There may appear to be something slightly contrived about the dialogue reported in this book, yet the idea is an intriguing one. Jean-François Revel is a philosopher who for many years has been an agnostic thinker and political commentator in France. Mathieu Ricard, his son, has first-class scientific credentials; he obtained a doctorate in molecular genetics at the Institut Pasteur in Paris, where he worked under the Nobel Laureate François Jacob. However, he abandoned science in order to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk in the Himalayas. Twenty-five years later, Ricard and his father met in Nepal for a dialogue lasting ten days; a final part of the dialogue was held in Brittany. This book is a record (no doubt rather extensively edited) of their conversation. It has been ably translated by John Canti, a doctor who is himself an adherent of Tibetan Buddhism. There are 19 chapters, covering a wide range of topics. Like most French books, this one lacks an index. The general format is that Revel asks questions and Ricard answers them, taking the opportunity to set forth an exposition of what Buddhism is.
I have to say I generally found Revel's contributions to be more interesting than those of his son. Ricard doesn't really tell us anything that a reader who is reasonably familiar with Buddhism wouldn't know already. Presumably, as a Western scientist, he must have had to make numerous profound adjustments in his thinking in order to live among Tibetans and become a Buddhist monk, but little of this comes out. He provides some reminiscences about encounters he has had with Tibetan teachers who gave evidence of paranormal powers, but mostly he keeps his comments at a pretty abstract intellectual level. What we get is an eloquent and reasoned exposition of Buddhism, presented without dogmatism, it is true, but also with little that is personal. Revel is the more lively of the two, and although he does give the impression of pulling his punches a little in order to avoid sounding over-critical, he identifies what is probably the most significant aspect of Buddhism as viewed from an agnostic and naturalistic angle.
Buddhism is attracting a lot of attention in the West at present, and Revel finds it understandable that this should be so: many of us feel that we lack a sense of how we should live and what we should base our values on. Buddhism seems to offer an answer to such questions which is "religious" yet without requiring belief in a God or other metaphysical ideas. And yet, as Revel brings out, there is undoubtedly a metaphysical dimension to Buddhism. And the question that underlies much of the discussion relates to this. Revel is asking, in effect, whether Buddhism is radically different from the kind of wisdom advocated by ancient philosophies such as Stoicism. The Stoics, as he reminds us, hoped to achieve an imperturbable state in which they were no longer exposed to the unpredictable effects of the good and bad that come up in daily life. Is this the same as Nirvana? The analysis of the cause of suffering that we find in Buddhism is also present, in different words, in numerous Western philosophies and also, in France, in the writings of Montaigne and (along with an intended defence of Christianity) of Pascal.
In his concluding remarks, Revel returns to this theme. He finds Buddhism to be in certain respects quite close to Stoicism, and therein, for him, lies its importance for us. He has convinced himself that the popular Western idea of Buddhism as quietism, and of Buddhists as indifferent to the suffering in the world, is a myth. This came as a surprise to him. However, he is unpersuaded of the validity of those Buddhist ideas he calls metaphysical (because they are unverifiable). He finds that Buddhism does contain a great deal of wisdom, which he defines as an alliance of happiness and morality, but he acknowledges that it is more difficult to live according to wisdom if a background of metaphysics is lacking. "Yet such limits have to be accepted. Wisdom will always be a a matter of conjecture. Ever since the Buddha and Socrates, man has struggled to turn it into a science, but in vain."
In part, Revel's problems with Buddhism derive from the fact that his son is a Tibetan Buddhist. There are only passing references here to other versions of Buddhism, but if Matthieu had become a Theravada monk it's possible that Revel would have found fewer difficulties; at least he would not have encountered the elaborate descriptions of the after-death state that appear in the Tibetan Bardo Thodol. Even in the case of Theravada Buddhism, however, the metaphysical aspects do have to be confronted. This book gives a clear account of how one sympathetic Western philosopher reacted to them.