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.”
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.