The happiest man in the world. . .

August 23, 2023 • 12:30 pm

. . . according to the New York Times, is a 77-year-old monk named Matthieu Ricard, who happens to be the Dalai Lama’s French interpreter. The NYT article (click below) also says his books have been bestsellers, that he got the French National Order of Merit, and that he has a Ph.D in “cellular genetics.”

Of course the title of “world’s happiest man” is a bit dubious, as it’s based on brain activity, but the interview with him by David Marchese, which is well worth reading, is very good. It emphasizes that happiness comes from compassion (a Buddhist tenet that I happen to agree with), and that one can never be happy all the time, for suffering is part of life. But you can be unhappy without being angry or despairing. Above all, Ricard preaches empathy for others.

Here’s how he got his monicker:

In the early 2000s, researchers at the University of Wisconsin found that Ricard’s brain produced gamma waves — which have been linked to learning, attention and memory — at such pronounced levels that the media named him “the world’s happiest man.”

And here he is with his Boss (photo from the NYT):

Click the screenshot below to read the interview:

First, how he reacts to his title (interviewer’s questions are in bold, Ricard’s answers in plain text):

For a while now, people have been calling you the world’s happiest man. Do you feel that happy?

It’s a big joke. We cannot know the level of happiness through neuroscience. It’s a good title for journalists to use, but I cannot get rid of it. Maybe on my tomb, it will say, “Here lies the happiest person in the world.” Anyway, I enjoy every moment of life, but of course there are moments of extreme sadness — especially when you see so much suffering. But this should kindle your compassion, and if it kindles your compassion, you go to a stronger, healthier, more meaningful way of being. That’s what I call happiness. It’s not as if all the time you jump for joy. Happiness is more like your baseline. It’s where you come to after the ups and downs, the joy and sorrows. We perceive even more intensely — bad taste, seeing someone suffer — but we keep this sense of the depth. That’s what meditation brings.

And his three “rules for life”:

You know, once I was on the India Today Conclave [an annual TED-like event held in India that gathers leading thinkers from a variety of fields].  They said, “Can you give us the three secrets of happiness?” I said: “First, there’s no secret. Second, there’s not just three points. Third, it takes a whole life, but it is the most worthy thing you can do.” I’m happy to feel I am on the right track. I cannot imagine feeling hate or wanting someone to suffer.

And when I read the last point, I immediately though of my blog nemesis, P. Z. Myers, who is always going off on me.  I rarely respond, and am not really going to diss him, but I think he needs to listen to Ricard’s last sentence, as Myers is always wishing that people (especially Republicans and rich people) would suffer or die, an emotion I’m training myself to curb. Here’s the latest example from Myers, one of many, and the subject is Elon Musk, whom Myers hates:

. . . Ronan Farrow reviews Elon Musk’s life. Imagine an angel of utmost probity assessing his soul at the doorway to heaven, nodding kindly as he summarizes each decade, and then, sadly, pulling the lever that drops him into a blood-drenched flaming tunnel to Hell. It’s so satisfying.

Sadly, many of the followers who bark at Myers’s heels share this same wish for people to suffer.

But I must move on. More on compassion in the interview:

It’s not the best thing to say, but I can easily imagine wanting certain people to suffer. How are we supposed to deal gracefully with our polar opposites in a world that feels increasingly about polarities? I mean, the Dalai Lama could talk to Vladimir Putin all he wants, but Putin’s not going to say, “Your compassion has changed me.” 

Once, a long time ago, someone said to me, who is the person you would like to spend 24 hours alone with? I said Saddam Hussein. I said, “Maybe, maybe, some small change in him might be possible.” When we speak of compassion, you want everybody to find happiness. No exception. You cannot just do that for those who are good to you or close to you. It has to be universal. You may say that Putin and Bashar al-Assad are the scum of humanity, and rightly so. But compassion is about remedying the suffering and its cause. How would that look? You can wish that the system that allowed someone like that to emerge is changed. I sometimes visualize Donald Trump going to hospitals, taking care of people, taking migrants to his home. You can wish that the cruelty, the indifference, the greed may disappear from these people’s minds. That’s compassion; that’s being impartial.

I no longer wish anyone to suffer or die, and my philosophy of determinism helps me with that. If you think that bad people are like broken cars—the results of the laws of physics, including their genes and environments—then you don’t wish them to suffer—any more than you wish a broken car to suffer. What you want is for the car to fe fixed, and that’s what Richard wants. Fixing “bad people” is what should be the sole goal of judicial punishment (as well as keeping them from doing more harm).

You should read the whole interview, as I think it’s helpful. Ricard adds that sadness (which “goes with determination to remedy the cause”) is okay, but that there’s no point to despair. For those of you, like me, who say that “I can’t help it: I do feel despair,” Ricard notes that emotions can be changed (well, not by some numinous “will”, but by training). It’s similar to cognitive behavioral therapy.

Finally, Ricard recounts the last time someone “got on his nerves”, a very rare event:

Who gets on your nerves at the monastery? My nerves? Once in New York, when I was promoting one of my books, a very nice journalist lady said, “What really upsets your nerves when you arrive in New York?” I said, “Why do you presuppose anything is upsetting me?” It’s not about something being on your nerves. It’s about trying to see the best way to proceed. Paul Ekman [an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California San Francisco, known for his work on facial expressions and emotions. He is also the co-author, with the Dalai Lama, of the book “Emotional Awareness”] once asked me to remember when I got really angry. I had to go back 20 years: I had a brand-new laptop, my first one, in Bhutan, and the monk who didn’t know what it was, he was passing by with a bowl filled with roasted barley flour and spilled some on it. So I got mad, and then he looked at me, and he said, “Ha-ha, you’re getting angry!” That was about it. I get indignation all the time about things that should be remedied. Indignation is related to compassion. Anger can be out of malevolence.

There’s a lot more, so read the interview. I have to add that as I get older, I do seem to have acquired a bit of useful wisdom, which is a shame because you should be born wise, for when you’re really wise from experience and age, you either die or get dementia! One thing I’ve learned (though I still let it control my emotions sometimes) is that anger is a toxic and generally useless emotion, which can stand in the way of fixing either personal or societal problems. Another is that if you want to cooperate with others, and have them do what you think is best, treat them with respect and never, ever call them names.  Also, never accuse someone directly of bad behavior: simply tell them how their behavior makes you feel.

I know I’m sounding sappy. So it goes. Now if only I could curb my biggest problem: anxiety. I tried meditation, but I’m generally too keyed up to meditate!

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 22, 2021 • 8:00 am

Please send me in your good wildlife/street/people photos. Thanks!

Today’s beautiful photos come from Joe Routon, who photographed at a Buddhist monastery. His captions are indented, and click on the photos to enlarge them.

Here are a few photos that I made on a trip to a Buddhist monastery in Myanmar a few years ago. The country has many monasteries and shrines, some of which are the most beautiful in Asia.

A growing number of children have been seeking refuge in monasteries as a result of conflict in Myanmar. Buddhist monks can be ordained as young as 8. Traditional guidelines state that a child must be “old enough to scare away crows.”

The Buddhist monastic school system in Myanmar dates back to the 11th century. All Buddhist boys in Myanmar are expected to spend some time, as little as a few weeks, in a monastery. In addition to reading, math, history, and other secular subjects, they learn the basics of the Buddhist faith and earn merit, a kind of spiritual credit that will benefit them and their families in this and future lives. Schooling in a monastery is the only education that many children in Myanmar ever get, especially rural and poor children. They also receive food, board, and health care.

While most young men remain at the monastery for only a short time before returning to the secular life, some become fully ordained monks. The 500,000 Buddhist monks in Myanmar wear saffron- or rust-colored robes.

Child and adult nuns, who live in convents, shave their heads and wear pink robes.

Monks wash themselves in the monastery pool before meditation.

Monks usually follow the traditional rule from the time of the Buddha and eat only one meal a day, before noon. Eating in silence is a necessity for monks. When you eat, your mouth is used for that purpose, and talking is a distraction and impractical. There is little or no snacking outside meals.

The New Yorker admits atheism

August 17, 2017 • 11:30 am

I’ve been critical before about the New Yorker‘s implicit dissing of science as well as its softness toward religion (see here, here and here, for instance).  After all, the clientele of the magazine is liberal, wealthy, and though they’re probably not religious, they like a gentlemanly, well-fed detente between science and religion. The magazine also has a postmodernist tinge, one that was mentioned in an email I got from a colleague last May (see last link). My colleague was trying to finger the New Yorker‘s problem with science:

The New Yorker is fine with science that either serves a literary purpose (doctors’ portraits of interesting patients) or a political purpose (environmental writing with its implicit critique of modern technology and capitalism). But the subtext of most of its coverage (there are exceptions) is that scientists are just a self-interested tribe with their own narrative and no claim to finding the truth, and that science must concede the supremacy of literary culture when it comes to anything human, and never try to submit human affairs to quantification or consilience with biology. Because the magazine is undoubtedly sophisticated in its writing and editing they don’t flaunt their postmodernism or their literary-intellectual proprietariness, but once you notice it you can make sense of a lot of their material.

. . . Obviously there are exceptions – Atul Gawande is consistently superb – but as soon as you notice it, their guild war on behalf of cultural critics and literary intellectuals against scientists, technologists, and analytic scholars becomes apparent.

But Adam Gopnik, one of their staff writers, is a welcome exception, for he does show an appreciation for science and a knowledge of how it’s done, even though he appears to take the view that there are “ways of knowing” about the Universe that can be derived from literature or the humanities rather than science (I’m hoping the two of us will write a back and forth article on this topic). Gopnik, while not explicitly asserting that he’s a nonbeliever, has been moving more and more toward admitting it and singling out the follies of faith. He even admitted to reading and liking this website, even if his praise was accompanied by a mention that my love of other topics on this site bespoke an “irrational love”, so that in some respects a scientist simply cannot be a fully rational being (yes, that’s true; we’re human):

If atheists underestimate the fudginess in faith, believers underestimate the soupiness of doubt. My own favorite atheist blogger, Jerry Coyne, the University of Chicago evolutionary biologist, regularly offers unanswerable philippics against the idiocies of intelligent design. But a historian looking at his blog years from now would note that he varies the philippics with a tender stream of images of cats—into whose limited cognition, this dog-lover notes, he projects intelligence and personality quite as blithely as his enemies project design into seashells—and samples of old Motown songs. The articulation of humanism demands something humane, and its signal is disproportionate pleasure placed in some frankly irrational love.

Well, I can forgive the caveat, and let me now praise Adam’s new piece in the magazine, “What can meditation do for us, and what it can’t.” It is a review of Robert Wright’s new book, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment.  (I suspect Wright filched the title from WEIT), as well as a general discussion of Buddhism in America and its connection with secularism (like a good reviewer, Adam never limits himself to merely evaluating a book’s merits). I haven’t yet read Wright’s book, but it appears to be an attempt to show that meditation works, there is a scientific basis for its efficacy, and that the benefits of this practice jibe with what we know from evolutionary psychology. As Antonio Damasio noted, in a glowing review of Wright’s book in the New York Times:

My take on Wright’s fundamental proposals is as follows. First, the beneficial powers of meditation come from the possibility of realizing that our emotive reactions and the consequent feelings they engender — which operate in automated fashion, outside our deliberate control — are often inappropriate and even counterproductive relative to the situations that trigger them. Second, the mismatch between causes and responses is rooted in evolution. We have inherited from our nonhuman and human forerunners a complex affect apparatus suited to life circumstances very different from ours. That apparatus — which is controlled from varied sectors of our nervous systems — was created by natural selection and assisted by genetic transmission over a long period of time. It worked well for nonhuman primates and later for human hunter gatherers, but it has worked far less well as cultures became more complex. Third, meditation allows us to realize that the idea of the self as director of our decisions is an illusion, and that the degree to which we are at the mercy of a weakly controlled system places us at a considerable disadvantage. Fourth, the awareness brought on by meditation helps the construction of a truly enlightened humanity and counters the growing tribalism of contemporary societies.

Gopnik is not nearly as enthusiastic about Wright’s book, though he does say it has its good points. One of his criticisms is that Wright ignores the traditional trappings of Buddhism, including the poetry, koans, and, especially, the supernaturalism (that, of course, is not Wright’s purpose, as he professes to be an atheist). Gopnik:

Wright’s is a Buddhism almost completely cleansed of supernaturalism. His Buddha is conceived as a wise man and self-help psychologist, not as a divine being—no miraculous birth, no thirty-two distinguishing marks of the godhead (one being a penis sheath), no reincarnation. This is a pragmatic Buddhism, and Wright’s pragmatism, as in his previous books, can touch the edge of philistinism. Nearly all popular books about Buddhism are rich in poetic quotation and arresting aphorisms, those ironic koans that are part of the (Zen) Buddhist décor—tales of monks deciding that it isn’t the wind or the flag that’s waving in the breeze but only their minds. Wright’s book has no poetry or paradox anywhere in it. Since the poetic-comic side of Buddhism is one of its most appealing features, this leaves the book a little short on charm. Yet, if you never feel that Wright is telling you something profound or beautiful, you also never feel that he is telling you something untrue. Direct and unambiguous, tracing his own history in meditation practice—which eventually led him to a series of weeklong retreats and to the intense study of Buddhist doctrine—he makes Buddhist ideas and their history clear.

Gopnik also argues that the evolutionary-psychology underpinnings of Wright’s thesis may not be accurate: at one point he says (my emphasis) “Whether or not evolutionary psychology is a real or a pseudoscience—opinions vary—one can believe that human beings are afflicted with too much wanting. . “.  While Gopnik correctly asserts that most of Wright’s claims about how Buddhism works are still supportable without the need for evolutionary psychology, I wish that Adam had granted the field a bit more credibility. Yes, there’s a passel of bad evolutionary psychology, but the attempt to uncover the evolutionary underpinnings of human behavior is not in principle or practice “pseudoscientific”, and it has led to some decent evolutionary understanding of our behavior.  Does Gopnik think, for example, that the differences in sexual behavior between men and women, which parallel differences among many of our relatives, near and far, and are well explained by evolutionary psychology, are merely “pseudoscience”? That’s just not fair, nor is it fair to imply that the field is intellectually bankrupt.

That said, I found the best part of Gopnik’s piece his discussion of whether “Buddhism without any supernatural scaffolding is still Buddhism.” That’s a good question, for, after all, the Dalai Lama, while professing to be down with science, still believes in the supernatural tenets of reincarnation and karma. In that sense Buddhism cannot be divorced from superstition any more than can Catholicism, with its adherence to a soul the dogma that of Adam and Eve are our literal ancestors.

Gopnik notes that Western Buddhists often fob off the supernaturalism of Buddhism by saying, “Well, everyone believes in something.” And here is where he takes out his silver scalpel and severs science from superstition (my emphasis):

Then there’s the shrug-and-grin argument that everyone believes something. Is it fair to object that most of us take quantum physics on faith, too? Well, we don’t take it on faith. We take it on trust, a very different thing. We have confidence—amply evidenced by the technological transformation of the world since the scientific revolution, and by the cash value of validated predictions based on esoteric mathematical abstraction—that the world picture it conveys is true, or more nearly true than anything else on offer. Batchelor tap-dances perilously close to the often repeated absurdity that a highly credulous belief about supernatural claims and an extremely skeptical belief about supernatural claims are really the same because they are both beliefs.

A deeper objection to the attempted reconciliation of contemporary science and Buddhist practice flows from the nature of scientific storytelling. The practice of telling stories—imagined tales of cause and effect that fixate on the past and the future while escaping the present, sending us back and forth without being here now—is something that both Wright and Batchelor see as one of the worst delusions the mind imprints on the world. And yet it is inseparable from the Enlightenment science that makes psychology and biology possible. The contemporary generation of American Buddhists draws again and again on scientific evidence for the power of meditation—EEGs and MRIs and so on—without ever wondering why a scientific explanation of that kind has seldom arisen in Buddhist cultures. (Science has latterly been practiced by Buddhists, of course.)

I’d like to think that some of this was influenced by my similar arguments in Faith Versus Fact (which I think Adam’s read), or my piece in Slate, “No faith in science,” but I just don’t know. Regardless, the distinction between religious faith and “trust” or “earned confidence” is important, and it’s time someone made this point in the New Yorker.

Finally, Gopnik seems to embrace secular humanism, implicitly arguing that, stripped of supernaturalism, religions often arrive at similar sets of values:

All secularized faiths tend to converge on a set of agreeable values: compassion, empathy, the renunciation of mere material riches. But the shared values seem implicit in the very project of secularizing a faith, with its assumption that the ethical and the supernatural elements can be cleanly severed—an operation that would have seemed unintelligible to St. Paul, as to Gotama himself. The idea of doing without belief is perhaps a bigger idea than any belief it negates. Secular Buddhism ends up being . . . secularism.

If that’s not the statement of a nonbeliever, I’ll eat my balaklava (though I’d wish it were baklava). Kudos to Gopnik for a thoughtful discussion, and for deep-sixing the “we take science on faith” argument.

h/t: Paul


Dalai Lama promulgates the “no true Muslim” fallacy

September 18, 2016 • 1:37 pm

Here are a few of the Dalai Lama’s remarks to the Committee of Foreign Affairs of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, which he visited on Thursday. As you see, he claims that any religious person, not just Muslims, cannot be a “true believer” if they commit terrorism. This, of course, is a meaningless and tautological statement, like saying that no true cat would eat cucumbers.

Among religious leaders, Tenzin Gyatso is among the least offensive and most amiable. But he’s not immune to mouthing pious inanities like the above. Try telling the members of ISIS that they’re “not genuine Muslims”.

Gyatso is a long way from Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but one more thing bothers me about him. He’s characterized as science friendly, and he’s even said this:

“If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”\

Yet, as far as I know, he believes not only in karma, which is a supernatural concept, but in reincarnation, part of the karma trope. Now we can’t really prove these “false”, but the evidence is against them, since if there were reincarnation the population of animals on the planet would be constant (unless, of course, microbes are silently disappearing as they wend their way to mammals).  But you can’t claim that the Dalai Lama is fully down with naturalism.