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Introduction to Buddhism


''We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination.   We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world.  We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators." 
-  Richard Dawkins 'The Selfish Gene'  [1]  

In these four sentences Professor Dawkins [2] has described both the scientific view of the 'human condition', and the main motivations for following the Buddhist path. 

Defying the tyranny of the genes
All animals, including ourselves, have genetically programmed drives to eat, reproduce, fight for territory and mates, kill prey, help our kin and so on. These drives appear to our mind as attachment and aversion.

Manifestations of attachment include sexual desire, hunger and the need for security. Manifestations of aversion include fighting, fleeing and avoiding painful and dangerous situations. All these mental reactions have evolved because they gave our ancestors a selective advantage. They are, or were, essential for preservation of the individual and procreation of its genes.

We humans can to some extent distance ourselves from these drives. We can examine them and if necessary rebel against them.  From the Buddhist point of view this is especially significant when these instinctive drives become pathological and turn into harmful 'innate delusions',  giving rise to mental states such as anger, hatred, sadism, jealousy, greed, miserliness, sexual abuse and so on.

In Buddhist ethics, anger and greed (and their associated thought patterns) are two of the three poisons. The third poison is ignorance, which consists, among other factors, of being unable to separate the true nature of one's mind from the delusions which afflict it (especially the delusion of the inherent existence of the self  [9] ).

Defying the tyranny of the memes
A meme [3] is a delusional mind-virus which spreads by thought-contagion in the same manner as a chain letter. Many religions have a memetic component.

If a religion shows the following features then it is a meme:

  • Self-referential or circular claims to the truth such as "This meme says it is the divine truth. Since it is the divine truth whatever its says must be true. Therefore it must be the divine truth because it says so, and all competing memes must be the work of the devil".
  • Threats of eternal punishment in hell for disbelief.
  • Commands to persecute or attack people who do not believe in the meme.
  • Boosting the believers' egos by telling them they are 'chosen' or superior to believers in false memes.
  • Disabling the faculties of disbelief ('immune response') by claiming that faith is superior to reason.

The harm that can be done by attachment to memes far exceeds that from attachment to wealth, possessions or people. Memes have been the cause of many of the wars, terrorist campaigns, persecutions, pogroms and witchhunts in history.

On the other hand, if a religion is based on wisdom, tolerance, free enquiry, rationality and universal compassion, then it is a beneficial spiritual path.

Memes are 'intellectually formed delusions', as distinct from the genetically programmed innate delusions. However, memes often interact with and derive their power from innate delusions. For example, the meme that infects socially-inadequate, sex-starved young men and causes virulent hatred against the infidel, together with a desire to become a martyr in order to have an eternity of sex with 72 virgins, derives its power from testosterone-fueled innate delusions of aggression and lust

Delusion of inherent existence
There's one innate delusion that's more subtle than the obvious ones, such as greed and anger - it's the delusion of grasping at inherently-existent things.  We see the world in terms of 'things' because our genes are telling us to grab resources. But if we take a step back and view the universe in terms of geological and cosmic timescales, it is apparent that there are no inherently existent things, only processes of continual change. All phenomena are dependently-related and empty of any defining essence [7].

Individuals, buildings, artifacts, species, continents, planets and stars are transient phenomena caused by the coming together of parts.   All compounded things are impermanent and eventually disintegrate. It is grasping at things as if they were permanent, or desirable in themselves,  that is one of the principal causes of dukkha [6]  - the sensation of unsatisfactoriness due the the transience of all biological pleasures.

Rebellion and liberation
The outcome of a successful rebellion is liberation from tyranny. We've identified the tyrants as the delusions that poison our minds.

Analysis of deluded religious motivation allows us to recognise and remove memes, even when they are deep-seated results of childhood indoctrination.  

With practice in meditation [4] we can also overcome hatred and attachment and the subtle delusion of inherent existence of things [7] .

We can declare our independence from the selfish replicators.

Who or what is rebelling?
But,  if we aren't just the products of our genes and our memes, what are we? Who or what is rebelling against the replicators? What is the end result of liberation?  How is it possible for us to think of ourselves as non-deluded, non-mechanistic, non-biological free agents?

According to Buddhist philosophy, the reason we can work towards liberation is that our minds, although influenced by biology, are not themselves biological nor indeed physical in nature [12], nor are they emergent phenomena of physical or biological processes [8].  In fact there is a specific meditation where we imagine we are throwing away or peeling off all our biological and social attributes in order to find out what we really are [9]. We discover that we are pure awareness, a formless [10] non-physical mental continuum that continues from life to life and body to body.

Where do we go from here?
If we indeed come to the conclusion that our mind is a non-physical continuum [12]  that attaches itself to biological systems in life after life [11], then we might decide we don't want to carry on this way.  Our delusions are bad enough when we are humans, but what chance have we if at our next rebirth [15] our mind attaches itself to a chimpanzee, dog or pig?  Before humans evolved, our minds spent countless millenia attached to the bodies of animals, and there's nothing to prevent them becoming attached to animals again. We have no absolute guarantee of taking a human rebirth.

'We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.' This is known in Buddhism as 'Our precious human life'.
Our minds can only get access to the sensory and intellectual equipment needed to liberate themselves when they are in the human realm.  So we should avoid actions and thought-patterns which might lead to lower (eg animal) rebirth. We also need to get our minds permanently out of the cycle of death and rebirth as soon as possible.

Animals are unable to separate their minds from their innate delusions and their biological nature. But we humans know from philosophical analysis that we are  non-physical entities [12]. There's no reason why this muddy vesture of biological decay should always grossly close us in. What we need is someone to help us shuffle off this mortal coil once and for all [13]. The questions are - who and how?

Deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism.
As Professor Dawkins points out, pure disinterested altruism is, in evolutionary terms, a new phenomenon.  It does not exist in nature and does not arise spontaneously in humans. It needs to be deliberately cultivated by conscious effort. To quote Shantideva [14]

"First I should strive to meditate
On equalising self and others.
Since we are equal from the point of view of suffering
I should protect everyone as I do myself."

In Buddhism, pure disinterested altruism, in its initial form, is known as 'Wishing Love'. It is the wish that those around us should be happy and free from suffering. Buddhist teachers are very careful to emphasise the 'pure and disinterested' aspects, because love is often mixed with attachment. The difference between love and attachment is:

  • Attachment is "How can you make me happy? "

  • Love is "How can I make you happy?"

Normally, the fact that love is mixed with attachment doesn't matter too much, but we can think of situations where it can be damaging, for example the over-possessive parent, or the parent who wants their child to fulfil their own frustrated career ambitions, or the husband who kills his wife in a fit of jealousy.

Pure disinterested altruism in its developed form arises out of compassion for the suffering of all sentient beings, and is known as bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is the motivation for striving for Buddhahood. 

The lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.
Samsara is the endless cycle of birth, death, ignorance and suffering. It  is like an old-fashioned Bedlam or lunatic asylum.  And we are in it.  We are all constantly chasing after delusions and infecting one another with contagious mind-viruses.  We are all mentally ill. 

No-one seems to be in charge of the asylum. No-one comes from the management to try to cure us. Maybe there is no management.   Samsara seems to be a realm for containment of the insane.

Fortunately, by force of effort and self-examination, a few of the patients have succeeded in curing themselves. The Buddhas were once just as deluded as we are now, but they've worked to develop minds of bodhichitta, free from all delusions. Not only have they healed their own minds, in the process they've gathered the experience and motivation to teach us how to heal our minds.

Training the patients to become doctors
The Buddhas' healing process contains an extra bonus. It trains more Buddhas.  The path out of Samsaric insanity is one and the same as the path to Buddhahood.

As we advance along the path, we initially become paramedic bodhisattvas who are able to to help some of the patients. Eventually we'll become fully qualified Buddhas able to help everyone.  So, as the process continues, the Samsaric asylum will become a well-staffed compassionate hospital, and eventually all beings will be cured of their delusions and will realize the true nature of their minds [16] .

- Sean Robsville


References and notes
[1]  Richard Dawkins 1989 ' The Selfish Gene' ; p200 - 201, Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-286092-5

[2]  Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Understanding of Science at Oxford University; England.  He is a fellow of the Royal Society and a leading authority on the relation of science to religion. He has sometimes been rather critical of the more obscurantist aspects of religion, for example 'Young earth' dogmas and creationism.


[12] The materialist regards the mind as an epiphenomenon or emergent property of matter. The mind is either the same thing as the brain, or a program running on the hardware of the brain. Buddhists refute this view and assert that the mind is a fundamental aspect of reality, intimately involved with the very deepest levels of existence. See Site Summary for an overview of Buddhist arguments against materialism. See also Buddhism, materialism physicalism and dualism for a philosophical treatment of the differences between the Buddhist view of the mind and the western view of  the soul.  The article Mind, soul, heaven and hell further contrasts the mind and soul from a theological viewpoint.

[14]  Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, 1993   'Universal Compassion' (2nd edn), Page 13, publ Tharpa,   ISBN 0 948006 24 2  -  also:

Universal compassion
'.....There are two essential stages to cultivating universal compassion. First we need to love all living beings, and then we need to contemplate their suffering. If we do not love someone we cannot develop real compassion for him even if he is in pain, but if we contemplate the suffering of someone we love, compassion will arise spontaneously. This is why we feel compassion for our friends or relatives but not for people we do not like. Cherishing others is the foundation for developing compassion. The way to develop and enhance our mind of cherishing love has already been explained. Now we must consider how each and every samsaric being is experiencing suffering..'

- Sean Robsville

See also:

RATIONAL BUDDHISM
If we regard Buddhism as a combination of a philosophy, psychology and religion, then how much mileage can we get from the first two aspects before we have to start invoking religious faith?

Christian versus Buddhist worldviews

Buddhism in Everyday Life
The Daily Meditation