My first night in Kath­mandu I was star­tled from a dead man’s sleep by the ring­ing of my phone. I fum­bled for it, brac­ing my­self for the worst. It was my youngest son. “Hi, Dad,” he said cheer­ily. He’d found a pile of an­tique smart­phones (from the late nou


I tried to for­mu­late any good rea­son why not to de­stroy all of our moth­balled phones. I could hear my­self, try­ing to par­ent, and yet I was so dopey with fa­tigue. “I don’t think it’s a great idea,” I said. “Thanks, Dad!” he blurted. “OK… What?” “We’ll be care­ful!” I didn’t have any fight in me, fell back on my pil­low, drool­ing. I could pic­ture iphones tum­bling arse-over-tit from great heights, screens smash­ing. I dare­say my an­noy­ance faded, imag­in­ing my son do­ing vi­o­lence to tech­nol­ogy, free­ing him­self of all that dig­i­tal anx­i­ety, the Fomo-spasms of un­hap­pi­ness. I hoped that one day he might look back and think that this was the mo­ment the rev­o­lu­tion be­gan. Af­ter all, if stud­ies are right, the more dig­i­tally con­nected we are, the more iso­la­tion and doom we seem to feel. What I ad­mired most in my son was his un­con­scious de­sire to smash one of the gods of our ad­dic­tion. If any­thing, I’d come over 11,000km in part to kill my phone, too. And to de­frag my mind. Not just from the neon bom­bard­ment of our con­sumerism but in full aware­ness that we’ve en­tered a new era of seem­ing no re­turn: of random shoot­ings, nasty pol­i­tics and daily tragedy. Was it even pos­si­ble to find the gate back to some sim­pler Gar­den? So my pil­grim­age pos­sessed its own slightly cocka­mamie as­pi­ra­tion: I was won­der­ing if, in this modern world of ours, one might have the au­dac­ity to start a con­ta­gion by pur­su­ing a Fomo-less state of retro bliss? To cure our ills by vis­it­ing a monk on his moun­tain­top in Nepal, in search of the keys to ul­ti­mate hap­pi­ness. In Nepal, then, hap­pi­ness first man­i­fested it­self as a Kath­mandu taxi driver. Bump­ing over the dirt-packed by­ways of Boudha to the monastery, he kept yelling his “hel­los” out the open win­dow of his tiny Maruti Suzuki. Trav­el­ling at the speed of a tur­tle, we passed a makeshift tent vil­lage – made of ma­te­rial left be­hind by the UN – peo­ple still home­less from the 2015 earth­quake. We hit a pot­hole, and my head smacked the ceil­ing. He was smil­ing in the rearview mir­ror, not at my in­jury – just be­cause he couldn’t stop smil­ing. The whole thing seemed like a film in which the pro­tag­o­nist emerges from a land of slate and snow, af­ter a long hi­ber­nal slum­ber, to a world of bright colours and flut­ter­ing prayer flags. But it wasn’t all won­der. Through the win­dow, too, ap­peared piles of rub­ble and scaf­folded build­ings, other struc­tures cracked and aban­doned. A haze of air pol­lu­tion – mostly dust – set­tled thickly in the val­ley, bad enough that peo­ple wore ban­danas over their mouths. As it turned out, the monk I was search­ing for wasn’t just any monk. His name was Matthieu Ri­card. A few weeks ear­lier, I’d been half-lis­ten­ing to the news in my kitchen, let­ting it wash over me – all bul­lets and be­lit­tle­ments – and perked up at the words ‘happiest man in the world’. I didn’t catch his name that first time. But how could you not google that? How could you not won­der what he’d found in our modern on­slaught to be so damn happy about? The Happy One – this Matthieu – had written a slew of books, in­clud­ing one called Hap­pi­ness. I or­dered it. Read it. There was noth­ing soft­headed or self-helpy about it. His pic­ture ap­peared on the back flap, a bald man, try­ing de­spite him­self to look a lit­tle se­ri­ous. But the flicker in his eyes and curve of his mouth were say­ing, “Nope, can’t do it.” He couldn’t con­trol his own be­muse­ment. “Hap­pi­ness is a skill,” he wrote. “Skills must be learned.” Born to a fa­mous French in­tel­lec­tual fa­ther – in a home where the likes of Igor Stravin­sky and Luis Buñuel came and went – Ri­card had turned his back on both the life of a bon vi­vant Parisian and a ca­reer as a cel­lu­lar ge­neti­cist at the Pas­teur In­sti­tute, and dis­ap­peared into the monas­ter­ies and moun­tains of north­ern In­dia in 1972, at the age of 26, to study at the feet of the great Bud­dhist masters who’d fled Ti­bet. (His last great teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rin­poche, had lived 30 years in a cave and stood 7ft.) Now, at 70, Ri­card was an in­ter­na­tional star, asked to do 350 events a year and count­less in­ter­views. He criss­crossed the globe, hob­nobbed with the Dalai Lama. The de­mands on his time were ridicu­lous, and in­creas­ingly kept him from im­por­tant monk-y things such as med­i­tat­ing and kind­ness­ing and com­bat­ing all bad global karma with good karma, su­per­hero-monkstyle. He said he’d written Hap­pi­ness as a re­sponse to the ques­tion of a man who’d risen from the crowd at an event in Hong Kong and asked, “Can you give me one rea­son why I should go on liv­ing?” Stark as that ques­tion was, 2016 raised a bevy of stark ques­tions about our own hu­man­ity. In Paris and Or­lando, Nice and Is­tan­bul, the world was badly shaken up. We were tossed head­first into a grow­ing mael­strom of vi­o­lence, both phys­i­cal and ver­bal. How could hap­pi­ness flour­ish in a sucky world? And how could we find it again? On a whim, I’d sent Ri­card an email, and to my sur­prise heard right back. He, too, felt we’d reached a crit­i­cal mo­ment, and that it was im­por­tant to re­visit an­other ques­tion he’d posed in his book: “Are we sup­posed to come to terms with un­hap­pi­ness rather than make a gen­uine and in­tel­li­gent at­tempt to un­tan­gle hap­pi­ness from suf­fer­ing?” Hap­pi­ness was “a flour­ish­ing”, he said, a lu­mi­nous sort of well­be­ing known in San­skrit as sukha. It resided, right there, within us. But we had to find a way to free and nur­ture it. To quit our grasp­ing. This sukha, if metabolised, was all-pow­er­ful. With it, the Bud­dhists be­lieved, walls could fall, life it­self might be re­sanc­ti­fied. Per­haps it sounded silly and im­pos­si­ble – per­haps not – but when he answered my email, “Yes, come,” I was on a plane be­fore he could take the in­vi­ta­tion back. When we ar­rived at the Shechen monastery, I looked for a man named San­jeev. He was the one who was go­ing to give me a lift, to reach the Happy One on his moun­tain. San­jeev, who wasn’t a monk, was in charge of what Ri­card had par­tially helped to build – a vast op­er­a­tion at the monastery that in­cluded a health clinic and school, a cen­tre for the sa­cred arts, and 500

res­i­dent monks who needed to be fed and or­ches­trated. The monastery had pro­grams in place to com­bat hu­man traf­fick­ing and to aid with on­go­ing earth­quake re­lief, well over a year past the calamity. “In all of us is the design of the world,” San­jeev told me. It felt like the be­gin­ning of a primer, or the part of a visit to the doc­tor where they take your blood pres­sure be­fore you meet the physi­cian. “We have the abil­ity to ac­cess and un­der­stand the uni­verse. To be­come other forms.” Ev­ery­thing from his mouth felt like a bumper sticker on an old Volvo. And I kept nod­ding my head ‘yes’. “We think we can con­trol the world, but it’s 99 per cent chaos,” he said. “We can only change our minds about it. “We’re try­ing to get from point A to point B. We bought a car to get there, but we’re so fo­cused on the car that we for­got where ex­actly point B is. One must un­der­stand ‘the think’ be­hind ‘the thought’.” Yes, the chaos, the car, the think be­hind the thought. That last one seemed per­ti­nent. And then we were on the road, mashed to­gether in an old Land Rover. Ev­ery­thing smelled of al­ti­tude and things burn­ing. Mean­while, my mon­key mind was in full tantrum. The sky had turned omi­nous, thun­der sound­ing. I’d for­got­ten a rain jacket. And what were we go­ing to eat, any­way? What if there were squat toi­lets? Within five min­utes, I’d re­volved into such a state that I would starve or freeze, and shit my­self on top of it. These were the gy­ra­tions of my mind. It was wet and chilly by the time we fi­nally made it to the moun­tain. The grounds were lush and wooded, di­vided into steppes and habi­ta­tions. From here, on a clear day, you could see the Hi­malayas (An­na­purna, Ever­est, the Ganesh Hi­mal), but now a grey­pur­ple murk clung to ev­ery­thing. We were greeted by a monk in a red puffer jacket, who led us up the slope to what would be my tem­po­rary lodg­ing, a lit­tle rus­tic hut as well stocked as a hotel suite (juices and fruit in the fridge, end­less tea and cook­ies, my own bath­room and bed­room). We drank tea – San­jeev, an­other practitioner, my­self – wait­ing for Ri­card. My first glimpse of him was of a shape mov­ing along the por­tico, on the other side of the vines. He was talk­ing in a friendly hush, chat­ting with a stray dog. It was cir­cling him, and they were play­ing. Or Ri­card wanted to play; the dog, who oth­er­wise ap­peared to have been kicked around by life, wasn’t as willing. When Ri­card ap­peared in full view, he was smil­ing broadly, bare-shoul­dered in his saf­fron robes. He seemed un­con­cerned by the wet chill, his next meal, the squat toi­lets… un­con­cerned with Ar­maged­don and all the rest of it. He greeted every­one, in round­nesses. His eyes were round, his shaved head was round, his body was round. I’d soon find there was a round­ness to his ideas as well, a fer­til­ity, a wa­ter­melon-ness – juices and pit, flesh and skin. He as­sid­u­ously es­chewed the New Age-isms of Bud­dhism. No bumper stick­ers around here. “Ah, you’ve made it,” were his first words. “I’m so em­bar­rassed.” He was em­bar­rassed? Em­bar­rassed that I’d come 11,000km to see him. Shouldn’t I have been em­bar­rassed? Wasn’t my des­per­a­tion pal­pa­ble? I’d left my fam­ily be­hind to be here. But here we were, and first, he wanted to warn me that there were tigers and leop­ards with us on the moun­tain, too. The leop­ards in par­tic­u­lar made a nerve-rack­ing, abra­sive sound. “I have to be very care­ful,” he said, wink­ing with both eyes. “Maybe they like goats, and French monks smell a lit­tle like goats. So what to do?”

Ri­card spoke with an ac­cent that took a mo­ment to get used to. He said this area was also a hot spot for mouses, “big mouses”. Tigers, leop­ards, and… Big Mouses. That seemed par­tic­u­larly terrifying. One of the Big Mouses, “the Com­man­der”, Ri­card called him, lived nearby, and could be seen hud­dled on the moun­tain­top from time to time. There’d been a se­cret meet­ing with the Chi­nese, at that monastery on the hill. I was try­ing to imag­ine that Big Mouse, so twitchy and whiskered they called him the Com­man­der, “meet­ing with the Chi­nese”, when it oc­curred to me: Maoist. Not mouse. A decade ear­lier, this re­gion had been filled with up­ris­ing and ma­chine-gun fire. “It was quite scary,” said Ri­card. “But not as scary as the tigers and leop­ards. I must tell you, when you hear the an­i­mals out walk­ing at night, you go, like, Eeeeeeeeee.” He seemed to see it on my face – a flicker of worry. One of his most re­cent books, called A Plea for the An­i­mals, is about veg­e­tar­i­an­ism and “the 50 bil­lion land an­i­mals and two tril­lion sea an­i­mals” killed each year. “It’s not the right time to be eaten by a tiger,” he said, scrunch­ing his face, to laugh­ter from the rest of us. “Bad pub­lic­ity for the book. This is a place of com­pas­sion and every­one’s go­ing to say that tigers don’t re­cip­ro­cate.” This monk guy was funny, too. The man­crush was in­stant. The words he’d written rang so true: “The search for hap­pi­ness is not about look­ing at life through rose-coloured glasses or blind­ing one­self to the pain and im­per­fec­tions of the world… It is the purg­ing of men­tal tox­ins, such as ha­tred and ob­ses­sion, that lit­er­ally poi­son the mind.” So be­gan the novi­tiate’s lesson. When you meet a monk on his moun­tain­top, it’s like tak­ing a drug called Ton­sured Tan­ger­ine Eupho­ria or Rain­bow Saf­fron Dreams. When you see the world through his eyes, ev­ery­thing turns lovely colours and you sud­denly find your­self un­en­crusted – free of your bag­gage – sud­denly lov­ing every­one and ev­ery­thing. It’s a self-man­u­fac­tured rave in your head. Talk­ing to Ri­card, who spoke in fast-for­ward and was al­ways on the verge of laugh­ter, was like plug­ging into a dif­fer­ent hard drive, one packed with aeons of Ti­betan wisdom mixed with ions of sci­en­tific in­quiry. He spoke re­peat­edly about the keys to hap­pi­ness: com­pas­sion and al­tru­ism and… brain plas­tic­ity. This is where Ri­card, the sci­en­tist, sought to tie down the ab­strac­tions of Bud­dhism for a modern world steeped in big data. In this, he’d be­come a kind of bridge be­tween the East and the West, re­li­gion and sci­ence, op­ti­mism and sec­u­lar cyn­i­cism. What made his mes­sage more palat­able was that he hadn’t emerged from a Ti­betan cave at all. He wasn’t dis­con­nected from our modern world. Yes, he was a monk, but that didn’t mean he didn’t love to ski, or that he wasn’t a great photographer, or that, back in his early years, he hadn’t threat­ened to build a harp­si­chord, then penned a book en­ti­tled The Mys­tery of An­i­mal Mi­gra­tion. It didn’t mean he wouldn’t oc­ca­sion­ally drop the F-bomb. In con­ver­sa­tion, he re­ferred to Supreme Court jus­tice Stephen Breyer, quoted the lat­est study from the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, fret­ted over guns in Amer­ica and global warm­ing while cit­ing the work of Gus Speth, dissed Ayn Rand and Freud, and ref­er­enced Kafka (“War is a mon­strous fail­ure of imagination”), Kant, and the psy­chol­o­gist Paul Ek­man while sprin­kling in some of the Ti­betan masters as well. He told me, “If Donald Trump were more of a rain­bow, we’d all be in less trou­ble.” And then said he dis­ap­proved of “self-help”. “It’s a nar­cis­sis­tic game,” he said. For him, it all boiled down to one ques­tion – how am I sup­posed to live my life? We took carved steps, ris­ing higher above my hut, pass­ing sev­eral habi­ta­tions, mod­est abodes like mine, fol­low­ing a line of prayer flags un­til we came over the lip of the moun­tain where a breeze was mov­ing the nee­dles of the larches. Ri­card said that some­times he could hear the monks laugh­ing down be­low at din­ner­time, when they joined one an­other to eat. There were about a dozen of them, in a cor­doned-off area, ob­serv­ing re­treats that could last up to seven years. Now we came upon the her­mitage of Dagpo, a chunky monk with a Yoda-like voice, whose laugh was deep and rau­cous. (It should be noted, lest the de­scrip­tor be­gin to feel like a cliché, that laugh­ter was an art form among the monks. It came of­ten, as a re­port of hap­pi­ness, as a will­ing­ness to be happy, a man­i­fes­ta­tion of joy. But it was more. For them, it pos­sessed a hun­dred va­ri­eties and ar­tic­u­la­tions, and they had an ex­pres­sion of laugh­ter for each sit­u­a­tion.) Dagpo had been at this re­treat for seven years. He hadn’t left this place in seven years, each day charged with the same task – edit­ing and col­lat­ing a col­lec­tion of an­cient Ti­betan texts. In his workspace were the pil­lows on which he sat and a low ta­ble with a canted book holder upon it. Scat­tered nearby were var­i­ous pens and high­lighters in dif­fer­ent flu­o­res­cent colours, an ex­tra pair of glasses, a smart­phone and a big bot­tle of Coke. The Ti­betan book con­sisted of yel­lowed pages the size of gi­ant book­marks, with six long lines of writ­ing per page. Dagpo was then per­fect­ing the book – 70 vol­umes in all – writ­ing out his changes in Ti­betan on new book­mark-pages, af­ter which they would be taken down to the Shechen monastery and printed. He felt he had about three months to go, but it was painstak­ing work. Of­ten he found him­self hunt­ing for days in search of mean­ings for an­ti­quated words. He read other texts to in­form his reading of this one. Did he ever get frus­trated and think the whole thing was bull­shit? Not at all, he said. He’d learnt so much from the book. What would he do to cel­e­brate when fin­ished? He laughed with an un­com­fort­able shy­ness and said he had no idea. When asked what came next, he said the same. A new path would even­tu­ally make it­self known – who was he to force it? Dagpo’s life’s work clearly pointed out that in the West we were ob­sessed with util­i­tar­ian knowl­edge. Of­ten stupid stuff. Some­times, in air­ports, I’d over­hear some­one speak­ing tech or sales, loudly throw­ing around words like “units” and “P2P pack­ets”, bul­ly­ing an as­sis­tant, ca­jol­ing a client. Ri­card called this “in­stru­men­tal­is­ing”, or us­ing peo­ple and knowl­edge to serve one’s own end rather than fig­ur­ing out how we might serve one an­other, com­mu­nally, which was an­other means to hap­pi­ness. Was the re­lent­less need to pro­duce, scale, mon­e­tise, be eval­u­ated and re­warded, a trap af­ter all?

The brands, the schools, the kind of car – what did it add up to? The World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion claimed that peo­ple in wealthy coun­tries were more de­pressed, at eight times the rate, than coun­ter­parts in poorer ones. Liv­ing in af­flu­ence seemed to mean you never had enough. Pro­fes­sional sta­tus was one more ego-feed and as use­less as the num­ber of likes gar­nered for post­ing a pic­ture of your kid play­ing a piece of cel­ery in the school play. This was some­thing Matthieu was very clear about – once we de­con­structed our egos, we could truly be­gin to see the world as a place in­hab­ited by other peo­ple, some who might need our help. This dis­solv­ing, then, be­came all-pow­er­ful. “Our at­tach­ment to ego is fun­da­men­tally linked to the suf­fer­ing we feel and the suf­fer­ing we in­flict on oth­ers,” he said. “Free­dom is the op­po­site.” From Dagpo’s her­mitage, we walked to Ri­card’s abode. The moun­tain was a swirl of sun-cloud-wind, hot-cold, grey-green, smelling of loam, with bird­song and vil­lage voices be­low. We scram­bled down a steep knoll to what seemed like a shed, perched right at a cliff’s edge, with its panoramic view of val­ley and for­est. The place was tiny, one room, re­ally. In­side, he had a bedroll and a small chest of draw­ers with all his worldly pos­ses­sions: two robes, two jumpers, some books, a warm jacket or two for Ti­bet, where he re­turned from time to time, in part to build schools. He had a small kitchen, a postages­tamp lawn, and if he was lucky, for maybe – maybe – a to­tal of two months a year, this was the place he called home, the one place he didn’t want pho­tographed or usurped in any way, the one place that re­mains sa­cred to him as a refuge and source of en­ergy. He only left here be­grudg­ingly, when the long arm of need took hold, when he was called back to the monastery in Kath­mandu, or to France/ In­dia/bhutan/ti­bet, when he was asked to ex­plain to this gath­er­ing or that, in far­away Chile or Ja­pan, one more time, how all of us might choose hap­pi­ness in our lives. But then, he was OK with that, too. The only thing that seemed to make Matthieu Ri­card un­happy was the moniker he hadn’t been able to es­cape, nor ever courted – ‘the happiest man in the world’. It re­ally ran­kled him, though the rankling came with a smile – that con­stant be­muse­ment again. It be­gan with a mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle af­ter Hap­pi­ness had been pub­lished and the me­dia just ran with it. “I know hap­pier monks,” he said em­phat­i­cally. “I re­ally do. It’s ab­surd.” It posed a mild per­sonal af­front, too, be­cause the sug­ges­tion was that he was more evolved some­how, and he knew monks in caves, lit­eral caves, who’d been sit­ting there for a decade and count­ing, hun­kered for the long haul, try­ing to find blissed en­light­en­ment. At one point, torn be­tween liv­ing a life of seclu­sion or as Bud­dhism’s sec­ond­biggest me­dia star, he’d asked the Dalai Lama if he could go on an ex­tended re­treat, a dis­ap­pear­ance he dreamed of and yearned for, but the Dalai Lama said, “Not yet. The world is in spasm, and what you can do, what’s most nec­es­sary to do right now, is to try to com­mu­ni­cate a cure.” Ri­card knew that among the ma­jor in­flu­ences of one’s hap­pi­ness was a kind of wist­ful “if only”. Or: “I wish it was dif­fer­ent.” And that was an­other game, of course. The Dalai Lama had said, “If they want you to be the happiest man, be the happiest man.” Ri­card ac­cepted his lot, and opened the doors wide to peo­ple like me, but still he wanted it known. “I’m happy,” he said, “but I know hap­pier.” Ri­card drew some of his ad­vice on the mat­ter of hap­pi­ness from stan­dard Bud­dhist doc­trine: at­tach­ment, grasp­ing, and in­stru­men­tal­is­ing, all driven by ego, needed to be ac­knowl­edged and smashed by some­thing called “open pres­ence” and al­tru­is­tic lov­ing-kind­ness. He said this as we were eat­ing lunch on Dagpo’s porch the next day – dhal, soya chunks, broc­coli, and yo­ghurt with pome­gran­ate seeds. He’d been up since 4:30am, the hour at which he’d be­gun his first med­i­ta­tion of the day. When he sneezed, it was as if a loud horn went off. He pro­duced a tis­sue from his sleeve and wiped his nose, then rubbed his bald head, as if it was all part of an au­to­matic re­flex. (Like a Ve­gas ma­gi­cian, he made pens, scraps of pa­per, his smart­phone, a lol­lipop, ap­pear from his sleeve. I kept wait­ing for the rab­bit.) This was pre­cious time for him, a rare respite for med­i­tat­ing and reading, and yet he was giving it to me – shar­ing it with un­both­ered will­ing­ness. Be­ing in his pres­ence was to be in­fected by a float­ing kind of joy, an un­threat­ened ea­ger­ness to see the world, in its dark time, as ca­pa­ble of change, as a place con­tain­ing in­fec­tious joy and hap­pi­ness as well.




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