Do Psychopaths have Basic Goodness, too? The Buddhist Perspective.

Even psychopaths need love.

Q: How do Buddhists reconcile with the idea that psychopaths (aka sociopaths, like Hitler, Manson, Bundy), may not be born with basic goodness, thereby shattering the tenet that all beings are born with basic goodness?

As unpopular as this view may be in today’s world, the Buddhist perspective is that everyone is born with basic goodness.

Even Hitler. Even Manson. Even Bundy.

Even those messed up people who go into schools and murder innocent people. They are all basically good. They are not inherently evil. They are so very confused. They deserve our compassion.

I believe that when people hear me speak of this topic, they think I am defending these individuals. I certainly am not. There are some people out there who have done some really horrendous things, things that break my heart. I am, however, defending the view that these people are basically good. During a leadership gathering Buddhist teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche spoke about society and said,

“What will determine our success is the ability to remain open to the universal message [of basic goodness] and to remain unequivocal in our trust of human nature.”

Traditionally we are asked to practice compassion for everyone. Everyone, in this case, includes that man who mugged us for drug money years ago, or the strung out man who barfed on our shoes last week. Everyone is people we love, people we hate and people we don’t give a fuck about.

Compassion, in this larger context, means that we have to have trust in human nature, as the Sakyong points out. Even the sick individuals who kill or otherwise harm loved ones or children can be redeemed. We have to acknowledge that even those people are just that—sick—and still have a shred of basic goodness in their being. If we can, then we are remaining open to the universal message of basic goodness, and positively influencing society overall.

Last year I led a meditation workshop at Kripalu in Lenox, Massachusetts. The day participants arrived, tragedy struck America; 28 individuals lost their lives in the Newtown, Connecticut shooting. One man shot and killed his mother, then went to the school where she worked, killed 20 first graders and six more of their teachers before taking his own life.

I feel now, like I felt then, that no words can really accurately describe this profound loss. These children will never grow up to meet their first loves, or make an impact in their chosen profession, or know the joy of being married or having kids of their own. The amazing educators who gave their life protecting the children are such heroes; they saw an opportunity to save precious lives and took it.

That night, I gave a short introductory talk to the participants. It was an overview on why meditation is helpful in today’s world. I felt such sadness in the room so I knew it would be best if we spoke of this tragedy openly. At the end, we each made an aspiration or said a prayer for the victims of the Newtown tragedy. The next day, we included them in our loving kindness meditation practice.

Halfway through the workshop one of the participants approached me privately. She explained that earlier that week she was at a mall in Portland when yet another deranged individual walked in and opened fire. She told me that if she had decided to get a hamburger instead of sushi, she would have turned right instead of left, and walked straight into the line of fire. She could have easily been killed. She was lucky to be alive, but was clearly traumatized.

After our loving-kindness practice she told me that she had a breakthrough. “I don’t forgive these shooters,” she said, “but I did find myself hoping that after a life of suffering they were finally at peace.” This woman’s breakthrough touched me deeply. Even if we cannot summon the same level of compassion and open-hearted affection for Hitler as we can for our mother, we can still wish these beings peace.

When we engage in compassion practices we have to be open to helping everyone.

In talking about committing to the Mahayana path, Pema Chodron once wrote,

“Making the second commitment means holding a diversity party in our living room, all day every day, until the end of time.”

We cannot choose who we invite to our compassion party. Our mother may show up, but so may Hitler. So may other people who are very confused, and who act out of that confusion and harm innocent people. We have to offer them all the guacamole dip and invite them to take a seat.

In offering compassion to everyone, we are developing trust in basic goodness. The Sakyong, in that same talk to the leadership, said,

“The result of trust is joy. Our effectiveness in helping others will be based in that trust in basic goodness. Shambhala is saying not just that humans are basically good but that society as a whole is basically good.”

We are all in this society together. We cannot close our hearts to psychopaths, or potential psychopaths. We have to be willing to help everyone. In fact, the potential psychopaths are the ones who need our help most of all.


From ‘Walk Like a Buddha’ by Lodro Rinzler, © 2013 Lodro Rinzler. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications Inc., Boston, Mass.


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Maroon Jul 17, 2015 4:19pm

What a beautiful article. We do not want to claim this truth of oneness, because it's painful. It is difficult to love those who stand in the face of everything we believe to be right. Yet in the true spirit of divinity, all is all and we cannot participate in fostering hatred or we are dwelling in the very same ugliness we would seek to judge. Regarding the comments on psychopaths who abuse people in relationships, this is an example of the need to have awareness and reasonable approaches. At the same time when we demonize people we succeed in simply pushing them further into the covered aggressions of emotional violence. That we do not like what criminals and violators do is an invitation to strengthen our practice of forgiveness. Imagine what would happen if all of the people who speak words of hatred and hope for revenge and ugliness to visit those who harm others, would change their perception and speak words of prayer for transformation, think words of faith for love and peace. You may not necessarily change anyone in this lifetime, but you may perhaps contribute to the change of their kamma that they harm less in the next incarnation. Ultimately all thoughts and acts of love are love and ALL thoughts and acts of hatred, anger, and judgment are not love. We may feel entitled, justified, and validated in not practicing love because we are in pain, others are in pain, we are hurt, others are hurt. But these notions of being "justified" are illusions. We can say, "I am a simple human being and I am not able to practice love toward those who are violent and hurtful to others." And that is entirely okay. But it is not alright to say, "I am right to hate. I am justified to judge. I am right to wish ill will." This is not the path of loving kindness. To truly love we live in an understanding of oneness – even when as is the case with violating people – it is most difficult. Thank you for the article and the call to a fruitful conversation

idodoyouride Jun 9, 2015 9:07am

this post sends a dangerous message. there is no goodness in a psychopath, sociopath or a narcissist. have you ever been in a relationship with one? i run a support group for over 1,300 members of psychopathy and the damage done to these people is off the charts. they will destroy you until the point of suicide then say go ahead , do it. they have no commpassion for anyone but themselves. i dont even see them as human to be honest but thats another thought. my advice? if you know you are dealing with one run away as fast as you can. if you dont know one the odds are you just are being fooled because they are every where. this is an epidemic on this planet and its getting worse with the internet and all of technology. please think about what kind of message you are sending out because there is no good in these empty souls they will only destroy you and then they will laugh in your face when they are done with you. BEWARE!!!!!

Katie May 15, 2015 10:01am

Psychopaths are not help able to get better. They do not deserve compassion because they do not recognize compassion.
Do not waste a second of energy on a psychopath. All that does is give them an in to your soul and they will murder your soul.

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Lodro Rinzler

Lodro Rinzler is a teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage and the author of the books “The Buddha Walks into a Bar” and “Walk Like a Buddha”. Over the last decade he has taught numerous workshops at meditation centers and college campuses throughout North America. Lodro’s column, “What Would Sid Do”, appears regularly on the Huffington Post and he is frequently featured in Marie Claire, Reality Sandwich, the Interdependence Project, Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma and Good Men Project. He is the founder of the Institute for Compassionate Leadership, an authentic leadership training and job placement organization, and lives in Brooklyn with his dog Tillie and his cat Justin Bieber.