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Monday, August 18, 2008

Buddhism and evolution

Buddhism and evolution

While Buddha didn’t have much to say about the origins of life and the universe I find the Dharma to be very open to evolution. Evolution says that we evolved from other life forms and are therefore just new models of previous models of life which means that we must have genes and DNA that are similar and we do.
We humans share some 96 per cent of genetic material with chimpanzees which affirms my Buddhist belief that we are irrecoverably interconnected and dependent upon other life forms. We are merely different branches on a larger tree. The tree of evolved sentient life on earth.
As Buddhists we believe in rebirth which in my mind is a form of evolution which is both based upon cause and effect. In Buddhism we know that the consequences of our actions and certain events will stay within our “spiritual DNA” and determine what form “we” will evolve into after this current stage that we find ourselves within. And in corroboration, physics tells us that “matter is neither destroyed or created. It can only be transformed from one form to another”. Which backs up the Buddhist evolutionary teaching of rebirth.
And as a Buddhist I believe that when we die our bodies will blend back into the larger plane of existence and live on in other forms of life such as food for flowers and trees via our ashes or nutrient rich bodies decomposing in the fertile earth. This enables other forms of life to have the best chance at thriving and continuing the evolution of life on earth. We come from stardust and will return to stardust as the universe expands outward, reaches a stabilising point, and then reverts its motion back toward a central point resulting in its destruction, (James: the big crunch) this process again to be repeated infinitely. All forms of life depend upon each other for success and evolution. I liken it to a track and field relay event. One runner starts the race and hands a baton off to another runner once he runs his distance and then that runner goes until he goes the distance and passes the baton on to another runner, etc.

Concept of impermanence

Then there is the Buddhist concept of impermanence where nothing lasts forever. We know that 90-99 per cent of all life on Earth that ever lived has gone extinct which upholds my relay race example. A certain species of life might exist for a while (dinosaurs) and then as other beings and events evolve they are eclipsed and a new life form emerges to take their place. So while in Buddhism we believe that humans have the best chance at liberation from suffering we are still nothing more than a link in the long chain of evolving species and forms of life and I take comfort in being nothing greater and nothing less than any other sentient being.

Notions of evolution

While researching this post, however, I found the following counterpoint: While Cooper certainly makes a valid point in stating that Buddhism has never had the problems with Darwinism that monotheism has, it does not thereby follow that one can easily harmonise the two. Buddhism certainly does talk about evolution, but never at the level of populations. Buddhist notions of evolution involve the movement of an individual karmic stream through samsara, taking on different bodies in different environments according to regular laws of cause and conditioning. The process carries no certainty of progress from lower to higher or from simple to complex, and the overall context of this is the idea of rebirth, a topic that Cooper leaves out of an otherwise fairly complete account of basic Buddhist theory and practice.
James: While I do recognise that the scientific communities understanding of evolution and the Buddhist understanding are not exactly on the same page, I think in general they are in agreement. It is not entirely accurate in my view to say (as the counterpoint postulates) Buddhist evolution is only about the individual karmic stream as Buddhism teaches that there is no such thing really as an individual. As well as teaching that there is such a concept as collective karma.
Buddhism’s teaching of interconnection and interdependence do harmonise with evolution of populations. I would argue that we (as “individuals”) are slightly different, (depending on karma) single cell populations of a larger “being” that is evolving both on the micro level (individuals/sentient beings/populations) but also at the macro level (existence itself). It is difficult from my point of view to separate one sentient being from another, therefore I believe that it can be argued that in a way, all life evolves together. The counterpoint goes on to say that the Buddhist idea of evolution carries no certainty of progress from simple to complex.


Yet I beg to differ as in Buddhism, beings go through “lower” stages of consciousness in births (animals for example) until we secure a human birth which is the vehicle to evolve into an enlightened being. There is regression yes, as a human might act in a way that would see him reborn as, oh I don’t know, a slug or something. So, yes this process may seem haphazard but I think most Buddhists would be in agreement that eventually all beings will realise liberation from suffering and realise enlightenment. Thus, in the end it is basically a process of going from “lower” to “higher” to use such blunt, dualistic terms. Besides, there is no certainty of progress in purely science based evolution either. Suppose a massive comet hits earth and destroys not only all life but our atmosphere and all water, not much life could progress from that point. The same goes for the day when our galaxy collides with the Andromeda Galaxy, not much will survive that disruption of sentient evolution!
True, there is not a linear advancement so to speak but the science only view of evolution isn’t pure linear advancement either. It is more like a tree where a branch will grow out from the trunk of the tree in a spin off of the tree but might die out eventually. The main form of the tree (the trunk), however, keeps growing and evolving. It’s not simply a matter of going from point A to point B. It’s more like A branches off into A1 and A2 where A1 might die off but A2 survives to reach point B where it branches off again into B1, B2 and maybe a B3. And so forth and so on.
I think I’ll stop here. I’ve probably confused you all but if I you try reading it again, maybe it will make sense the second time. If it never makes sense then no worries, it’s just another branch dying out and something else will come along later that does make sense.

Courtesy The Buddhist

1 comment:

Hugh said...

Your certainties are interesting but far from compelling. I
teach courses on Buddhism and do not believe that there is haphazardness in the process of rebirth. In Buddhist cultures there is considerable fear of being reborn in lower life forms due to the way people live their lives. For instance, the three poisons may so overwhelm us that we no longer function at a human level. The six realms can be viewed as a kaleidoscope in which our positive energies are dissipated and we slide from gods to humans to demons, perhaps to lower animal forms. It is not difficult to see that these states of mind are present in us and are present in others. Merely look at our present world and the wars taking place for power and scarce resources.

You stated: "...beings go through “lower” stages of consciousness in births (animals So, yes this process may seem haphazard but I think most Buddhists would be in agreement that eventually all beings will realise liberation from suffering and realise enlightenment. Thus, in the end it is basically a process of going from “lower” to “higher” to use such blunt, dualistic terms. "

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