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A Buddhist Philosophy of Evolution

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by David Loy and John Stanley

"The eye that searches the Milky Way galaxy is itself an eye shaped by the Milky Way. The mind that searches for contact with the Milky Way is the very mind of the Milky Way galaxy in search of its own depths." --Thomas Berry & Brian Swimme

"I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide Earth, the sun and the moon and the stars." --Dogen

Most religions are uncomfortable with evolution, because it seems incompatible with their own creation stories, especially when those stories are understood literally. But if religions are to remain relevant today, they need to stop denying evolution and instead refocus their message on its meaning. According to Brian Swimme, the greatest scientific discovery of all time is that if you leave hydrogen gas alone (for 14 billion years, plus or minus a few hundred million years) "it turns into rosebushes, giraffes, and humans." Might this also be the most important spiritual discovery of all time?

Biological evolution is one of three progressive processes. First was the fusion of Big Bang particles into heavier elements in the cores of stars, which then exploded and scattered them to coalesce into new solar systems. In the second stage, elements such as carbon, oxygen, and sodium provided the physical basis for the eventual appearance of self-replicating species about 4 billion years ago, including the development of the modern human species about 200,000 years ago. Last but not least were the cultural developments necessary to produce highly-evolved human beings such as Śākyamuni Buddha and Einstein.

How shall we understand these three "nested" processes? Many religious people see a God outside these processes who is directing them. In contrast, many scientists have understood the evolution of life simply as a process of random DNA mutations and natural selection. Is there a third alternative?

According to the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, evolution is neither random nor determined but creative. A tendency toward increasing complexity is hard to overlook, as is its association with greater awareness. From a Buddhist perspective, this opens up interesting possibilities. Can we understand this groping self-organization as the universe itself becoming more self-aware?

In "The Universe Story," Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry offer this view: "The mind that searches for contact with the Milky Way is the very mind of the Milky Way galaxy in search of its inner depths." According to one Buddhist tradition, when the Buddha woke up, the whole universe woke up. That might be one answer to the old question, "If there is no self, who becomes enlightened?"

Viewed less dualistically, our desire to awaken (Buddha means "awakened one") can be understood as the urge of the cosmos to become aware of itself. And "waking up" is realizing that "I" am not inside my body, looking out at a world that is separate from me. Rather, Buddhist emphasis on interdependence -- the fact that everything is dependent upon everything else for its being -- means that "I" am what the whole universe is doing right here and now, one of the countless ways that the totality of its causes and conditions comes together.

But there are complications.

Every species is an experiment of the biosphere, and according to biologists less than one percent of all species that have ever appeared on Earth still survive today. Our super-sized cortex enables us to be co-creators, and with us new types of "species" have become possible: knives and cities, poetry and world wars, cathedrals and concentration camps, symphonies and nuclear bombs. As these examples suggest, our unique creative powers have their problematical side. Nietzsche's Zarathustra says that "man is a rope across an abyss." The metaphor is suggestive: Are we a transitional species? Must we evolve further in order to survive at all?

In his book "Thank God for Evolution," Michael Dowd describes our collective problem as "systemic sin": "The fundamental immaturity of the human species at this time in history is that our systems of governance and economics not only permit but actually encourage subsets of the whole (individuals and corporations) to benefit at the expense of the whole." It looks as if we can no longer afford the delusion of separate selves that can pursue their own benefit at the cost of the whole.

According to the Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, "the Buddha attained individual awakening. Now we need a collective enlightenment to stop the course of destruction." Are figures like the Buddha and Gandhi examples of the direction in which our species needs to develop today? The "growing tip" of cultural evolution today involves spiritual practices that challenge the fiction of a separate self whose own well-being is distinguishable from the well-being of "others." Perhaps our basic problem is a profound misunderstanding of what one's self really is.

As far as we know, we are the only species that can dis-identify with every particular thing (which happens during meditation, when one "lets go" of any mental event that occurs) and thereby come to realize that the whole universe is our body. The other side of that realization is assuming responsibility for the well-being of the whole. In Buddhism, wisdom and compassion work together.

Without the compassion that arises when we realize our non-duality -- empathy not only with other humans but with the whole biosphere -- it is becoming likely that civilization as we know it may not survive even this century. Nor would it deserve to. It remains to be seen whether the Homo sapiens experiment will be a successful vehicle for the cosmic evolutionary process.

This gives us another perspective on our collective relationship with the biosphere. Isn't the global ecological crisis a spiritual challenge, which calls upon us to wake up and realize our non-duality with the Earth?