Via Basel: The Monk and the Surgeon

My Most Inspirational Book (so far), or The Monk and the Surgeon

On this day, 3/12/2024, I finished reading Notebooks of a Wandering Monk by Matthieu Ricard, all 700 pages of it. Overwhelmed, I feel I’m not able to fully express my reaction to it, but try, I must. 

I had read him before, The Monk and The Philosopher, as well as watched a couple of interviews, seen a movie or two and a documentary in which he was featured but nothing like this book in which he opens himself  for us to have an intimate look into this most exciting and interesting person on a human journey, adventurous, exhilarating, inspiring, teaching, healing in scientific, spiritual, and practical realms of everyday life. It covers biology, new neuroscience, contemplative mind research, history, ecology, and ethics, and everything in between these disciplines. He does it by telling his unique story from Paris to the Himalayas, back to France to get a doctorate in cellular genetics, then back again to India, Nepal, and Bhutan, with multiple forays into Tibet. His dedication to monasticism, Buddhist Tibetan style, its principles and teachers, along with preservation of its heritage and scriptures, is complete and unwavering. Yet, because of circumstances of his background, a father steeped in philosophy, and a recorded dialogue between these two different points of view, he becomes a media celebrity in the West. Whether in Davos, Switzerland with world leaders or neuroscience conferences with top scientists he’s both out of place and yet comfortable. His brain is probed with the most up-to-date imaging techniques by researchers, and his mind, by old-fashioned interviews with journalists; it’s amazing that, in spite of all these secular intrusions, he stays grounded, present, and authentic.

Being a monk requires a certain discipline, but to be one from a very different culture than the one you were raised in is doubly difficult. It is said that being secluded in a mountain, forest, or desert is one thing, but to attempt a monastic life in the city among a variety of distractions is even more challenging. Ricard does both, sometimes in quick succession and somehow maintains his balance.

He writes several books, starts a non-profit organization to help the neediest in India, Nepal, and Tibet from the royalties of  his publications. He focuses on altruism and happiness, animal rights and the environment, and is also an accomplished photographer with online and printed material especially of the Himalayan countries, places, mountains, and peoples. He is well known as an excellent translator from Tibetan to French and English, and served the Dalai Lama in that capacity for many years. All this time he continues to follow his spiritual path with devotions and retreats, remains loyal to his family and friends, and sustains his commitment to help human suffering through mindfulness and compassion.

All of the above in a single lifetime of 78 years so far! I admire and connect with him on so many levels, but, to my surprise, we have some important personal and emotional connections. The tension and ongoing love in Matthieu’s relationship with his philosopher dad reminds me of my relationship to my artist son, Chris. One of the most moving sections of the book was his complete presence at his father’s deathbed, something I was denied when my own son died suddenly.

But here’s a joyful coincidence. Ricard and I were both born in the same year, 1946, the same month, February, and are separated by one day, 14th for me, in Baghdad, and 15th for Matthieu, in Paris. From then on he went east to India and Nepal, and I went west to the USA. Though we headed in opposite directions, and flourished in separate vocations, we’re both humans searching for meaning and exploring the best ways to live our lives committed to helping others. Science and Spirituality are major themes in both our lives. His accomplishments and impact are significantly more than mine, of course, yet I am slightly ahead of my dear younger brother, if only by one day. 

Basel Al-Aswad, father of EIL founder Christopher Al-Aswad, is a yogi trapped in an Orthopedic Surgeon’s body. His loves in life include reading, writing, hiking, enjoying nature, meditation, and spending time with his large Iraqi family; now, semi-retired, he is exploring new avenues in medicine, education, public speaking, teaching, and social engagement.

The Notebooks of a Wandering Monk at MIT Press Bookstore

 Matthieu Ricard’s Karuna-Shechen Website


3 responses to “Via Basel: The Monk and the Surgeon”

  1. Mark Naom says:

    I aspire to be both out of place and comfortable in any environment like him! I doubt it’s easy to be so well rounded and yet still adaptable.

  2. Rick Hultgen says:

    A kindred spirit of yours indeed! Thanks for sharing

  3. Alina Lazarvitch says:

    Science is the contemporary interpretation of Spirituality.. so much you can elaborate more on about your independent yet parallel paths, but I appreciate even just this overview. And how wonderful that you should gravitate to his work come to find so many correlations and synchronicities. I hope your post finds its way to his visual field someday and your journeys intersect one day in this lifetime so you can meet your kindred soul brother!

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