Sunday, October 27, 2013

Evolutionary Buddhism

Buddha & Darwin: best of pals?

Sometimes, it seems that religion & science are diametrically opposed, and that contradiction & conflict occur whenever we attempt serious dialogue between them. This can be witnessed in the ongoing (mainly) verbal battle between the theories of evolution and creationism. To those sincere believers in the doctrine that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and that everything in it is literally true, the evolutionary theory that we are evolved creatures is heretical. On the other hand, to the majority of evolutionary scientists, the notion that a dimity created life on earth in one swell swoop in 6 days is equally unacceptable. 

On the face of it, Buddhism doesn't seem any more open to the theory of evolution than the creationism found within  Christianity & Islam. Buddhist scriptures describe the process of rebirth with no reference to the evolution of life from single-celled organisms to plants and animals (including humans). Indeed, Buddha is quoted as stating that the creation of the universe and all life in it is beyond human ken, and that to ponder such matters is a waste of time. And yet, it is the argument of this article that the Buddhist & scientific world views are compatible. 

When seeking what is important in a religion or philosophy, it is the view of this writer that it is the essentials that should be considered, rather than those teachings that are 'add-ons,' often appended to the simpler, original teachings at a later date. The existence of God, for example, is central to all theist religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and (arguably) Hinduism. No such figure is central to Buddhism, however, as Buddhism denies the existence of a permanent self, whether that of an individual soul or that of a transcendent deity. In this sense, Buddhism is more akin to science than it is other religions. In fact, many modern-minded Buddhists are loathe to call essential Buddhism a religion at all, a view which this author is sympathetic to.

Traditional Buddhism does recognize the existence of deities however, albeit not the eternal creator-god that is found in monotheism. Like polytheistic Hinduism, Buddhist scripture acknowledges the existence of many gods. Unlike Hinduism however, Buddhist teachings state that these beings are not immortal, and are subject to birth and death like all other living creatures. These deities (and other supernatural beings and places) in Buddhism differ between Buddhist traditions, however, and are culturally dependent. Moreover, they are not considered central elements to the Buddhist teachings. Which brings us to an important consideration: what are the essential teachings of Buddhism?

Different Buddhists will give somewhat different answers to the question, but the following are some points are probably accepted by all that practice Buddhism. The essential teachings of Buddhism are called the four noble truths and consist of 1) there is suffering, 2) the cause of suffering is desire, 3) the ending of desire is the ending of suffering, 4) the path to the ending of suffering. The details of that path differ according to sect, but are based upon the so-called threefold training of morality, concentration & wisdom. The ending of suffering, by the way, is often referred to as nirvana, and a buddha is an 'awakened one' that has realized this. It is worth noting that none of this is supernatural or unscientific in nature; quite the contrary, many Buddhists find in these basic teachings a kind of scientific spirituality.

So, having found what can be described as the core Buddhist teachings, how do these compare with evolution? Well, the truths themselves do not actually touch upon the subject of evolution - as most prescientific religions & philosophies do not, unsurprisingly! On the other hand, is there anything in the four noble truths that is incompatible with the theory of evolution? Well, evolution states that life on Earth evolved over billions of years, starting as the most simple of organisms and developing into all the myriad forms of life we see today. The first noble truth of suffering is viewable observing humans and other sentient creatures; science would concur with this. That he cause of suffering is desire might be more controversial to the scientist, but it isn't exactly contradicting evolution. The third noble truth logically follows from the third.

As to the fourth noble truth, based as it is on morality, concentration and wisdom, all developed by humans through their own efforts rather than bestowed on them through the grace of a divine being, there is nothing to conflict with evolutionary ideas. Indeed, it is possible to see the four noble truths as part of humanity's ongoing development or evolution to the nest stage of its development. In this, it would stand alongside science itself, for if humans are to continue our evolutionary development and not stagnate or die out, surely science has a crucial role to play in this. In this light, it is interesting to reflect on how 'evolutionary Buddhism' might go hand-in-hand with science. As the Buddha said: Walk on!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Buddha on Suffering

What, now, is the Noble Truth of Suffering?
Birth is suffering; Decay is suffering; Death is suffering; Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief, and Despair are suffering; not to get what one desires, is suffering; in short: the Five Groups of Existence are suffering.

What, now, is Birth? The birth of beings belonging to this or that order of beings, their being born, their conception and springing into existence, the manifestation of the groups of existence, the arising of sense activity: this is called birth.

And what is Decay? The decay of beings belonging to this or that order of beings; their becoming aged, frail, grey, and wrinkled; the failing of their vital force, the wearing out of the senses: this is called decay.

And what is Death? The departing and vanishing of beings out of this or that order of beings; their destruction, disappearance, death, the completion of their life-period, dissolution of the groups of existence, the discarding of the body: this is called death.

And what is Sorrow? The sorrow arising through this or that loss or misfortune which one encounters, the worrying one- self, the state of being alarmed, inward sorrow, inward woe: this is called sorrow.

And what is Lamentation? Whatsoever, through this or that loss or misfortune which befalls one, is wail and lament, wailing and lamenting, the state of woe and lamentation: this is called lamentation.

And what is Pain? The bodily pain and unpleasantness, the painful and unpleasant feeling produced by bodily impression: this is called pain.

And what is Grief? The mental pain and unpleasantness, the painful and unpleasant feeling produced by mental impression: this is called grief.

And what is Despair? Distress and despair arising through this or that loss or misfortune which one encounters: distressfulness, and desperation: this is called despair.

And what is the ‘Suffering of not getting what one desires’? To beings subject to birth there comes the desire; ‘O, that we were not subject to birth! O, that no new birth was before us!’ Subject to decay, disease, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, the desire comes to them: ‘O, that we were not subject to these things! O, that these things were not before us!’ But this cannot be got by mere desiring; and not to get what one desires, is suffering.

(Digha Nikaya 22, Tipitaka)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Home Sweet Home

Recently, my family & I moved home. It will be the seventh home that my wife and I have shared, and one of numerous places that I have called home during my life. Some have been warm, cosy dwellings, whilst others have been somewhat dirty and rundown domiciles. The new house that we now occupy is a wonderful, newly-built place, with spacious rooms and a decent-sized garden for the kids & dogs. Compared to previous houses that we've occupied, it is aesthetically more pleasing & will be somewhere that we will be happy to call home for many years to come. But, on reflection, is it our real home?

The point here is not to question whether or not the house is the abode in which my family & I live, but rather to consider what it is that is truly 'home.' In other words, where is it that we all retreat to and reside in at the end of the day? It was the widely-respected Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah that said our real home is inner peace; that spacious awareness in which all our experiences arise. It is true enough, of course, that this body resides in a physical home, but it also inhabits another home. This home contains everything I have ever seen, heard, tasted, smelt or touched. It contains such phenomena right now. But, it also plays host to every thought, emotion, or memory. And, what's more, I can never leave this home, for it is an indispensable aspect of my being; without it, there is no world and no 'me' to experience the world.

What is the nature of this home, then? Generally, homes can be big, small, attractive, ugly, elaborate, simple, old or new. This home is spacious enough to contain everything I ever experience - including his sense of 'I' - and yet it can seemingly contract to contain nothing but the minuscule figure of an ant. It allows for beauty and ugliness, complexity and simplicity, aging and birth…and yet it is none of these, for it is unlimited by being this or that. It's lack of specificity is the very quality that gives rise to all the myriad particular things of this universe. That this home is silent capacity means that all sounds can appear in it; because it is invisible potentiality, all sights can be seen in it. Try the following exercise, and see if what's written above is true for you or not.

  • Look at your home - or wherever you happen to be right now - and note the following, basing your conclusions on current evidence as opposed to memory or assumptions.
  • Firstly, observe your environs visually. What colors, shapes, & sizes can you see? Take time to mentally describe as much of your seeable surroundings as you can. Now, turn attention around to observe the observer. What can you see where you are? Pointing at your eyes, what can you actually see? Is there any color, shape or size there? Or, do you see what I see here: a spacious aware nothingness in which all visible objects appear - including my own 'self?!'
  • Secondly, observe your environs audibly. What sounds, rhythms and tunes can you hear? Take time to mentally describe as much of your hearable surroundings as you can. Now, turn attention around to listen to the listener. What can you hear where you are? Listening to your ears, what can you actually hear? Is there any sound, rhythm or tune there? Or, do you hear what I hear here: a spacious aware nothingness in which all audible objects appear - including my own 'self?!'
  • Finally, observe your environs mentally. What thoughts, emotions and mental images can you perceive? Closing your eyes, take time to mentally describe as much of your brain as you can. Now, turn attention around to observe the observer. What can you observe behind those thoughts, emotions and mental imagery? Do you find what I find here: a spacious aware nothingness in which all mental objects appear - including my own 'self?!'

This spacious awareness which - hopefully - you have just observed, is that in which all phenomena appear, including those places we normally consider home; houses, apartments, bodies, and minds. It is our real home, and unlike those other places, it does not get old, damaged, or destroyed - there's nothing to be destroyed! And yet, we need to be a little careful here, for there's a subtle distinction to made between this spaciousness and 'self.' As observed in the third exercise above, not only is the body not our true home, but nether is mind our true home; both are contained in what we truly are. This true nature is pure being, and cannot be deemed this or that. Therefore, even the underlying sense of 'I am' is itself something that lives in this home. In the history of Buddhism, this error has frequently been mentioned, as it is an easy mistake to make.

An episode in Buddhist scripture illustrates this last point nicely. The Venerable Khemaka stated that he no longer regarded any of the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness) to be self. Hearing this, a group of monks declared that Khemaka must be an arahant, a fully-enlightened one. Khemaka denied this, however, for although he didn't associate self with any of the aggregates, he still had the residue feeling of being a self, or 'I am.' (In the text, known as the Khemaka Sutta, the monks and Khemaka did realize full-enlightenment whilst the latter gave a thorough explanation of the Buddha's teachings regarding the sense of 'I am.')

The American monk Ajahn Sumedho once wrote to me that even the sense of being a Buddhist (or whatever views of self we posses) must be let go of, for eventually even they get in the way of simply living as the knowing. The awareness that lies at the heart of human existence is not Buddhist, Christian, atheist, theist or whatever; it is the home in which all these ideas live. We may use them to help approach and exist as this spaciousness, but they will become a hindrance of we cling to them for too long. Letting go of these temporary abodes and residing in our real home (as our real home) is the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice, as well as much mysticism in the world's religions and philosophies. So, whilst my family's new house is our outward home, and one which we will enjoy, our real home lies within, and is even more wonderful, being free of suffering and ignorance. And, it is waiting to be discovered. Right now.