As an atheist, I do not believe in god. Neither does Dr. Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk who earned his PhD in cellular genetics and currently lives in the Himalayan region, where he leads humanitarian efforts in India, Nepal, and Tibet.
I sat down with Dr. Ricard at the 2012 World Science Festival in New York City to talk about science and religion. His comments surprised my skeptical ears. I'm interested to see if they do the same for you.
Click the link below and watch the video above to learn more. And don't forget to sound off by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page. Talk nerdy to me!
CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. When Dr. Matthieu Ricard was 26 years old, he earned his doctorate degree in cellular genetics from the Pasteur Institute in Paris. Instead of pursuing a traditional post-doc, he left his worldly possessions behind and moved to the Himalayas to become a Buddhist monk. Today, he's the founding director of Karuna-Shechen, a humanitarian charity, and he works as the French translator for the Dalai Lama. I sat down with him to discuss Buddhism from a scientific perspective.
DR. MATTHIEU RICARD: It’s not about a religious practice, and as the Dalai Lama often says religion can be a choice and we may not make that choice, but we need, from the moment we are born, we need affection, we need love, we need interconnection, we need emotional balance. From the moment we are born to the moment we die, we need to receive and give those affections, love and kindness, and other qualities. So that’s not an issue of religion, or religion can help each person in their own part if they choose to do so, it can help techniques to enhance that, but the main thing is for all human beings and their techniques to become a better human being.
CSM: I told Dr. Ricard that as a scientist, skeptic, and atheist, I was wary of the language often used in the context of Buddhism. Like the word "spirituality," it just doesn't compute. So when I asked him what that term meant to him, well, he surprised me.
MR: When we say "spirituality," again we must be careful. I actually don’t use that word usually. I prefer to speak, let’s say, if I speak of a spiritual path, for me in Buddhism, it is a path of transformation. Each and every one of us has the potential for transformation, that’s the fundamental aspect of Buddhism. We don’t speak of original sin, but original goodness, and again original goodness is not some kind of weird, sort of dogmatic thing, it’s just a fact that there’s the potential for change in every human being. If you look deep within the mind, of course there’s a lot of emotion, some positive emotion, negative emotion, sometime anger, sometime love and kindness, but basically the fundamental nature of mind, you know it’s like light. Cognitive faculty, the basic cognitive faculty of mind is like a beam of light. It’s not modified by what it lights up. Like, if light shines on a heap of garbage it doesn’t become dirty. If light shines on a piece of gold it doesn’t become expensive. We don’t want to fall prey to the chain reaction that goes from, you know, feeling a bit upset to animosity to anger and to full-fledged hate. You don’t want to cause that, the spark gives birth to that forest fire. You want to just let it vanish before, that’s all the science of mind that applies to every human being. So a part of transformation to inner means, that’s what I would call spirituality. But I would happily dispense of the word spirituality to say that it is a science of mind. A contemplative science.
CSM: This got me thinking about the eternal debate between science and religion. I know where I stand, and you may know where you stand. But what does this man, who is so enlightened in the ways of the scientific method and Buddhism, have to say?
MR: I think what the Dalai Lama often says about that, the relation between religion and one’s life, not only with science, is that it is a fact that possibly more than half of humanity, even the minimally religious, they don’t really live every moment according to their religion. And of course there are many completely nonbelievers, whether they are agnostic or atheist or whatever, those are human beings, and of course I’m not saying that like a sort of, “OK, you are also human beings." No, they are full human beings with a full potential for being extraordinarily good human beings. So you can’t associate the potential that we have to express those human qualities with religion. So that’s why the Dalai Lama says, you know, let’s keep religion aside. But not being against religion, but it is not intrinsically linked with religion. So when you speak of secular ethics and secular spirituality or meditation, he does that. He says, always as it happens in India, India is a secular state but the notion is secularism means, respecting all religion including nonbelievers in a very open society without choosing a particular one and even less without wanting to impose it on others saying "no, no, because it is best for me it is best for you," that doesn’t make sense. As he says often, "if there was only one dish served in all the worlds’ restaurants nobody would go to the restaurant, it’s boring." And also we all have different mental dispositions. So some people would feel comfortable with the notion of God, some people it just doesn’t make sense and they prefer the idea of interdependence and law and cause and effect. And Buddhism, some people don’t care about Buddhism either, but they still can and want to be a good human being. So it’s just an option, but it’s definitely not a necessity.
CSM: Hear hear, Dr. Ricard. What role do you think religion should play in our modern, scientific society? Let me know your thoughts on Twitter, Facebook, or by leaving a comment right here on the Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!
To learn more about Dr. Ricard's humanitarian work and how you can get involved, visit karuna-shechen.org.