WE MEET THE HAPPIEST MAN IN THE WORLD. (NOTE, HE WILL MAKE YOU FEEL REALLY HAPPY.)
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.