Matthieu Ricard Changes His Tune

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

2 minutes

Being ‘the happiest man alive’ is one hell of a job. Matthieu Ricard built a career out of its performance. For years, he peddled his ideas—Tibetan Buddhist boilerplate mostly—on podia such as Ted Talk or the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos.

Wild horses couldn’t drag him away from the media. Ricard and his good causes thrived, so that he calls himself a “humanitarian” now. Disclosure: I’ve observed Ricard’s conduct up close for days on end, and I’ve always thought of him as a true networker and tradesman.

He, on the other hand, must occasionally have wondered whether he might be a ‘special being.’ Because of the goods and money Ricard brings in, the Tibetan monastic elite he surrounds himself with is hard-pressed to dissuade him from thinking so.

After all, like whole hordes of religious before them, Tibetan Lamas tend to believe that material success is indicative of spiritual progress. Most journalists too fell into this trap, and handed him a laissez-passer on a silver platter.

Meanwhile, the philosopher Owen Flanagan came to regret his hasty observation that “those apparently happy, calm Buddhist souls one regularly comes across in places such as Dharamsala, India— the Dalai Lama’s home—really are happy. Behind those calm exteriors lie persistently frisky left prefrontal lobes.”

He later wrote that the sample size of the brain study on the connection between Buddhism and happiness, “had an n=1, that is exactly one experimental subject had his brain scanned by a fMRI. This is not ordinarily considered a good sample size.” (p. 584). That single subject was Matthieu Ricard.

If Flanagan’s sobering thought didn’t bring him back on earth, the abuse Ricard allegedly failed to act upon surely will. Perhaps for the first time, he’s being held accountable by critical media. And it shows: Ricard’s first instinct was to threaten to sue Arte and disparage documentary-makers Elodie Emery and Wandrille Lanos.

Now that he’s failed to sway the French media with innuendo, Ricard sneakily changes his tune. He silently inserted a new paragraph in his self-penned, proactive response to the documentary ‘Abuse in Buddhism: The Law of Silence’:

“Since my first book was published in 1997, I have acquired a reputation that I neither desired nor sought. I admit that I did not sufficiently realize that this reputation created a new responsibility, that of adding my voice to second legal verdicts and newspaper articles on these criminal cases. I understand that the victims expected a louder public support from me, by condemning the perpetrators of these crimes and embezzlements more vigorously than I did as early as 2017 in several programs or blogs, and I deeply regret it.”

Let me get this straight: now Ricard suddenly becomes aware of his ‘reputation’? Only now he ‘understands’? Now he ‘regrets’? Isn’t this plain humblebragging and playing the victim? Is this really the same person who asked to redo a two hours interview with Wandrille Lanos—which he later retracted with a threat to sue—to show “more compassion” to the victims and survivors he talked about?

And what’s with the surreptitious ‘correction’ of his plea before the court of public opinion? Is Ricard being prompted by the same type of communications consultants who shielded Sogyal Lakar? Was he advised to radiate a more chastened mood?

Even so, Ricard still doesn’t address his alleged failure to act upon his (fore)knowledge of abuses before they were being exposed by media and courts of law—when it was hard. Does he actually believe that his responsibility and accountability go no further than expressing sorrow in public after such abuses have been exposed—once it is easy?

With this, Ricard sounds eerily like his master’s voice, the Dalai Lama, who’s wont to distance himself from abusive teachers and communities damaged only when his own public image and that of his good causes are being damaged, ‘repairing’ earlier endorsements to swiftly leap onto the right side of history—as if there’s no past worth remembering.

Perhaps ‘the happiest man alive’ is just a bloke jumping on the bandwagon, whose revenue model and well-being are contingent upon his public appearances passing off smoothly. If so, Matthieu Ricard seems to expose himself as being very ordinary indeed—not special at all.

Originally posted as a long-Tweet on September 14, 2022 (typos corrected and some links added).

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.