Q&A with Matthieu Ricard: “I hope millions will march in the streets before Paris 2015″

Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, author and photographer. The dialogue with his father, French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel, The Monk and the Philosopher, was a best seller in Europe and was translated into 21 languages. We caught up with him during the Davos World Economic Forum on January 23rd, 2015.

Before you became a Buddhist monk, you were a molecular biologist at the Institut Pasteur in France. You said once that the reason why you gave up that career was because you had met many people from all walks of life, at the top of their fields – and yet many of them did not show similar excellence on the human side. You are here at Davos among the global elite, the most powerful people in the world. How do you see your role here and what impact can you have?

I have to be humble about my role. It is a drop in the ocean and it is freezing outside, that drop might freeze too! It’s my seventh year here, and the Forum is giving me a voice, so I use it freely to speak about cooperation, altruism and about transforming oneself to better serve others.

There are a lot of stereotypes about Davos, such as thousands of people arriving in private jets. But there is also a community of people like Johan Rockström and his colleagues who are totally committed to bring about a better world. Klaus Schwab said in his inaugural speech that this week should be dedicated to care and compassion. The words are in the right direction, but they need to be followed by actions.

And a good part of the population is open to that. We now have much more consideration for future generations. If you have a house you don’t burn it down before leaving it to your children. You try to leave it in good condition.

There are billions and billions of human beings, as well as numerous other living beings that will follow us on this planet and we are shaping their future in a major way. Not to build up their suffering through our inconsiderate actions is the main challenge of our time. Even with a 2 degree increase the planet will be very different from the one we know now.

Today we need an even more intense level of cooperation to face the many challenges that confront us. Each of these challenges has its own temporality and priority. We need to reconcile these different time scales and types of preoccupations: the economy in the short-term, life satisfaction in the mid-term, and environment in the long-term.

Life satisfaction is measured on the scale of a life project, a career, a family, a generation and a lifetime. The evolution of the environment used to be measured in terms of millennia and era, but the pace of environmental change has now considerably accelerated and changed our sense of measurement. The economy and financial world are also evolving at an ever-faster pace.

We need to reconcile these three time scales. Altruism is the vital thread that can link them together and harmonize their requirements.

If we have more consideration for others, we will turn to caring economics, where the financial world is at the service of society and not the opposite. If we have more consideration for others, we will care for the quality of life of those around us, Gross National Happiness, and make sure that their situation improves. Finally, if we have more consideration for future generations, we will not blindly sacrifice the world that we hand down to them in favour of our short-term wants and desires.

At Davos, you attended a session where Johan Rockstrom presented the Planetary Boundaries concept. It is clear that humanity is on an unsustainable course and science is telling us that things are getting much worse, much faster. How can we adjust and re-calibrate for a more sustainable future? Do we need a mindset shift?

The mindset shift is happening, but not quickly enough. Cultural change usually takes a generation. When Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” came out 30 years ago, in France, only a few people paid attention. It took a generation for environmental questions to enter mainstream discussion.

We need ways to make the risk palpable, so people can feel it in their flesh. Like if you are told you can’t go to the beach because of excess of UV light coming from the depletion of the ozone layer, that’s something real.

People also need to feel that their concerns are heard by politicians. Many people are overwhelmed when research continues to show that the risk for our planet keeps increasing. They feel powerless. I hope that millions of people will march in the streets before Paris 2015 to show that it’s no longer acceptable that politicians move at such a slow pace to take the necessary measures to mitigate climate change.

Mindfulness meditation is all the rage in international conferences. Here at Davos there are daily sessions. Is this just a fad, or do you see it as a sign of the mindset shift that we are looking for?

This year it is my friend, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a wonderful teacher, who is leading those sessions. The scientists who did the research on meditation, Richard Davidson and Tania Singer are also here. Ten years ago it would have been unthinkable that every single day of the World Economic Forum begins with a meditation session. It turns out that many people are closet meditators.

I personally think that we should not speak simply of “mindfulness” but “caring mindfulness”, to make sure that we don’t end up with mindful snipers and mindful psychopaths.

As for the sessions on the environment, like those Johan Rockstrom and Mattias Klum are conducting, they should all take place in the main hall! It is so important.

Can you talk a bit about the state of debate on climate change in the Buddhist community?

You know, in Tibet, local people have never heard of climate change, but they all know twenty years ago they could cross the rivers on ice with yaks and trucks during three to four months in the winter, and now they can only do so during one or two months.

Countryside people in Nepal also say the Himalayas have become “black”. Now, only the tops above 5000 metres are white with snow. It is so sad. In the Himalayas, there are now so many lakes with no names because they just appeared in the last 30 years as glaciers are melting.

The Dalai Lama speaks of non violence against humans, non-violence against animals and non-violence against the environment. This reflects the Buddhist idea of interdependence.  We are all in the same boat. On the Tibetan plateau, until the late 1950s, people would not cut the forests and they would leave the gold in the rivers. They thought that the magnificence of nature needed to be respected. Since then, because of new government policies, 40% of all forests have been cut. Conversely, in Bhutan, natural coverage has increased in 65% of the territory, while fishing and hunting are prohibited.

In essence, we should promote altruism on the level of society through education, through institutions that respect the rights of every individual, and through political and economic systems that allow everyone to flourish without sacrificing the good of future generations. To sum up in one sentence, as Martin Luther King told us: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Matthieu Ricard

Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, author and photographer. He is the translator of numerous Buddhist texts, including The Life of Shabkar. The dialogue with his father, French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel, The Monk and the Philosopher, was a best seller in Europe and was translated into 21 languages.

Watch Matthieu Ricard’s talk at TED Global in 2014:


Written by . Published on January 31, 2015. Last edited on April 19, 2016.

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