Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

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Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby himalayanspirit » Thu Sep 01, 2011 10:22 am

There appears to be some inconsistency between theory of evolution of humans from primates and Mahayana Buddhism. Basically, in Buddhism it takes minimum three 'countless' kalpas to reach Buddhahood. Every sentient requires at least that period of time to reach Buddhahood including our very Buddha Shakyamuni. But did we even exist so long ago?

There are stories of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of many eons ago, but weren't we primates at that time?

What is the explanation of this inconsistency? Is it that when these sutras talk about civilizations many many kalpas ago, they are actually referring to another 'world-cycle' where sentient beings rose and then destroyed?
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Huifeng » Thu Sep 01, 2011 12:33 pm

himalayanspirit wrote:There appears to be some inconsistency between theory of evolution of humans from primates and Mahayana Buddhism. Basically, in Buddhism it takes minimum three 'countless' kalpas to reach Buddhahood. Every sentient requires at least that period of time to reach Buddhahood including our very Buddha Shakyamuni. But did we even exist so long ago?

There are stories of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of many eons ago, but weren't we primates at that time?

What is the explanation of this inconsistency? Is it that when these sutras talk about civilizations many many kalpas ago, they are actually referring to another 'world-cycle' where sentient beings rose and then destroyed?


It is not an inconsistency, the problem is one of understanding what Buddhism (Mahayana or otherwise) teaches on the subject.
Add to your formulations that there are multiple worlds, and that there are multiple forms of existence in which living beings can be reborn, some of which entailing lifespans of millions of years.

So, "did we even exist so long ago?" - Yes. Just not necessarily as human beings. Or even on planet earth.
For "weren't we primates at that time?" - Who is this "we"? Maybe some were, but others may have been humans or devas elsewhere.

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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Malcolm » Thu Sep 01, 2011 1:04 pm

Huifeng wrote:
himalayanspirit wrote:There appears to be some inconsistency between theory of evolution of humans from primates and Mahayana Buddhism. Basically, in Buddhism it takes minimum three 'countless' kalpas to reach Buddhahood. Every sentient requires at least that period of time to reach Buddhahood including our very Buddha Shakyamuni. But did we even exist so long ago?

There are stories of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of many eons ago, but weren't we primates at that time?

What is the explanation of this inconsistency? Is it that when these sutras talk about civilizations many many kalpas ago, they are actually referring to another 'world-cycle' where sentient beings rose and then destroyed?


It is not an inconsistency, the problem is one of understanding what Buddhism (Mahayana or otherwise) teaches on the subject.
Add to your formulations that there are multiple worlds, and that there are multiple forms of existence in which living beings can be reborn, some of which entailing lifespans of millions of years.

So, "did we even exist so long ago?" - Yes. Just not necessarily as human beings. Or even on planet earth.
For "weren't we primates at that time?" - Who is this "we"? Maybe some were, but others may have been humans or devas elsewhere.

~~ Huifeng



But Huifeng, you have to admit that the sutras read as if these gazillions of eons ago all happen in the context of this Jambudvipa (the sub-continent of India).
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Huifeng » Thu Sep 01, 2011 1:11 pm

Namdrol wrote:But Huifeng, you have to admit that the sutras read as if these gazillions of eons ago all happen in the context of this Jambudvipa (the sub-continent of India).


Not necessarily. It depends on which sutras one is referring to. And even then, only some make such references to specific locations (such as Jambudvipa) while others do not. eg. the story of Dharmakara, who became Amitabha.

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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Malcolm » Thu Sep 01, 2011 1:22 pm

Huifeng wrote:
Namdrol wrote:But Huifeng, you have to admit that the sutras read as if these gazillions of eons ago all happen in the context of this Jambudvipa (the sub-continent of India).


Not necessarily. It depends on which sutras one is referring to. And even then, only some make such references to specific locations (such as Jambudvipa) while others do not. eg. the story of Dharmakara, who became Amitabha.

~~ Huifeng



Nevertheless, many do. And there is no need to restrict ourselves to Mahayana sutras in this respect. Your response therefore does not really adress the OP's question. It is a rather religious response -- to wit, "don't worry about the fact that narratives in Mahāyāna sutras contradict empirical scientific data about planet earth and evolution because we can explain our way around it with reference to other world systems...."

A better reply would be "The Indian imagination is prone to exaggeration of cosmic time periods..."

N
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Astus » Thu Sep 01, 2011 3:23 pm

Matching evolution with Buddhism, doesn't work. Different axioms, different views.
"There is no such thing as the real mind. Ridding yourself of delusion: that's the real mind."
(Sheng-yen: Getting the Buddha Mind, p 73)

“Don’t rashly seek the true Buddha;
True Buddha can’t be found.
Does marvelous nature and spirit
Need tempering or refinement?
Mind is this mind carefree;
This face, the face at birth."

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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby devilyoudont » Thu Sep 01, 2011 3:57 pm

From a literal, historical perspective, modern scholarship is infinitely more accurate than traditional Buddhist accounts. Where they conflict, the latter is almost certainly wrong. (See also: Plato's Myths)
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Dechen Norbu » Thu Sep 01, 2011 4:12 pm

To an extent I agree, Astus, but instead of saying it doesn't match with Buddhism, I would say it can't be matched with Buddhist cosmogonies, some stories, etc, not the whole or specially not the main tenets with which it is not incompatible.

I believe it may be a bit like Namdrol is saying, regarding Indian imagination being a little fertile when it concerns such matters.
I think those stories are not of great relevance to the practice. I see them mostly as mundane ways of explaining what people see, questions to stuff as where did we came from, where will we end and the sort...
I never valued much any explanation of these cosmological questions, not mattering its source. Was it a big bang? Was it as collision between dimensions that started this universe? Will this end with a big crunch or a big freeze? We don't know. Alternative theories seem to go well with the data gathered.

All that being only conventional, the role of the Buddhadharma goes beyond explaining this stuff. I think that if those sutras were being written today, we would have different narratives, different styles, different measures and so on and so forth. Their aim would be the same but their form would change. That's my take at least. :smile:

Perhaps in old India a finger pointing at the moon needed a big bright golden ring shimmering with precious stones to be noticed among so many others pointing who knows where.
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Acchantika » Thu Sep 01, 2011 6:17 pm

Astus wrote:Matching evolution with Buddhism, doesn't work. Different axioms, different views.


Where is the conflict?
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Astus » Thu Sep 01, 2011 7:58 pm

Buddhism teaches that the primary driving force of the world is karma. That is reflected in Buddhist cosmology. The sequence of the becoming of the world is from top to bottom. That means that humans existed before animals. The view of evolution is from bottom to top, humans evolved from animals. The diversity of beings in Buddhism is explained by karmic dispositions, in evolution by selection and adaptation. In terms of society, the Buddhist view is the cycle of golden age toward a bad age and from then to a golden age. Evolutionary view of the society teaches a progress from hunters-gatherers to modern cities. Buddhism explains that the true goal of every being is happiness and they are confused by the three poisons. Evolution says that the primary instincts and the meaning of all life forms are self-preservation and reproduction. Buddhism says that it is consciousness that makes one a sentient being. Evolution derives living organisms from molecules. These are the reasons why I say that Buddhism is not compatible with evolution.
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(Sheng-yen: Getting the Buddha Mind, p 73)

“Don’t rashly seek the true Buddha;
True Buddha can’t be found.
Does marvelous nature and spirit
Need tempering or refinement?
Mind is this mind carefree;
This face, the face at birth."

(Nanyue Mingzan: Enjoying the Way, tr. Jeff Shore; T51n2076, p461b24-26)
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby LastLegend » Thu Sep 01, 2011 8:02 pm

himalayanspirit wrote:There appears to be some inconsistency between theory of evolution of humans from primates and Mahayana Buddhism. Basically, in Buddhism it takes minimum three 'countless' kalpas to reach Buddhahood. Every sentient requires at least that period of time to reach Buddhahood including our very Buddha Shakyamuni. But did we even exist so long ago?

There are stories of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of many eons ago, but weren't we primates at that time?

What is the explanation of this inconsistency? Is it that when these sutras talk about civilizations many many kalpas ago, they are actually referring to another 'world-cycle' where sentient beings rose and then destroyed?



The theory of evolution is based on physical observation of evolution while evolution in Buddhism is based on karmic rebirth.
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Acchantika » Thu Sep 01, 2011 9:27 pm

Astus wrote:Buddhism teaches that the primary driving force of the world is karma. That is reflected in Buddhist cosmology. The sequence of the becoming of the world is from top to bottom. That means that humans existed before animals. The view of evolution is from bottom to top, humans evolved from animals.
The diversity of beings in Buddhism is explained by karmic dispositions, in evolution by selection and adaptation. In terms of society, the Buddhist view is the cycle of golden age toward a bad age and from then to a golden age. Evolutionary view of the society teaches a progress from hunters-gatherers to modern cities. Buddhism explains that the true goal of every being is happiness and they are confused by the three poisons. Evolution says that the primary instincts and the meaning of all life forms are self-preservation and reproduction. Buddhism says that it is consciousness that makes one a sentient being. Evolution derives living organisms from molecules. These are the reasons why I say that Buddhism is not compatible with evolution.

I appreciate your response.

Evolution does not concern the becoming of the world (cosmogony), nor the progression of human society (anthropology), nor the meaning of all life (philosophy), nor the origin of life i.e. living organisms from molecules (abiogenesis). It concerns how information stores, changes and perpetuate over time in an organic context (biology).

If information could not be stored, the world would not appear. If information did not change, it would violate impermanence. If information did not perpetuate, it would violate interdependence.

Therefore, information can be stored, changed and perpetuated, the theory of which, in a biological context, is called 'evolution'.

This flow of genetic information arises due to causes and conditions, persists due to cause and conditions, and dissolves due to cause and conditions.

Therefore, I respectfully object to the notion that evolution is not compatible with Buddhism.
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Astus » Thu Sep 01, 2011 11:10 pm

Acchantika wrote:Therefore, I respectfully object to the notion that evolution is not compatible with Buddhism.


You've changed the meaning of evolution and specified it in a way that might fit into certain Buddhist concepts. That is not objection in my view, but coming up with a whole different argument.
"There is no such thing as the real mind. Ridding yourself of delusion: that's the real mind."
(Sheng-yen: Getting the Buddha Mind, p 73)

“Don’t rashly seek the true Buddha;
True Buddha can’t be found.
Does marvelous nature and spirit
Need tempering or refinement?
Mind is this mind carefree;
This face, the face at birth."

(Nanyue Mingzan: Enjoying the Way, tr. Jeff Shore; T51n2076, p461b24-26)
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Pero » Thu Sep 01, 2011 11:27 pm

Astus wrote:Buddhism teaches that the primary driving force of the world is karma. That is reflected in Buddhist cosmology. The sequence of the becoming of the world is from top to bottom. That means that humans existed before animals.


Wow really? Can you give a link or something, I'd like to read a bit about it.
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Dechen Norbu » Thu Sep 01, 2011 11:34 pm

Astus wrote:Buddhism teaches that the primary driving force of the world is karma. That is reflected in Buddhist cosmology. The sequence of the becoming of the world is from top to bottom. That means that humans existed before animals. The view of evolution is from bottom to top, humans evolved from animals. The diversity of beings in Buddhism is explained by karmic dispositions, in evolution by selection and adaptation. In terms of society, the Buddhist view is the cycle of golden age toward a bad age and from then to a golden age. Evolutionary view of the society teaches a progress from hunters-gatherers to modern cities. Buddhism explains that the true goal of every being is happiness and they are confused by the three poisons. Evolution says that the primary instincts and the meaning of all life forms are self-preservation and reproduction. Buddhism says that it is consciousness that makes one a sentient being. Evolution derives living organisms from molecules. These are the reasons why I say that Buddhism is not compatible with evolution.


Humans coming first than animals is a cosmology of sorts, right? When Buddha explained the teachings and later developments were explained by Buddhist masters we already had both humans and animals present. I think that the idea that humans came first was a myth common in old India, no?
The thing is, evolution hasn't stopped. It continues. So more animals will appear and it's debatable if we humans aren't also prone to natural selection, at least to an extent (a major natural catastrophe, a sickness, gradual changes in the environment may lead to the selection of certain characteristics).

The fact that I am a human now doesn't mean I will take rebirth in a human form in the future. The fact that I was an animal in a previous rebirth doesn't mean I wasn't a human (or similar) previously in another world system. Karma is involved in both scenarios.
Now, if I believe I can only take rebirth in this planet Earth, in spite of for instance knowing that it is claimed that Dzogchen teachings are present in other world systems, things may get more complicated.
However, I don't see a reason justifying that we could only take rebirth in this planet if life could exist somewhere else. So, we could have been humans (or equivalent) in another world, then animals here, then animals there, then humans here, then devas, then hellish beings, asuras, pretas, you name it.

I don't see natural selection as opposed to karma. Karma will influence the circumstances you will experience. Many beings share similar karmic potential and perhaps this is why we have a lot of beings similar between themselves while others are radically different. I think the life of a dinosaur wouldn't be that different, in terms of perception, awareness, instinct and so on to the life of a croc today. A mammal living in one of the ice ages may have an experience quite similar to that of a lion today... and so on and so forth. As humans, we share many of the same emotions, feelings, dilemmas and so on with our paleolithic ancestors. We have a lot of the same drives, needs, desires. It's like a cake with a more sophisticated icing, but made of the same dough.

So unless one restricts our birth to this planet and forget that the fact that animals were here first doesn't mean we were those animals and couldn't take rebirth as humans (or equivalent) somewhere else, I see no problem in accepting the theory of evolution. I even think that the fact that there is an evolution (why not some sort of staticism instead, a different model of life and environment) goes pretty well with the theory of karma.
Now, is the theory of evolution in accord with Buddhist cosmology? No. Do I think Buddhist cosmology is more than expedient means? No. To me, it's just an ornament to the finger, perfectly changeable, not the direction it points. That's how I see it. I never bought that Mount Meru stuff anyway.
There's a story Chogyal Namkhai Norbu tells about a Gelugpa teacher that wanted to write a book insisting on this cosmology in spite of his advice for not doing so, since we now knew things weren't like that. If memory doesn't fail me, he was translating this book. It didn't fly, I guess. Funny story that goes to show how Buddhist cosmology is not such a big deal in terms of Path or View. Perhaps someone can tell you this story better. I found it quite amusing.

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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Acchantika » Fri Sep 02, 2011 12:48 am

Astus wrote:
Acchantika wrote:Therefore, I respectfully object to the notion that evolution is not compatible with Buddhism.


You've changed the meaning of evolution and specified it in a way that might fit into certain Buddhist concepts. That is not objection in my view, but coming up with a whole different argument.


In genetics, evolution is defined as a change in the frequency and distribution of alleles at a given locus.

An allele is a gene or set of genes, a locus the position of that gene in a chromosome. A gene is a molecular unit of information.

When a species mate and produce offspring, the frequency of alleles increases. If the offspring die, it decreases. This is called 'evolution'. Evolution is not like this, it is only this.

So when evolution is expressed in layman's terms as "gradual change over time", it is precisely the quantity and location of (genetic) information that is doing the changing.

Therefore, evolution is a change in information distribution; and thus, in my view, concordant with my previous definition that evolution "concerns how information stores, changes and perpetuates over time in an organic context."
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby PadmaVonSamba » Fri Sep 02, 2011 2:23 am

himalayanspirit wrote:What is the explanation of this inconsistency? Is it that when these sutras talk about civilizations many many kalpas ago, they are actually referring to another 'world-cycle' where sentient beings rose and then destroyed?


The explanation of the inconsistency is that it is the wrong question.
It is the wrong question because it regards all the players in this scenario, fish, humans, apes, dinosaurs, microbes an so forth as static objects in time, like rocks in a stream.
But it isn't like that. Everything is motion.
Nothing exists on this planet that wasn't already part of the universe.
As Carl Sagan used to say, "we are made of the stuff of stars".

Your toenails used to be a super nova.

As far as cognitive awareness is concerned, that arises according to conditions.
"The essence of thoughts is dharmakaya...They are nothing whatsoever, and yet they arise" as it says in the Mahamudra Lineage prayer

Evoution is a fact, and mind doesn't go anywhere.
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Huifeng » Fri Sep 02, 2011 3:48 am

Namdrol wrote:Nevertheless, many do. And there is no need to restrict ourselves to Mahayana sutras in this respect. Your response therefore does not really adress the OP's question. It is a rather religious response -- to wit, "don't worry about the fact that narratives in Mahāyāna sutras contradict empirical scientific data about planet earth and evolution because we can explain our way around it with reference to other world systems...."

A better reply would be "The Indian imagination is prone to exaggeration of cosmic time periods..."

N


To me, Namdrol, that is two answers. One is the answer that is derived from Buddhist texts and such sources, and another which is a modern critique or perspective on it. Thanks for providing the second. And yes I do agree that "The Indian imagination is prone to exaggeration of cosmic time periods...", though originally it is a feature of Magadhi culture, rather than pan-Indian (see Bronkhorst et al). Only later, after much of this literature became predominant did it extend across the Gangetic plain and beyond. However, I think that both are helpful, rather than simply putting aside the former as a "religious response" (which is just the same sort of response that you yourself gave in another thread, here).

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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Quiet Heart » Fri Sep 02, 2011 6:08 am

:shrug:
three 'countless' kalpas


Not to be picky...but exactly how long is a kalpa?
And then...outside of that point...exactly how many is "countless" kalpas...not to mention three of them strung together somehow.

Or maybe, just maybe....and I'll probably get criticised for saying this...the term "three countless kelpas" is simply a poetic way of saying this:

One heck of a long time ago, but nobody really knows how long, so we made this term up to impress you.

In short...the term is not intended to be taken litterly...it's a metaphor.
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Re: Evolution of humans and Mahayana Buddhism

Postby Huifeng » Fri Sep 02, 2011 6:54 am

Quiet Heart wrote::shrug:
three 'countless' kalpas


Not to be picky...but exactly how long is a kalpa?
And then...outside of that point...exactly how many is "countless" kalpas...not to mention three of them strung together somehow.

Or maybe, just maybe....and I'll probably get criticised for saying this...the term "three countless kelpas" is simply a poetic way of saying this:

One heck of a long time ago, but nobody really knows how long, so we made this term up to impress you.

In short...the term is not intended to be taken litterly...it's a metaphor.
:smile:


A "kalpa" is an "age", and usually this term is used to refer to age period of world cycles. eg. the system wherein the arising and cessation of a universe is a "large kalpa"; broken down into four "intermediate kalpas" of arising, abiding, ceasing and voidness; each of which are further broken down into 20 "small kalpas" involving the cycles of humanity and the life span of human beings. This leads to the second usage of "kalpa", the "ayus-kalpa" or "life span". For example, Theravadin commentarial tradition describes the comment of the Buddha in the early Mahaparinirvana sutra of "being able to life for a kalpa, or the remainder of a kalpa" as referring to a standard life-span (ayus-kalpa) of 120 years.

Such figures as "asamkheya" are discussed in works like the Kosa, the Prajnaparamita Upadesa, and elsewhere. Each tradition gives it's own figure on how long it is, and usually it is not a literal "un-count-able" figure, but just a very, very large figure. So, the Buddhist tradition already recognizes this. But whether or no the tradition considers that the actual figure is to be taken literally or not, is rather subjective. Texts would seem to suggest this, but apologists seem to like the other opinion. People like Gombrich tend to argue that originally they are not to be taken literally, but later generations did. This is hard to prove however, as the issue of "authorial intent" is a knotty one for hermeneutics / literary interpretation.

Moreover, it is not really a metaphor. A metaphor or simile would be something like the stories of brushing away a huge mountain of rock, or the like, which are found in the early period of literature. ie. where something X is (like) something Y.

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