Something buried in this post this delightful, insightful, post-colonial critique-ful post by Arunlikhati (of course) caught my eye. “Dharmic evolution.”
I’m going to say it. Evolution has nothing to do with the Dharma.
Now look. I love evolution as much as the next guy. In fact, I’m a big fan of science in general. I mean, how can you not like science? It’s given us USB flash drives, penicillin, and the new Star Trek movie. C’mon. How cool is that? But the theory of evolution cannot be applied to human culture, society, or religion. It just can’t.
We need to be clear about what evolution is and what it isn’t. Evolution is the simple notion that species adapt to their environments and pass down genetic material to their decedents. That’s it. There are two things that evolution is not.
First, evolution doesn’t give a shit about you. Evolution doesn’t have vested interest in one species surviving and another going the way of the dodo. Mass extinctions because of global warming? Evolution says, “Meh. I’ve got a whole host of bugs and microbes that live in sulfur-filled undersea volcanoes hotter than the sun. Bring it.”
(Actually, evolution doesn’t say anything because evolution isn’t that much different from the series of tiny explosions in that internal combustion engine that got you to work today. It’s a mechanism, not a person, and our constant personification of mechanisms and other non-sentient things is probably part of the problem.)
Moving right along. Secondly, evolution, despite whatever etymological relationship the word has to upward mobility, is not progressive. Let me repeat. Evolution does not equal progress. Progress is an evaluative judgement humans make. Evolution doesn’t care about progress (see above point). The ecological conditions that favored one set of biological circumstances changed? Oh well. Let’s make some new biological circumstances. Those new circumstances are cockroaches instead of Michelangelos? Evolution again says “Meh. Sometimes bugs get the job done.”
When people have applied evolution to human society, they’ve usually wrapped it up in pretty sounding words like social Darwinism and “progress” and suggested that human cultures are getting, progressively, more advanced. Better. But this model of evolution is not a scientific one. It’s political, at the end the of day. A way of saying, “This culture is better than that culture, change is ‘natural,’ and therefore ‘good,’ so get on the train or get outta the way.”
The problem, historically, has been that those folks who were saying “this culture is better” were usually white folks talking about Euro-American culture. And they were saying it to justify slavery.
(I don’t know about you, but I ain’t gettin’ on that train. I’m gonna do my best to derail it.)
What’s interesting to me, and getting back to Arunlikhati’s post, is that many “western” folks folks who want to save Buddhism from some imaginary corrupt Asia by bringing to it the best that the west has to offer they often employ just this model of evolution. That is, they are injecting into Buddhism a decidedly Western view of progressive cultural history. But not the “best of the West,” in my opinion. In fact, some of the worst of the west. Meanwhile, on the Buddhist side, there’s a completely different view of human cultural development, one that Shinran and Dogen and Nichiren talked about once or twice: mappÅ .
In English, that would be the “declining age of the Dharma.”
For those who’ve missed this one, when the Buddha was still wandering around India, someone asked him what would happen to the Dharma after he died. (I’m heavily paraphrasing here, by the way.) And the Buddha replied, “First, there will be a time when the Dharma is still pure, when the monks are good and moral, and we’ll be passing out nirvana like it’s going out of style (which it is). Then there will be a period when monks will start being a little less moral, the true Dharma will be difficult, but not impossible, to find, and, really, good luck with that whole nirvana thing. And then there will be a time ( mappÅ ) when getting enlightened will be damn near impossible, there will be nothing but impostor monks running around, and counterfeit Dharma left and right. This is followed by a long period where there isn’t any Dharma at all.”
That’s right. No Dharma. For centuries.
What the Buddha’s saying is that the Dharma is going to fade away from the world. And this isn’t some “Asian cultural distortion” of the Buddha’s teaching. This is in the freakin’ Pali.
I bring this up not to argue for a tacit acceptance of this particular slice of the Buddha’s teachings. I’m not bringing it up as justification to put on your best burlap sack and stand on a street corner with sign that reads “The End is Near.” I bring this up because I think it illustrates that there is a different way of looking at the progression of human culture. Development, evolution, change, progress sometimes they don’t give a shit about us. Sometimes, bugs get the job done.
So before we all go jumping on the “let’s change Buddhism” the let’s bring together the “best” of the West and the East, the let’s make something new bandwagon, let’s stop and think for a moment. Is evolution always a good thing, for us? For the Dharma? While we’re throwing out the bath water of the “old Asian stuff,” are we also throwing out the baby? Is what we’re injecting into Buddhism really the best of us? Or is it our own prejudices? Our own defilements and delusions? And, when you get right down to it, aren’t the very terms “best” and “East” and “West” couched in our own discriminative thinking?