Feb 17, 2009
Four reasons Buddhists can love evolution
Evolution — at least in the United States — has a deeply troubled relationship with religion. Or at least it does with some religions.
As you can see from the Pew Trust chart below, Buddhists on the whole (81% of them) think that evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on Earth.
In fact of all the religious traditions included on the chart, Buddhists are the most accepting of evolution, with evangelical Christians, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses being the least accepting.
Those of us who value an objective and evidence-based (read “scientific”) understanding of the world are greatly disturbed by attempts to displace sound science from the classroom, to introduce spurious ideas such as “creation science” and “Intelligent Design,” and to give the impression that evolution is somehow scientifically controversial, when in fact it’s backed by an overwhelming amount of evidence from all branches of science.
Many of us see the intrusion of religion into the public sphere as being a serious erosion of the principles of the US constitution, which protect us from government-sponsored religious coercion by ensuring that no religion can use government to foist itself upon us. We see the fear of Evolution that some religious practitioners have as being a potentially serious threat to our own religious freedoms.
But evolution, on the other hand, holds no fear for Buddhists, and in fact it fits with the Buddhist world view rather well. And this year being the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of “The Origin Of Species,” this is perhaps a good time to explain why it is that Buddhism quite happily accepts evolution as an explanation for the origins of human life, and to explore how Buddhists relate to science in general and evolution in particular.
NO CREATION MYTH
First up is that Buddhism has no creation myth to defend. It’s true that in the Pali Aggañña Sutta (PDF) the Buddha tells a story about the creation of the world, in which he claims that the the universe goes through periods of evolution and involution (similar to the ideas of the “Big Bang” and what’s sometimes called “The Big Crunch” where gravitational forces draw all the matter in the universe back to a central point).
But the sutta is a parody on the claims of the religious Orthodox of the day — the Brahmins — to be a superior class of human being, with special privileges in society and a special relationship with the gods. The parody shows the gods to be deluded beings just like ourselves and the Brahmins to be Pretenders to social and religious pre-eminence. The Aggañña Sutta is clearly not to be taken literally as a origins myth.
If you need convincing of that fact, you’ll need to take a look at a broader range of Buddhist teachings, including the famous Parable of the Poisoned Arrow. In this parable the Buddha points out that religious practitioners who concern themselves with the origins of the universe and other topics are missing the point of religious practice.
Religion, a very fundamental sense, is not about God, myths, rules, or even beliefs. Instead it’s about moving from a state of suffering to a state of non-suffering. The rest of a religious tradition is merely (in theory, anyway) a tool to help us achieve the end of suffering.
The Buddha in fact said that he only taught one thing, suffering and how to end it. Contemplating the origins of the universe or any other such topic is merely a distraction. Just as a man shot with a poison arrow would die if instead of pulling out the arrow he speculated endlessly about who made the arrow, why it was shot, what kind of wood was used, etc, so too suffering beings continue to suffer as long as they focus on anything but understanding how suffering arises and how to deal with it. And even that is only useful insofar as those beings actually put their understanding into practice.
It’s likely that the Buddha had no special knowledge of the origins of the universe, but even if he had known he wouldn’t have discussed the matter: “And why are [these things] undeclared by me? Because they are not connected with the goal, are not fundamental to the holy life. They do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That’s why they are undeclared by me.
“Conjecture about the origin of the world is an unconjecturable that is not to be conjectured about, that would bring madness and vexation to anyone who conjectured about it.” [Acintita Sutta]. Certainly, some fundamentalists seem seriously out-to-lunch, so perhaps the Buddha was right in claiming that dwelling repeatedly on things you can never prove from your own experience can drive you a bit crazy.
EMPHASIS ON SEEKING TRUTH, NOT BELIEVING DOGMA
Buddhism has an emphasis on seeking truth, and has no interest in getting people to “believe” anything. Belief is not a path to salvation. No amount of belief that the arrow isn’t poisoned, or belief that it was sent as a test of your faith, or that it’s a relatively new arrow and not the old arrow that carbon dating shows it to be will save you from suffering. It’s our actions that cause us suffering or help us to escape suffering.
Buddhism encourages us not to believe what we’ve been told is the truth, but instead to seek the truth through our own experience. The Kalama Sutta, often called the Buddha’s Charter of Free Inquiry, is the most important source that affirms that we must each seek the truth though our own experience. The Kalamas were a clan who were rather confused because they had lots of teachers, both orthodox Brahmins and more experimental shramanas, coming to their area and giving contradictory teachings. Who was right? Who was wrong? The Kalamas were interested in the Buddha’s take on how to cut their through the thicket of views and establish what was true. The Buddha said,
Don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’
That may not seem to leave much! You can’t trust sacred scriptures, tradition, or even so-called “common sense.” So what did the Buddha say could be trusted as a source of truth? He said,
When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.
So there are two things here. First, we have to trust our own experience. What leads to happiness and what leads to suffering? Second, we can trust “the wise” – but with the unspoken proviso that we have to establish who are “the wise” on the basis of — again — our experience.
It’s precisely fundamentalism’s “belief in beliefs” and its taking the writings of bronze age nomadic herdsmen as the infallible and literal word of God that leads them into the trap of having to deny the evidence of their own senses. As Barbara O’Brien writes on her About.com blog, “I mean, who you gonna believe? A 5,000-year-old book or your own lying eyes?”
For Buddhists, the outmoded scientific understanding of 5th century BCE India is simply not a problem. We’ve already been encouraged to reject anything that conflicts with evidence. And since the evidence from biology, physics, and chemistry suggests overwhelmingly that the universe is billions of years old and that life has evolved, even if Buddhist scriptures did conflict with evolution (which they don’t) we’d have an ethical obligation to discard them.
ACCEPTANCE OF IMPERMANENCE
When Charles Darwin outlined his theory of evolution through natural selection 150 years ago, virtually everyone — scientists and preachers alike — believed that species were fixed and immutable. What would the Buddha have said about the fact that species do in fact change and evolve over time? He’d have said, “Of course. All conditioned things are subject to change.” There simply is no problem in Buddhism with accepting that species evolve.
The monotheistic religions tend to take what’s called an “eternalistic” view of the universe. God is eternal and unchanging (and yet somehow still manages to act). The soul is eternal and unchanging (and yet somehow can be either saved or damned).
This view of things (or at least certain important things) is an attempt to find security in an unstable and impermanent world. Existentially, we find we suffer because we lose the things we love, including ourselves. How do we respond to the raw fact of impermanence? We can either argue that the self is in fact eternal and unchanging, or we can do as Buddhism does and accept and embrace change.
Buddhism sees the problem of change not as being change itself, but in how we relate to it — the problem is that we cling to impermanent things. When we cling to something impermanent (anything from status, or a new car, or a relationship, all the way to life itself) we will inevitably suffer as the thing we depend upon changes. The problem is not change, but clinging.
Buddhism would see the attempt to see species as immutable to be a form of clinging — clinging to the categories that the mind creates. In the mind of the eternalist it becomes a form of blasphemy to question the labels that the mind imposes upon reality. Buddhism is very astute at recognizing that all labels are merely arbitrary and static snapshots of our perception of an ever-changing process of change. Even the categories and labels that Buddhism uses are seen as being, ultimately, false. Thus we have texts like the Heart Sutra that negate important Buddhist concepts such as the Four Noble Truths (“There is no suffering, no origination, no stopping, no path”) as well as numerous other teachings.
In the Pali texts it’s clear that the same approach is taken. The Dharma (the teachings and practices) are seen as a raft, to be abandoned when we reach the far shore of direct perception of reality. We of course need the raft just now, but it’s important also that we recognize that the raft is something to be abandoned. If we cling to it we’ll never be able to step onto the shores of true spiritual awakening.
So in short, Buddhism has no fear of impermanence. The evolution of species is just another example of impermanence and of the lack of inherent selfhood.
CONTINUITY OF EVOLUTION AND DHARMA
While traveling around the world aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin was struck by the fact that he could understand facial expressions of people from different cultures, but not their languages or gestures. Darwin also believed that our sense of moral compassion came from a natural desire to alleviate the suffering of others. He was an ardent abolitionist. Paul Ekman, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco … said … that these views are nearly identical to those of Tibetan Buddhists. “I am now calling myself a Darwinian,” Ekman recalled the Dalai Lama saying, after Ekman read him some passages of Darwin’s work. [From New Scientist]
That’s quite something, that the Dalai Lama considers himself a Darwinist. From an evolutionary point of view, ethics and compassion have evolved. They are a natural part of the evolved universe. This is important to the Dalai Lama because he has a profound belief that goodness is inherent to our nature.
The English Buddhist teacher, Sangharakshita, (who happens to be my own teacher) makes explicit this link between the Darwinianly evolved universe and the path of spirituality. He argues that we have inherited faculties such as self-awareness and compassion, but that our evolution is incomplete. Biological, or Darwinian evolution, he calls “The Lower Evolution,” while he compares and contrasts the spiritual path by referring to it as “The Higher Evolution.”
The Lower Evolution is not a conscious process, has no end-point (it is “non-teleological”), and operates on groups rather than on individuals. The Higher Evolution is not something that just happens to us: it’s the result of our own efforts to shape our consciousness, to make something of ourselves. The Higher Evolution is teleological — it has an end point. We find ourselves suffering, and the sense of self-awareness we have inherited allows us to ask why this is, and what we can do about it. The end point of The Higher Evolution is the attainment of non-suffering. And The Higher Evolution is an individual rather than a collective process. We can practice with others, we can learn from others, and we can even sometimes teach and guide others, but in the end it is we as individuals who must bring about the changes within ourselves that lead to non-suffering.
An old friend of mine once made a very interesting comparison between the Lower and Higher Evolutions. Biological evolution takes place through selection pressure. There are limited resources in the world and creatures must compete for them. Those creatures that are most successful at competing for resources will survive and will pass on their genetic adaptations to future generations. And so species evolve in response to selection pressure.
In the “environment” of the mind we have a “population” of mental habits and mental states. Some of those (greed, hatred, delusion) cause us suffering. Others, by contrast (compassion, awareness) tend to make us happier. Once we commit ourselves to the goal of suffering less, and as we maintain an awareness of that goal in our consciousness, we create a selection pressure of sorts.
Those habits that cause us suffering will tend to lose the battle for inner resources because we will choose not to feed them. Those mental habits that tend to being happiness will tend to thrive and grow because resources (our mental energy) is being poured into them.
Here’s what’s said to be a Cherokee legend:
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.
“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
This is evolution in action — not the Darwinian evolution of species but the Higher Evolution of the individual consciousness. Biological evolution has given us the tools of self-awareness and understanding that allow us to “evolve” ourselves into more spiritually advanced — and happier — beings. But it’s up to us to do the work of feeding only the helpful wolf.
Evolution is, for Buddhists, not something to deny or to be afraid of, but something to accept (as long as the evidence is in its favor) and to make use of.