virus: Buddhism

Eric Boyd (
Sat, 01 Nov 1997 23:05:10 -0500

Hi all,

I've had this essay done for a while, but I lost my internet access do
to a renovation of my house... anyway, here is at last -- this is my
second attempt to post it, what follows is my original message (I'm
hoping it doesn't line wrap real bad...):

Hi all;

Here is the final version of my Buddhism essay... I'm not all together
that happy with it, but at least it's something *different* (the poor
TA's marking these essays must get auffly bored of the same four essays
over and over again!) I'm hoping I'll get marks just for the novel
ideas involved!

(if not... well, I'm only taking this course for fun anyway!)


"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 its

Buddhism - a fit meme complex

Buddhism has succeed as a world religion because it is a fit meme
complex. That is to say, Buddhism has succeeded because its 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.
These elements lead to its world-wide "popularity", and continue to
ensure its propagation today.

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 minds1. 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 vanish2. Now, memetics is more
complicated than simple biological evolution because in addition to
survival of the fittest, there is also artificial selection by humans3.
Memes, like genes, can be viewed from an Intentional Stance4.
Essentially, what this boils down to is using the language of intention
- a meme wants to propagate itself -- to help us understand the
phenomena in question. Really, we make this same kind of move everyday
with the animals around us - is a rabbit really an intentional
creature? Perhaps not, but using the language of intention can help us
to understand that rabbit. Dennett says that intentionally can be
attributed whenever we feel that the object in question is at least as
complicated as we are. 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. One
could say that intentionally is a metaphor for the idea of differential
replication due to fitter memes. The intentional stance, taken to its
limit, results in Virus's of the Mind5. Viewed as a Virus of the Mind,
<Buddhism>6 is not so much a religion as an independent entity trying to

ensure its own continued replication into the future7.

Now back to <Buddhism> as a fit meme complex. 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 successfully with 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. As all advertisers know, repetition is the
most important thing in getting your ideas accepted - say anything
enough times and some people will be influenced. 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. This is how pyramid marketing schemes work. Brodie

rightly calls self propagation the most powerful force in the universe.
With <Buddhism>, faith is ensured by taking refuge in 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 primarily
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 its
propagation by making its hosts feel that others need "the message"
too. The Bodhisattva, having escaped from suffering8, has compassion on

those around him/her who are also suffering, and so spreads the Four
Noble Truths to them. Indeed, it is obvious that if the Buddha had not
spread his message (supposedly at the urging of the Great God Brahma)
Buddhism would have died even before it was born! It was emulating the
Buddha - his compassion for the suffering of those around him - that
harnessed the most powerful force in the universe - self propagation -
to <Buddhism>'s advantage.

Many other traits are useful as well. Tradition can be used by a meme
complex to ensure that its 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" or more specifically "What the Buddha said is what
Buddhism should be!" 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 its continued survival, tradition enhances memetic

Tradition has a close relation to authority, which 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 known such could not be the case. Ascribing words to the
Buddha makes it much easier to get those words accepted. And memetics
tells us that only the ideas which get accepted - and thus replicated --

will survive, in the long run.

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 be 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 its 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 need for
community decreased as the ideas became more prevalent. 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 splitting of a
religion (schisms) 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

Continuing the development in the modern age, the Sangha has again lost
yet more of its control - in fact, the so called "Protestant Buddhism"
does not rely on the Sangha at all! As we move yet further into the
information age, I predict we will see a polarization of Buddhism into
something similar to the current split in Christianity - fundamentalist
Buddhists - who believe in the "inspired" word of the Buddha as the
Eternal Truth, thus emphasizing Authority; and liberal Buddhists who see

the Buddha as a man of deep compassion, a man whose message is to be
taken into their hearts as the best way to live - and shared with
others, thus emphasizing Compassion. Each of these two sects - and
there may be more, as well - has quite fit memes -- the first has a
strengthened <faith> component, the second has a strengthened
<evangelize> component - and so should propagate themselves quite well.

The diversity in the Sangha after it split 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. The Greater Vehicle was 'designed'9 to enlighten more
people. With its emphasis on Compassion, rather than on lack of desire,

the propagation engine (which as you recall was dependent on Compassion
for <evangelism>) received a great boost. 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 its (changing)
message10 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.
However, that text, along with the Theravadin chronicle Mahavamsa, 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 because they helped to ensure state
support, and generally made Buddhist ideas more common in the meme-pool
of civilization. In addition to greater meme saturation, which hits
the powerful memetic button of repetition, Ashoka also encouraged and
sponsored Buddhist missions (which he called "dhamma victories") whereby

he directly spread the Buddhist message to five kings, and several other

kingdoms. At any rate, without Ashoka's help, <Buddhism> as we know it
would have been a lot longer in achieving wide-spread awareness of its

It is interesting to note as well, because of the basic structure of the

Sangha, Buddhism is in need of state support:
"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 its

own house in order."11
Its reliance on the state, then, was not only useful for its spread, but

also necessary from a discipline standpoint. I maintain that because of
the necessity of reliance, monks were forced to seek political patronage

out - and this, as we know from the effect that lobbyists can have on
our current government, means they received far more government than
would otherwise have occurred. So <Buddhism's> reliance, while first
appearing to be a hindering factor in its development (for the Sangha
did decline several times when government state support was withdrawn),
may have actually been a net gain for <Buddhism>.

Another helpful factor in the spread of <Buddhism> -- which is critical
now, especially in the west -- 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 its 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

- many different words describe the same overall feeling12. Viewing the
Four Noble Truths as a physician's analysis of the human condition -
identify the problem, find the cause, propose a remedy, and proscribe a
medicine to implement it - makes Buddhism quite practical, and easy to
teach (even if it is hard to follow!) No doubt these reasons account at

least partially for the success of Buddhism in the west.
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 its acceptance, and made it
easier to adopt parts of the system, while still maintaining whatever
your current beliefs are. For instance, everybody can benefit from
renouncing the desire for material things - indeed, this wisdom is quite

common the world over. These "elements" would then pave the way towards

monkhood; or in modern times help to hook the interest of prospective
"Protestant" Buddhists. (heterogenic events lead to homogenic

<Buddhism> is an excellent example of a fit meme complex. Its evolution

over the years, as well as its endowment at the outset with numerous
traits beneficial to propagation, have helped to ensure awareness of its

teachings world wide; and now these same traits will continue to ensure
<Buddhism's> propagation into the foreseeable future.

major sources

Bary, William Theodore de, editor, The Buddhist Tradition in India,
China and Japan, Vintage Books Edition, 1972

Brodie, Richard, Virus of the Mind: the new science of the meme,
Integral Press, 1996

Gombrich, Richard F., Theravada Buddhism, Rouledge & Kegan Paul ltd.,

1 Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme, 1996.
2 Survival of the Fittest memes!
3 This corresponds to the "Artificial" selection that humans have
exercised on our domestic animals.
4 Daniel C. Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 1989
5 Or Thought Contagion - see Aaron Lynch, Thought Contagion: How Belief
Spreads Through Society: The New Science of Memes, 1996
6 <x> denotes the meme of x
7 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
8 Or at least having realized the universalness of suffering.
9 This is an excellent example of the Intentional stance - no design
actually occurred, but because of the increase in fitness of <Buddhism>
do to the Mahayana tradition, Buddhism propagated much better. Seen in
this light, one could say that <Buddhism> designed the Mahayana
tradition to propagate itself - but it would be technically more
accurate to say that natural selection favored Mahayana views over the
others and thus <Buddhism> was changed into a more fit form.
10 Note that this again points out how content is irrelevant to the
propagation engine!
11 Richard F. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism, 1988, pg. 116
12 I see one main source of dukkha as the "Existential Vacuum." See
Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor E Frankl. It's interesting to see
how different Viktor's solution to the same problem is. There is much
fertile material in the contrast - a good essay could be written on this

contrast alone.
13 These terms come from Aaron Lynch's Units, Events and Dynamics of
Meme Replication, in the Journal of Ideas, January 1991. The article
can also be found at

There you are... some 20/20 hindsight memetics, with a couple of easy to

see predictions for the future.