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Book Review by Clive Tenryu Lindley-Jones of Matthieu Ricard’s Notebooks of a Wandering Monk

Notebooks of a Wandering Monk by Matthieu Ricard, 
(Translated by Jesse Browner. 2023. 702pp. Hardback £28.00)

This is a giant, magnificent book in weight and its import, depth, and unique and extraordinary viewpoint. Matthieu Ricard gives us an intimate insider’s perception of the world of Tibetan Buddhism over its last half-century journey and beyond.

This is a personal account of one Frenchman’s courageous and profound journey to follow the Vajrayana Buddhist practice as it had been developed for twelve hundred years in this distinctive country. It takes its name from vajra, Sanskrit for “diamond” or “thunderbolt,” suggesting the power of its methods.

As he says, it’s strange to write your memoirs when you have spent much of your life shunning the self-centred and individualistic point of view. That is why it is not so much a traditional autobiography as a testament to a life inspired at all moments by the spiritual masters he has met along the way.

Matthieu had the fortunate karma of an enquiring and privileged Parisian family and their influential, well-connected circle. His mother was a much-admired painter, his father a famous writer and philosopher and his uncle a solo round-the-world sailor. He had a nomadic childhood and an early
foretaste of the spiritual life from his essential relationship with his navigator uncle. After graduation, he spent five years at the cellular genetics research laboratory in Paris under Nobel laureate François Jacob doing his doctorate, and it looked as if his life as a scientist was well mapped out.

In the spring of 1967, friends Arnaud and Denise Desjardins invited him to their home to watch the new documentary film, The Message of the Tibetans, they had just made, accompanied by Sonam Kazi, the Dalai Lama’s translator, after six months with the Tibetan refugees who were then escaping the horrors of the Cultural Revolution into India. In this film (still available on YouTube), towards the end, over three long silent minutes, the faces of some twenty hermits and spiritual masters appeared one after another, looking silently, directly into the camera. As Matthieu says, ‘They all exuded the same spiritual strength. No sequence of images had ever had such a powerful effect on my mind.’ The famous obstetrician Frédérick Leboyer, another family friend, also travelled to Darjeeling with the Desjardins and commented that of all the masters they had met and filmed, the one who most impressed them was named Kangyur Rinpoche. Indeed, for Matthieu, ‘The vision of that face of unfathomable depth and overflowing with goodness struck me like a revelation. I decided to leave for India.’

At twenty-one, in 1967, he met and first lived and studied with Kangyur Rinpoche and his family. After this first meeting, during the years of his doctorate studies, he spent each summer with Kangyur Rinpoche near Darjeeling and, having gained his doctorate in molecular biology, he took monk’s vows and left the world of science for the world of Buddhist practice and an extraordinary life of close service and practice with some of the great masters of twentieth-century Tibetan Buddhism.

Back then, I felt lucky to have just briefly seen a few of these Tibetan teachers who, like the late 16th Karmapa and the Dalai Lama, started to come through Britain.

As an aside, back in the day, when I first qualified and worked with my clinical mentor Tom Dummer, I was superficially introduced to Tibetan Buddhism through Tom. One day in the clinic, he asked me to treat the next patient, a certain Tibetan Rinpoche. Then, feeling very green and lacking confidence, I did my best with this impressive man but felt somewhat overawed by the task. From my talks with Tom, I heard about the book he was writing about Tibetan Medicine and the great teachers he had met, particularly Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who was considered one of the greatest Tibetan yogis of the twentieth century. So, it was in Matthieu’s karma. On the death of Kangyur Rinpoche, Matthieu’ssecond teacher was to become the same much revered and loved Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, with whom he travelled as his attendant for thirteen years in Tibet, Bhutan and worldwide. The term Rinpoche is a Tibetan word which means “precious one”. This title is applied at the end of the teacher’s name, much as we use the term Roshi in the Zen tradition. In most cases, the title Rinpoche is bestowed upon one who has been recognised as the reincarnation of a great teacher.

One of the great gifts of this book is the depth of personal contact Matthieu, soon a fluent Tibetan speaker and translator as well as a monk, gained in his close connection with many impressive authentic teachers and his pen portraits of these inspiring people. As he noticed and conveys to us, apart from their propensity to break into joyous laughter so easily and happily, they also practice ‘one taste’: the practice of “Experiencing pleasure and pain, comfort and discomfort, pleasant or unpleasant situations…with the same equanimity…It is rather a matter of allowing physical sensations to manifest in the vast space of awareness and not in the narrow space of a selective, anxious mind torn between what it likes and does not like, what it desires or rejects on the basis of hope or apprehension. When we are sufficiently trained in this practice, external perceptions and internal sensations are felt with equal clarity, but our mind is not disproportionately disrupted by the nature of these sensations, by attraction or aversion.”

I had not, until reading this remarkable account, realised that Matthieu accompanied many, like Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, not only into Bhutan, India and Nepal but also into Kham and Amdo in Eastern Tibet on many visits. We are privileged to travel with him, through his accounts, up into these high plateaus and trek up to some of those famous caves that to this day are occupied, sometimes for decades, by yogis practising the Dharma. Perhaps something to remember next time your knees ache on a few days of sesshin!

In 1996, the quest of a French television crew who had come to Nepal to interview the “French Monk” who had lived in the Himalayas for the last twenty-five years, through a convoluted journey, led to a publisher coming up with the idea of publishing a dialogue with his famous philosopher father, Jean-François Revel one of whose other books I had, then not knowing of his exciting son, read fifty years ago.

The new father-and-son book, The Monk and the Philosopher, eventually became a bestseller. It led to a whole new life through the Mind & Life Institute’s symposia of neuroscientists meeting with the Dalai Lama, always a man interested in the interface between the Dharma and science, in Dharamsala. Matthieu was taking part and, through this returning to science, became a volunteer in innumerable American and European neuroscience labs, researching various types of meditation on brain function. Around this time, he also became the Dalai Lama’s French translator and had the good fortune to travel and assist this great and humble spiritual master. This extensive neuroscience research involved several specific meditative states, including concentration on a single point, compassion, awareness, visualisation of mental images and devotion to a spiritual teacher.

Having lived the life of a monk, the royalties from the surprise book success of The Monk and the Philosopher suddenly meant that Matthieu had money he had no use for. This work led to other requests to teach and lecture around the world and brought him in contact with wealthy patrons who wished to help with the work Matthieu had been trying to assist his Rinpoche friends to do in the Himalayas.

Before his death, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche had wanted to build a clinic near Shechen Monastery in Nepal, where Matthieu lived. In this way, the humanitarian aid charity Karuna-Shechen was born. They were initially nervous about how the Chinese government would react to such humanitarian projects undertaken in Tibet. Still, after a year, they noted with relief that the school and clinic were functioning optimally and that the authorities had approved their initiative. So this outreach began, growing over the years to support many in need all across the Himalayan region and beyond. As well as translating and participating in neuroscience research into the states of meditation, Matthieu Ricard gradually produced many other books on themes such as Happiness and Altruism, along with books made from recorded meetings with philosophers, psychiatrists and neuroscientists, with all his royalties going to support Karuna-Shechen. One ‘good joke’, as he calls it, came tangentially out of all this neuroscience work. The work at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz had shown that seasoned practitioners who engage in meditation on compassion generate gamma oscillations of unprecedented intensity. One zone activated by the meditation on compassion is also associated with positive emotions. And, as he says,”That’s all the press needed to proclaim that they’d found the world’s happiest man.” He has done his best to show how foolish the whole idea is, but as he says, ‘at least it’s better than being called the unhappiest man in the world’. But after confessing his embarrassment to his scientist friends and doing all he could to remedy this journalistic hyperbole, he has learnt to take this rumour with a grain of salt and good humour.

Reading this book is good practice in itself, spending time ‘in the company’ of great practitioners who have thoroughly seen into their own nature. My only caveat might be that if you are just learning the ways of Zen for the first time don’t read this yet if it could possibly muddle you before you are comfortable in your place in Zen. There are many schools of Buddhism and you don’t want to get confused.

I will leave you with Khyentse Rinpoche’s words that Matthieu ends his own wise and warm-hearted book of treasures.
‘Even if death should strike today like a lightning bolt, be prepared to die without sorrow or regret, without the least attachment to what you leave behind. Resting in your recognition of the ultimate vision, leave this life like an eagle flying away into the blue.’