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.

buddhistchannel.tv

buddhistchannel.tv

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)

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.