[The magazine Vidya http://www.theosophysb.org/site/publications.html , edited by associates of the United Lodge of Theosophists in Santa Barbara, USA, published the following article in its Winter 2017 issue; here is a slightly revised version.]
Matthieu Ricard is a creator of bridges, uniting diverse cultures and spiritual and philosophical traditions in his ceaseless effort to bring enlightenment to all beings. He was born in France and earned a Ph.D. in cellular genetics while becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Ricard has translated for the Dalai Lama and traveled around the world in the service of promoting universal welfare. One of the valuable lessons he learned from the Dalai Lama is to bridge the contemplative and active life: it is possible to effectively sere others in the world, but only through transforming oneself. Since everyone wants happiness as much as we do, the Dalai Lama emphasizes that we should be attentive to the enduring happiness of all sentient beings; Ricard says this is the basis of compassion. The Dalai Lama moves the hearts of those around him, and is an authentic exemplar of true compassion and altruistic action.
Ricard’s monumental work, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World (2015), offers an accessible view of scientific studies which demonstrate that altruism is natural in human nature. Ricard himself participated in neuroscientific experiments on empathy, altruistic love and compassion. From this perspective, he shares insights and conclusions about the power of meditation as a means of positive transformation. He also shows how altruistic action may take many forms to improve society and protect the globe. In the East, Ricard says, “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.” (Altruism, 4)
The book is divided into sections examining the nature and emergence of altruism and its cultivation, building a more altruistic society, and looking at the forces contrary to altruism. Ricard courageously examines the challenges of modern western culture, from the prevailing assumption that human nature is selfish, to the perils of excessive consumerism, including the various consequences of narcissistic tendencies of individualism. He illustrates through studies and scientific reasoning that living according to selfish motivations affects all beings and has increasingly negative consequences for the planet. For example, we will need three planets by 2050 if we continue at the same pace in satisfying our desires, employing the short-sighted attitudes toward the environment found in those who are focused only on self-interested profits. One solution, he suggests, is to adopt voluntary simplicity, which is the equivalent of moderation, not poverty; this encourages social justice as it doesn't focus upon concentrating wealth in the hands of the few. Ricard cites Tim Kasser, a psychologist from the University of Rochester, who concluded from his more than twenty years of study of the effects of materialistic values on human beings, that excessive consumerism is linked closely to both an extreme self-centeredness and a lack of empathy. Those who focus on wealth, image, and social status are shown to be less satisfied with their existence. They prefer competition to cooperation, and are not concerned about ecological matters. They have weak social ties, fewer real friends, show less empathy and compassion, and use others for their own ends; they also experience worse health than others (Altruism, 9). On the other hand, there are positive aspects of individualism, such as a spirit of initiative, creativity and transcendence of norms and restrictive dogmas. Ricard's analysis found selfishness to be at the core of three main problems today: the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the attitude of every person for himself, and indifference to the welfare of the generations to come.
Given all these complex challenges, Ricard outlines clearly the necessity for altruism, which is a supreme moral value in both religious and secular societies. He defines altruism as authentic when the desire for the other's welfare is our ultimate goal. Altruism resides in the motivation that animates one's behavior according to Daniel Batson, the American social psychologist and author of Altruism in Humans. Ricard says that Buddhism defines altruistic love as “the wish that all beings find happiness, and the causes of happiness” (Altruism, 25). Rather than a temporary state, happiness is a way of being that is based upon an array of inner qualities, such as altruism, inner freedom, and inner strength. The profound root of happiness is the pursuit of wisdom and a more accurate view of reality. Ricard describes the practitioner of altruism as one who has a readiness to be available to others and a willingness to do whatever is in one's power to help each individual attain authentic happiness. Can we become more altruistic? The Dalai Lama advises that in meditation, one can focus upon a real human being, such as a teacher. or mentor, and enhance compassion and loving kindness toward that person. Then one is able over time to naturally and authentically extend compassion and loving kindness toward others.
Compassion is the form that altruistic love takes when faced with others’ suffering. Buddhism, Ricard states, defines compassion as “the wish that all beings be freed from suffering and the causes of suffering” (Altruism, 26). Suffering includes immediate causes as well as deep-seated causes, such as ignorance based upon the mistaken understanding of reality. This leads to disturbing mental states like hatred and compulsive desire; when we act under their influence, ignorance is perpetuated. Thus, the two faces of altruism are loving kindness and compassion: loving kindness wants all beings to be happy, and compassion focuses on getting rid of the suffering. A third aspect is empathy, the ability to enter into affective resonance with the other's feeling, and to become cognitively aware of his situation. Ricard notes that empathy alerts us in particular to the suffering experienced by another, so it catalyzes the transformation of altruistic love into compassion. When we practice altruism, lucidity contributes to a clear path to remove suffering, while impartiality sheds light to all, much like the sun. Ricard says that it is possible to develop the kind of goodness that embraces all beings while we care for those who directly are in our sphere of responsibility. Altruism must be impartial and independent of our personal attachments; it must also not depend on how other beings treat us. When one perceives the good qualities ofothers, then joy emerges, which is added to altruistic love and compassion. This is called rejoicing, which is experienced as a sincere joy at the accomplishments and qualities of others. This serves as a strong antidote to negative qualities, such as competitiveness, envy and jealousy.
If someone is known to be causing great harm, Ricard suggests that compassion can be extended to him with the thought that such a person is gravely ill or stricken with madness and the wish that the individual be freed from the ignorance and hostility. Extending compassion to a person is similar to taking the perspective of a doctor: if a patient is ill and strikes at the doctor, the doctor does not try to hit him back, but tries to embody the actions that will be best for restoring the patient's health. Altruistic love requires courage. If we are affected by the slightest rebuff or criticism, we feel weakened by it, and protect ourselves. The feeling of insecurity can lead to a closing in on ourselves to distance ourselves from others. Thus insecurity and fear are obstacles to the realization and practice of altruism. To become more altruistic, we have to develop an inner strength that allows us to be confident in our internal resources such that we can face the constantly changing circumstances of existence. We can, with inner confidence, then open ourselves up to others and generate altruism. Ricard quotes Gandhi as an exemplar of active love: “Love fears nothing and no one. It cuts through fear at its very root.”
Many examples of courageous actions of altruism exist throughout history. Those who have acted out of selfless altruism do not seek a reward or recognition for their actions. The men and women who saved Jews during WWII called the “Righteous Among the Nations”, said they were doing what they had to do. Ricard quotes a great altruist, Father Ceyrac, who has taken care of thirty thousand poor children in southern India, as saying that he is struck by the immense kindness of people. “Each person is a note in the ‘great concert of the universe’, as the poet Tagore says ... I actually think that humans are intrinsically good. You always have to see the good, the beautiful, in a person, never deny, always look for the greatness of people, without any distinction of religion, caste, or way of thinking.” (Altruism, 92).
Ricard discusses nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), which have emerged around the globe to help transform society. Many have a goal to relieve poverty, clean up the environment, promote education for all, improve health conditions and provide emergency aid during wars or natural catastrophes. BRAC (Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee) is the largest NGO in the world, Ricard notes. 70 million women in Bangladesh and in seven other countries have been helped to emerge from poverty (Altruism, 97). Some NGOs give microcredit-type loans, 98% of which have been repaid. Ricard established Karuna-Shechen in 2000, which is an international humanitarian non-profit organization that provides health care, education, sustainable development, and cultural preservation in the Himalayan region. They support clinics, schools, and sustainable solar power and rainwater systems and emphasize the improvement of the status of girls and women by preserving their cultural heritage through education and vocational training. Thus, Ricard bridges the contemplative and the practical worlds through providing compassionate service based upon dedicated contemplation on the welfare of all beings.
Ricard discusses the obstacles to altruistic action, including egotism which blocks an openness to all. He shows that identifying with the ego forms attachments that ultimately divide people and result in discrimination. Partiality for a small group may take precedence over universal concern for all forms of life, and could develop into violence in certain circumstances. Ricard wrote, "My personal experience of being immersed in the world of humanitarian action for the past twelve years has shown me that what throws sand in the gears most often is corruption, battles of egos, and other human imperfections" (Altruism, 678). He recommends that before rushing into a project to help others, take time to develop compassion altruistic love, and courage so that when you serve others, you will not betray your original intention. Preparation to serve is as important as immediate action because it builds strength. As an understanding of the qualities of our deeper nature build, our ego attachments diminish.
“Great Master's Letter” of the Theosophical Movement pinpoints egotism and altruism as two of the sets of dual principles that are connected with the problems of society, the solutions of which should be given through true religion and philosophy. “All of us have to get rid of our own Ego, the illusory, apparent self, to recognize our true Self, in a transcendental divine life.” This involves not only contemplation of the great truths given by sages of wisdom, but also the translation of insights into action. In his article, “Altruism of the Secret Doctrine”, B.P. Wadia pointed out that “Understanding by the higher mind and apperception by intuition are not sufficient unless these produce the action which is altruism.” The preparation Ricard stresses is emphasized in Theosophy through the practice of virtues and the doing of one's duty. H. P. Blavatsky wrote in The Key to Theosophy, “The object of doing our duties to all men and to ourselves last, is not the attainment of personal happiness, but of the happiness of others, the fulfillment of right for the sake of right, not for what it may bring us. Happiness, or rather contentment, may indeed follow the performance of duty, but is not and must not be the motive for it.” (Key, 228). Doing one'\’s duty for the sake of the welfare of all others, along with meditation on universal ideals and self-study, provides the discipline needed to enable the student to walk toward the path of the Tathagata, “Those Who Have Gone Before.”