Thanks to his unique upbringing, keen intellect and boundless passion for life, the celebrated Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard has been able to positively impact the lives of countless individuals throughout the world. In addition to his acclaimed writings and compelling speeches, which focus on topics such as happiness and altruism, Ricard has played a monumental role in legitimizing the scientific study of meditation practice while leading humanitarian efforts in Himalayan communities.
Matthieu Ricard Profile:
Birth: February 15th, 1946 (age 72)
Spiritual Role: Buddhist Monk, Author,
Speaker & Photographer
Areas of Focus: Happiness, Meditation & Compassion
The Life of Matthieu Ricard:
When thinking about the religion of Buddhism from a traditional point-of-view, it’s unlikely that an association with aristocratic intellectualism comes into view. That is unless you’re thinking about the globally beloved monk Matthieu Ricard who grew up amongst the scholastic and artistic elites of France. It was on February 15, 1946, when Ricard was born to the prolific philosopher Jean-Francois Revel and accomplished painter Yahne Le Toumelin in the picturesque French city of Aix-les-Bains.
Growing up, it seemed certain that Ricard would carry on his family’s distinguished roots as he exhibited great potential throughout his younger years and studied molecular genetics, under the guidance of the iconic Nobel prize-winning biologist Francois Jacob, at Paris’s prestigious Pasteur Institute. The course of Matthieu Ricard’s life, however, was forever altered after he traveled to India and met with great Tibetan spiritual masters in 1967.
As the years he spent around France’s intelligentsia had taught him that a person’s worldly success doesn’t necessarily correlate with their inner happiness, it came with great enthusiasm to discover a group of people who’d cultivated the wisdom, compassion and contentment needed to live truly free and happy lives. Of the experience, Ricard tells us:
When I was teenager, I was sort of broadly interested in what we call ‘spirituality,’ but it’s only when I traveled I just knew, in 1967, and thanks to having seen some documentaries on all the great masters and met them — that suddenly I realized ‘OK, here are men and women of great wisdom of great compassion, who exemplify, you know, freedom and bringing human quality to the optimal state.’ So that, that brought me a sense of, ‘OK, here are masters, are people I know. I can walk with them through their guidance, a kind of path to become a better human being.’”
Upon returning from the eye-opening trip, Ricard would spend the next five years completing his studies to become a molecular biologist. Then, after earning his Ph.D. in 1972, he made the bold decision to forsake his promising scientific career so he could travel to the Himalayas to study under the great Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche Dilgo Khyentse at the iconic Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal. Not only is this where Ricard became a fully ordinated monk at the age of 30, but it still remains where he lives and carries out the work of his great teacher and close friend who passed away in 1991.
It was in 1997 when Matthieu Ricard, who at this point had already been a Buddhist monk for over 20 years, would become an internationally prominent spiritual figure for co-authoring a surprise best-selling book with his father. In The Monk and the Philosopher: A Father and Son Discuss the Meaning of Life, which is based upon dialogue shared between the duo over the course of 10-day period, Ricard and Revel explore some of life’s most pressing questions from both a philosophical and Buddhist lens. The beloved monk tells us of the now legendary summit:
So he came for 10 days and we went to a resort. We made a list of topics, and then it was a very lovely sort of 10 days where we just recorded… And then so his main point was he noticed that Buddhism became quite popular in the West, and he was wondering why, as a philosopher… So he had the insight that Buddhism was bringing some answer for our modern time [in regard to the question ‘How should I lead my life?’] which was a sign of being very open minded for someone like him… And actually through our discussion he became quite convinced that it was the case… So it was wonderful for me, and I think he said to someone before dying that it’s something that, that really mattered to him at the end of his life.”
Since publishing the now highly acclaimed book, Matthieu Ricard has continued writing on a diverse collection of topics, such as happiness, altruism and the science of meditation, while simultaneously remaining committed to his monastic duties and his work as an avid photographer.
Some of his most well received titles include Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World and The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet, and many of his photos are exhibited in museums and art galleries throughout the world. In addition to these creative endeavors, Ricard’s has also translated numerous Buddhist texts from Tibetan into French, including The Life of Shabkar: Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, and served as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s French interpreter since 1989.
While it’s clear to see that Matthieu Ricard is deeply passionate about creative pursuits, this isn’t to say that he’s lost interest in the scientific studies he undertook while a student at the Pasteur Institute. In fact, because of the unique path he took from becoming a molecular biologist to a Buddhist monk, he’s played a pioneering role in the study of meditation practice.
In 2004, for example, he alongside the distinguished American psychologist Richard J. Davidson and eminent French scientist Antoine Lutz conducted a groundbreaking study aimed at examining how meditation effects individuals’ brainwaves, and it was from their research that Ricard gained the nickname of ‘The World’s Happiest Man’ as he exhibited the strongest gamma brainwaves of all participants in the study. More recently, the trio undertook a similarly eye-opening project which showed how various forms of meditation practice uniquely benefit individuals at both the mind and body level.
Like all great spiritual teachers, Matthieu Ricard is especially concerned with charitable work, and in 2000, he founded a non-profit entity called Karuna-Shechen. With any proceeds he brings in from his creative endeavors, the selfless monk donates to the organization which focuses on ‘Humanitarian Projects in the Himalayan Region’.
Although Ricard’s personal definition of success doesn’t take into account any external achievements or accolades, this hasn’t stopped the world from honoring him with a variety of highly distinguished awards and speaking opportunities. For example, he’s already been awarded with the French National Order of Merit and he’s spoke at numerous highly distinguishable gatherings including the World Economic Forum and the World Government Summit. Moreover, Ricard has given two enlightening Ted Talks which have been collectively viewed nearly 10 million times.
3 of His Most Important Teachings:
Ever since gaining international recognition for publishing his first bestselling book in 1997, Matthieu Ricard has used his ever-growing platform to uniquely disseminate Buddhist teachings in a way that relates to the western mind. With his writings and speeches as his vehicle, the beloved monk has offered a bountiful amount of life-affirming guidance which illuminates how we can achieve greater inner balance and peace, regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, and shows the good that comes from cultivating beneficial personal qualities within. While the wisdom he’s expounded certainly isn’t limited to the following three teachings, they are undoubtedly some of his most important:
Developing The Habits of Happiness:
While most of us in the western world are conditioned to believe that fulfillment comes from the accomplishment of external goals related to status, relationships, wealth and possessions, Matthieu Ricard goes to great lengths to tell us why this misguided life approach inevitably leave us dissatisfied. By pointing to the fleeting and momentary joy we obtain from things outside of ourselves, and the quenchless desire for newer, bigger and better, the man who’s been dubbed the ‘Happiest Man on Earth’ makes clear that one’s well-being and sense of joy is ultimately determined by inner harmony. He tells us:
Happiness is not the endless pursuit of pleasant experiences – that sounds more like a recipe for exhaustion – but a way of being that results from cultivating a benevolent mind, emotional balance, inner freedom, inner peace and wisdom. Each of these qualities is a skill that can be enhanced through training the mind.”
For thousands of centuries, Buddhist theology has been built upon the premise that the only way individuals can nurture an enduring sense of contented bliss and move themselves towards the ultimate goal of Nirvana is by unceasingly committing to the behavioral, communicational and meditative recommendations presented in the Noble Eightfold Path. This is why Ricard, who’s now been a monk for over 40 years, proclaims that happiness is a habit each and everyone of us can develop. As you’ll discover by watching the iconic monk’s 2004 Ted Talk below, the right mixture of understanding, determination and practice leads to a deeper and more authentic state of happiness:
The Scientific Benefits of Spiritual Practices:
When you add a PhD in molecular genetics with over 10,000 hours, or five years, of experience practicing meditation, it becomes easy to see why Matthieu Ricard is a championing figure for the scientific study of spiritual practices. It’s been his unique combination of knowledge and mental training, or logical reasoning and intuitive wisdom, that’s allowed the globally beloved monk to merge the gap between western science and eastern spirituality while encouraging others to look inward with the help of evidence-based data. Although many would argue that the two truth-seeking approaches aren’t compatible with one another, Ricard tells us in his book The Quantum and the Lotus that this isn’t the case and that man in fact can’t be whole without both disciplines:
Science does not produce wisdom. While the insights of science can help us change our world, only human thought and concern can enlighten us about the path we should follow in life. As a complement to science, therefore, we must also cultivate a ‘science of the mind,’ or what we call spirituality. This spirituality is not a luxury but a necessity… Science can operate without spirituality. Spirituality can exist without science. But man, to be complete, needs both.”
Based upon an ever-growing body of scientific research examining the benefits of meditation, in addition to the wisdom filled teachings of history’s greatest spiritual teachers, it’s clear to see why from both a scientific and metaphysical point-of-view it can be such a life-affirming endeavor to undertake a spiritual practice. As Matthieu Ricard has discovered from practicing meditation for upwards of 50 years, utilizing loving-kindness, open-monitoring and analytical techniques, there’s a plethora of ways we can positively transform our lives and the lives of those around us. Ricard proclaims:
The ultimate reason for meditating is to transform ourselves in order to be better able to transform the world or, to put it another way, to transform ourselves so we can become better human beings in order to serve others in a wiser and more efficient way. It gives your life the noblest possible meaning.”
Following the Path of Altruism:
Although western intellectuals have long postulated that human nature is inherently selfish, influential spiritual teachers such as Matthieu Ricard argue that this assertion couldn’t be further from the truth. Like most Buddhists, Ricard believes that all people are fundamentally good-natured, compassionate beings, and it’s due to an untamed mind and cultural conditioning that compels otherwise decent people to behave egotistically. Unfortunately, because all too many individuals remain ignorant to the fact that acting from a place of self-centeredness actually cuts themselves off from the moral boosting effects of human connection, they unknowingly trap themselves in a place of unhappy isolation. Ricard explains:
Some people might think that the smartest way to guarantee their own well-being is to isolate themselves from others and to work hard at their own happiness, without consideration for what other people are experiencing. They probably assume that if everybody did that, we’d all be happy. But the result would be exactly the opposite: instead of being happy, they would be torn between hope and fear, make their own lives miserable, and ruin the lives of the people around them too.”
While most people in the western world naively assume that acting in a kind, caring and selfless manner takes something away from their own happiness, the truth is that the doers of benevolent behaviors receive as much from their deeds as the recipients. It’s for this reason that the cultivation of altruistic qualities, such as loving-kindness, compassion and mudita, have forever been found at the heart of Buddhist theology. In his most recent Ted Talk, which was given in 2014, Matthieu Ricard encourages us to let altruism be our guide:
“We are very much like birds that have lived too long in a cage to which we return even when we get the chance to fly away. We have grown so accustomed to our faults that we can barely imagine what life would be like without them. The prospect of change makes us dizzy.”
“The now that passes produces time, the now that remains produces eternity.”
“To imagine happiness as the achievement of all our wishes and passions is to confuse the legitimate aspiration to inner fulfillment with a utopia that inevitably leads to frustration.”