Monday, 7 December 2009

Accepting our Evolutionary History does not Mean Rejecting our Spirituality

Richard Dawkins

''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'

In these four sentences Professor Dawkins 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.

Examining our 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.

Three poisons:
Pig = Ignorance
Cock = Desirous Attachment
Snake = Hatred

The Three Poisons

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 inherent existence).

Defying the tyranny of the memes

A meme is a delusional mind-virus which spreads by thought-contagion among people in the same manner that a computer virus spreads among PCs. Many cults have a memetic component.

The term 'meme' was coined by Richard Dawkins in the 1970's, but the idea goes back at least to the 1890's when Winston Churchill compared a certain religion (no prizes for guessing which!) to the rabies virus - 'as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog'.

If a religion or cult shows most of the following features then it is a pernicious 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 in the meme (rather than for evil actions).
  • 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, who are dehumanised and vilified as 'najis kafirs' (filthy unbelievers).
  • 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.

Buddhist meditation attempts to weed out memes.

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 phenomena. 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.

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 - the sensation of unsatisfactoriness due the the transience of all biological pleasures.

Rebellion and liberation

Tara the Liberator

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 we can also overcome hatred and attachment and the subtle delusion of inherent existence of things. We can then 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, nor are they emergent phenomena of physical or biological processes. In meditation we can imagine we are throwing away or peeling off all our biological and social attributes in order to find out what we really are. We discover that we are pure awareness, a formless non-physical mental continuum that continues from life to life and body to body.

The true nature of the mind is peace

Where do we go from here?
If we indeed come to the conclusion that our mind is a non-physical continuum that attaches itself to biological systems in life after life, 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 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 future 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 (e.g. 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. 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. 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:

"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 the desire to rescue all, without exception, from Samsara. It is known as bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is the motivation for striving for ones' own liberation for the ultimate benefit of all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This blog (and your other one) contains so much useful information and insight. Though not a complete novice, I have learned a lot and been directed toward important realizations through your writing. For this reason, I am *very* perplexed by a major contradiction: the degree of your Islamophobia, and (especially) your linking to what can only be characterized as hate sites. Please don't misunderstand me. I strongly support exposing the degree to which religious beliefs -- religious 'memes' -- foster ignorance, hate, violence, and human suffering. I have little tolerance for Islamists, or anyone else, who claim religious justification for such actions (and Islam is *not* unique in this regard). But the *way* you have chosen to express yourself on this particular issue is troubling. More so are some of the references you have linked to that are themselves excellent examples of memetic propaganda designed to sow ignorance, hate, fear, and tribalism. Some of these link the demonization of Islam to the demonization of "liberals", progressive public policy, etc. The 'memes' propagated on these sites are absolutely contrary to Buddhist practice and consciousness. Again, I agree with almost everything in this post. But something is amiss in your treatment of Islam in your blogs. Spreading hate and fear is not education or enlightenment.

Please help me to better understand this contradiction. It has led me to consider abandoning what has otherwise been two excellent websites. Thank you.