How did you discover Buddhism?
I first encountered it in books. When I was a kid, there were books on the subject in the family library; I remember a biography of Buddha which particularly interested and surprised me. Later, I was also marked by the reading of the Tibetan book of the life and death of Sogyal Rinpoche. So my first knowledge of Buddhism is bookish, before it later becomes relational. For me, the first face of Buddhism, its first contemporary incarnation, is my friend Matthieu Ricard. First through the interview book he published with his father (Jean-François Revel), The Monk and the Philosopher, where he spoke quite extensively about his commitment and where he also justified it. Then, when I met him, about twenty years ago. Matthieu Ricard touched me a lot with his rectitude, I found him to be an honest, coherent man, who embodied the Buddhist virtues he spoke about in the media, without ever proselytizing – that's not his style. nor that of Buddhism in general. And that pushed me to look into this gigantic religion and this philosophy. He recommended to me in particular works by one of his masters, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I was very touched by reading the book The Heart Treasure of Enlightened Beings.
What are the values and principles that inspired you?
More than the religious side, which is very real – often, in the West, we forget that Buddhism is a religion, or that it has become one, I don't know if that was the Buddha's primary intention -, it It was its philosophical dimension that interested me: Buddhism is a very relevant philosophy of life and of the world. As in the world of Christianity, I am very sensitive to its philosophy, beyond faith: respect for the weak, compassion, benevolence for others, non-violence, etc. But what struck me the most, probably because I am a doctor, is Buddhism's discourse on suffering, with the four noble truths that speak of the inevitability of suffering and dissatisfaction in all human life. Buddhism provides the means to deal with that, and the philosophy of life that results from it. In Christianity - and this is perhaps a personal reading - there is a relationship to suffering which is uncomfortable for me, when it is seen as redemption, a means of gaining access to more faith or of closer to God. When you are a doctor and you see so many people suffering, this type of speech is complicated, because you have the impression that you cannot be satisfied with that… This is what I found again and exciting in Buddhism's reflection on suffering: its concern to help humans understand its nature and go through it, and perhaps to learn to get rid of it in part.
Your relationship to Buddhism was in fact built in parallel with your practice of Catholicism?
I am not a devout Catholic, but it is indeed a religion that I have discovered with interest and emotion, throughout my life. It is true that I have seen in Buddhism similarities with the values advocated by Christianity: concern for others and non-violence, for example. In a way, for a doctor, the figure of the Buddha is more reassuring than that of Jesus, who is a superman, a miracle worker: he affixes his hands and causes miraculous cures, it is extraordinary, but the caregivers cannot obviously not follow that path… And then he has a slightly worrying side, Jesus. He says: "Abandon everything, follow me, trust me", which nevertheless requires immense faith... Buddha is more reassuring: he is a gentleman who lived a long time, surrounded by his disciples and who advocated experimental method, and that, for a doctor, is important! And then he was a pedagogue, who learned tirelessly and who transmitted this fundamental notion of learning: by going about it patiently and repeatedly, we can progress. Where Jesus is all the same a little the cantor of punch therapies, sudden revelations.
"In a way, for a doctor, the figure of the Buddha is more reassuring than that of Jesus, who is a superman, a thaumaturge: he affixes his hands and causes miraculous healings, it's extraordinary, but the caregivers don't obviously can't go that route..."
However, I did not abandon Christianity, which remains a frame of reference for me – and after all, the Dalai Lama himself does not encourage Westerners to abandon Christianity for Buddhism. But I enriched my vision of the world and my nature as a human being by what Buddhism could offer me.
As a psychiatrist, to what extent has Buddhism been able to change your own profession and your daily way of dealing with your patients? And how ?
Buddhism first helped me through the meditative approach, which is very well suited to the psychological needs of doctors, and of humans in general. Buddhist meditation is a training of the mind, it teaches us to cultivate a certain number of elementary qualities such as attention and presence to the world, to the other, to our emotions. Or to develop more advanced qualities such as compassion, benevolence, etc. As a doctor, this was very quickly important for me, because it taught me to be a better doctor, by being much more attentive to my patients and by turning more towards them and less towards my impatience, or my desires to be listened to by them. The discovery of scientific publications on therapeutic meditation – this famous mindfulness whose first scientific publications arrived in the 90s, with pioneers like John Kabat-Zinn, a very fine connoisseur of Buddhism, its practices and its philosophy – has definitely changed everything for me, and transformed my way of treating.
Then, as I discovered Buddhism, I became interested in impermanence, interdependence or emptiness, so many concepts that helped me in my practice as a psychotherapist. We work a lot on the notion of emptiness in psychotherapy, that is to say on this belief that we can have in the solidity of certain phenomena, certain convictions or certain certainties and which can prove to be totally erroneous: we respects the patient's beliefs, but we also know that if he adheres to them too rigidly, he can expose himself to suffering...
How does Buddhism nourish you on a daily basis?
I still maintain a relationship of companionship with Buddhism, especially through reading. I really like to read Buddhist thinkers, especially American ones, like Jack Kornfield or Pema Chödrön, who have done this work of selecting and deciphering Buddhist texts. When you're a Westerner, it seems easier to me to read other Westerners, even if I regularly make the effort to immerse myself in reading texts written directly by the great masters of Tibetan Buddhism. Some, contemporary, are more accessible, like Mingyour Rinpoche. But it's more difficult, it's another culture, there is always something a little disconcerting for me...
How can Buddhism help us to think the challenges of the contemporary world?
I would say that benevolence and the idea of inner peace are precious notions. Basically, there is in Buddhism a search for wisdom, which does not exist so much in Christian doctrine, which is placed rather in the perspective of faith as a means of saving oneself. I am not fully convinced that faith can save the world, however, I do think that a little more wisdom in the world could be beneficial… Buddhism is interesting for its concern with helping humans to progress towards more compassion and more freedoms from the traps set by suffering.
And then the notion of proximity, of interdependence with nature is precious and useful. All the great religions have encouraged man to respect nature, either because it was a divine creation – these are the religions of the Book – or, as in Buddhism, because it is illusory to establish a difference between me and the world around me. When we meditate in nature, after a while, we perceive carnally, and not only intellectually, that we are only a small piece of this nature, that we come from there and that we will return to it... I believe that this awareness of our belonging to the world around us – rather than our difference which would give us the right to exploit it – is very important. And that is basically exactly what Buddhism encourages us to do: not just knowledge, but also a practice.