Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Philosopher and the Monk....and a middle-age guy in Minneapolis

On the bus ride home the other day, a woman across the aisle was reading a book with a great title——"The Philosopher & the Monk," and yesterday I picked up a copy of my own.
I've just started reading it, but can already heartily recommend it. The book is a dialogue between a French philosopher and his son——a one-time genetic biologist who gave up a promising career to follow Tibetan Buddhism. The book follows the Socratic method, in which questions and answer gradually divulge a fully developed philosophy for living.

These guys are considerably smarter and more talented than me, but for all of that, there is something in this story that echoes a bit of my own experience in the world. This father and son dialogue is strikingly similar to my inner dialogue over the years. At one time I was a pretty typical westerner, enamored of the power of science and rationality, without much at all in the way of religious sentiment. When I was a kid, I was pretty sure I wanted to be a scientist of some kind. As a young adult, though, I became greatly disenchanted with results of science and technology in human culture, and found myself drawn to various mystical disciplines, and Tibetan Buddhism particularly resonated with me.

Although I continue to read a lot of science to this day, I'm always struck that science only manages to shift the boundaries of the unknown, and never actually eliminates the unknown at all. And no matter how much scientific knowledge gets collected, it has never had much impact whatsoever on the overall experience of genuine human happiness. Nor has science done anything whatsoever to reduce the causes of human unhappiness. Cell phones are now used to detonate roadside bombs, which can hardly be called progress.

Spiritual study, on the other hand is in some ways the study of the subjective truth of human happiness and suffering, and as such strikes me as a discipline of critical importance. Personally, I gravitated to the Buddhist model for several key reasons: First, it is non-theistic discipline which has no need for dogma or superstition. In fact, Buddhism encourages you to trust the evidence of your own experience, and never to trust anything completely on faith.
I have also found the Buddhism offers a clarity and simplicity lacking in other traditions. It is a straight-ahead philosophy with little nuance to it. Most late-arrivals to Buddhism, in fact, are surprised when they discover that the principles mean exactly what they say, and that there is no need to read between the lines.

But it now begins to sound like I'm advocating, when all I meant to do was recommend a good book, which just happens to articulate the inner questions many westerners have about the role of spirituality in a modern society.

The Philosopher & the Monk, by Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard.

1 comment:

Molly said...

Sounds like a good one. I'm between reads so will be looking for this at the library tomorrow. I have three sons, all with varying degrees of your interest in Buddhism, for reasons similar to yours. Much to their father's chagrin.