East meets West, father meets son, in philosophy forum


It is difficult for a Buddhist to keep warm. Especially on a Sunday evening in February when the temperature has dropped below freezing. Matthieu Ricard entered Logan Hall - rubbing his exposed right arm to restore feeling - with his father, the French philospher Jean-Franois Revel. The two of them set down at two end-to-end tables with Harper's magazine Washington editor Michael Lind, psychoanalyst and biographer Elisabeth Young-Bruehl and Bryn Mawr English professor Linda-Susan Beard and began a conversation about contemplation and science, Eastern tradition and Western reaction while Penn Professor of Political Science Steven Gale moderated the discussion.

The evening's forum was organized by Harper's and Schocken Books to publicize the English language publication of "The Monk and the Philosopher," a series of discussions between Revel and Ricard.

The father-son dialogue matches Revel's beliefs in the merits of Western liberalism and rational thought with that of scientist-turned-Buddhist-monk Ricard's embrace of Eastern philosophical tradition. The two men, along with their fellow panelists, briefly touched on points surrounding personal belief and its affect on the proper structuring of society.

The room in Logan Hall was filled primarily with 30- and 40- (and over-) something men and women. A few possible undergraduates lingered on the sides and back of the auditorium.

Kazi Ashraf, a Ph.D. candidate in Penn's architecture program, came because he was interested in the movement of aesceticism and monasticism from Eastern traditions, like Buddhism, into the practices of early Christians. He was intrigued with the idea of "contemplation as action" that Revel used to explain how Buddhists take action when confronted with aggression.

Seated in the middle of the audience, Sara Rothstein, a student at Bryn Mawr college who is examining differing concepts of spirituality with Beard, was drawn to the event because of the professor's participation. "I wanted to hear about the role of anger - transforming it into non-violent action," Rothstein said.

After the forum, Thomas Kern, an admirer of Professor Gale, said he would have liked the participants to better explore whether man's war-like stances can be reckoned with the contemplative life. "Understanding how many of our instincts are intrinsic and how many are learned is key to knowing whether we can transcend certain behaviors," Kern said.

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Originally published on March 18, 1999