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Creationism, Evolution and the Buddha


There were certain subjects the Buddha repeatedly refused to express an opinion on. These were big cosmological questions like whether the universe is finite or infinite, or whether it has a beginning or end in time. He couldn’t understand why his students obsessed about such pointless issues, when they should be asking him important things like how to live a virtuous life. His response to such questions is called the Noble Silence. It seems likely that, if anyone had asked the Buddha to choose between Creationism and Evolution, that would have met with Noble Silence too. If pushed, however, the Buddha’s answer probably would have been “neither of the above”.

One of the most important concepts in Buddhism is the law of Karma. This is really nothing more complicated than a strict adherence to the principle of cause and effect. It is most commonly presented as bad deeds resulting in bad things happening, and good deeds resulting in good things happening – but in broader terms, every single event is the karmic consequence of some previous event. As such, the very idea of a moment of creation, before which there was simply “void”, is problematic. Did the world have a beginning? That was one of the questions the Buddha wouldn’t answer.

Ancient Buddhist texts, in common with those of Hinduism, describe incredibly long periods of time stretching into the past and future – much longer than anything envisaged by modern science. The currently accepted age of the universe is approximately 13.8 billion years, but the Sanskrit word Mahakalpa refers to a unit of time that is more than 20,000 times as long as this.

If the Buddhist view of the universe is inconsistent with Creationism, it’s equally inconsistent with Darwinism. After all, the driving force behind Darwinian evolution is the spontaneous appearance of random mutations – and words like “spontaneous” and “random” are anathema to the Buddhist notion of a strict cycle of causation. Every event must have a cause – that’s the law of Karma. As the Dalai Lama put it, “From the Buddhist’s perspective, the idea of these mutations being random events is deeply unsatisfying for a theory that purports to explain the origin of life.”

Cycle of causation

The Buddhist cycle of causation (Creative Commons: Mogok Sayadaw)

Nevertheless, Buddhism does have its own “theory of evolution”, articulated in one of the original discourses of the Buddha known as the Aggañña Sutta. This describes how the world undergoes a cycle of contractions and expansions, and how living things evolve during each cycle. But whereas scientific evolution progresses from primitive to complex lifeforms, Buddhist evolution progresses from pure to impure beings.

As the world starts a new expansion phase, its inhabitants are described as “mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious”, and there is no distinction between male and female. After a while, however, some of the beings developed a taste for food, and as soon as greed arose in them they lost their self-luminance. Their bodies also gradually became coarser and more differentiated:

And the females developed female sex-organs, and the males developed male organs. And the women became excessively preoccupied with men, and the men with women. Owing to this excessive preoccupation with each other, passion was aroused, and their bodies burnt with lust. And later, because of this burning, they indulged in sexual activity.

So what had started out as glowing, ethereal lifeforms had now evolved (or perhaps “devolved” is a better word) into regular human beings!

It’s unlikely the Buddha meant the Aggañña Sutta to be taken literally. The narrative has a distinctly humorous tone, and it was probably intended as a satire on the social conventions of ancient India. Nevertheless, the idea that highly spiritual beings devolved into modern humans cropped up again in the late 19th century, in the Theosophical writings of Madame Blavatsky. Her book The Secret Doctrine describes how ancient “astral races” ultimately degenerated into homo sapiens and other mammals.

Blavatsky's ages of man

The evolution of life, according to The Secret Doctrine

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  • It’s incorrect to attribute genetic mutation to random chance. Just because it’s not a planned, divinely guided event, doesn’t mean there wasn’t a cause. Each mutation happened for a reason, but that reason isn’t as grand as pushing the host to any specific fate. It’s simple copy fidelity errors. It still has a cause though. There’s nothing about that, that conflicts with the Buddhist notion of karma.

  • BrandonD

    “Copy fidelity errors”? Boy, how we love to lazily relate two disparate fields, ignoring the glaring discrepancies between the two.

  • George Eakin

    I had the same thought – that there still is an underlying cause and effect in genetic mutations. And I don’t think many scientists would dispute that. The idea that “random chance” is any sort of final explanation is a mistake. It’s more like we’re approaching the borders of our understanding. And that’s fine so long as that is recognized. Genetics is still a young science and if we’re given the time, we will undoubtedly go deeper into that question find the actual mechanics of cause/effect relations that seem random to us now. Hope we do have the time (and not use it for evil :).

  • nuglet

    You clearly lack a background in the basics of genetics and DNA replication.

  • daniel_rey_m

    Will someone please explain the meaning of that neat round diagram? It’s no use throwing such an impressive thing at the world so that it can stare at the words and arrows for a while and then go do something else and forget about it.

    The other one doesn’t worry me since I’ve been seeing it ever since I was a child, in the thick Theosophy books one of my grandfathers had. Theosophists have been accused of being racists and Nazis because they say that the present dominant race, the Fifth Root Race, is the Aryan race, in other words, the Caucasians. Even worse, their emblem includes a swastika, which is the ancient Hindu symbol for the material plane and suffering, or pain.

    Some of the books had a swastika on the spine. When I was about 9 a Jewish neighbor of the same age came over. He saw a shelveful of swastikas in a row and thought we were Nazis. He stood there staring at them in amazement. I felt
    like I was some kind of despicable monster. Sometime in the next few days he carved a swastika on the bark of a huge weeping willow that grew in the front yard of my grandfather’s house, so that everybody that went by could see it.
    When I discovered this I was terrified. I knew about the wicked deeds of the Nazis, so I quickly peeled the bark, but I still wasn’t old enough to understand what was going on, and I was unable to explain to the Jewish boy that it was a misunderstanding. He asked whether or not I had peeled off the swastika. I lied and said “no”, and pretended I never saw it.

    For many weeks afterwards I lived in a state of permanent fear. It seemed like something catastrophic was about to happen. Maybe people would break into the house, wreck everything and take us away. I never told anyone about this, until now. Since I’m on the way out it can finally be told before I go.

    The founder of the Carlsberg Breweries was a Theosophist, which was why there was a swastika at the top of a tall, slender brick smokestack in his beerworks in Copenhagen. During W.W. II he wisely covered the symbol but didn’t destroy it. This was explained to us by a tourist guide when we made a tour of the
    place back in ’64. I think I still didn’t understand the matter much better, since I was only 12.

    The Theosophical Society was established in 1875 and is the Grandmother of all New Agers. Before the T.S., Westerners were either Christian Supremacists or atheists. Now, thanks to the T.S., many millions in the West do yoga, explore the ethereal worlds or channel the spirits (demons, mostly).

  • PopeDarren

    I was wondering that as well. This was the only site in English that I could find: