virus: Buddhism and memetics

Robin Faichney (
Tue, 11 Mar 1997 11:54:00 -0000

I'm not going to enter the Buddhism vs Objectivism fray for
reasons that may be obvious.

But I recently came across an idea that, as a Buddhist interested
in memetics, I found intriguing.

Susan Blackmore is an academic psychologist working at the
University of the West of England. I don't think she has published
anything on this yet, but I have copies of papers she gave at 2
meetings here in the UK in November. A great deal of what she
had to say will be familiar to members of this list, but I want to
quote the conclusion of one of the papers and get the reactions
of people here, especially as Buddhism has come up here
recently. I think the only preparatory comments required are that
at the beginning of the paper Sue posed the rhetorical questions
"From what are we to awaken? And how?" (note the conference
title) -- and in the course of it, in addition to explaining the meme
concept, she has argued that "the self" is a meme-complex.

>From "Waking from the Meme Dream", a paper presented at
"The Psychology of Awakening: International Conference on
Buddhism, Science and Psychotherapy", Dartington, 7-10
November, 1996, quoted from the transcript with the author's

There are two systems I know of that are capable of
dismantling meme-complexes (though I am sure there
are others). Of course these systems are memes
themselves but they are, if you like, meme-disinfectants,
meme-eating memes, or "meme-complex destroying
meme-complexes". These two are science and Zen.

Science works this way because of its ideals of truth
and seeking evidence. It doesn't always live up to
these ideals, but in principle it is capable of destroying
any untruthful meme-complex by putting it to the test,
by demanding evidence, or by devising an experiment.

Zen does this too, though the methods are completely
different. In Zen training every concept is held up to
scrutiny, nothing is left uninvestigated, even the self
who is doing the investigation is to be held up to the
light and questioned. "Who are you?"

After about 15 years of Zen practice, and when reading
The Three Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau, I began
working with the koan "Who...?". The experience was
most interesting and I can best liken it to watching a
meme unzipping other memes. Every thought that
came up in meditation was met with "Who is thinking
that?" or "Who is seeing this?" or "Who is feeling that?"
or just "Who...?". Seeing the false self as a vast meme-
complex seemed to help -- for it is much easier to let go
of passing memes than of a real, solid and permanent
self. It is much easier to let the meme-unzipper do its
stuff if you know that all it's doing is unzipping memes.

Another koan of mine fell to the memes. Q. "Who drives
you?" A. "The memes of course." This isn't just an
intellectual answer, but a way of seeing yourself as a
temporary passing construction. The question dissolves
when both self and driver are seen as memes.

I have had to take a long route to answer my questions
but I hope you can now understand my answers. "From
what are we to awaken? From the meme-dream of
course. And how?" "By seeing that it is a meme-dream".

And who lets the meme-unzipper go its way? Who wakes
up when the meme-dream is all dismantled? Ah, there's
a question.

I'm new around here and I don't know what might already
have been said about the relationship between Buddhism
and memetics, but this seems to me a radical and fascinating
correlation between Buddhism and the aspect of memetics
that would have us realise the part played by memes in
our lives -- and, more importantly, it shows a way to eliminate
those memes that survive by pretending to be furthering our
own interests -- and even to be us! -- but whose interests are
not really aligned with our own (unlike science and

Any comments?

Robin Faichney