Buddhism and the Idea of Evolution
How is evolution seen in the Pali?
It is the subtle nature of Darwin's theory of evolution that it plays into the hands of the Devil (so to speak); that is, relying on the idea of the evolution of species, there is little ground for personal evolution: doing good, abstaining from bad, cultivation of the mind; and there are good grounds for hedonistic self-indulgence and domination of others by any means.
Seeing it this way there is reason to empathize with some Christian groups reactions to this theory; but for Buddhists, the solution provided by ignoring the evidence of science and reliance on faith in the Bible is out of the question. So how can we understand what the Pali teaches so as to accommodate the discoveries of science and still allow for personal growth?
In the Pali, the fundamental operating principle of life is the law of kamma: that identification with actions of mind, speech, and body intended to produce pleasurable consequences for one's self result in identification with the consequences of those actions; and by the corollary of this law, in the fact that that with which one has not identified carries no subjective consequences.
The power of this idea is in one's ability to see this principle in action in the here and now in as simple a way as in an act of generosity and by careful examination of that with which we identify (e.g., this body is considered "mine" and is defended and catered to by "the self", but excrementia, that which a few moments before was a part of this "me," is considered disgusting and is abandoned in an instant).
Personal evolution takes place when the individual understands that by controlling his intentional acts of pleasure-seeking and by letting go of identification with body, sensation, emotion and ideas, he is able to stop producing future consequences and to overcome the consequences of past actions (which are limited in the objects in which they can produce results — i.e., body, sensations, emotions and ideas).
From the "theory" of kamma one evolves to the knowledge of kamma not by faith, but by scientific observation of personal experience. From this knowledge of kamma deductions can be made which are harder to "see" but whose conclusions are impossible to avoid:
Given two identical acts, one with which one identifies and one where there is no personal identification, and both of which produce the same material consequences, but only one of which produces identification with the consequence, then the conclusion can be reached that that which is "personal" is not absolutely bound to the material and can transcend it. (Meaning it can be seen that it is the act of identification that is causing identification, so that therefore one can, by not identifying, break the bond to the material.)
In other words, given the mobility of this business of identifying, there is good reason to believe in the idea of rebirth, or the continued identification (under some circumstances) with life (identification with some aspect of the material, such as consciousness) after the death of the body.
Given this, we have opportunity for the evolution of the individual apart from the species, and good reason (in the expected benefits of evolving) for the individual to evolve.
This is the Pali explanation of Personal Evolution.
Based on this, the Pali holds that what is at work in the visible (material) realm, is the natural course of what we call "the imagination."
In it's "playing around" with the controls of personal evolution the imagination tends to form certain patterns of existence: the bad find rebirth in hells and crude and monstrous forms, the good find rebirth in heavens, those whose efforts are at escape find themselves reborn in subtle states of less and less involvement.
What science finds in the layers of carcasses and their identifying marks (DNA) is the material evidence of the consequences of the imagination at work. "I tried it this way, I will try it the opposite way, I will try to do both, I will try to do neither...but also: "that one tried it this way, I will try it the opposite way..." A being (an individual identifying with consciousness and identified forms of matter) will identify with stage one, etc., but is not bound to identify with stage two...and this is not the same thing as saying that being "x" here now (a being identifying with a certain life-form here today) evolved from stage one of that species, etc. How come? because there exists the possibility of evolution apart from the evolution of the material form: One individual may continue identification with a certain level without evolving at all, another may continue identifying with the evolution of a certain species, while still another may skip to higher or lower levels without passing through the intervening stages and so forth.
This is the Pali explanation of the evolution of species, and is an explanation which also accommodates the scientific evidence.
Additionally in the Pali, seers tell us (and in Buddhism we are told that with practice we may see this for ourselves in the here and now, so this is not a matter which necessitates acceptance by faith ... belief is a matter of faith only in so far as we do not make the effort to see for ourselves) that the entire world-system (that which is the material aspect of the universe) which we occupy, also both evolves and devolves.
Given that we do not see this for ourselves, it is still a reasonable proposition given the fact of Time: that which is identified with Time of necessity comes to an end; and given that the material from which the universe evolved is something that can be observed to be "conserved" (science tells us it is not subject to complete disappearance, and is re-usable; and while science does not tell us this, if we are reasonable and logical we can assume that this law of conservation applies also to that element we understand to be consciousness (and in the Pali, consciousness is considered to be an element)).
So this brings us to the possibility of the re-emergance of life forms upon the re-evolution of the world system: beings, identifying with subtle mind states during a period of the devolution or complete destruction of the material world (you could say those reborn in Heaven after the Apocalypse), begin, at the re-evolution of the world, to seize on the possibility of once again exercising their imaginations in world-bound life.
It is no great leap from there to the idea that there may be, of these beings, one who is first to devolve into this newly evolving world. In Buddhism, this individual is known as Pajapati (The Creator of the Created); but those who follow may call him God. He identifies with the process of the re-emergence of the world and believes it is his own work. Those who follow believe that it is his work as well. There is no problem, even, given this view, of the idea of an Adam and Eve. It simply takes a belief that those previous life forms that we find that pre-date the possibility of Adam, were beings that identified with poorly thought-out actions and ended up in crude life-forms.
And this is the third thing we needed to be able to understand in order to explain to ourselves how we can hold the belief that the world is the personal creation of the individual making kamma while at the same time it can be reasonably seen to have been created by a creator god while not needing to deny science or eliminate the motivation for personal evolution.
I conclude by saying that we who have come into contact with the Pali are lucky in the extreme in our association with this system in that it frees us from the wrangling over this issue...a problem with ideas that is clearly holding back the development of all three areas it effects: man, science and society.