virus: Buddhism

Eric Boyd (
Sun, 19 Oct 1997 04:32:38 -0400

Hi all

Here is the current draft version of my <Buddhism> essay. Please
comment freely. It is officially *due* on Oct 28, 1997, and I'd like
all the input I can get before then so that I can improve the essay.

Additionally, I'm very concerned that the Prof. for the course will not
be aware of memetics (and possibly not have to good an understanding of
evolution)... to this end, I *have* included a very brief introduction
to the memetical axioms, but would actually like someone more versed
than I to quote from. Any volunteers?

I've realized that the essay as it stands needs to be modified slightly
to actually address the question which was given:

"Although Buddhism eventually declined within India itself, it made a
lasting impact on other areas of Asia and has now become a world
philosophy on a global scale. Access what you see to be the major
reasons for Buddhism's world-wide appeal and for the continuing of it's

But those modifications are simple and apparent, and I'm sure you can
all make the links.

Anyway, here is the draft version:

<CENTRE><B>Buddhism - A Fit Meme Complex</B></CENTRE>

Buddhism has succeed as a world religion because it is a fit meme
complex. That is to say, Buddhism has succeeded because it's framework
contains elements such as evangelical faith, tradition, authority,
community, and variation. In addition, Buddhism received quite a bit of
State Support, and the Four Noble Truths were simple and effective.

Before I get to the bulk of the essay, a quick introduction to memetics
seems in order. Memetics is the science of idea propagation. A meme
(coined to rhyme with gene) is a unit of information in a mind whose
existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created
in other minds[1] Memetics is based on a evolutionary view of ideas:
those ideas which are more successful at replicating themselves will
survive, while those that don't simply vanish. Now, memetics is more
complicated than simple biological evolution because in addition to
survival of the fittest, there is also artificial selection by humans.
Memetics also rests on a proper understanding of the Intentional
Stance[2] which states that when we ascribe intent to something, that
ascribing has more to do with the perceived level of complexity than
with any other factor. Thus a rabbit can be said to have will power not
only because we know it to be alive, but also because we know that
rabbits are complicated. In a similar manner, meme complexes (such as
Buddhism) can be said to have intent because they are complicated. It's
not that they really have intent, but rather that we can use the
language of intention to help us understand the phenomena in question.
Thus, like the rabbit, Buddhism can be said to have a "will to
survival". The most important idea to flow out of this is that Buddhism
is a Virus of the Mind (or Thought Contagion[3]). It's primary goal (or
intention) is to propagate itself (just as the gene's primary goal is to
propagate itself); and <Buddhism>[4] will use whatever means possible to
ensure that[5].

First, I will deal with the "natural selection" of <Buddhism>. Many
memetic traits enhance the propagation of a meme complex. First and
foremost among them is the propagation engine: <faith> <your message
here> <evangelize>. In theory, any set of ideas can be propagated
beyond imagining by this combination. First, <faith> causes the memetic
hosts (you and me) to accept <your message here> -- which could be
anything. Then, <evangelize> causes the host to propagate <your message
here> by repeating it to others. Once the message is successfully
propagated, the cycle begins again - but this time with two hosts. They
yield four, and four yields eight: what we have is exponential growth.
Brodie rightly calls self propagation the most powerful force in the

With <Buddhism>, faith is ensured by the taking of the "Three Jewels":
"I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Doctrine, I take
refuge in the Order (Sangha)". The <message>, of course, is the Four
Noble Truths. For the engine, this content actually doesn't matter.
Finally, <evangelism> is ensured by the Cardinal Virtue of Compassion.
Buddhism, like most major religions, ensures it's propagation by making
it's recipients feel that others need the <message> too. The
Bodhisattva, having escaped from suffering, has compassion on those
around him/her who are also suffering, and so spreads the Four Noble
Truths to them. And thus the most powerful force in the universe - self
propagation - is harnessed to <Buddhism>'s advantage.

Many other traits are useful as well. Tradition can be used by a meme
complex to ensure that it's current form is passed faithfully on to the
next person. Hosts often say "This is the way we've always done it: it
must be right." The entire Theravada ("The Teaching of the Elders")
tradition can be seen in this light. Really, what tradition comes down
to is an enhancement of the truth value associated with the meme
complex. Since the perceived truth of a meme complex is very important
to it's continued survival, tradition enhances memetic propagation.

Authority is one of the most powerful memetic selection factors. We all
know from advertising how much weight we put on the name or person
behind an idea. Who says it is often just as important as what is
said. In this light, it becomes obvious why so many of the Buddhist
texts have been ascribed to the Buddha. Putting the Buddha's name on a
document is like giving it a Holy Stamp of Truth. Created documents
which did not ascribe their contents to the Buddha would be deselected
naturally (since no monk would pay much attention them) and thus it's
not surprising today to find that many Buddhist documents say the Buddha
is the author, even if it is now know such could not be the case.
Ascribing words to the Buddha makes it much easier to get those words

Similarly, it can be shown that viewing the Buddhist literature
(especially the Tripitaka) as a "Canon" (i.e. the infallible word of the
Buddha; the Truth) is another appeal to authority, with similar
effects. This view, coupled with the above tendency to ascribe works to
the Buddha, provide <Buddhism> with a large source of Absolute
Authority. This Authority is then used to convince non believers to
convert: It is a well known debating trick to seem very confident of
your own rightness, for that often convinces the judges and audience far
more easily than any weight of evidence ever could. Thus a Canonical
Buddhist text (the Tripitaka) aids greatly in memetic propagation.

Community is another powerful memetic button. The Sangha is the
Buddhist organization par excellence. In it, monks support each other
in their continuing spiritual journey. Anyone who has been in a group
knows how much easier it is to hold a view if everyone else around you
holds it as well. This is the power of the mob, where the majority
rules - by force, if need be. In the early going, Buddhism probably
benefited immensely by separating it's devotees from the population at
large. By maintaining their own special groups, Buddhists avoided the
possible negative reaction to their ideas from the general public (the
Brahmins come to mind), as well as fostering a close knit communities of
believers. Both of these were instrumental in the early development of

Of course, later on, when Buddhism became popular, the Sangha was not as
necessary. This lack of necessity is revealed by changes it underwent.
In the early years, there was only one Sangha - all Buddhist monks were
united in one community. Later, there were many different "sects".
However, do to the unique nature of Buddhism, these sects did not view
each other as enemies, but rather as friends. Buddhist Compassion once
again aided Buddhism - for normally slitting of a religion undermines
the value of it, since they can't both be right. But with Buddhism,
divisions usually occurred because of differences in discipline of the
Sangha, rather than differences in Doctrine, so that both were still
"true", and yet different. In this way, memetic diversity was increased
(more choices for selection to act upon) while the Perceived Truth value
of the religion was not decreased. This particularly lucky break was an
advantage in propagation.

The above diversity in the Sangha is just a small part of the overall
variation in Buddhism and Buddhist ideas. Variation, of course, is a
key evolutionary trait. Without variation, there would be nothing for
natural selection to select from. For this reason, I think that the
variation we see in Buddhist ideas - the differing traditions such as
Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantrayana; the splitting of the Sangha, the
incredibly numerous collection of manuscripts - all of these helped the
spread of Buddhism. Indeed, the very name "Mahayana" seems to indicate
this position. As the "Greater Vehicle", monks believed (rightly) that
it appealed to more people and so would 'save' more of them. Although
one could actually question how "Buddhist" Mahayana Buddhism is, in
terms of the original message of the Buddha, I think we all see the
value that the Greater Vehicle has in bringing at least parts of the
Buddhist message to the lay population at large. By the very allowance
of diversity within the Buddhist meme-set, <Buddhism> was able to
propagate it's (changing) message better.

Of course, much of the success of Buddhism can be explained without
memetics at all. As with most major religions (Christianity and Islam
come to mind), Buddhism was greatly aided by allying with the
government. Specifically, Ashoka's patronage in c. 250 BCE was very
important. There is some controversy over whether the Kutadanta Sutta,
which describes a powerful king being compassionate on the people, is
based on Ashoka's rule, or whether it was the other way around. In
addition, the Theravadin chronicles include an account of Ashoka called
Mahavamsa. These texts, as well as others, and most especially the many
informal stories that circulated about the "great king Ashoka" and what
he did were quite important in the continuing spread of Buddhism. In
addition to these, Ashoka's greatest contribution may have been his
missions (called "dhamma victories") whereby he directly spread the
Buddhist message to five kings, and several other kingdoms.

It is interesting to note as well, because of the basic structure of the
Sangha, Buddhism is in need of state support:

<BLOCKQUOTE>The Sangha, and hence Buddhism, has a particular need of
political patronage if it is to flourish. Monks can reach decisions to
expel malefactors - or pronounce that they have automatically expelled
themselves - but they lack the power to enforce those decisions.
History has shown time and again that without state support - which need
not mean exclusive state support - the Sangha declines for this very
reason. Indeed, it falls prey to a vicious circle: when it cannot expel
'immoral' monks it acquires a reputation for being decadent, so that lay
support further declines and it becomes increasingly impotent to set
it's own house in order.</BLOCKQUOTE>[6]

It's reliance on the state, then, was not only useful for it's spread,
but also necessary from a discipline standpoint. One is forced to
wonder if the necessity of reliance actually helped Buddhism - since
then it ensured state support.

Another helpful factor is the general broadness and ease of
comprehension of the Four Noble Truths. Buddhism generally doesn't
spend much time actually talking about the Suffering which it's first
Noble Truth deals with - it takes that as axiomatic. I contend,
however, that this axiom is quite a good one, much better than the
Christian axiom of Original Sin. Everyone suffers. And the meaning of
suffering (dukkha, also translated as sorrow), is not hard to
understand. I do believe that dukkha is a universal experience[7]. As
well as this, Buddhism's general tolerance towards other religions - for
instance its acceptance of the gods, even if "the gods have nothing to
due with religion" - generally aided in it's acceptance, and made it
easier to adopt parts of the system. These parts would then pave the
way towards monkhood. (heterogenic events lead to homogenic

<Buddhism> is an excellent example of a fit meme complex. Specific
traits such as faith and evangelism, tradition, authority, community,
and variation have greatly aided in it's self replication; while state
support and actual good ideas have played a major additional role in
spreading Buddhist ideas.

(note that in the actual essay, the following are footnotes, not
endnotes as here)
[1] Richard Brodie, _Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme_,
[2] Daniel C. Dennett, _The Intentional Stance_, 1989
[3] Aaron Lynch, _Thought Contagion How Belief Spreads Through Society:
The New Science of Memes_, 1996
[4] <x> denotes the meme of x
[5] If this introduction is not sufficient, the reader is advised to
find and read one of the above books on memes, or possibly visit some
sites dedicated to memes on the Internet. Recommendations include my
own site or Meme Central or Aaron Lynch's
technical introduction Any
good search engine should also come up with a few dozen more.
[6] Richard F. Gombrich, _Theravada Buddhism_, 1988, pg. 116
[7] For a good defense of "Life is Suffering", see Francois M.
Voltaire's _Candide_, 1759
[8] These terms come from Aaron Lynch's _Units, Events and Dynamics of
Meme Replication_, in the Journal of Ideas, January 1991. It can now be
found at

Any and all comments welcome;