Buddhism and Organic Evolution.
Posted on July 30th, 2012
Unlike the clear metaphysical stance of the Monotheists (Christians, Jews Muslims etc.), Buddhism does not endorse a definitive background ontology on what may be called the ‘Cosmic Habitat’ – the grand stage on which the events of the world as we know it are enacted. The Monotheists have a very direct description of the how the world – the cosmos – came into being. There was a Creation Event and the Divine Lord made things to fit a Plan that reflected his his Omniscience. Living species were immutable products of of this Grand Design. In Indian religions generally – this includes Buddhism – a very different approach is seen in regard to these fundamentally important matters. There was no Creation Event and the cosmos was thought to extend without limit both forwards and backwards in time. How this ‘open system’ of doubly infinite extent sprang into existence is not explained. The Buddha famously refused to answer or explain metaphysical conundrums arising from the concept of an infinitely extended past and a future that has no boundary either way. The subtle difficulties involved in infinite extension was partly resolved by introducing the notion of Cosmic Cycles (Kalpa) which again is rooted in Indian speculations and was adopted by Buddhist thinkers – in much the same way as the ancient notion of trans-generational retributive justice (karma) was made a core part of Buddhism. We must discuss – before proceding further – the notion of ‘cyclicity’ in a model world system. Modern Cosmologists speak of a Cyclic or Oscillatory Model of the Cosmos if each cycle has a beginning and an end but the sequence as a whole is doubly endless – that is, it has no true beginning or end. In Ancient India this linked system of cycles was thought to be the true structure of reality. Notice carefully that in the system as a whole nothing can be truly original – any appearance of novelty within a cycle is a deception. All events within the cycle are mirrored exactly in cycles preceding or following it, Thus the Buddhas are not unique – that there is an infinite succession of them becomes clear if we use our intuition to visualize the whole catenation of cosmic cycles.
Let us now look at the meaning of the word ‘evolution’ in the context of the grand flux of cosmic cycles. As noted above austere Buddhism has no need for cosmological speculations of this kind – it is the commentarial literature that delves into these matters and we cannot be sure whether the historical Buddha expressed well-defined views on these arcane subjects. According to the speculative forays of the Abhidharma Schools each cycle commences as an undifferentiated ‘pabulum’. Due to the greed (tanha) of God-like beings flying over this ‘initiator’ primitive life appeared. It is important to add that karmic lines can cross cycles and this past karma shapes the transformation of life in the current cycle. While in a very general sense we can say that life ‘evolves’ – progressively becomes more complex – within the time-span of the kalpa, this can hardly be called organic evolution. Suppose we have an organic kind – a species – this archetype has existed in previous cycles and its appearance in the current cycle is the repetition of a standard archetype due to a karmic connection between beings. To the naïve, the fact that a monkey can be ‘reborn’ as a human being seems to warrant the notion that a monkey has ‘evolved’ into a human being. This is a foolish supposition. In Buddhism –as in the theistic religions – archetypes or organic kinds do not change. Both humans and monkeys are unchanging kinds across cosmic cycles – what changes is the expression of the karmic force that connects lives. Thus, successive shifts in the ‘incorporation’ of the bhavanga or linking consciousness is a religious thesis that has no recognizable scientific basis. Organic evolution rests on the fact that there is a hereditary process that involves the passage of mutable physical units called genes from paremt to offspring. In Buddhist metaphysics the essential relation is between a karmic predecessor and a karmic successor. The relation between this pair is fundamentally non-biological and to think of this as the foundation of a novel kind of evolution is entirely misguided.
In the Folk-Buddhism currently practiced in Sri Lanka there are many strange tales about Hells, fiendish punishment of wrong-doers, Heavens of Delight etc. These are crude metaphors for the delectation of humble and unlettered people who find the esoteric spirituality of pure Buddhism quite beyond their competence. The notion of a cyclic evolution of phantasmagoric world-systems is another kind of speculative ‘adventure’ of the learned of ancient times. As the famous philosopher Thomas Metzinger puts it, the essence of religion is a spirituality that mocks the reality presented to us by our senses. In this profound sense all sensory presentations are illusions to the truly enlightened.