Darwin and the Buddha

The teachings of Charles Darwin and Gautama Buddha are worlds apart. Yet their descriptions of life bear similarities to each other and even interlock in ways that expand my view of each.  I’ll focus this comparison on  On the Origin of Species and the Dhammapada, a widely read collection of the Buddha’s sayings.

The differences are straightforward enough. Darwin’s eye was mainly on the past. In Origins, he observed the characteristics of successive generations of plants and animals—except for humans, whose evolution he discussed in other books—to show how natural selection and fertility served as the sources of the variation of species.

The Buddha, on the other hand, focused on humans, on the pain of our disappointments and the ease that disciplined renunciations could bring. And in contrast to Darwin’s focus on ancestry, the Buddha’s eye was on the future, on each person’s potential path forward out of suffering. Finally, while Darwinian evolution moved on inexorably, the Buddha convinced his followers that their future was in their own hands, that if they turned inward to grasp the nature of change and expectation, they could calm their cravings.

Yet beneath these distinct differences, both thinker followed a logic built from the same pieces.



First, for both Darwin and the Buddha, the struggles of ordinary life make up the starting point for the consequences and possibilities that followed. As different as their two works are, taken together they rest on the premise that for humans, animals, and plants alike, life is stressful, sometimes dangerous, and often unpredictable. Whether in a plant stunted by inadequate sunlight or a woman in conflict between family and her career, it is everyday obstacles and threats that drive the changes that the thinkers explored.

Such changes consisted of a series of steps, the other great commonality between their views. For Darwin, the steps were those small, random variations which, if they benefited an organism consistently, took their place among its inherited traits. Though each step was small, the end result could be a new, better-adapted species. For the Buddha, the steps consisted of a discipline in correct understanding, the extinguishing of selfish desires, and future rebirths. As they were in Darwinian evolution, the steps to enlightenment took time but led to relief from pain.

Combined, these variations on the themes of struggle, gradual change, and final resolution offer a rich vision: living things experience conditions that are not easily or perfectly satisfied, but the future offers steps from pain towards peace, though not necessarily within an individual’s lifetime. In place of a deity to oversee the the fate of living things, both men saw a reality in which ordinary life and an organism’s response to it were sufficient to drive changes sooner or later.

I and most people and animals tend to fix our gaze on those satisfactions and dangers that we see a relatively short distance ahead—the state of our income, our health, our children, our security, predictable weather, unpredictable disasters. I wonder what it was like to have the mindset of Darwin and Buddha, tuned to long spans of steady transition in which a being’s every moment is a step towards elsewhere.


My thanks to Elaine Smith for her assistance.

The Buddhist Body Guard

We live in the here and now though usually not deliberately or fully. When we can bring ourselves fully into the present, we find a truer reality and can leave our illusion of self behind. Or so we’re told. But what about the past and future? We may not live in the future right now, but we will in a moment. And our past will be coming along.

I came across a passage about all this in a book where I least expected to find one. In Noah Hawley’s mystery Before the Fall, Gil the body guard prepares for night duty in the house of the rich and famous family he works for.

To be a body man did not mean being in a state of constant alarm. In fact it was the opposite. One had to be open to changes in the way things were—receptive to subtle shifts, understanding that the frog was killed not by being dropped into boiling water, but by being boiled slowly, one degree at a time. The best body men understood this. They knew that the job required a kind of tense passivity, mind and body in tune with all five senses. If you thought about it, private security was just another form of Buddhism, tai chi. To live in the moment, fluidly, thinking of nothing more than where you are and what exists around you. Bodies in space and time moving along a prescribed arc. Shadow and light. Positive and negative space.

here and now (nasa.gov)


In living this way, a sense of anticipation can evolve, the voodoo pre-knowledge that the wards you are watching are going to do or say something expectable. By being one with the universe you become the universe, and in this way you know how the rain will fall, the way cut grass will blow in fixed starts in a summer wind. You know when [the mother and father] are about to fight, when the [daughter] is getting bored, when [the four-year-old son] has missed his nap and is going to melt down.

You know when the man in the crowd is going to take one step too close, when the autograph fan is, instead, looking to serve legal papers. You know when to slow down on a yellow light and when to take the next elevator.

These are not thing you have feelings about. They are simply things that are. (260-1)

We are, I’m think, all guards of our bodies.  We try to “live in the moment, fluidly” in order to remain “open to changes in the way things are—receptive to subtle shifts.” When I meditate, I used to push away the voice in my head that distracted me with sound bites from the past and clever words for the future. But I’m more comfortable now when that voice intrudes. I hear it as my own body guard reporting in with another piece of the “voodoo pre-knowledge” that he gleans from living in the here and now in the first place.

A River and a Volleyball

Dere’s an ol’ man called de Mississippi
Dat’s de ol’ man dat I’d like to be
What does he care if de world’s got troubles?
What does he care if de land ain’t free?

Paul Robeson singing

Paul Robeson singing “Ol Man River” in the 1936 film of Show Boat

Ol’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’
He jus’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along….

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ rack’d wid pain,
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.

Ah gits weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’
But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

The 1927 sheet music for

The 1927 sheet music for “Ol Man River” 

“Ol’ Man River,” a moving lament of hard labor, racism, and indifference, might read like a Negro spiritual from the days of slavery, but it is not. It is a musical number from Show Boat, written in 1927 and set in the 1920s, about a river boat that offers theatrical productions at towns along the water. “Ol’ Man River” is sung by one of the dock workers, Joe; here is Paul Robeson’s peerless rendition from the 1936 film version. The lyrics were written by Broadway songwriter Oscar Hammerstein.

If it is not an actual Negro spiritual, how might we describe this song? Unlike traditional spirituals, the song includes very few biblical references—only to the judgment day when Joe will find rest and to another river, the Jordan, that he longs to cross to a new life. And Joe’s song is not a prayer, as many spirituals and hymns are; he is singing about the Mississippi, not to it.

But the song is spiritual in other ways. It is a vision of suffering. And it personifies the river as an all-knowing, constant, imperturable companion. Although the river “don’ say nuthin’,” imagining it as a witness helps Joe feel less alone. The river is personified more than it is deified; the spirituality of “Ol’ Man River” is relatively non-theistic. It adapts the language and emotion of a Negro spiritual to create a secular hymn of sorrow. But it reminds us of how long humans have been animating the forces of nature to help them manage their fears or understand what they could not control.

Wilson, Tom Hanks' companion in

Wilson, Tom Hanks’ companion in “Cast Away”

A personification similar to “ol’ man river” is Wilson, Tom Hanks’ volleyball in the film Cast Away. After a plane crash, Hanks’ character washes ashore on an uninhabited island along with cargo that includes a Wilson volleyball. Hanks draws its face with his bleeding hand. Over the ensuing years, he chats with Wilson, listens to it, yells at it, and finally weeps when it floats away from the raft that Hanks escapes on.

Like Joe’s all-knowing river, Wilson, in Hanks’ mind, seems wise. Unlike the mute river, though, and appropriately for a man alone on a deserted island, Wilson seems to listen and respond. Both works portray the emergence of a living persona in an object, a process that results from an individual’s suffering and the need for a reliable, wise—but not a notably supernatural or even sympathetic—companion.

Yet Joe’s river is, compared to the volleyball, a grander spiritual vision. The Mississippi is the witness for the exploitation and racism that fill not only Joe’s life but the lives of those around him. The Mississippi of the song is a transcendent presence and perhaps offers Joe the consolation that suffering and injustice are small pieces of a larger entity. Joe understands that the flow of the river, like the flow of time, does not stop for the struggles of anyone.