Evolution and Buddhism

Some evolving ideas about one of the interfaces between Buddhism and Science  — rf, march 2014

Three Connections
Evolution can be described as a process where information changes through variation and selection. It is not just part of biology. It happens whenever there is a carrier of information, sources of variation, and mechanisms of selection. The character of this selection reflects the environment, and as the environment changes, selection changes. [more about evolution …]

There are at least three ways in which Buddhism can be related to such concepts:

1. Our Heritage. Buddhism recognizes that humans inherit capacities for both suffering and happiness. Our natural inclinations toward greed, hatred and delusion often lead to problems. But we also inherit the capacity to awaken: to understand and address our suffering.

2. Personal Change. Buddhism offers ways to change ourselves through personal mental evolution: the generation and selection of new ways of thinking.

3. Evolving Dharma. Buddhism is an evolving cultural phenomenon. Its great diversity may result from core teachings that emphasize both basic principles and personal introspection. The principles provide a continuing foundation for the evolution of new ideas through cultural interactions and individual efforts. Introspection through mindfulness, meditation, logic and other techniques facilitates development and selection of ideas, and enables the rediscovery of the Buddha’s insights.

1. Our Heritage
Humans inherit both causes of suffering and solutions to suffering.

The cultural heritage that humans receive from their families and cultures is the result of many generations of cultural evolution. The development of the brain that holds that culture goes back much further. Behavior and brain have evolved together over millions of years. We inherit a large, but not infinite, repertory of possibilities.

The human brain has a reptile core, encased in a mammalian layer. On top there is a thin cortex that enables human ways of thinking such as language, logic and culture. Our ancestors spent many thousands of generations living in small groups. Behaviors were selected that aided survival in that environment. However, these days most people live very differently. We suffer because of our misdirected mind: ways of thinking and behaving that can appear to be appropriate, but are not always in our own best interests.

The general validity of evolution is widely accepted among contemporary Buddhists, and traditional Buddhist teachings are sometimes interpreted in terms of evolution. Many Buddhists have traditionally referred to the human mind’s natural tendency to jump from topic to topic as “monkey mind”.

Buddhism recognizes three root causes of suffering: greed, hatred (or anger) and delusion (or ignorance) — the three poisons. They poison our relationships with people and the world. However, these tendencies can also be related to behaviors that are adaptive. Greedily acquiring and storing resources can aid survival through difficult times; strong feelings of group identity can promote cooperation in tribes and families; and delusions can justify adaptive actions that would otherwise be dismissed. These ways of thinking may have benefited people in some situations, but they also can be harmful: fostering desire, aversion and error.

Buddhist teachings offer ways to deal with such ancient inherited behaviors. Ways to lessen the damage caused by the poisons without giving up the beneficial functions that they can serve. Buddha taught that we carry both the causes of suffering and the solutions to suffering. We can lessen suffering by encouraging positive characteristics, such as generosity, lovingkindness and wisdom. And we can address the basis of suffering through understanding of desire and self. We all inherit the capacity to awaken.

2. Personal Change
Meditation can encourage both variations in thinking, and conscious selection of thoughts.

Buddhist teachings place great emphasis on the mind. The Dhammapada, a traditional collection of sayings of the Buddha, begins with the assertion that our world is largely determined by our thoughts: “We are what we think, All that we are arises with our thoughts”. Much Buddhist practice is devoted to changing people’s ways of thinking.

Our thinking processes involve patterns of thoughts that can cluster together in sequences. In modern neuroscience they can be termed schemas or scripts. In traditional Buddhist psychology they might be called mental formations or sankharas. Many are very short lived. However, some persistent thought patterns are analogous to genes or memes: they produce offspring much like organisms do; they can mutate and evolve in various ways; and they are reinforced by repeated use. People can spend years obsessing about their parents or siblings, being subject to irrational fears, or succumbing to addictions. The mind creates a comfortable internal conversation that ties us to such habitual ways of thinking.

Some types of Buddhist meditation involve recognizing when thinking occurs, and then letting go of the thought and returning awareness to the breath or other object of attention. It is practicing how to stop: inhibiting certain thoughts by not reinforcing them; neither grasping at them or pushing them away.  This practicing helps meditators learn how to better deal with unwanted thoughts when they are not meditating. They become able to positively influence the evolution of their thoughts by abandoning harmful ones.

When grasping and aversion are abandoned during meditation, a state of choiceless awareness can be entered where thoughts, feelings and perceptions simply come and go without attachment or consequence, without judgement or intervention. Ingrained reactions and interpretations are not reinforced by attention, weakening the links of expectation between what is and what was. Space becomes available for new thoughts. New interactions can emerge. Less preconception opens the way for creative solutions.

Thus meditation can aid in two aspects of mental evolution: increasing the variety of thoughts, and enhancing skills for the conscious selection of certain thoughts and not others.

3. Evolving Dharma
Buddha’s teachings contain seeds of both diversification and selection.

The historical Buddha’s first description of his discovery is often referred to by phrases such as “turning of the wheel of law” or “setting in motion the wheel of truth”. Movement is implied. A journey. But when a wheel is set rolling, the unexpected is to be expected: some initial direction can be provided, but uneven ground soon leads to wandering.

Over the last 2500 years, Buddha’s teachings have spread great distances from their birthplace. These travels have given rise to a wide variety of Buddhist practices and traditions. However, there are still some basic concepts and attitudes that are part of nearly all the varied branches of Buddhism.

This simultaneous diversification and consistency may be a consequence of some basic Buddhist teachings.

Near the end of his life, the Buddha reminded his followers to:

be islands unto yourselves,
refuges unto yourselves,
seeking no external refuge;
with the Dhamma as your island,
the Dhamma as your refuge,
seeking no other refuge.
—  Maha-parinibbana Sutta

There can seem to be a conflict here: rely only on yourself, but also rely only on the teachings (Dhamma/ Dharma). However, from perspectives of both practice and evolution the two can be seen to be complimentary. Practitioners use the teachings as a guide in their personal investigations. But the Dharma is also a carrier of information that is passed on through time (the first condition needed for evolution). By comparing their own experiences with the established teachings, practitioners encourage or discourage certain ideas and practices, and may introduce new ones. Their actions provide both the variation and the selection that are necessary for traditions to evolve.

The Buddha may have been concerned about mis-interpretations of his teachings after he died. He might have recognized that if the core teachings were to continue, they would need to be repeatedly re-discovered and re-affirmed. Maybe by repeatedly stressing both the teachings and self-reliance, he deliberately laid the groundwork for an evolving religion that can adapt to many cultures, yet maintain a universal core. Regardless of his intention, that seems to be what resulted.

Among world religions, Buddhism seems to have the greatest natural tendency to evolve. Judaism, Christianity and Islam inhibit change by relying on particular sacred writings. Hinduism and Taoism have deep and complex cultural roots that tie them to particular civilizations. Buddhism operates in a middle ground, with widely accepted basic teachings that evolve connections to local conditions and influences.

The continuity of the Dharma results from the repeated confirmation of the Buddha’s insights by his followers. No matter what exotic cultural traits may become attached to the Dharma, the basic teachings are re-affirmed again and again by the personal experiences of practitioners. The core ideas keep getting rediscovered because the potential for that rediscovery is just as much a part of our human inheritance as is a fear of snakes or interest in sex or learning to talk.

Communication and migration are bringing together many formerly distant Buddhist lineages. The Dharma has entered a new era of rapid evolution. Ancient traditions of East and West are interacting, giving rise to new concepts, new combinations of beliefs. And at the same time, more and more people are recognizing and relating glimpses of Buddha’s insights, developing a clearer image. The wheel continues to roll.


When I look deeply into the form of the universe,
everything reveals the mysterious truth of the Tathagata …
—  Torei Enji’s Bodhisattva’s Vow

This essay unavoidably reflects particular perspectives on Buddhism and biology. Hopefully those who disagree with certain parts will benefit from their criticism. Here are some notes and links for further consideration.

Our Heritage
Attitudes of Buddhists toward evolution:
Matthew Hutson provides an entertaining tour of some routine delusions in The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane:
Tricycle editor James Shaheen interviews science writer Robert Wright on where natural selection and Buddhism meet:
A fairly detailed overview of evolutionary psychology:
More about the three poisons:
www.naljorprisondharmaservice.org/pdf/ThreePoisons.htm (Naljor prison project)
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_poisons_%28Buddhism%29 (Wikipedia)

Personal Change
There are many versions of The Dhammapada (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dhammapada). The quote is from my favorite, the poetical rendition of Thomas Byrom:
William H Calvin relates insights about mental functions and evolution in The Cerebral Symphony (1989), A Brief History of the Mind and other books.
Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the pattern-based processes that underlie brain function:
The comments about meditation are mostly based on personal experiences with vipassana and zazen. There are many good introductions available, including:
www.spiritrock.org/meditation-instructions (basic vipassana instruction from Jack Kornfield via Spirit Rock)
www.shambhalasun.com/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=1465 (detailed Q&A about vipassana from Sayadaw U Pandita via Shambhala Sun)
www.youtube.com/watch?v=dDJ_wbjBL6c (video intro to zazen from Hazy Moon Zen Center)
zmm.mro.org/teachings/meditation-instructions/ (text & photo intro to zazen from Zen Mountain Monastery)

Evolving Dharma
Access to Insight is a great resource for quotes from the Pali canon:
Norman Fisher and Vincent Horn discuss the evolution of Buddhism in a BuddhistGeeks interview:
Gil Fronsdal’s discussion of the vipassana movement provides an interesting overview of the introduction of Buddhist meditation practices to the US:
Rick Fields’ How the Swans Came to the Lake, is a classic compilation of stories about Buddhism coming to America:
The full text of this version of Torei Enji’s vow is at:




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