The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World


By Matthieu Ricard

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The author of the international bestseller Happiness makes a passionate case for altruism — and why we need it now more than ever.

In Happiness, Matthieu Ricard demonstrated that true happiness is not tied to fleeting moments or sensations, but is an enduring state of soul rooted in mindfulness and compassion for others. Now he turns his lens from the personal to the global, with a rousing argument that altruism — genuine concern for the well-being of others — could be the saving grace of the 21st century. It is, he believes, the vital thread that can answer the main challenges of our time: the economy in the short term, life satisfaction in the mid-term, and environment in the long term.

Ricard’s message has been taken up by major economists and thinkers, including Dennis Snower, Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, and George Soros. Matthieu Ricard makes a robust and passionate case for cultivating altruistic love and compassion as the best means for simultaneously benefitting ourselves and our society. It’s a fresh outlook on an ardent struggle — and one that just might make the world a better place.



The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World

Matthieu Ricard

Translated by Charlotte Mandell and Sam Gordon



Copyright page

This edition published by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, New York, USA. All rights reserved.

First published in Great Britain in 2015 by Atlantic Books, an imprint of Atlantic Books Ltd.

Originally published in France in 2013 as Plaidoyer pour l'altruisme by NiL éditions.

Copyright © Matthieu Ricard 2013 Translation copyright © Little, Brown and Company 2015

The moral right of Matthieu Ricard to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

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A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Trade paperback ISBN: 978-0-85789-699-5

E-book ISBN: 978-0-85789-700-8

Paperback ISBN: 978-0-85789-701-5

Printed in Great Britain

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To my spiritual masters, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Kyapje Kangyur Rinpoche, and Kyapje Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and all those who have opened my eyes to compassion.

To my mother, Yahne Le Toumelin, and to my sister Ève, who taught me altruism by example. To Christophe and Pauline André, accomplices in altruism.

To my scientific mentors and friends thanks to whom this book has some credibility: Daniel Batson, Richard Davidson, Paul Ekman, Paul Gilbert, Jane Goodall, Richard Layard, Antoine Lutz, Tania Singer, Dennis Snower, Frans de Waal, and all those who enlightened me on numerous points.

To my friends, fellow workers, and benefactors in the Karuna-Shechen Association, who put compassion into action through their contribution to over a hundred humanitarian projects.

To Raphaële Demandre, who never misses an opportunity to help those who are in need.

To those who have contributed so much to improving this book: Christian Bruyat, Marie Haeling, Carisse Busquet, and Françoise Delivet.

Finally, to all beings, who are altruism's reason for existence.




I What Is Altruism?

1 The Nature of Altruism

2 Extending Altruism

3 What Is Empathy?

4 From Empathy to Compassion in a Neuroscience Laboratory

5 Love, Supreme Emotion

6 The Accomplishment of a Twofold Benefit, Our Own and Others'

7 Self-Interested Altruism and Generalized Reciprocity

8 Selfless Altruism

9 The Banality of Good

10 Altruistic Heroism

11 Unconditional Altruism

12 Beyond Imitations, True Altruism

13 The Philosophical Arguments Against Universal Selfishness

II The Emergence of Altruism

14 Altruism in Theories of Evolution

15 Maternal Love, Foundation for Extended Altruism?

16 The Evolution of Cultures

17 Altruistic Behavior Among Animals

18 Altruism Among Children

19 Prosocial Behavior

III Cultivating Altruism

20 Can We Change?

21 Training the Mind

22 How to Cultivate Altruism

IV Contrary Forces

23 Egocentrism and Crystallization of the Ego

24 The Spread of Individualism and Narcissism

25 The Champions of Selfishness

26 Having Hatred or Compassion for Yourself

27 The Shortfall of Empathy

28 At the Origin of Violence: Devaluing the Other

29 The Natural Repugnance to Kill

30 Dehumanizing the Other: Massacres and Genocides

31 Has War Always Existed?

32 The Decline of Violence

33 The Instrumentalization of Animals: A Moral Aberration

34 Backfire

35 Institutionalized Selfishness

V Building a More Altruistic Society

36 The Virtues of Cooperation

37 An Enlightened Education

38 Fighting Inequality

39 Toward a Caring Economy

40 Voluntary, Joyous Simplicity

41 Altruism for the Sake of Future Generations

42 Sustainable Harmony

43 Local Commitment, Global Responsibility

Conclusion: Daring Altruism



Karuna-Shechen: Altruism in Action


Sources for Figures

Select Bibliography

About the Author


Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

— Victor Hugo

Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.

— Martin Luther King Jr.


I have little inclination to talk about myself and would rather expound the views of the great thinkers who have inspired my existence. Tell­ing you about a few stages of my personal journey, though, will help you understand how I came to write this book and to substantiate the ideas presented in it.

After growing up in France, I went to India for the first time in 1967, at the age of twenty, in order to meet the great masters of Tibetan Buddhism including Kangyur Rinpoche, who would become my main spiritual master. That same year, I began a dissertation on cellular genetics under the direction of François Jacob, at the Institut Pasteur. It was those years of scientific training that taught me to appreciate the importance of intellectual rigor and honesty.

In 1972, having finished my dissertation, I decided to move to Darjeeling to be near my teacher. During the many years that followed that encounter, whether in India, Bhutan, Nepal, or Tibet, I led a sim­ple life. I received barely one letter per month; I had neither radio nor newspapers, and scarcely knew what was going on in the world. I stud­ied with my spiritual master, Kangyur Rinpoche, and after his death in 1975, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I spent a number of years in con­templative retreat. I also devoted myself to the activities of the monas­teries to which I had become linked: Orgyen Kunzang Chöling in Darjeeling and Shechen Tennyi Dargyeling in Nepal, while working also toward the preservation of Tibet's cultural and spiritual heritage.

Thanks to the teachings I received from these masters, I became aware of the incalculable benefits of altruism.

In 1997, I received a message from a French publisher, proposing I engage in a dialogue with my father, the late philosopher Jean-François Revel. The publication of the book that resulted from these conversa­tions, The Monk and the Philosopher, marked the end of a quiet, anon­ymous life, but it also offered me new opportunities.

After a quarter of a century of immersion in the study and practice of Buddhism, far from the scene of the West, I found myself again con­fronted with contemporary ideas. I renewed my ties with the scientific world by conversing with the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan (The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to the Frontiers Where Science and Buddhism Meet, published in 2000 in France as L'Infini dans la paume de la main). I also took part in meetings at the Mind & Life Institute, an organization inspired by the Dalai Lama and founded by the neuro­scientist Francisco Varela and the entrepreneur Adam Engle, with the aim of encouraging exchanges between science and Buddhism. In 2000, at Richard Davidson's lab in Madison, Wisconsin, I began to take part actively in research projects in psychology and neuroscience whose object is to analyze the effects, both short- and long-term, of training the mind through meditation. Over the years, Richie and I developed a close friendship and collaboration. The same happened with several other scientists including Paul Ekman, Tania and Wolf Singer, Daniel Batson, and Antoine Lutz.

So my experience has taken place at the confluence of two major influences: Eastern Buddhist wisdom and Western sciences.

When I returned from the East, I had become used to living within a culture and among people whose priority was to become better human beings by transforming their way of being and thinking. Ordi­nary preoccupations with loss and gain, pleasure and displeasure, praise and criticism, fame and anonymity, were regarded there as puer­ile and as causes of suffering. Above all, altruistic love and compassion comprised the cardinal virtues of all human life and were the heart of the spiritual path. I was, and still am, particularly inspired by the Bud­dhist vision in which every human being possesses an indestructible potential for goodness and enlightenment.

The Western world in which I found myself, a world where indi­vidualism is often appreciated as a strength and a virtue — sometimes to the point of selfishness and narcissism —was a bit puzzling, since it did not seem to foster an optimal way to live in society.

When I considered the cultural and philosophical sources for the difference between "other-oriented" and "self-oriented" societies, I remembered Plautus, for whom "man is a wolf to man,"1 an assertion taken up and developed by Thomas Hobbes, who speaks of the "war of every man against every man";2 Nietzsche, who states that altruism is the mark of the weak; and finally Freud, who asserts he has "found lit­tle that is 'good' among human beings on the whole."3 I thought it merely a question of a few pessimistic thinkers; I hadn't realized the extent of the impact of their ideas.

Anxious to understand this phenomenon better, I noticed how taking for granted that all our deeds, words and thoughts are moti­vated by selfishness has long influenced Western psychology and theo­ries of evolution and economies, to the point of acquiring the force of a dogma whose validity has until recently scarcely been challenged. The most surprising thing is the persistence of intellectuals to try to spot, at all costs, a selfish motivation at the origin of every human action.

Observing Western society, I was forced to conclude that the "wise" were no longer the main objects of admiration, but that famous, rich, or powerful people had taken their place. The excessive impor­tance accorded to consumption and a taste for the superfluous, as well as the reign of money, made me think that many of our contemporaries had forgotten the ends of existence — to achieve a sense of fulfillment — and gotten lost in the means.

In the reality of every day, despite the share of violence that afflicts the world, our existence is usually woven from deeds of cooperation, friend­ship, affection, and care. Nature is not merely "red in tooth and claw," as the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson deplored.4 What's more, contrary to con­ventional wisdom and to the impression the media give us, all in-depth studies, gathered together by Harvard professor Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature, show that violence, in all its forms, has con­tinued to diminish over the course of the last few centuries.5

From spending time with my scientist friends, I was reassured to note that, during the last thirty years, the deformed vision of human nature had been challenged by an increasing number of researchers demonstrating that the hypothesis of universal selfishness was dis-proven by scientific investigation.6 Daniel Batson, in particular, was the first psychologist to investigate, through rigorous scientific proto­cols, whether real altruism existed and was not limited to a disguised form of selfishness.

The Force of Example

When I was young, I often heard it said that kindness was the most admirable quality in a human being. My mother demonstrated this constantly by her actions, and many people I respected urged me to be kind-hearted. Their words and actions were a source of inspiration and opened up to me a field of possibilities that were not limited to self-centered preoccupations and that fed my hopes for living a good and meaningful life. I was raised in a secular environment and so I was not inculcated with dogmas on altruism or charity. Only the force of example taught me.

Since 1989, I've had the honor of serving as a French interpreter for the Dalai Lama, who often states, "My religion is kindness," and the essence of whose teaching is: "Every sentient being, even my enemy, fears suffering as I do and wants to be happy. This thought leads us to feel profoundly concerned for the happiness of others, be they friends or enemies. That is the basis for true compassion. Seeking happiness while remaining indifferent to others is a tragic mistake." This teach­ing is embodied by the Dalai Lama on a daily basis. With everyone, visitors or strangers met in the airport, he is always totally and imme­diately present, with a gaze overflowing with kindness that touches your heart.

A few years ago, when I was getting ready to go on retreat in the mountains of Nepal, I sought some advice from the Dalai Lama. "In the beginning, meditate on compassion; in the middle, meditate on compassion; in the end, meditate on compassion," he told me.

Every practitioner must first transform himself before he is able to serve others effectively. Still, the Dalai Lama insists on the necessity of building a bridge between contemplative life and active life. If compas­sion without wisdom is blind, compassion without action is hypocriti­cal. It is under his guidance and that of my other spiritual masters that I have devoted my resources and a large part of my time since 1999 to the activities of Karuna-Shechen.7 This is a humanitarian organization made up of a group of devoted volunteers and generous benefactors, which builds and finances schools, clinics, and hospices in Tibet, Nepal and India.

The Challenges of Today

In this current era we are confronted with many challenges. One of our main problems consists of reconciling the demands of the econ­omy, the search for happiness, and respect for the environment. These imperatives correspond to three time scales — short, middle, and long term —on which three types of interests are superimposed: ours, the interests of those close to us, and those of all sentient beings.

The economy and finance are evolving at an ever-faster pace. Stock markets soar and crash from one day to the next. New methods of ultra-high-speed transactions, developed by the teams of certain banks and used by speculators, allow 400 million transactions to take place per second. The lifecycle of products is becoming extremely short. No investor is willing to place his money in treasury bonds redeemable in fifty years! Those who live in ease are often reluctant to alter their life­style for the good of those less fortunate and for the benefit of genera­tions to come, while those who live in need aspire understandably to more wealth, but also to enter a consumer society that encourages acquiring not only what is needed to live a decent life, but to keep on chasing after superfluous things.

Satisfaction with life is measured in terms of a life plan, a career, a family, and a generation. It is also measured according to the quality of each passing instant, the joys and sufferings that color our existence, and our relationships to others; it is given or denied by the nature of external conditions and by the way in which our mind translates these conditions into happiness or misery.

As for the environment, until recently its evolution has been mea­sured in terms of geological, biological, and climatic eras over dozens of millennia or millions of years, except for the occurrence of a few global catastrophes such as the collision of a giant asteroid that caused the fifth massive extinction of species on earth. In our day, the rhythm of change keeps accelerating because of ecological upheavals provoked by human activities. In particular, the swift changes that have occurred since 1950 have defined a new era for our planet, the Anthropocene (lit­erally the "era of humans"). This is the first era in the history of the world when human activities are profoundly modifying (and at pres­ent degrading) the entire system that maintains life on earth. This is a completely new challenge that has taken us by surprise.

Wealthy countries, which profit the most from exploiting natural resources, do not want to alter their standard of living. But they are the nations chiefly responsible for climate change and other scourges (such as the increase of illnesses related to climate change — malaria, for example, is spreading in new regions and at higher altitudes as minimum temperature increases) affecting the poorest populations — precisely the ones that have contributed the least to these upheavals. An Afghan produces two thousand five hundred times less CO2 than a Qatari and a thousand times less than an American. About the rising level of the oceans, the American magnate Stephen Forbes declared on Fox News: "To change what we do because something is going to hap­pen in one hundred years is, I would say, profoundly weird." Isn't it actually a declaration like that that is absurd? The head of the largest meat company in the United States is even more openly cynical: "What matters," he says, "is we sell our meat. What will happen in fifty years is none of our business."

But it all concerns us, as well as our children, those close to us, and our descendants, along with all beings, human and animal, now and in the future. Concentrating our efforts solely on ourselves and our relatives, in the short term, is one of the regrettable manifestations of egocentrism.

If we continue to be obsessed with achieving growth, with con­sumption of natural resources increasing at its current exponential rate, we would need three planets by 2050. We don't have them. In order to remain within the environmental safety zone in which human­ity can continue to prosper, we need to curb our endless desire for "more." "Voluntary simplicity" does not involve living in poverty, but in moderation. It also facilitates social justice and does not encourage the disproportionate concentration of resources in the hands of a few.

For many of us, the notion of "simplicity" evokes a privation, a narrowing of our possibilities and an impoverishment of existence. Experience shows, however, that a voluntary simplicity in no way entails a diminution of happiness, but on the contrary brings with it a better quality of life. Is it more enjoyable to spend a day with your chil­dren or friends, at home, in a park or outside in nature, or to spend it trotting from store to store? Is it more pleasant to enjoy the content­ment of a satisfied mind or constantly to want more — a more expen­sive car, brand-name clothes, or a more luxurious house?

The American psychologist Tim Kasser and his colleagues at the University of Rochester have highlighted the high cost of materialist values.8 Thanks to studies spread over twenty years, they have demon­strated that within a representative sample of the population, individu­als who concentrated their existence on wealth, image, social status, and other materialistic, extrinsic values promoted by consumer society are less satisfied with their existence. Focused on themselves, they pre­fer competition to cooperation, contribute less to the general interest and are unconcerned with ecological matters. Their social ties are weakened and they have fewer real friends. They show less empathy and compassion for those who suffer and have a tendency to use others for their own ends. They are in less good health than the rest of the population. Excessive consumerism is closely linked to extreme self­centeredness and lack of empathy.9

Individualism, in its good aspects, can foster a spirit of initiative, creativity, and going beyond norms and old-fashioned and restrictive dogmas, but it can also very quickly degenerate into irresponsible self­ishness and rampant narcissism, to the detriment of the well-being of all. Selfishness is at the heart of most of the problems we face today: the growing gap between rich and poor, the attitude of "everybody for himself," which is only increasing, and indifference about the genera­tions to come.

The Necessity for Altruism

We need a unifying concept, an Ariadne thread that will allow us to find our way in this labyrinth of serious, complex preoccupations. Altruism is this thread that will allow us naturally to connect the three scales of time — short-, middle-, and long-term — by reconciling their demands.

Altruism is often presented as a supreme moral value in both reli­gious and secular societies. It scarcely has a place, though, in a world entirely governed by competition and individualism. Some people, notably the philosopher Ayn Rand, even rise up against the ethics of altruism, which they perceive as a demand for sacrifice, and they advo­cate the virtues of selfishness.

In the contemporary world, though, altruism is more than ever a necessity, even an urgent one. It is also a natural manifestation of human kindness, for which we all have potential, despite multiple, often selfish, motivations that run through and sometimes dominate our minds.

What, in fact, are the benefits of altruism with respect to the major problems we have described? Let's take a few examples. If each of us cultivated altruism more, that is, if we had more consideration for the well-being of others, financiers, for example, would not engage in wild speculation with the savings of small investors who have entrusted themselves to them, just to gather larger bonuses at year's end. Finan­ciers would not speculate on commodities — food, grain, water, and other resources vital to the survival of the poorest populations.

If they had more consideration for the quality of life of those around them, the ones who make decisions and other social agents would be concerned with the improvement of working conditions, family and social life, and many other aspects of existence. They would be led to acknowledge the divide that is growing ever wider between the poorest and those who represent 1% of the population but who control 25% of the wealth.10 Finally, they could open their eyes to the fate of the society itself from which they profit and on which they have built their fortunes.

If we evince more concern for others, we will all act with the view of remedying injustice, discrimination, and poverty. We would be led to reconsider the way we treat animals, reducing them to nothing but instruments of our blind domination which transforms them into products of consumption.

Finally, if we care about the fate of future generations, we will not blindly sacrifice their well-being to our ephemeral interests, leaving only a polluted, impoverished planet to those who come after us.

We would on the contrary try to promote a caring economy that would enhance reciprocal trust, and would respect the interests of oth­ers. We would envisage the possibility of a different economy, one that is now advocated by many modern economists,11 an economy that rests on the three pillars of true prosperity: nature, whose integrity we must preserve; human activities, which should flourish; and financial means, which ensure our survival and our reasonable material needs.12

Most classical economists have for too long based their theories on the hypothesis that people exclusively pursue selfish interests. This hypothesis is wrong, but it still comprises the foundation of contempo­rary economic systems based on the principle of free exchange theo­rized by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. These same economists have argued against the necessity for each individual to attend to the well-being of others so that society can function harmoniously — a necessity clearly formulated, nevertheless, by the same Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.


On Sale
Jun 14, 2016
Page Count
864 pages
Back Bay Books

Matthieu Ricard

About the Author

Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, an author, translator, and photographer. He has lived, studied, and worked in the Himalayan region for over forty years. The son of French philosopher Jean-François Revel and artist Yahne Le Toumelin, Matthieu was born in France in 1946 and grew up among the personalities and ideas of Paris’ intellectual and artistic circles. He earned a Ph.D. degree in cell genetics at the renowned Institut Pasteur under the Nobel Laureate Francois Jacob.

In 1967, he traveled to India to meet great spiritual masters from Tibet. After completing his doctoral thesis in 1972, he decided to concentrate on Buddhist studies and practice. Since then, he has lived in India, Bhutan, and Nepal and studied with some of the greatest teachers of that tradition. He is the author of several books including The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue with his father; The Quantum and the Lotus, a dialogue with the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan; Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill; and Why Meditate? His books have been translated into over twenty languages.

Learn more about this author