TED Conversations

Erik Richardson

Teacher, Richardson Ideaworks, Inc.


This conversation is closed. Start a new conversation
or join one »

Is compassion the only "pure" meme? Are there others?

Let us allow that the Dalai Lama is right: If you want to be happy, practice compassion; if you want others to be happy, practice compassion.

If happiness comes only from being compassionate, then: our compassion for others means we want them to be happy. Them being happy requires that they be compassionate. This concern for the happiness of still others, requires that those others, in turn be compassionate, and so on. In this way, compassion is a meme that seeks only to generate more of itself. All memes seek to replicate, but not ONLY to replicate. Hence the claim that it is "pure" in a meaningful sense. Does this seem viable? Are there other memes you can think of which seem to possess this same quality?

progress indicator
  • Jul 22 2011: Thoughts in response to Michael:
    One decides how to act by allowing oneself to be motivated by pure love, and not to allow your self - mind and ego - to judge what the 'kindest thing' or 'worst thing' to do is, let God be the judge of that. Not easy, I know.
    'Fall back'? - to believe that everything is the will of God is actually the one of the hardest levels of selflessness to truly attain.
    Observers will never collectively perceive that the mark has been hit perfectly with a spiritually developed individual's every act, however the point is the motivation behind the act - this is the only thing that can be 'truthful'. The rest is perception. If one acts from this place at all times, one can not be unhappy. And those who are around someone who acts from this place have the opportunity for personal spiritual transformation. However, there is much falsity around the achievement and attainment of this level of awareness which creates the complexities and confusions analysed here.
    • thumb
      Jul 22 2011: I think Michael has a good point that can be illustrated with a comparison to medicine. If a doctor acts with compassion, and even with, say, complete faith in God, to help each patient, but he has not spent time over the last couple of years reading about new research/findings in the medical journals, there is going to be an important ethical gap. We could multiply such examples across other fields as well, such as counseling or pastoral work.

      Every compassionate doctor/teacher/priest/etc. that I have known would, indeed, be quite unhappy if some aspect of their practice (or lack of practice) caused their effort to fail - no matter how pure their motives may have been.
  • May 18 2011: Two points. First of all, compassion does not necessarily manifest as being gentle or soft. Compassion is the principle whereby someone acts selflessly for the benefit of others, and the more one's self stands out of the way, the more natural (i.e. spontaneous and accurate) is the compassion. For example, the kindest thing which might be done for someone in a particular situation is to administer a good swift kick in the pants. The worst thing in that situation might be to coddle the person or allow him to walk away without consequence for his action. How does one decide?

    This brings me to the second point, which is that a certain wisdom and skillful means need to be cultivated in order for compassion to manifest. Otherwise you end up with what might be called idiot compassion--always placating the situation. Since some forms of compassion cannot occur without the practice of cultivating insight, wisdom and skillful means ( unless one wishes to fall back on the position that all activity is Buddha activity, or the will of God, etc) therefore compassion is not necessarily a self-replicating meme.

    Note that I did not say that kindness cannot occur without practice, or that all compassion must be practice-based; only that compassionate acts must stem from developed selfless wisdom in order to hit the mark perfectly with every act.
    • thumb
      Jul 22 2011: An interesting line of thought, Michael. That the act of compassion might not successfully replicate in a given instance does not undermine the fact that its nature is still to attempt to self-replicate. This is similar to a biological virus—being unsuccessful in a given host organism doesn't mean its goal of perpetual replication has been changed.
  • Apr 20 2011: Firstly, I'm not sure where the idea of purity fits in with Buddhism. From my understanding, objects and ideas are neither pure nor impure, these are simply convenient fictions (the Heart Sutra states this quite clearly). However, I think that if our intention has a wholesome motivation (i.e. to make others happy), then our words, thoughts and actions can be 'pure' or perhaps more accurately "beneficial to others".
    Secondly, I'm reminded of a story from "Liao Fan's Lessons" a Buddhist/Taoist classic. A magistrate ignores the insults of an aggressive drunk, deciding instead to practice compassion. The drunk later murders someone and is sentenced to death. The magistrate regretted not punishing the man, stating that if he had punished him, then maybe his behaviour might not have escalated to include murder. To paraphrase Liao Fan, great evil can often appear to be great good, and great good can often appear to be great evil, but what really matters is the wisdom of the person performing the act. I believe that once we attach the notion of purity to compassion, it becomes above reproach, and that, like it did for the magistrate, can give us considerable cause for regret.
    • thumb
      Apr 21 2011: You make an interesting point, Michael. Your example echoes a traditional weakness of trying to ground ethics on the basis of consequences. The unknowability and incalculability of all of the possible outcomes of our actions ensure that we can never have confidence in the value of an act if judged by its consequences.

      While my question is meant to be broader than just the Buddhist view, I should point out that for many of the traditions within Buddhism, compassion is exactly the most pure, for that is our natural state once we have removed all of intellectual barnacles and emotional attachments (like 'regret' oddly enough). Beyond that, I'm afraid a full discussion of the different traditions and views of Buddhism will lead me astray from the spirit of the question.
      • Apr 21 2011: My apologies Erik, I found this thread was connected to the Robert Thurman discussion, so I (incorrectly) assumed you were coming from a Buddhist perspective. ( That said, if ethics is not based on consequences, then what system is our entire law and government based on?)
        Well, now I've cleared that up, I guess my answer is that a meme will naturally seek to replicate itself, so no, I think compassion will replicate itself, just as any other meme would. All memes have their own character, some are aggressive, some dangerous, and compassion is well, compassionate.
        Sorry Erik, I still do not really grasp what you mean by pure.
        • thumb
          Apr 21 2011: I connected to Bob Thurman's talk because I think it reflects a living example of the idea, just not the only one.

          Consider a meme like "limiting offspring will increase material wealth." This idea will replicate and spread, but at the same time the function of its execution/acceptance is a limiting of offspring. In parallel, consider a computer virus that had no secondary effects - it didn't erase files, it didn't generate advertising spam, it didn't dump spyware onto your computer. If its _only_ goal was to spread, then it would be "pure" in the sense I was exploring.
  • thumb
    Apr 8 2011: no,i dont think compassion is the only meme.i prefer to put happiness and compassion together in this way-people who are happy practise compassion which is quite different from the statement people who practise compassion are happy.

    when i think more about how DL would come up with his idea of happiness, i notice that his religion also focus very much on being kind ,being compassionate.so for non-believers ,would it be different when they follow the rule ?i mean to what extent his belief(or world view ,value,what matters to him) contributes to happiness and chances are he could misattribute "mere compassion" to happiness.

    i ll be very curious if he could live like anyone one of us working towards dealines ,developing plans,paying bills for a while and then see how practising compassion can help.overall, it is a very good calling to people to be passionate .
  • Comment deleted

    • thumb
      Apr 7 2011: What I meant by "are there others" is not whether or not there are other people who have discovered compassion, but whether or not there are other memes for which replication is their means AND end. [?]