3 lessons I learned from the Tibetan monk who works with the Dalai Lama and went viral as 'the happiest man alive'
- I sat down with Matthieu Ricard, a Tibetan Buddhist monk who found himself famous among the TED Talk set and reluctantly decided to use the spotlight to share teachings.
- He said meeting with powerful people taught him that "success" should not be defined solely by influence, but by "personal flourishing."
- He explained the value of acceptance of things beyond your control, and knowing when to trust your heart.
Matthieu Ricard is not someone who uses spirituality as a way to get famous - in fact, learning to accept the fame that's been given to him and use it as an opportunity for good was turning point.
Ricard, 71, is a Tibetan Buddhist monk who moved to the Himalayas from France in his 20s and became a monk at age 30. His first got the media's attention in 1997 when he co-authored a book with his father Jean-François, a renowned philosopher. Since then, he's given two TED Talks that went viral online, and written multiple bestsellers. He gives his share of any of his projects' proceeds to his charity, Karuna-Shechen, which provides health care and educational services to underserved communities in India, Nepal, and Tibet.
The media has been fond of calling Ricard "the happiest man alive," a title Ricard tries to discourage, after Ricard's gamma brain waves were measured to be the strongest in a 2000 University of Wisconsin study.
He's also a confidante of the Dalai Lama, and serves as his French translator.
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And though we discussed the arc of his life, he also shared lessons that particularly resonated with me.
There are two types of success
While Ricard now spends most of his time in isolation, he was born to famous socialites, a writer and a painter, who held parties with the likes of the composer Igor Stravinsky and photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Even at a young age he could tell that all of the indicators of external success - influence, respect, wealth - were not always accompanied by happiness. When he devoted his life to Buddhism as a young man, he realized that happiness is a skill, a honed way of viewing the world, that does not automatically accompany the trappings of this external success.
Ricard said that he instead prefers the type of success he calls "personal flourishing," which is "fulfilling my deepest aspiration."
And by "deepest aspiration," he means something much more existential than aspiring to a big paycheck or lavish home. He's referring to a success defined by self-fulfillment for the purpose of positively affecting others. "So to transform yourself to serve others," he said.
It is sometimes the most rational choice to trust your intuition
"Go with your gut," sounds like reckless, foolish advice. But one of Ricard's stories made me realize there are times to trust your intuition.
As a young man, Ricard studied molecular genetics under a Nobel laureate at the prestigious Pasteur Institute. He would take breaks from his studies to pursue his growing interest in Buddhism, and traveled to Darjeeling to learn from spiritual masters. Ricard ultimately received his PhD, but when it came time to decide what to do with his life, the decision was easy.
"It was not at all a hard decision," Ricard said, of his choice to begin a path to monkhood. "I never had any agitation." He compared it to fruit that has ripened on a tree: "At some point you don't have to pull and break the branch to get the fruit. It's just touch it and it falls in your hands."
He had given himself plenty of time throughout his travels back and forth between India and France to decide what felt right to him, and when it was time, he didn't make a list of pros and cons for each option - he followed his heart and acted without hesitation. Ricard said that since that point, he has made every major decision in his life the same way.
It is necessary to accept what you cannot change
Ricard wrote the book "The Monk and the Philosopher" primarily as a bonding experience with his aging father. But when the attention followed, he decided to follow the Dalai Lama's example and use celebrity as a way to spread lessons about happiness and fulfillment.
Then, after the Independent covered the findings of the meditation study Ricard participated in, they named him "the happiest man in the world" in 2007. No matter how many times Ricard objected, the phrase kept appearing in outlets around the world.
The title came up when Ricard was with one of his teachers, and he said his teacher told him, "Just leave. Make use of it for a good purpose, for the human project." That is, if people insist on calling him "the happiest man in the world," then use that opportunity to teach them how to be happier.