evolution

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: mappō .

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 ( mappō ) 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?

P.S. While we’re on the subject of using words more correctly, can we stop using the word “Dharmic.” Something about it bugs me. K thnxs.

15 thoughts on “evolution

  1. Very good points about evolution. I came to understand that samsara is not friendly by any means and evolution as a mechanical cause-and-effect process is pretty much the driving engine of samsara.

  2. Thank you for this post, Scott! I am so glad you wrote this, as I’ve been thinking about these ideas for a while now, but had no idea where to even begin writing about them. You put it so much more eloquently than ever I could have!

  3. Pingback: Western Buddhists to the Rescue! « Dharma Folk

  4. interesting, insightful, clever. Now where’s the corrolary rant against archaism and oppression masquerading as tradition?

  5. @ sj:

    though that might have nothing to do with buddhism and everything to do with postcolonialism…

  6. @ Al Billings: oh I don’t know if I wanna bark up that tree!

    @ arunlikhati: hey, thanks for the inspiration. And thanks for the good leads on Buddhist blogs cf: the Honest Scrap Award. (btw: you’re Jewish?!)

    @ sj: I must have a rant or two buried around here someplace that deals with archaism or oppression-cum-tradition. I do love ranting against those things and I’ve been ranting so long there must be something about that somewhere! Gah! Either way, it’s a lovely topic and I’ll get right on it as soon as my head clears. (lousy goo-filled sinuses!)

  7. Even before I came to the Dharma, I always wondered how those of us in the West came to think that we always had the better and more right way to do things.

  8. There is no question that religious traditions adapt and develop, “evolve” if you will. But aside from the emergence of new traditions that arise from a previous one, these kinds of changes take place gradually over centuries, and are not the result of some person or committee sitting down and deciding how to “improve” things. I think one of the worst things about the Dharma in the west is all of this self-conscious tweaking of traditions to better make it fit in with the prevailing ethos of its practitioners. I think the best thing would be to simple adopt the forms wholesale, and let it simply make its own adaptations organically. When everything in a tradition is open to modification, people lose confidence in it. Also, it leads to tinkeritis; once you start to change things, why not keep changing it? This is a sore subject for me, as the bulk of my Dharma experience took place at a Zen Center that exemplified this kind of restless modification fever to the extreme. We should let a tradition form us, not us form the tradition.

  9. here’s the thing about tradition- I think that we must be shaped by it, but remain conscious of our inevitable effects upon it- even of our responsibility to maintain an open mind to change and, in the most positive sense, “progress,” which does not impose a value judgement on “past” vs. present, or create what has in antropological criticism been called a “diachronic other.”
    I’m not coming to this from a Buddhist standpoint, but it seems to me that there is in many faiths/religions/practices/ other “traditional” groups some confusion over essentials vs. policies… that is, as Scot says in today’s post on the subject of tradition (thanks, scott!), is the definition of marriage an essentail aspect of christian theology, or institutional policy designed for a variety of historio-political, social and other reasons? When is a plea for tradition the vehicle of exclusion, and when does the demand for progress disenfranchise?

  10. But who determines what are “essentials” and what are “policies”, or as we so often hear in Buddhist circles, “cultural trappings?” Wouldn’t that require someone who had no cultural blinders on? Where would you find such a person? We 21st century modern folks tend to have very liberal sexual mores compared with how such matters were viewed in the past-might this not be something that is simply a current expression of our culture, even perhaps a sign of our decadence? With regard to gay marriage, in the context of Christianity it is most definitely an essential aspect of theology, derived from the creation of mankind as male and female, the centrality of procreation in marriage, and the strong condemnation of homosexuality found in both the old and new testaments. It is not a simple matter of holding on to old prejudices, or an appeal to tradition for tradition’s sake. Buddhism, on the other hand, does not make much of an issue over marriage, historically considering such matters to be essentially secular. We might ask if homosexuality is considered sexual misconduct or not. The Dalai Lama seems to think so, citing Indian Mahayanist texts that state that only male/female vaginal intercourse (with one’s spouse or a prostitute) at the proper time of day is acceptable; masturbation, oral and anal sex are all forms of sexual misconduct. On the other hand, you have the man-boy love tradition in Japan (supposedly introduced by Kukai, founder of the Shingon sect) between novice monks and their masters, as well as among the samurai. But is that homosexuality or pedophilia? Western Buddhists seem to be very open and accepting of homosexuality, but I don’t know if this is the case in Asia. Seeing as how most Western Buddhists are liberals, this is not surprising.

  11. @ David: Wow! There is so much in this comment I don’t even know where to begin! But kudos must be given. I believe you are the first commenter to ever use the words “vaginal intercourse” and “man-boy” in one comment. (The spam bots are gonna love this one!)

    Regardless, I would like to respectfully distance ourselves from a conversation about what counts as an essential teaching in the Christian tradition to the extent that I am neither a Christian nor a Christian theologian. So anything I could say would be purely me talking out of my ass.

    But the answer to your central questions — who determines what are essentials? — is remarkably simple: any given religious tradition’s authority figures, however they are internally defined.

    I think one big American “cultural trapping” is this reflex we have of applying a “democratic” model to things which aren’t democratic. Religions chief among them. We here on the ground in the buddhoblogsphere worry about things like “who determines what’s essential” as if we have a voice in the matter. To go back to the Catholic analogy — I know I said I didn’t wanna — the Pope does. If the Pope says there’s no Purgatory (like he did a couple of years back), there’s no Purgatory. There wasn’t an election. There wasn’t a debate. He just said it and it became true.

    The exact same thing is true in Buddhist traditions. Monks, nuns, priests, ministers — and even the Dalai Lama — determine what “counts” as an essential teaching of Buddhism all the time. They’re doing right now, as we speak, in some monastery or university classroom or while sitting at their desks writing another Zen and Art of Whatever book. That’s who determines what “real” Buddhism.

    Which leaves only one question: what if I (as an individual, lay member who’s not in a position of authority) do if I disagree? And the answer here, too, is surprising simple.

    I choose a new religion.

  12. @ arunlikhati: this is actually a very interesting article.

    There’s a well-founded debate in academic circles about the “modern era” and globalization that can be summed up by the following question: “which modernity?”

    The point being that while globalization seems to assume a homogenization of culture across the planet, what we often see are different versions of modernity. In communist Asia, as this article touches on, there’s a lot of modernity, a lot of capitalism, a lot of the trappings of “western” modernism; and yet it’s all wrapped up in one-party communism, which looks nothing like “western” modernism.

    It’s an interesting read. Thanks for pointing it out.

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