Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Evolution and Buddhahood

Let no one suppose that evolution will ever exempt us from struggles. 'You forget,' said the Devil, with a chuckle, 'that I have been evolving too.'
— William Ralph Inge

When I read about the stages of practice and buddhahood in Tibetan texts, I come away with the sense that there is some ideal state to which all paths of practice converge. One finds elaborate descriptions of various stages, culminating in the final attainment of buddhahood. At the same time, I haven't seen any evidence for such a convergence, whether in the various teachers with whom I've studied, my own practice, or the countless hours I've spent with students.

Instead, I've come to appreciate that things just evolve. What went before shapes what follows. One can often and easily trace how a person's way of experiencing life has evolved out of family and childhood experiences. At the same time, something new and unsuspected can arise at any time. Education, social interactions, finding a life partner and other events introduce different strands that mix with what is already there and influence the way we develop. It's rich, it's complex, it can be utterly amazing, and it can be utterly dismaying. Sometimes what happens is all too predictable and sometimes it's completely unexpected.

The Middle Way, not falling into extremes, captures, very simply and very wonderfully, this complexity. We are not just body or just mind; things are neither ordered nor chaotic; the universe is neither one nor many, and so on.

The implications for practice are profound. Systems of practice such as the Path of Purity in the Theravadan tradition or the Graded Path texts in the Tibetan traditition lay out stages of development, types of practitioners, what practices are suitable for whom and when. These are extraordinary collections of the wisdom and experience of masters over the ages, but we can easily feel that something is wrong with us if we don't recognize our experience or can't fit ourselves into those descriptions.

We need to remember one thing: there is no such thing as normal. Normality is an average and no one is actually the average. All classification schemata are after the fact, seeking to ascribe an order to the chaos and complexity of evolution. Such schemata necessarily average things, but there are always aspects of experience that don't fit or lie at one or other extreme of the bell curve.

There are general principles in spiritual practice, just as there are general principles in evolution theory. But each plant, each organism grows its own way, and we need to respect that we, too, will grow our own way.

The Buddhist concept of causality reflects this sense of evolution. It's based on the notions of genesis and conditions. Just as an acorn is the genesis of an oak tree, the genesis of awakening in us is the very awareness that is present in experience. Just as an acorn requires water, warmth, nourishment, and shelter to begin its evolution into an oak tree, we need to provide the conditions for attention, awareness, and presence to grow and evolve in our own lives.

And how we evolve is how we evolve.


Glowing Face Man said...

Kind of like levels in a video game. Your character gets stronger and goes to new levels. If the levels became easy, the game would be boring. The levels just become different.

Dennis Sibley said...

Hi Ken

An interesting post as always.

Maybe Western Buddhists would find it more helpful to translate Anicca as evolution rather than change ? What do you think ?


Ellen Fishman said...

I loved the quote, very funny.
Your last statement,
"And how we evolve is how we evolve."
once I gave myself that permission to feel,
it made all the difference in my practice.

But that is my path, as you said so well- each of us has an idiosyncratic way of becoming
and that path is
yucky and the next moment it can wonderful.

Thanks Ken

Ken said...

Evolution means more than just change. Anicca means that things change, but doesn't seem to imply that they are following a path of change. Evolution is really more appropriate as a possible translation of karma, though maturation could be considered, too.

Dennis Sibley said...

Thanks for the clarity Ken

You're right, evolution does mean more than change. I think I prefer "maturation" rather than "evolution" for the doctrine of karma though.

Natural, biological evolution has no end purpose (as far as we know) but the doctrine of karma is presented in Buddhism as a kind of moral teleology - that we can reach a goal by refining our moral practice over time.

But what's more important: the journey or our arrival at our destination ?