Geneticist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard on the practical real-world necessity of selflessness


Matthieu Ricard speaks on Tuesday in Santa Monica

Matthieu Ricard speaks on Tuesday in Santa Monica

Utter the term “altruism,” and many people reflexively erect walls of resistance: “Sweet ideal, that, but I live in the real world.”

To propose altruism as a practical approach to global conundrums seems defiantly naive in the face of society’s condescension. Yet renowned Buddhist monk and bestselling author Matthieu Ricard does precisely that in his comprehensive book, “Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World” — indeed, he presents it as a matter of basic common sense.

Born in France in 1946 to a painter mother and philosopher father (Jean-François Revel, with whom he wrote 1999’s “The Monk and the Philosopher”) and schooled in cellular genetics, Ricard forsook Petri dishes to study Buddhism with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. His writings are accessible not least because he identifies common ground between science and spirituality. He roots “Altruism” in neuroscientific research and documented studies of altruistic behavior in animals and humans, and quotes myriad activists, artists, clerics, philosophers and scientists throughout his absorbing exploration of climate change, dehumanization, economic inequality, genocide, “instrumentalization” of animals, “mental poisons” and meditation.

Ricard expounded on his thoughts via email ahead of Tuesday’s conversation with celebrated travel writer and “The Art of Stillness” author Pico Iyer at New Roads School in Santa Monica.

“Altruism, ” he says, “is part of human nature, just like any other mental state … [It] is a skill that can be cultivated and enhanced through mind training, a term that I prefer to meditation since it is more secular and less loaded culturally.”

— Bliss Bowen

Are your views on empathy and meditation given more serious consideration within the scientific community because you studied both science and Buddhism, or is that dual background seen as compromising?

The initial resistance from the scientific community was attributable to badly conceived studies … This resistance has mostly vanished.

Concerning empathy and compassion, some scientists still feel that it is a rather “soft” domain of research, compared to the study of cognitive faculties. But here, too, the trend is changing fast. For the last 15 years, I have been collaborating with many distinguished scientists on research on altruism, empathy and compassion, both as “guinea pig” and as a collaborator. As long as the studies are conducted in the most rigorous ways, there are not reasons to think that my dual background should compromise their validity. Otherwise, a musician could not collaborate on studies researching the effect of music on the brain, and a sportsman could not participate in studies investigating the effects of physical exercise.

In this time of empathy fatigue and cynicism, does science validate cynicism as a logical response?

Studies conducted by Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, in which I have collaborated, have shown that while there can be empathy fatigue, there is no such thing as compassion fatigue. In fact, altruistic love and compassion act as antidotes to empathic distress and fatigue. … As for the cynical belief in universal selfishness, it is nothing more than “arm-chair science” based simply on impressions or ideologies, not on empirical studies.

In what circumstance might it be possible for a person to be happy without being altruistic?

Selfish persons can certainly experience moments of superficial satisfaction when they succeed in achieving selfish goals, but I don’t believe they can achieve genuine happiness. … Selfishness is at odds with reality. It rests on an erroneous idea according to which individuals are isolated entities, independent of each other. [But] reality is quite otherwise: we are not autonomous entities and our happiness
can only be constructed with the help of others. Altruistic love is accompanied by a profound feeling of fulfillment and it is also the state of mind that activates the most brain areas linked to positive emotions. What’s more, altruism is in harmony with the reality of what we are and what surrounds us, since everything is fundamentally interdependent.

Does being altruistic connote moral responsibility to take action to help others and better the world?

The superiority of altruism over selfishness does not rest only on moral values, but also on common sense and on a clear perception of reality. The practice of altruistic love and compassion does not have the aim of rewarding good conduct, and its absence is not a penalty for punishing bad behavior. We only need morality if we lack altruistic love.

Some people believe that religion and science are mutually exclusive, and they have exerted disproportionate influence in this country in ways that devalue science. How would you recommend people bridge the perceived divide?

If religions insist on holding to beliefs that have been proven wrong — such as affirming that the world was created in seven days some 6,000 years ago, or denying the process of the evolution of species since life appeared on Earth — they are bound to be mutually exclusive from science. If people holding such dogma attempt to influence policy makers, this will obviously be counterproductive. But if one sees religions and other spiritual paths as ways to become a better human being, as empirical “sciences of the mind,” then there should not be a fundamental opposition between them and modern science, as both can be rigorous, empirical investigations of reality.

How is altruism healthy for a capitalist economy?

The concept of the “economic human,” Homo economicus, portrays humans as selfish agents capable of making rational choices that optimize their chances of satisfying their own preferences and promoting their own interests. This conception of economics is at once simplistic and erroneous, and stands in opposition to the notion of Homo reciprocans, which states that humans are motivated by a desire to cooperate and take into consideration the benefits to the community. As Nobel laureate and Harvard professor Amartya Sen writes, “To turn universal selfishness into a standard for rationality is utterly absurd.”

As pointed out by Dennis Snower, economics professor at Kiel and founder of the Global Economic Symposium (GES), there are two types of problems that free economic market activity and individualistic selfishness will never be able to resolve: collective goods (such as the quality of the air, scientific and medical research, as well as parks and gardens) and poverty in the midst of plenty. To solve these problems we need to bring about the voice of care and altruism. Those who contribute to collective goods are acting in a truly altruistic manner, because they engage in activities that will benefit others without necessarily maximizing their personal interests.

Have you returned to Nepal since the earthquakes?

I happened to leave Nepal three days before the earthquake devastated this beautiful yet extremely poor country where I live. It turned out that I was able to raise more help than I would have done inside the country.

Thanks to the wonderful solidarity of people from all over the world, we were able to receive enough contributions to help more than 40,000 people affected by the two main earthquakes, in 165 remote villages. … After the most urgent needs have been taken care of, we will focus on community projects to help people rebuild their lives.

The kind of behavior that was observed all over Kathmandu, and in other affected areas, is consistent with conclusions of systematic studies conducted about the behavior of people during major catastrophes: altruism and pro-social behavior, community resilience and unity usually prevail. Contrary to the idea that human beings are fundamentally selfish, the earthquake in Nepal has triggered an outpour of solidarity, concern for others and generosity.

Live Talks LA presents Matthieu Ricard with Pico Iyer at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the New Roads School’s Moss Theatre, 3131 Olympic Blvd., Santa Monica. Ricard also speaks with California Community Foundation COO John E. Kobara at 8:15 a.m. Wednesday at Gensler, 500 S. Figueroa St.., Downtown L.A. Bothevents: $20, or $43 for ticket and book. Visit