To us, Charles Darwin and Gautama Buddha belong to different worlds. Yet their visions of life were and are similar and even interlocking in interesting ways.
Their writings and teachings differ of course in many respects. (I’ll focus on On the Origin of Species and the Dhammapada, a widely read collection of the Buddha’s sayings.)
In Origins, Darwin did not discuss human evolution at all, leaving that hot-button issue for another book. Instead, with an eye to the past, he analyzed plants and animals to establish natural selection and fertility as the keys to the variation of species that we see around us.
The Buddha, on the other hand, focused exclusively on humans, on the pain of our sharply felt disappointments and mental anguish, potentially eased by disciplined renunciations. And in contrast to Darwin’s study of biological history, the Buddha’s eye was on the future, on the path forward that could bring his followers out of suffering. Finally, while Darwinian evolution moved on inexorably, the Buddha persuaded his followers that their future was in their own hands, that they must turn inward, grasp the nature of change and expectation, and calm their cravings.
So here are two different visions of different living things struggling through life in different ways with different routes towards relief. And yet similarities link them, for both accounts follow a logic built from the same basic pieces.
First, for both thinkers, the struggles of ordinary and everyday life make up the starting point, the driver, for the consequences and possibilities that followed. As different as the two books are, they jointly rest on the premise that for humans, animals, and plants alike, daily life is difficult and unstable. Whether in a plant stunted by inadequate sunlight or a woman torn by conflict between family and career, it is the everyday pairing of struggle and need that sets the stage for the changes that the thinkers were exploring.
And for both Darwin and the Buddha, such changes consisted of a series of steps. For Darwin, the steps were the random and inherited variations that benefited organisms over succeeding generations. Though each step was small, the eventual result could be a new, unique species. For the Buddha, the steps included a disciplined practice of correct understanding, the extinguishing of selfish desires, and future rebirths. Such steps took time, but the result could be a person’s permanent liberation from worldly turmoil.
The two visions are not only parallel but complementary. The worldly struggles of people described by the Buddha resemble the struggles also of Darwin’s plants and animals. And the scores of generations over which Darwin’s new species emerge are a version of multiple Buddhist rebirths.
These combined variations on the themes of daily struggle, incremental change, and final resolution offer a rich vision: living things experience conditions that are not easily or perfectly satisfied, but the future offers paths and steps from pain towards peace. In place of a deity to oversee the process of the cosmos, both men unveiled a reality in which ordinary life drives needs and the course of time transforms them.
My thanks to Elaine Smith for her assistance.