Matthieu Ricard, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, scholar, and photographer, was born in France in 1946. He has lived in the Himalayas since 1972 and for the past thirty years has been carefully documenting the great masters, landscapes, and people of the region. In the words of the acclaimed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, “Matthieu’s camera and his spiritual life make one, and from this springs these images, fleeting and eternal.” This past January, Tricycle contributing editor Mark Magill spoke with Ricard on the occasion of his photography exhibition at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.

Your images convey an enormous sense of beauty. How can beauty and its appreciation—through art, photography, and other creative activities—be of service in helping people move their lives in a positive direction? For me, photography has always been a hymn to beauty. This view was indeed reinforced and much deepened when I learned more about Buddhist philosophy and practice. According to the Buddhist teachings, Buddha-nature is present in every living being. The natural state of one’s mind, when it is not misconstrued by the power of negative thoughts, is perfection. Positive qualities such as a good heart are believed to reflect the true and basic fabric of human beings. In photography, my hope became therefore to show the beauty of human nature. Even in intense suffering there can be dignity and beauty; even in the face of destruction and persecution there can be hope. This is particularly true for Tibet and its people, who have succeeded in retaining their joy, inner strength, and confidence even while being subjected to a human and cultural genocide. For me, it is essential to inspire hope and confidence, since it is what we lack most and need most in our modern world.

A young incarnate lama wearing the "pandita hat" emblematic of his rank participates in the butter lamp offering ceremony at Shechen Monastery, Nepal, © Matthieu Ricard
A young incarnate lama wearing the “pandita hat” emblematic of his rank participates in the butter lamp offering ceremony at Shechen Monastery, Nepal, © Matthieu Ricard

How has Buddhism affected your view of art and your goals for making art? In 1967, I first traveled to Darjeeling in India and met my first spiritual teacher, Kangyur Rinpoche. After Kangyur Rinpoche died in 1975, I spent twelve years with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, who was the archetype of the spiritual teacher, someone whose inner journey led him to an extraordinary depth of knowledge and enabled him to be a fountain of lovingkindness, wisdom, and compassion. I lived with him in Bhutan, India, and Nepal and accompanied him three times to Tibet. Later I traveled another ten times to Tibet. Over the years, I have taken photographs of my teachers and the world around them. My main aspiration has been to share the incredible beauty, strength, and depth of their world.

Did Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche or your other teachers ever see or comment on your work?Since I often had a camera at hand and would also make audio recordings of most of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s teachings, he would sometimes joke, saying that if ever there would be a thangka of me, in the iconography, I would have a camera in one hand and a tape recorder in the other one. Most of the time Khyentse Rinpoche did not pay any attention at all to my photography, but occasionally he would make a grimace or tease me in some other way.

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