Being Truly Happy
by Ven Matthieu Ricard
Ven Matthieu Ricard (born 1946) is a monk, photographer and best-selling author of “Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill” and “Why Meditate?” among other books. He is the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama. After completing his Ph.D. degree in molecular genetics from Pasteur Institute in France, he decided to forsake his scientific career and concentrate on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism. He lived in the Himalayas studying with many great Tibetan masters and became the close student and attendant of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche until his death in 1991.
Ven Ricard started Karuna-Shechen (www. karuna-shechen.org)in 2000 with the ideal of compassion to oversee projects that provide health care, education, and social services for the under-served populations of India, Nepal, and Tibet. He is dubbed as the happiest person in the world by popular media but do read about how he feels about this on his blog. Vadivu Govind, Director of Joyworks Works (joyworks.sg), interviewed Ven Ricard at Poh Ming Tse Temple when he was in Singapore on 13 Sept 2013. She blogs at happiness.sg. Eastern Horizon thanks Vadivu for her permission to reprint this interview with Ven Ricard.
Vadivu: There’s often a split between what we know is compassionate, wise and truthful and what we do. And sometimes we think we are growing because we keep going to spiritual events or our place of worship but our daily life actions may not reflect that. What are your reflections on this and how can we heal this gap?
Ricard: That’s the main challenge. We can deal with this by recognizing the truth of the teachings. After all, it’s not an obligation. You don’t have to practice meditation or live a spiritual life, like you pay tax. Who’s going to keep those accounts? Nobody. So it’s really a way to become a better person and live a more fulfilled life.
When you don’t live with spiritual awareness, you may get a slap on the face. These are not just rules by anyone to just annoy us. They indicate what need to be accomplished so we can avoid suffering. You don’t see a bird as “renouncing” its cage but it’s freeing itself from its cage. There’s nothing sad to abandon one’s cage. So the ultimate criteria for healthy spiritual practice is to blend one’s mind and life with the teachings. That comes slowly and with that comes happiness.’
What are your favorite movies?
I like movies that give hope in the human nature… so any movie that brings the best out of yourself..there
are quite a few like Groundhog Day…so it [Phil’s way] fails, it fails, it fails, until compassion comes in. I like this kind of movie with the message of compassion. There’s another one in French – The intouchables.
Many movies now have meanness and violence. It seems there’s nothing except the gratuitous will to harm. This is a wrong presentation of human nature. Pure evil is very very rare in humanity. Even people
who commit terrible acts always think they have a reason. It’s never just doing evil for the sake of evil.
This is really wrong. Unfortunately [these movies] have great influence on everyone, especially the
children, but also adults. It increases their aggression and gives them a pessimistic outlook on life. It’s
There was a very interesting study by Ed Diener and Darlene DeFour which showed that when people were shown a program with violent scenes deleted, it didn’t significantly affect the popularity of the program. So the idea that you gain more audience because it’s violent is morally wrong and isn’t true.
If you knew you had one year left to live, what would you do more of? What would you do less of?
I’d stop mending my socks! I would very quickly hand over this charitable organization, Karuna-Shechen, in a few weeks. And then I will entirely spend that time getting instructions from my teachers and then go into hermitage.
There are different definitions of happiness. Could you describe what it feels like to be truly
Inner peace. Inner peace comes with inner freedom. What is inner freedom? It’s not just to do what
comes to your head. That would be being a slave of your thoughts. Inner freedom is to be free from
constantly ruminating over the past or constantly anticipating the future with lots of grasping, hopes
and fears, expectations and doubts. It is to be able to remain in the present moment without being
disturbed by craving, anger, jealousy and so forth. So it is a state of freedom from such mental toxins.
Hatred is toxic to happiness. Craving is toxic to happiness. Arrogance is toxic to happiness. Contrary to what people might think, this is not a dull state. It is not that if you got rid of all those afflictive emotions , life becomes boring and colorless. Not at all. This is the most vivid, luminous, aware state of peace and out of that comes loving kindness and compassion.
In short, it is inner peace from disturbing thoughts linked with some understanding of reality (wisdom)
and it is pervaded with love and compassion. All that together – that’s genuine happiness.
As you can see, it is very different from looking for an endless succession of pleasurable experiences. Those
are recipes for exhaustion. That’s what people try to do. Another one….another one…another one….then
they collapse out of exhaustion. And also that doesn’t bring happiness.
I’m at that point of exhaustion…I have a very stressful and hectic lifestyle. What are some daily practices that you can recommend for me?
Even if you have a very hectic lifestyle, you probably find time to go to a very nice gym in the early morning and exert yourself on a bicycle or treadmill because you are convinced that it’s good for your health and that you will lose less hair, get rid of your tummy and look good and young.
Imagine that for 30 minutes a day you learn how to deal better with your mind and emotions and that this will change the quality of the 23 hours and thirty minutes left in your day.
You can become familiar with your own mind and learn through simple methods of mind-training how to distinguish between thoughts and emotions that undermine your wellbeing and those that nurture it. You can learn how to cultivate inner joy and inner peace. This mind training will diminish your stress and bring you more serenity and above all will give you the inner resources to deal with the ups and downs of life.
Because however powerful you might be, your control of the world is very limited, temporary and illusory…there are ups and downs in the stock market or you may lose your job. You think you are the boss and the next day, everybody throws you out so if you put all your hopes and fears on that and you think that if you don’t have that, you cannot be happy, it’s like hoping to win the lottery.
If you look at the inner conditions of your mind, no matter what, you can keep your serenity, strength of mind and confidence. Because it’s in your mind. Nobody can take that away from you. Nobody. So if you cultivate that, then you know it’s like a cat. If you throw a cat in the air, it will fall back on its four legs.
You know that no matter what happens, you will have the inner resources to deal with that. When you are feeling vulnerable or insecure, and the insecurity causes you to withdraw into yourself, you could become self-centred or arrogant. If you know that you have the resources to deal with the world, then you don’t have to be insecure. You don’t just depend on your image, what people think of you, your rank, your position as a CEO…
With inner confidence, you are open to others because you’re not occupied with “me, me, me” all the time. Inner strength naturally opens you to kindness, benevolence, so then you’re ready for really constructive activity in the word and not just ceaselessly and mainly promoting self-interest.
But you know, as a leader, my main responsibility is to bring profit to my shareholders, not to look at things like compassion or the happiness of my employees. That’s their personal matter.
That’s a recipe for making a hell of your whole company. Nobody would be happy. Some people would fear you. Some people would hate you.
Well, as long as they get the work done…
And then what? At the end of the day?
I met someone in Hong Kong some years ago…He said “Well, you know, when I started, I wanted to
have a million US dollars, now I have five after fifteen years…and I wasted fifteen years of my life.”
[Nobel Laureate] Muhammad Yunus also said in the Davos Economic Forum that if the whole purpose of your enterprise and life is to make profit, and is totally devoid of the human dimension, you’re drying
up your life.
This is a recipe for sorrow, selfishness, and misery. And when things go wrong and your enterprise doesn’t do well financially, since there’s no human dimension, then everybody would run away.
However, if there is, in your enterprise, a sense of community, a sense of sharing human values, and if on top of that, you have a social component so that you dedicate some of your effort, resources, skills to benefit some sector of society, and the CEO and everyone is participating, then in rough times, your
company will do better .
It’s like travelling somewhere on a bumpy road. If the destination is somewhere people really want to go to, and there’s purpose and meaning beyond profit, they don’t mind the bumpy road. If it’s just to take you round and round for no reason, they don’t like bumpy roads.
How about my competitors? How can I show compassion to my competitors? Because if they do well, it means I can’t do well.
Healthy competition is an emulation to do well. First of all, there should be no competition within the enterprise. That’s a recipe for self-destruction. Competition between enterprises is healthy because it pushes you to bring out the best of yourself. So you can want to do something of quality and to always do better, but not at the cost of harassing your employees and not at the cost of doing dirty tricks.
Don’t think, “If I don’t do dirty tricks and if I don’t push too hard, I would be a loser.” Because over time, relationships are based on trust. If everyone distrusts each other, again, we poison the situation and things become dysfunctional.
It’s like if you thought you were a good tennis player and you saw someone extraordinary. You could say,
“Wow! I have so much more to learn! I can improve myself. This guy really knows what he’s doing”. So
then you improve yourself but constantly trying to kick others in the leg…that’s in the end, a lose-lose
There are some people in my life – very few of them – who have spoken the truth to be about my weaknesses. But it was very uncomfortable and I asked them to leave.
The kindest person is the one who brings to the surface your weaknesses and hidden faults because it gives you a wonderful opportunity to improve. Let’s look at what a very kind teacher in sport or music would look like. The kindest teacher cares so much for you that he will point out every defect of your play so that you can improve it…If you really want to play the piano well, and you had a teacher who, no matter what you do, just says, “That’s nice, that’s nice, that’s nice”, then you’ll never progress.
If praise is unjustified, you wouldn’t feel good about that because you know you don’t have those qualities. So maybe temporarily it flatters your narcissism. But ultimately it doesn’t feel comfortable. This is provided the feedback is not given in a demeaning way to put you down and the person has a good intention. This is the best way to improve so you are missing a big opportunity by not accepting
such truthful feedback.
I am afraid of death…I try not to think about it.
You should think about it but not in a morbid way and get depressed.
Imagine that you have one month to live. It’s not very nice but would you want to distract yourself for the
last month or make it the most extraordinary month of your life? You can spend time with your dear ones,
enjoy looking at flowers, the sky, meditating…
Death is certain but the time it comes is uncertain. It is the best way to make sure that you fully appreciate
every moment of life. Sometimes you’re bored and just sitting there. Hey if that were the last day of your life, it wouldn’t be boring. Even 10 boring minutes would look so extraordinary….I can just look outside and think that this day is so precious instead of having time just go by, colourless and boring.
Thinking about your death gives extraordinary quality to every moment of your life.
How do I have a peaceful death?
Prepare yourself so that you have no regrets. Think now. The things that you do… like trying to kick off
your competitors, and making one more million dollars. Is this going to bring you a peaceful death?
Are you really going to be happy when you die?
Now imagine that you spend quality time with your family and think, “I have accumulated some wealth
but I use it in such wonderful, compassionate ways. I’ve contributed to society. Then when the last
moment comes, I can rejoice in that and think “Ah, that was well done!”
But if you just have this big bank account, no one sees a coffin going out with a coffer. ..you’re not going to
take it with you for sure….
(On his blog, Matthieu writes: Recently, I met an elder person who was expressing her sadness that many of her friends where so attached to their money, even as death was coming near. She concluded: “What is the point? One has never seen a safe on a coffin. Thanks to him for giving me permission to publish these cartoons by Gabs here.)
Interview conducted by: Vadivu Govind, Director, Joy Works (joyworks.sg) on 13 Sept 2012, Poh Ming Tse Temple, Singapore. (Deep gratitude to Matthieu Ricard for the gift of his time.) EH