let go of the one and cultivate the other.

Is that possible? If the powerful mental toxins are part of our deepest nature, perhaps in destroying them we would destroy ourselves. But if they are just like a painting on the surface, we can change them. So the real question is: are these afflictive emotions an intrinsic part of our mind or not?

Richard Gere: During one of the seminars with the Dalai Lama at the Mind and Life Institute, we discussed a moment when the mind can see an event purely, with no overlay of memory or projection or anything else. It is a very, very small moment, and then the brain kicks in and measures things against the known. It changes the experience so that it fits the categories of what it already has learned to function with, what it knows. Can you describe these layers of the mind and how their functions relate to the emotions and the heart?

Matthieu Ricard
 : Usually when we experience an emotion like anger, we completely associate with this emotion. We are anger. Yet we keep on escaping and going to the target of our anger—the person who has been so nasty to us. Then we feel upset by the anger. Whenever we see that person or remember them, it triggers anger. There’s no end.

Instead of looking at the target, you could disassociate your mind from the anger. You could look at anger as you would look at a fire or a volcano. You could really look at it, observe it as a phenomenon, identify with it. If you do that, you cut it off from its fuel, the target. Then, slowly, the anger is bound to disappear like, as is said, “the morning frost under the rising sun.” We are not repressing anger somewhere, like a time bomb. We are not ignoring it. We are not letting it explode. We are dealing with it in a way that disarms it.

There’s a beautiful image in the Buddhist teachings: our mind is like the surface of a mirror. The quality of a mirror is to reflect all kinds of images—angry faces, smiling faces, sad faces, bland faces—but they don’t penetrate the mirror. They don’t belong to the mirror. If they did, they would obstruct every other image. An angry face would stay there, and the smiling face could never emerge. Similarly, there is pure awareness, pure consciousness, from which all kinds of thoughts arise.

If that is the case, then the afflictive emotions are simply tied to causes and conditions. By training the mind, using the right antidotes, replacing hatred with loving-kindness or greed with inner freedom, you could change your mental landscape. That’s meditation. Meditation is a very exotic word, but in fact, it simply means to become familiar with a way of being, to cultivate inner qualities.

Richard Gere: In fact, everyone is meditating anyhow, meaning that we habituate ourselves to mind states. Most of us are habituated to egocentricity, self-cherishing, to anger and hatred. We meditate on blood, essentially. We have to find a radical new way to meditate on higher qualities of love and compassion, forgiveness, altruism, cherishing the other instead of the self.

Perhaps we ought to explore this concept of a self. In your own experience of working with this idea of self, what have you discovered?

Matthieu Ricard: Once, I was translating for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in France and he was speaking about the idea of selflessness, which is a strange notion for a Western audience. At the break, there were many, many questions about what to do if you have no self anymore: How can you function? How can cause and effect operate? How can there be any sense of responsibility, morals, and ethics?

I told this to His Holiness, and he said, “It’s your fault. You didn’t translate properly!” [Audience laughs] Of course, we do have a kind of self, obviously. There is the dynamic flow of experience and consciousness, and we can label that the same way we can label the Mississippi River or the Ganges, because they are different streams of water in different landscapes, and their labels can be used to distinguish them. But there is not some guy that pops his head out of the river and says, “I am the Ganges River!” The notion that we should have a strong individualistic self is a recipe for suffering.

Richard Gere: It’s not true. It’s a lie. It’s false.

Matthieu Ricard: It’s an impostor. It’s as if someone has been using your credit card for generations and generations. If there were a separate entity called the self, to get rid of it would be like taking the heart out of your chest. But it seems that when we simply put a label on top of this constant, dynamic stream of experiences, then somehow we want a spirit to protect it, to please it. That leads to endless trouble.

Richard Gere: What is the entity, then, performing meditation? Who is this meditator?

Matthieu Ricard: We can distinguish various layers in the notion of self. There’s the “I” as in, “I am alive, I am cold, I am angry, I wake up in the morning, I am here.” That “I” is temporary, a reflection of conditions, of what we have experienced until now that we can correlate to our present experience. That’s all fine.

The so-called “self” puts a label on that: “I am this person, I know I changed from childhood to now—my body has aged, and my mind has experienced change—but there is definitely an ‘I’ that must have traveled all that way. That’s me. Otherwise, there’s nobody left.” We begin to attach excessive importance to this separate entity, no longer seen as just a flow of dynamic experience. That’s where we get in trouble.

There is a stream but no boat. If your mind fabricates a boat, and you start to travel in it, it will be detrimental to your general happiness. Attraction, passion, arrogance, jealousy—these toxic emotions come from that belief in a separate, permanent entity.

Richard Gere: It’s this belief, this root ignorance, that creates all the problems later on, is it not?

Matthieu Ricard: Yes. If you shout an insult in a canyon, like, “You are a bastard,” then when it echoes back, you will be amused. But if the person next to you says the same thing, you say, “How dare you say that?” because you feel you are the target. If you are taking a nap in a boat in the middle of a lake on a Sunday afternoon and someone runs into your boat and wakes you up, you think, “Who’s that crazy guy interrupting my peace and quiet?” When you see that the boat was empty and just drifted into you, you laugh.

What’s the difference? At first you thought you were a target, that the boatman was after “me.” When you saw it was empty, you realized that the boat was not after “me.” What’s the difference? The “me”! That’s all.

Richard Gere: Once we realize that, it should be OK then?

Matthieu Ricard: Well, if you want to awaken wisdom, it will take time. Everyone wants it to be quick and easy.

Richard Gere: And as cheap as possible! [Audience laughs] A story you told about that made a big impression on me. In Los Angeles, His Holiness was giving a teaching to several thousand people, and at one point he stopped and said, “A lot of people are asking me to tell them the quickest way to enlightenment, and what they really want to know is what is the cheapest way.”

Then he told this story about Milarepa, one of the great Tibetan saints, who overcame extraordinary problems in his life and achieved the heights of enlightenment. At the end of his life, he had a wonderful student who came to study intensively with him named Gampopa, a renowned meditator in his own right. When it came time for Gampopa to leave Milarepa and go off on his own again, Milarepa said, “My son, I want to give you your final teaching. Come with me.” They walked down the valley, into the woods, and he said, “Now I’m ready to give you my final teaching.” Milarepa turned around, pulled up his robe, and pointed to his butt. It was all callused from sitting in meditation. The final teaching was that you’ve got to do the work. Nothing changes without the work. That’s something I’ve certainly learned. The small degree of work that I’ve done on myself, whatever I’ve put into it, I’ve gotten back for sure. It is a process of learning about the mind. Watching the mind, and then doing something about it.

Matthieu Ricard: The whole point of mind training and meditation is not just to have a pleasant relaxation for a few moments and a little bit better day.

Richard Gere: A vacation.

Matthieu Ricard: Whew! I’m so relaxed. I’m at the beach. It’s beautiful. That’s not the point. The point is rather to change the baseline you come back to. The point is to make that baseline more peaceful, more altruistic, and more emotionally balanced.

Richard Gere: More free, liberated to do more in the areas of creativity, compassion, altruism, all the heightened emotions that, in fact, as a culture, we do value.

Matthieu Ricard
 : Freedom is a most misunderstood concept. I heard a young girl on the BBC say, “Freedom is just to do anything that comes to my mind.” That’s the best recipe for endless torment.

Richard Gere: In your book, you offer examples of people who have been tormented and yet attain real freedom.

Matthieu Ricard: One testimony that His Holiness the Dalai Lama has often told us about is from a monk who had been through an incredible ordeal in Tibet—imprisoned for twenty years, tortured, subjected to electric shock. He eventually made his way to Dharamsala in India and saw His Holiness, who asked him, “Did you have fear at some point?” And the monk replied, “Yes, I had one, the fear of deeply hating my torturer, because then I probably would have been destroyed and not have survived.”

The real destruction comes not from the outside but from the mental toxins. If you rid yourself of them, you have a wonderful inner freedom and strength, to which you can always relate. That depth gives you the resources to deal with whatever comes your way. When we have that depth, it is like the entire ocean. When we don’t, it’s like the waves near the shore: one moment you are surfing, happy and triumphant, and the next moment you are hitting the rocks and suffering miserably.                                            

Sometimes the ocean is calm, like a beautiful mirror; sometimes there are storms and high seas. These are the ups and downs of life—joys and sufferings, difficulties and successes, destructive and constructive areas of your life—but the depth of the ocean always remains unchanging. If you can free yourself from being the slave of your own thoughts, even in the midst of sorrows, you have a much better chance to live a flourishing life. That’s where real happiness lies.

Richard Gere: One of the biggest problems we have in this culture is that we don’t meet people who have developed themselves through the kind of hard work you’ve been talking about. That’s why you were so blown away when you first met Tibetan meditators of the highest order. You saw that there was another way to live. As I grew up, I experienced that the bar of acceptability for how one is to be a human being was set extremely low. We see that constantly. We see it in our leaders. How many of our leaders are people we want to emulate?

Matthieu Ricard: We’ve had many years of inverted mind training!

Richard Gere: It’s possible to raise the bar, though. Tibetan teachers love teaching Westerners because they say they work really hard, ask tough questions, don’t just follow blindly, and have good minds and a lot of energy. This could be an extraordinary time for us to evolve and change how we’ve done things. We could demand more of our leaders and participate more in societies that foster wisdom and compassion, which should be our gross national product.

That’s what Tibet was, an experiment in creating a whole culture and society dedicated to generating wisdom and compassion, and these high lamas were the leaders. People could look up to them and say, “If I do the work, I can become like that.” That’s why the Tibetans have been so embraced when they’ve come to the West. People look and say, “Wow, that’s possible.” It is possible, and the technique is there. These teachers have shown us the road.

Matthieu Ricard: It’s very empirical. If you take the trouble to look within your own mind, you can see the effect that your mental toxins have on others. That’s how the great teachers have done it. You want happiness. When you are jealous of others, you are not jealous of their suffering; you are jealous of their happiness.

Richard Gere: You end each of your chapters with a simple meditation. Perhaps we could end by having you lead one.

Matthieu Ricard: OK. Since nothing is more natural than our breath, we could link a meditation on compassion with our breathing. Say to yourself, “May all beings be free from suffering. May my suffering stand for all the sufferings of all beings.” When you breathe in, gather everyone’s suffering and add it to yourself. Don’t let it become an unnecessary burden. Dissolve it in your heart in a mass of brilliant light. When you breathe out, say, “May all the happiness I have experienced, all the positive things I have done, be given to all beings.” Do that again and again. Let taking everyone’s suffering liberate you. By changing your attitude, you will slowly be able to also change your environment. Not only do you achieve well-being, but your compassion increases when you interact with others. If we do it again and again, it will become second nature and we will discover an altogether new way of being with others. [long pause for meditation]

Richard Gere: That was quite wonderful. I don’t know how to follow that. I for one have really enjoyed this, being with all of you here. I’m going to think a lot about this. My heart feels very open and warm right now. Thank you.

Matthieu Ricard: Thank you very much for your generosity. ©

© 2006 92nd Street Y


This article is an edited version of a conversation between Matthieu Ricard and Richard Gere that took place on May 16, 2006, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City: www.92y.org

Happiness is...., by Matthieu Ricard and Richard Gere, Shambhala Sun, November 2006.

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