BA: You are a philosopher, scientist, photographer and a monk – a man of many talents. But above all you are supposed to be, as some magazines write, the “̈Happiest Man in the World”. So, let us talk about the subject of happiness.

Matthieu Ricard:

First of all, it is an advantage not to be called the “Unhappiest Man in the World”. Up to now there are no scientific explanations for happiness and there is also no area in the brain identified as being responsible for it. That is why it also can’t be measured. Some areas in the brain can be identified as the location for attention, compassion, unbalance, fear or anger. Happiness is not one of them. Anyone can be the happiest human being in the world when he’s looking for it in the right place.

BA: How can we be happy if we see all the suffering in the world?

MR: To be happy should not be confused with having pleasurable experiences. Happiness is a way of living, based on inner freedom, wisdom, compassion, loving kindness and courage. This happiness is reconcilable with seeing the suffering in the world and developing a growing willingness to reduce this suffering though compassion. This is a different approach from the hedonistic one to understanding happiness. It means that as long as there is even just one sentient being suffering in this world, we should give it attention and relieve it. This is our Buddhist understanding of Happiness. It is far away from the concept of having continuous comfortable sensations, which would be rather a recipe for exhaustion.

BA: Are we not repeatedly trying to create our own island of happiness, and watch out so nobody will bother us there?

MR: If you try to create your happiness in the bubble of your own ego, it will not last. In that small space you are always fluctuating between hope and fears. It will be also difficult for others to deal with you because you only center on yourself. Both is contradicting reality, because it is not consisting of different entities, everything is related to each other. The idea that one could produce one’s own happiness on your own self fabricated island must fail. If you consider interdependence, and how all beings strive not to suffer, you are connecting with reality, practicing compassion and loving kindness – this will not only make you happy but others as well. Your happiness arises as a bonus, an effect of this action. If you plant wheat you are harvesting the grains to feed your family and create an income for your village but you also produce straw. You did not work for the straw, but you still receive it for free.

BA: How can we be fully open towards the suffering in or around us, without being overwhelmed by it?

MR: If you let the suffering of others get to you, the compassion can trigger despair. During an exhibition, I was showing a few photos of how terribly people treat animals. A few participants reacted by saying: “Oh, I can’t look at this, I love animals.” And I responded “What do you mean, you can’t look at this? This is a daily reality!” I think what is happening here is a despair of compassion, which becomes unbearable. But we should face the problems actively. If a doctor deals with a screaming patient, he can’t just deal with his pain and start to cry. Doctors are helping in all situations, and the idea is always: Suffering is multiplying courage. Ardor arises from courage, but despair undermines it. This kind of despair is just another facet of being self-centered, an egotistic perception of the suffering of others. But compassion is the relatedness to the other in his suffering. The greater the pain, the greater the wish to alleviate it. This excludes despair because of pain. That is the reason why the Dalai Lama speaks about the courage of compassion.

BA: Which basis is needed for this?

MR: You have to practice it. Burn-out for example develops because of a self-centered perception of pain. If you just focus on what you are feeling and what others are feeling and you suffer because of other’s pain, then it will become too much and you will suffer from burn-out. Compassion does not have this negative dimension. It turns to others with positive energy and thus avoids despair.

BS: How can we cultivate this compassion?

MR: Through Metta, loving kindness. Loving kindness is the basis for wishing others happiness and freedom from suffering.

BA: So how can secular people cultivate compassion?

MR: Why should loving kindness and compassion be dependent on religion? Religion can provide techniques to put them into use, but these techniques do not possess any intrinsic value. You can respect Buddha as a wise person, but you can also not. It is a big mistake to believe that compassion is religious. These values are more fundamental than religions. We need them from birth until death. They are the basis of any religion, not only Christianity, but also Buddhism, Islam and Judaism. Love means to want to see others happy and free from suffering. Why should that be connected to religion?

BA: Are compassion and loving kindness not possibly the most important contribution of Buddhism?

MR: Yes, but just look at the situation in Burma and Sri Lanka. There is no god who preaches hate, even if adherents of a religion behave hatefully and kill others. The golden rule of all religions is: Do not do to others what you yourself don’t want to endure. If all of us would follow that rule, the world would be a better place. All religions should emphasize this rule – more vigorously than they already do.

BA: It is always said that we first should create inner peace before we can create outer peace. But working on inner peace seems to be a life-long endeavor. How can we get to becoming outwardly active?

MR: We should basically work on it as much as we can. Some people believe they should put their whole lives into the service of outwardly peace; others think they must first strengthen their compassion and should engage afterwards. Why should we follow such useless thoughts? Why don’t we just do what we are capable of? We don’t have to be perfect and pretend to be able to practice endless unconditional compassion. We should put to use what we have. Of course, endless compassion would be more helpful, but to give everything we are capable of is better than egotism.

BA: The years with your teacher Dilgo Kyentse Rinpoche – were they strenuous for you?

You were always together with him.

MR: That was tough work. He was continuously teaching and now and then went into silent retreats. We have been a team. He was travelling a lot. A retreat is a permanent reminder of the practice. In the presence of Rinpoche, one could not not be reminded of the practice. If you have a compass on board it will always point to north. Without a magnetic field a compass would be without orientation. Rinpoche was like the north pole. His practice was to constantly be focused on not to be distracted, confused or neglecting. There is no practice which could be more intense.

BA: Do you believe that compassion and the economy can go together?

MR: I don’t think that business people should be mostly altruistic. That’s not their job. But we can hardly close our eyes to today’s imbalance. „Caring Economy“ might be a better word for altruism, which economists don’t like to use. Regular economy cannot do two things: It can’t fight poverty and it can’t deal with common goods like water, the atmosphere, democracy, freedom etc. because that would imply to look for what is beyond yourself. You can’t only profit from clean air, you have to do something for it. Even to do nothing is harmful because it means just to hold onto one’s own interests. So, we have to care. That is the foundation of the “caring economy” and it is a necessity of our time. The economy should serve society and not the other way around.

BA: That is not just a question for individuals but touches on structures.

MR: Yes, individual, cultural and structural change is needed. At this year’s World economic forum in Davos it was pointed out that imbalance is the greatest challenge of our time. It is the biggest blockage to a better world. The keynote speech of this year’s summit was talking about „caring and compassion“, and explained how we have to limit our consumption. Maybe these are just words but they are significant.

BA: At this summit you were also suggesting to talk about „caring mindfulness“ instead of just „mindfulness“.

MR: I think that is very important. If somebody like Jon Kabat-Zinn, the co-founder of MBSR (Mindfulness-based stress-reduction), is teaching mindfulness, he will be inspiring to many people. But there is no guarantee that mindfulness leads to openness towards others. There are mindful criminals, mindful snipers. The latter has to control his emotions, should not be distracted from his target and must be clear, calm and stable. Mindfulness is definitely helping him there. That is why I say that mindfulness must be embedded in loving kindness meditation. Loving kindness requires mindfulness, the one does not work without the other. Everything else is just daydreaming. Loving kindness is a necessary instrument for any kind of meditation. Why don’t we make loving kindness the priority, the most important topic? If we would do that, we would also cultivate mindfulness.

BA: Let’s talk about your book “A plea for the animals”. What was your motivation in writing this book?

MR: “A human life is non-negotiable nowadays. We have human rights, rights for women, children, a right of freedom from slavery and torture. But there is a big gap in our relationship with other sentient beings, like animals. We have an instrumental relationship with them. They can work for us like a machine or be a product of consumption for us. But we mostly negate their intrinsic value. We have a very loving relationship with dogs, for example, and if we would serve our guests dog meat one day, they would be disgusted. But why? There is really no difference between pigs, cows, dogs, cats and us. Every year we are killing millions of terrestrial and aquatic animals. That‘s not acceptable.

BA: Some say we should rather care about the suffering population in Syria or Sudan than about animals.

MR: That is an absurd way of thinking. People who at the moment are listening to classical music are also not accused of not caring about Syria at the same time. Only people who care about animals are confronted with such arguments. It contains the idea that care is a consumer product, like food which is only available in certain amounts. We can either give them to children, hungry people or to the dog or the pigs. But care is an attitude. Less love for other beings also means less love for people. But an all-encompassing love means to be an all-encompassing person. All these arguments that we can’t survive without meat are totally stupid. The only thing that matters is suffering. Suffering in all forms must be diminished, whether it is the suffering of a cat or a child. What is the price for us not consuming meat? Nothing.

BA: It means to control one’s desire, which is a struggle for many people.

MR: It is just about greed. At his point one has to use one’s head and become aware that renunciation is good for social justice and for the animals. We have already given up so many habits. The Mayas and Inkas were sacrificing people. The argument that people did something for a long time is not a good one. We should stop those false excuses.

BA: Do you think that individual change leads to social change?

MR: Not automatically. Individual change must reach a critical mass. In cultural revolutions opinion leaders are very important, as well as the “instinct of imitation”. People follow convincing people. That is why individual change is so important, it triggers social change until something new is established. My hope is evolution and that people with the ability to cooperate will prevail in the long term. Politics will have to take some unpopular measures, like a doctor who wants to save a patient’s life. Predominantly those who are used to luxury will have to suffer most, they will have to get used to a much simpler lifestyle. But one can be happy under very simple circumstances, I was feeling more comfortable in my hermitage in 2000 meters altitude than in a luxurious heated hotel room.

This Interview originally appeared in full length in “Buddhismus Aktuell”, the magazine of the German Buddhist Union (DBU). The Interview was conducted by its editor in chief, Ursula Richard.