The Bigger the Ego, the More Vulnerable We Are – Part 2


Buddhism is a training of the mind. Can you explain what this means?

It is about abolishing the origin of suffering. What is the point of teaching if it doesn’t bring relief? A lot of suffering is “mind-made”, created in the head, in our thoughts. In meditation, we learn to recognize the feelings that cause it such as anger, pride or jealousy, to distance ourselves and dissolve them. It’s not about just believing. This obviously requires a certain confidence in the teacher, as in any other school, but step-by-step we can see progress. I am happy to have spent a few years in scientific research since, for me, science is a rigorously honest approach to the truth. It runs along a similar path: to stop deluding ourselves. In Buddhism, the field of research is not planes or birds but the mind, happiness, and suffering, ignorance and confusion. As such, I never felt I was betraying my scientific background.

There was a period of introspection. For about seven years, I went back and forth between Paris and Darjeeling. But it was becoming clearer every day what I wanted to do.

Suffering is a consequence of ignorance, you write in The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue with your father on Buddhism and the West. And not knowing is basically clinging to one’s self. Why is that a source of suffering?

I wake up, I’m alive, I am hungry. My story, my person – everything I remember – continues. We are sentient beings, not vegetables. But from a Buddhist point of view, this becomes problematic when we begin to believe that there is a central core, an autonomous unit that always remains the same. The ego does not reside anywhere in particular, be it the brain, the heart or the body – neurology shows this as clearly as Buddhism does. The river Rhine is a phenomenon to which we give a name; the Rhine is not the Mississippi. But in both rivers, the flowing water is different from the one that flowed a moment before. Likewise, the human being is a kind of evolving continuum. The flow of our consciousness is different from that of another human being, our body is different, so we give it a name. But nowhere is there a permanent core.

Why does it matter whether I see myself as a stream of consciousness or as a solid core?

If it is a solid core, we will want to protect this core, this so-called self, from everything that rejects it, hurts it, threatens it. We want to please it. It is a mental construct used to simplify relations with the world, which can be good. But it leads to “me” and “mine”, to an excessive separation from others, which causes suffering. The greater the ego, the more vulnerable one is. The Dalai Lama is not affected by praise or criticism, success and failure do not overwhelm him or threaten his self-assurance; he is in peace. A person grows stronger as the ego becomes more transparent. On the other end, we have President Trump who behaves like a little child, not like a wise man, and sows suffering everywhere. His “super-ego” is extremely vulnerable; we see it in the violent way he reacts to ideas or people he doesn’t agree with, evaluating everything by his standards.

What is the best way to react to such a “super-ego”?

The only answer it is to develop a different culture, a different mindset.

Is this realistic?

Violence has been decreasing for five centuries. Life in Europe has never been as safe as it is today. On a global level too, torture, slavery, wars and human rights violations are declining. Violence does not prevail everywhere. We can make our cultures evolve.

It is said that someone trained in meditation does not find destructive emotions in every nook and cranny of his consciousness. Does this mean that humans are fundamentally good?

It is not a question of good or bad. The light is not clean or dirty, no matter what it lights up, a pile of garbage or gold coins. It only reveals or shows. One could say that it is good because it is not soiled nor conditioned by anger, ignorance, attachment, hostility, jealousy, pride: all this is toxic and brings suffering. Through training, one can attain a state of mind that is as pure as clear water. Then compassion is possible.

Extracted from an interview by Anja Jardine for Neue Zürcher Zeitung