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Home -> People -> Matthieu Ricard & Happiness

Matthieu Ricard & Happiness

Written: November 2011
Published: 19th December 2011

Is a propensity for happiness cultivated or inborn, or a bit of both? Is happiness a habit or built into the fabric of who you are from birth if not before, or a mixture of the two? Is there a tendency for people to gravitate towards the cultivation of happiness not by choice, but by having something in them already from a very early stage in their lives that somehow prompts them in that direction? If there is at least an in-born component, does that take away from what we can learn about happiness from these people? In other words, can we still replicate it to a meaningful extent even if it's not in-born in us as it is in them, or is it a pointless exercise and you're either born with it or you're not?

Or are all of these questions wrongly conceived and therefore likely to lead to wrong thoughts and equally wrong conclusions? Maybe it's just that if you have something inborn, and you later pursue and develop some of its potential, and happen to have the right social connections, you'll become identified by that inborn thing that you developed: people will see it in you irrespective of whether or not you're the best at it, whether or not there's much more to you, whether or not it's actually a major part of your personality.

A French-born Buddhist monk who lives in Nepal and works in various parts of the world, both in the east and the west, has in recent years become known as, variously (and yet unvaryingly!), the happiest man in the world, the world's happiest man, and Mr Happy. It's a somewhat misleading description, but that's the soundbite culture of modern media and marketing for you. His real name is Matthieu Ricard.

Mathieu's public reputation stems from the early 2000s when he and other monks participated in a series of scientific experiments in which their levels of 'positive emotions' were measured using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment to monitor their brain activity in real-time whilst they meditated. These experiments were part of the Mind and Life Institute's research, the origins of the institute going back even further to a series of talks started in the latter half of the 1980s between the Dalai Lama and scientists. Over time the talks began to include practicalities, and the methods of scientific inquiry were applied to various Buddhist contemplative practices, the purpose being to study the effects of things like meditation on the human brain and the human mind.

Ultimately the aim of all these talks and experiments was to relieve suffering, by documenting from a scientific point of view how the Buddhist practices can relieve that suffering and cultivate states like happiness, and having gained that scientific understanding to disseminate the knowledge to the world.

The reason why Mathieu has been called 'Mr Happy' is that his measurements of 'positive emotions' turned out to be, overall, the most outstanding ever recorded. In the experiments, eight monks were tested plus a control group of 15 other people. It was found that the monks' long-term meditation practice produced strong results which differed considerably from the control group. The implication being that what has been termed the brain's neuroplasticity, i.e. the living organism's tendency to adapt to whatever it is repeatedly exposed to, enables humans to actively cultivate happiness and other such states rather than being passively happy or unhappy by being affected by external conditions, or passively happy or unhappy by dint of being biologically hard-wired for certain amounts of happiness at an early stage of life or by genetic endowment.

Whilst astrology has no answers about this, it does provide an additional window to look through.

Planets: Venus & Jupiter

The planets Venus and Jupiter are those associated with qualities we normally link with happiness, such as cheerfulness, enjoyment, a positive outlook, a sense of ease both internally and in terms of flowing through life encountering lucky chances, and so on. Venus in mythology is popularly known as the goddess of love whose sole purpose was not to work but to enjoy life, spread pleasure and encourage the fulfilment of the senses, which includes the manifold civilised arts. And Jupiter as the king of the gods had, as you'd expect from a divine king, a zest for life, bags of creative energy and the capacity to bestow wonderful experiences and gifts on other people.

Throughout the millennia of the tradition of astrology both these planets were described as 'benefics', related to our words beneficial and benefactor, i.e. they were, when they were at their best, life-promoting, success-creating, fecund and agreeable, and were regarded as tending to produce happiness, wealth and fulfilment in every sphere. Whilst at their worst these planets can describe laziness and indulgence, at their best they symbolise amelioration and flourishing both through active application and through life's lucky breaks. When the benefics are present and functioning well there is a buoyancy and a fullness of life, both inside on the mental and emotional levels and in terms of circumstances and social roles, which encourages giving and a generous spirit. In Jupiter's case this flourishing spirit also translates into having a wise mind capable of judicious guidance.

I have no idea whether or not the Tibetan monks have any familiarity with astrology, but in his book 'Happiness' (UK title, published in 2007, originally published in France in 2003 under the title 'Plaidoyer pour le bonheur') Mathieu Ricard writes almost entirely about Venusian and Jupiterian qualities, states, issues and values. He talks about well-being, pleasure, happiness, fun, enjoyment, positive emotions, inner peace, benevolence, altruistic love, as well as about self-betterment, self-improvement, cultivation, leading to betterment and improvement of other people's lives and the world in general. He uses descriptive phrases like 'friendly serenity', vulnerable and incomplete happiness, altruistic love, joie de vivre, compassion, wisdom, enduring/durable happiness. A key sentence from the book is this:

"By happiness I mean here a deep sense of flourishing that arises from an exceptionally healthy mind... this is not a mere pleasurable feeling, a fleeting emotion, or a mood, but an optimal state of being."

If that's not a description of the Venus Jupiter pair I don't know what is.

In fact, the only Venus-Jupiter topic that Matthieu doesn't explicitly talk about in the book is fairness. Social justice is implicit in all that he does because it is the underpinning of it all in the form of relieving suffering, however the book places the emphasis on producing fulfilment, contentment and happiness on and from the inside, and then using that as a base to take actions that help relieve other people's suffering.

So what about his birth chart?

Matthieu Ricard's birth chart

We don't know his birth time so all we can work with are the sign positions and aspects of the planets, but that's plenty for our current purpose.
Matthieu Ricard birth chart
Matthieu Ricard
No birthtime available - calculated for 12 noon
15th February 1946, Aix les Bains, France

You can see in the chart that Mathieu was born when the Sun was close to the end of Aquarius, and it was right next to Venus and Mercury, both of which are even closer to the end of Aquarius. At its best Aquarius is a humanitarian Sign, concerned with improving the lot of ordinary folk. All three are in a trine with Jupiter. What's more, Jupiter is in Libra which is a Venus-ruled Sign. The Air Signs hold themes of civility and social interconnection. And to top it all off, the trine is an aspect which is associated with the qualities of ease, pleasure and enjoyment.

If anyone reading this is interested in the nodes you will no doubt find it apt that his nodal axis is on the Venus-Jupiter midpoint. For those not familiar with the nodes, they show something about the person's general path of development, and because the half-way mark between his Venus and his Jupiter lies with the nodes it means that Matthieu's development necessitates and involves bringing Venus and Jupiter together.

Describing the moment when he first met Tibetan monks, encountering in-person the qualities he had previously seen in them on film, Matthieu told an interviewer:
"I found they had a strength that didn’t impose anything on you or put you down. It was an inspiring strength. They exuded tremendous kindness. Suddenly, I thought, if I could become something like that it would be a great thing to do with this life."

Again, such a perfect description of Venus and Jupiter combined. A phrase like 'tremendous kindness' couldn't be better as keywords for this planetary pair. In an illuminating statement which illustrates a contrast in the levels of qualities traditionally said to be bestowed by benefic planets - gifts and blessings of various sorts - Matthieu Ricard wrote that he was struck by how talented people were not necessarily especially joyous or generous people:

"The striking individuals with whom I'd crossed paths each had his or her own special genius. I'd have liked to play piano like Glenn Gould or chess like Bobby Fisher, to have Baudelaire's poetic gift, but I did not feel inspired to become what they were at the human level. Despite their artistic, scientific, and intellectual qualities, when it came to altruism, openness to the world, resolve, and joie de vivre, their ability was neither better nor worse than that of any of us."
Source: Happiness: A guide to developing life's most important skill', by Matthieu Ricard, translated by Jesse Browner

Matthieu was born into a background where, by his own admission, he never had to struggle for the basics, nor for social connection or mental development. His parents were well-connected intellectuals and artists: his father was a philosopher, his mother a painter. His upbringing involved a constant interplay of, to use the slightly outdated terms, left-brain and right-brain, and his adult life has continued to revolve around these: he trained as a molecular biologist but gave it up to become a monk, and then as a monk returned to science through the study of meditation's effects on the brain. He describes himself as not a believer in god or suchlike and has said that Buddhism is more like a science of the mind than a religion. Amongst his other books are titles such as 'The Quantum and the Lotus', which involved conversations between an astrophysicist and him as a Buddhist scholar, and 'The Monk and the Philosopher', which involved conversations between his father and him, again in his capacity as a Buddhist scholar and practitioner. All follow the 'left-brain, right-brain' theme.

Unsurprisingly Matthieu has been described as a unifying bridge between seemingly opposite worlds. We can see this in the Venus-Jupiter aspect and its involvement with Aquarius and Libra, and the fact that they are Air Signs. We don't know the exact position of his Moon, but we do know that it is in Leo and that it most probably is within orb of a conjunction with Pluto. This Pluto, and possibly the Moon, sits on the midpoint (i.e. the half-way mark), of Uranus and Neptune, symbolising east and west, science and mysticism, the brain and happiness.

Related links:

Official website of Matthieu Ricard

Scientific paper on the meditation study Matthieu participated in, published on the website of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) of the USA

Mind & Life Institute - official website

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