MATTHIEU RICARD IS an extraordinary individual. Although, in truth, “individual” is probably not the best handle for a man who’s reason-to-be stands at the very opposite of selfishness in our ego-driven and individualistic age.
And he’s written a book about it: Altruism, an 864-page doorstopper of a tome, originally published in French in 2013 but released just last month in English. It’s subtitled The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World.
Matthieu Ricard became a Buddhist monk in the early 1970s when he abandoned a promising career in cellular genetics in France (he’d just completed his doctoral thesis). He headed to the Himalayas to begin his new life’s work: investigating the nature of the mind and its potentials — and one of the essential cores of what he has found is contained in this book.
Not that this book is a personal journey, Ricard is way too self-effacing for that. Instead there’s a potted autobiography in the introduction to Altruism, followed by a work that promises the depth you’d expect from a man, trained as a scientist, who is also the son of renowned French philosopher Jean-François Revel (born Jean-François Ricard).
Father and son published a book together, The Monk and The Philosopher, which takes the form of conversation — a long question/answer session between two razor sharp and articulate minds — one with an acute knowledge and understanding of Western philosophy and the other of Eastern wisdom. It’s a fabulous book.
Ricard’s followed that up with The Quantum and the Lotus: A Journey to Where Science and Buddhism Meet (co-authored with the Vietnamese-American astrophysicist Xuan Thuan), Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, and Why Meditate?
Ricard has also produced seven photography books and his words have been translated into 20 languages.
The French monk and scholar has been a pivotal figure in articulating Buddhism’s place and worth in the modern world. He has been one of the principal engineers for the intellectual and contemplative bridge that’s being built between Western and Eastern thought or, as he puts it, “my experience has taken place at the confluence of two major influences: Easter Buddhist wisdom and Western sciences”.
Ricard is fluent in Tibetan, he works as a translator for His Holiness the Dalai Lama and, apart from being an accomplished photographer and author, he is also an humanitarian. Karuna-Shechen, his charitable non-profit organization develops and manages programs in primary health care, education, and social services in India, Nepal, and Tibet. Meanwhile he’s also been a guinea pig for a number of psychological and neuroscience experiments as to the impact of meditation on the brain.
In June 2002 Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, attached 128 electrodes to Ricard’s skull. Ricard meditated on “unconditional loving kindness and compassion” and the results astounded Davidson’s team of scientists and technicians.
The brain’s gamma waves are normally difficult to see on EEG equipment but Ricard’s were easily visible. At first the research team assumed that their equipment must be faulty, so they brought in an additional group of Tibetan monks with thousands of hours of meditative experience, along with a control group of students new to meditation. The monks had gamma waves that were 30 times stronger than the control group. In addition they found that Ricard and his fellow monks’ left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with positive emotions, showed activity in areas larger than they’d ever observed.
The results were instrumental in escalating a better understanding of meditation’s place as mind training and elevated the idea that there were scientifically measurable possibilities and positive byproducts of training the mind in compassion, empathy and altruism.
Is altruism inherent?
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 — Matthieu Ricard, Altruism
Ricard’s Altruism is an investigation and a direct challenge to the dogma of selfishness. He looks at the work of an “increasing numbers of researchers” who are finding that the “hypothesis of universal selfishness” has been disproven by scientific investigation and he looks at the philosophical arguments against universal selfishness.
Ricard defines altruism, he looks at altruism in the theories of evolution and highlights the error in the popular misconception that Charles Darwin’s findings (as well as others’ foundational research on evolution) had no place for empathy.
He looks at the forces that are contrary to compassion, empathy and altruism in the modern world and he looks at the virtues of cooperation, of enlightened education, the fight against equality and the steps to building a more caring economy.
The English translation of Altruism is one that’s been eagerly awaited. It’s an important and timely work and I, for one (my copy arrived just yesterday), can’t wait to wade further in.
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