the elements of metaphor

Molecular geneticist-turned-Buddhist monk & renowned photographer Matthieu Ricard discusses the heart of the Buddhist path.

photos by Matthieu Ricard

A few years ago, I watched a documentary on TV that showed scientists in white lab coats huddled over a Tibetan Buddhist monk lying on the table of an MRI machine. The monk was a conspicuous splash of colour in a sterilized room; his traditional orange and red robes stood in stark contrast to the surroundings. However, it was the monk’s smiling eyes – which seemed to suggest an amusement at the seriousness of the scientists around him – that I remember the most. The lab technicians prepared the monk with wire-covered headgear and asked him to “radiate compassion” while they measured his brain activity with their sophisticated technology. The monk closed his eyes as the giant white machine swallowed him.

On monitors the scientists watched the different lobes of the monk’s brain light up orange and red with activity as he emanated qualities such as compassion and happiness, and they watched the brain remain unlit when he visualized neutrality. It was a stunning display of refined control that surprised those of us watching the documentary, as well as the technicians and the scientists conducting the experiments. Several years on, there are websites, scientific abstracts and articles in medical journals discussing these startling experiments and their implications. It seems everyone was surprised by the results of these tests except the monk himself – Matthieu Ricard.

His background may suggest why: son of Jean-François Revel, an eminent French philosopher, Matthieu Ricard eschewed philosophy and instead be-came a molecular geneticist, only to leave the scientific community to train to become a Buddhist monk. Now, twenty-five years since his decision to pursue the Buddhist path, Ricard is recognized as a unifying bridge between seemingly opposite worlds.


Scott W. Gray Matthieu Ricard, you are a Buddhist monk, a scientist, a bestselling author, a photographer – and you are always concerned with the cultivation of happiness. I wonder, though, which of these titles brings you the most happiness?

Matthieu Ricard (laughs) None of them! I don’t care very much at all for labels. I mean, what is the use? They don’t make us healthy or help us live longer or anything. So, those are just completely artificial and you can see how they are made, how they are unmade. It is just like a children’s game. It is about equals – an equal, constant thing – you are bad, you are great. What really matters is the sense of direction we have in life, what is really meaningful, to discover that selfish happiness doesn’t work. It has to come from a genuine sense of flourishing that’s accompanied with enthusiasm, compassion and finding inner peace, and then using that as a tool to better serve others. So that is what makes me happy or fulfilled.

You can say that compassion without action is like a mother with her hands tied behind her back, seeing a child cast into the water. So that feeling of powerlessness and uselessness is easily conveyed.

So, knowledge without practice is like running around in shackles in a flood: there’s nowhere to go. Or, practice without knowledge is like climbing a steep mountain with your hands tied behind your back: you keep falling back. All of those are striking images that show you what you should combine, how you should lead your special practice, and how you should behave in life. They immediately appeal to the mind, and relate to your experience, so they are sometimes more useful than a lengthy explanation.

SWG I find it interesting that your response uses metaphors so strongly, because I am curious about the five elements as a metaphor in Buddhism.

MR Well, one of the qualities [Buddhists] try to develop in the Vajrayana practice is what we call pure perception, or pure vision. [People] have this impure vision of the phenomenal world, by which I mean mixed vision, of things that are good, bad, ugly, dirty, beautiful, clean, and so forth. This is due to our believing that the phenomena are imbued with intrinsic properties – “this is intrinsically beautiful,” or bad, or good and so forth.

Pure vision is actually to see the very nature of all phenomena, and to help one do so is to rediscover infinite purity. Infinite purity here means recognizing the fundamental nature that is empty of solid existence. Now in the process of doing so, because we have to deal with all these appearances and phenomena, we try to see – sort of leading to that understanding – we try to perceive things in a different way. We would perceive male and female sides of things as the male and female deities of the mandala, the universe not as this mixture of pure and impure, but as an infinite display of the Buddha-field, and so forth. In that, everything has to have this vision. That includes the elements, among other things.

Scott W. Gray is a writer and musician living happily in Montreal.

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