Buddhism and evolution

Buddhism and evolution

Many religions have perspectives on the theory of evolution, including the degree of compatibility that evolution can have with their respective faith. Furthermore, many contend that the concepts of divine creation and evolution are mutually exclusive beliefs. Buddhism is distinctive in that it does not necessarily mandate the belief in a creator god, nor does it traditionally advocate or disparage belief in evolution. Buddhist cosmology traditionally does incorporate the notion that higher planes of existence (lokas) are real, and a being can, driven by extremely good karma, transmigrate between the human and higher planes. However, these beings are not associated with the creation of the universe or of human life.

Since Buddhists do not believe in the existence of a supreme god or creator of the universe, a common question asked of Buddhism (both by new converts to the religion and to those seeking debate with followers) is "How does the universe come to be, if not by the will of God?" The debate usually relies upon Buddhist literature, the vast majority of which predates the modern theory of evolution.

Aggañña Sutta

The Buddha typically retained a pointed silence in regard to these sorts of questions, so much so that at one point he was directly asked how the universe and life came to be and simply refused to answer. This refusal to answer should not be interpreted to imply ignorance-- there were competing theories at the time which the Buddha had undoubtedly heard of. Rather, this non-response is usually understood to mean that the question is irrelevant to Buddhist theory. One does not need to know the origin of life, nor agree with Buddha's position on scientific topics, in order to become awakened.

Put another way, Buddhism is not an overly metaphysical religion. It is more oriented toward phenomenology rather than metaphysics, which has contributed to some questions as to whether Buddhism should be regarded as a religion at all. Buddhism can not be regarded as existentialism either since nothing can be proven to exist according to the teachings. And it can not be regarded as nihilism since nothing can be proven not to exist. Buddhism falls into a category by itself.

However, there is one scripture in which the Buddha does appear to give a highly detailed answer to this issue. This is the Aggañña Sutta, found in the Pali Canon, in which the Buddha, speaking to the monk Vasettha, a former Brahmin, states the following:

:"There comes a time, Vasettha, when, after the lapse of a long, long period, this world died. And when this happens, beings have mostly been reborn into the Realm of Radiance [as devas] ; and there they dwell, made of mind, feeding on rapture, self-luminous, traversing the air, continuing in glory; and thus they remain for a long, long period of time. There comes also a time, Vasettha, when sooner or later this world begins to re-evolve. When this happens, beings who had deceased from the World of Radiance usually come to life as humans...now at that time, all had become one world of water, dark, and of darkness that maketh blind. No moon nor sun appeared, no stars were seen, nor constellations, neither was night manifest nor day, neither months nor half-months, neither years nor seasons, neither female nor male. Beings were reckoned just as beings only. And to those beings, Vasettha, sooner or later after a long time, earth with its savours was spread out in the waters, even as a scum forms on the surface of boiled milky rice that is cooling, so did the earth appear."

Because the Buddha seems to present a model of cosmology wherein the universe expands and contracts over extremely long periods of time, this description has been found by some to be consistent with the expanding universe model and Big Bang. The Buddha seems to be saying here that the universe expands outward, reaches a stabilising point, and then reverts its motion back toward a central point resulting in its destruction, this process again to be repeated infinitely. Throughout this expanding and contracting process, the objects found within the universe undergo periods of development and change over a long stretch of time, according to the environment in which they find themselves. Following this passage above, the Buddha goes on to say that the "beings" he described in this paragraph become attached to an earthlike planet, get reborn there, and remain there for the duration of the life. As a consequence of this, physical characteristics change and evolutionary changes takes place. This is often interpreted as a very rough theory of evolution. Furthermore, the Aggañña Sutta presents water as pre-existent to earthlike planets, with the planet forming with water and the life moving from the water onto the earth. Buddha does not talk about a specific earth, but about earthlike planets in general.

The Aggañña Sutta is often regarded with great reverence for an apparent theory about cosmology which predated similar theories in western science by well over two thousand years.

Additional views

It would be rash to conclude that what the Buddha is saying in the Aggañña Sutta is in complete agreement with scientific evolution. The Buddha also says that the reason beings are attracted to the earth is because it tasted good to them and they enjoyed eating the substance. This should be seen as attachment to likes and dislikes in former lives which result in the rebirth at specific locations according to the impressions mind has gathered in the past lives.

Because of some rather strange details found in the sutta, and more importantly because the sutta is quite long and overall is not about the creation of the world at all, some have interpreted this account to not be a literal description of the creation of the world and the process of life. Some scholars and practitioners believe that the Buddha is speaking metaphorically about the nature of attachment, and is thus giving a teaching about how the mind forms attachments to material things and objects of awareness, thus causing suffering. On the other hand, some scholars, such as Richard Gombrich, argue that the entire sutra was intended as a parody of contemporary Hindu metaphysics, and therefore it should not be interpreted literally.

This is often not accounted for by those who interpret the Aggañña Sutta to contain a theory of evolution, but it is an issue: if the Buddha regards the answer as meaningless, why would he give a teaching on it? And if he does not regard the answer as meaningless, why did he not provide it to another person who asked? One of the answers could be that he gave the teaching to people who had a very fixed idea of the existence of the universe or tried to explain the creation seen on a relative level. Buddha recognized the world as a relative phenomenon, but ultimately saw it as none existing and as a part of minds infinite cycle of creations.

The question above can be answered by understanding the Buddha's teaching method. The Buddha walked through kingdoms and villages, talking to kings, peasants, and thieves, using different methods he thought most beneficial to different people's states of mind and kinds of suffering. The Buddha likened his teaching to a doctor's medicine to cure a patient's suffering. The medicine must be of the right content and right amount to the right patient at the right time. As such, there is no absolute truth as there is no single, absolute cure-all medicine fitting all patients. For a monk who was still distracted by (female) physical beauty, the Buddha taught nonattachment and the impermanence of life, beauty, and all things, telling him to go observe decaying corpse in a graveyard to rid his mind of attachment to bodily beauty. For a different monk who wanted to commit suicide out of his disgust with his impure and impermanent body, the Buddha taught that monks need to respect their life and keep their bodies reasonably healthy as a means to support meditation practice and attain awakening. As such, the Buddha's teaching is best studied in its context: when, where, and to whom he taught what, with the ultimate goal of guiding that particular person out of confusion and attachment and towards awakening. He considered pure philosophical arguments useless and a waste of time and discouraged his monks from engaging in such arguments. He reminded them that they should spend their precious time to practice mindfulness and meditation to rid themselves of greed, anger, and ignorance to attain awakening. That is why the origin of the universe or the modern concept of evolution were not elaborated in the Buddha's teaching and he often did not answer questions regarding those topics.

Buddhist theory ultimately states that everything is mind. The infinite recreation of the universe is connected with the idea that the universe is real and substantial. In Buddhism there is no duality with an object and an observer. This is explained in more details in the Dzogchen and Mahamudra tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Mahamudra bases some of its teachings on the Indian philosopher Nagarjuna and his Madhyamaka teachings. Fully understanding Madhyamaka removes the reason to be interested in the creation of the universe.

Modern Buddhism

Aside from scriptural study, since no major principles of their religion contradict it, most Buddhists tacitly accept the theory of evolution. As Buddhism does not concern itself with these kinds of issues, many Buddhists also do not think about these kinds of questions as particularly meaningful or helpful from a religious perspective since the Buddha said that the only reality is perceived reality.

The Buddha argued that there is no apparent rational necessity for the existence of a creator god because everything ultimately is created by mind. There is no direct experience involved and no rational necessity. Belief in a creator is not essential to a religion based on phenomenology. Since belief in a creator is not necessary, a particular theory about life and the cause of the universe is also not necessary. Some of Buddhas famous last words were "Behold, O monks, this is my last advice to you. All conditioned things in the world are changeable. They are not lasting. Try to accomplish your own liberation with diligence".

Ultimately, then, Buddhism is quite comfortable accepting the theory of evolution and modern scientific theories about the formation of the universe. This can be argued either from an interpretation of the Agañña Sutta favoring the notion that it is a theory of evolution (though this can be difficult to sustain), or from the above standpoint that it simply does not matter.

External links

* [http://www.tibet.org/dan/madhyamika/ An Analysis of Madhyamaka Particle Physics]
* [http://www.iep.utm.edu/n/nagarjun.htm Nagarjuna (c. 150-250) at The International Encyclopedia of Philosophy]
* [http://www.buddhistinformation.com/ida_b_wells_memorial_sutra_library/agganna_sutta.htm Agganna Sutta Translation]
* [http://dighanikaya.googlepages.com/D27AggaaSutta.pdf Agganna Sutta Translation with notes]

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