The Monk and the Philosopher

Jean-Francois Revel is a cultural institution in France. A member of the Academie Francaise, he enjoyed a distinguished career in journalism. His powerful attacks on communism and its apologists helped undermine the fashionable leftism which once dominated French intellectual life. Matthieu Ricard, Revel’s son, received a doctorate in molecular biology from the Institut Pasteur in Paris, and was poised for a brilliant future in science. However, in 1972 he abandoned his scientific pursuits, and embraced Tibetan Buddhism, traveling to the East to meet and learn from leading Tibetan masters. Over twenty years later, Ricard translates classic Buddhist texts, and accompanies the Dalai Lama as interpreter when the latter visits France.

The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life arose out of Revel’s desire to understand his son’s decision to renounce the secular world of his youth. A confirmed atheist, Revel was also interested in understanding the growing appeal of Buddhism in the West. For his part, Ricard was anxious to explain his choice, and to clear up the many misconceptions which exist about Tibetan Buddhism. The two met at an inn overlooking Katmandu in Nepal, and over the next few days carried on the conversations which make up their book.

The discussion between father and son becomes an extended meditation on the spiritual emptiness of the modern West. Revel argues that with the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, Western philosophy dropped its traditional concern with the nature of the good life, devoting itself instead to epistemology. As a result, when science weakened religion, Westerners found themselves facing a moral void which science itself could not fill. Ricard responds by defending Buddhism’s attention to cultivating an inner peace in the individual. He notes that all the material successes of Western civilization are hollow if human life has lost its meaning.

The Monk and the Philosopher provides both an eloquent introduction to Buddhism, and a profound critique of modern society.