Parallels Between Darwin and Buddha: Evolution and Dependent Origination

Buddha’s theory is Darwin’s. I had an aha moment yesterday: Buddha’s theory of suffering and its cessation can function as a trope–a metaphor–for evolution. Buddha’s insight tracks Charles Darwin’s.

Buddha was Darwin before Darwin.

Put another way, Buddha discovered how evolution works, then turned his insight into a soteriology (a path of liberation).

Dependent origination. The thing that rocked Buddha’s world–and that led him out of solitude to preach his first sermon–the Fire Sermon (“O bhikkhus, the world is on fire!”)–was the moment he realized that suffering is the result of dependent origination.

It was Buddha’s jaw-dropping moment: “Holy cow!” (he must have said to himself) “I’ve figured out how the cosmos generates its somersaults–and how to disrupt them to arrest human suffering!”

So Buddha was not just the first great evolutionary theorist, but the first Luddite, throwing a shoe into the wheel of the Great Machine; the chomping Moloch that we call evolutionary history. Yet being nonviolent, he recommended, not rage against the Machine, but contemplative distance as the method for freeing the mind from the Machine’s spell-casting imperatives.

Darwin’s insight came when he linked up his field observations with Thomas Malthus’ theory of population; Buddha’s insight came when he linked up suffering with dependent origination. Darwin was contemplating external nature, and Buddha was contemplating inner nature, but both converge on the idea that existence can be made sense of, not by appeals to gods, but by inquiring into the impersonal, interconnected, mechanistic processes of change.

Buddhism’s twelve stages of dependent origination–and evolution. You can’t get to the capstone of a pyramid without other stones in place. You’ve got to work your way from the ground up. You can’t lay the stones of the twelfth layer before the eleventh, nor the eleventh without the tenth, and so on.

So it is in Buddhism with dependent origination and suffering–with suffering as the capstone. But Buddhists present dependent origination, not with an analogy to a pyramid, but to a chain.

In Buddhism, dependent origination is likened to a twelve-linked chain. And like an ouroboros (a snake that bites its tail), this chain is formed into a bracelet, circle, or wheel–the wheel of samsara–the cycle of birth and death. Make a thorough break anywhere along the chain, and you release yourself from the wheel of samsara, and therefore from suffering. As with each step in a pyramid’s construction requiring a previous step as a condition for proceeding, you can’t have the twelfth link without the eleventh, nor the eleventh without the tenth. If you break any link along the way, you arrest the manifestation of all subsequent links.

That’s what got Buddha excited. One doesn’t have to appeal to gods to end suffering, for it’s nothing personal. In the escalating causal process that culminates in suffering, all you have to do is break a link–preferably the first one, which is called ignorance (avidya). In logic, this can be stated with s standing for suffering and i as one of the links in the chain of dependent origination: is necessary for s; not i, therefore not s.

After Darwin, we can think of the twelve linked stages of dependent origination as Buddhism’s intuitive way of describing the imperatives of mechanistic evolution–but with an eye on soteriology, not science.

Below is a succinct description of the twelve links–with a Darwinian spin on each of them. Once you see that evolution shadows the twelve stages of dependent origination, it becomes quite easy to actually remember them. At minimum, even if you think I’m straining the analogy between Darwin and the Buddha, I think you’ll agree that evolution can nevertheless function as a mnemonic device for learning the stages themselves.

(1) Samsara is birthed out of ignorance of our non-dual nature. The wheel of samsara, and therefore of suffering (dukkha) begins to spin at the moment that what’s in and what’s out gets distinguished. Once you get an essential self over here and the rest of the cosmos over there, you’ve got trouble. Buddhists take aim at breaking the chain of dependent origination right at this dualistic root. If there’s a Buddhist version of the biblical fall, it’s here. The instant you start thinking–“I’m here, you’re over there”–you’re pretty much done for. Buddhists call this sort of dualistic thinking the beginning of ignorance (avidya). So in Buddhism, dukkha (suffering) and avidya (ignorance) are intimately linked. If you’re dwelling in ignorance, you’ve mistaken the self that is non-dual, empty, impersonal, contingent, impermanent, and interdependent for dual, essential, personal, permanent, and disconnected. You’ve mistaken a rope for a snake.

And once you’ve mistaken yourself to be this sort of self (a self demarcated by a skin, separate from the cosmos) you’re headed for a world of anxiety, anguish, and hurt, for now you’ve set the ongoing survival of you against the great big world that is not you.

So Buddha’s insight is that suffering begins at the point where self and nonself gets distinguished in this manner. From an evolutionary perspective, this existential fall into duality begins with the first cell. The skin of the alpha cell–its boundary layer–was the beginning of all individual troubles in the cosmos. The first time something distinguished itself from everything else (became a “self”), the wheel of samsara started to turn. The shit hit the fan.

Of course, cells don’t have minds, but we do. Though a cell functions dualistically, it isn’t thinking dualistically, but when we do, we purchase into the game of suffering and the ten thousand things, which is samsara.

(2) Ignorance of our non-dual nature is the engine of karma. Once you’ve got a stable and self protective boundary that you’re policing and pressing into the world (akin to a cell), you’ll start generating karma (action), pushing things around, and birthing new forms out of your actions–which is exactly, again, what the first cells did. They acted on their programmed prerogatives (to survive and reproduce); their actions had consequences; and those actions reverberated through time and space–birthing still more karma. The will to power, reproduction, competition, and cooperation (a decidedly mixed bag of evolution-generated karma) tumbled forward through time, by natural selection, all the way to us: a species conditioned to dualistic awareness for purposes of survival.

And this is where Buddhism shifts from an evolutionary theory of emergence (duality birthing samsara and karma, which births karmic consequences) to a soteriology (a path to liberation).

For Buddhists, liberation is liberation from the wheel of samsara. So one can transcend the samsaric wheel at this second link in the chain of dependent origination by waking up from dualistic perceptions, attitudes, and actions. If you can manage this, you’re on the path to liberation, but if not, you’re on your way to the third link in the chain of dependent origination: allowing your awareness to be overtaken by the ongoing flow of previous karma (in this case, evolutionary inertia), both personal and collective.

Will you follow the crowd, and your already existing habits? If so, move to the third link in the chain of suffering.

(3) Karma conditions awareness. Evolutionary inertia necessarily shapes human awareness. How can it not? Once the first humans evolved, they didn’t arrive on the scene as blank slates. Their awareness was not unconditioned, with all of their “doors of perception cleansed” (as Blake put it). They weren’t instinctually inclined to seeing everything as it is, interconnected and non-dual; as “eternity in an hour.” Instead, they arrived as frightened and naked primates, huddling together with the karmic baggage of past lives–the lives of their ancestors–and the genes and survival strategies that those ancestors passed on to them.

We are our ancestors’ most recent incarnation. Reincarnation, thought of in this way, can serve to naturalize Buddhist intuitions surrounding the nature of change and karma. Thanks to evolution, we don’t have to take these first intuitions surrounding reincarnation and karma literally. We can see them, 2000 years on, as tropes for an evolutionary cosmos that really has emerged out of long chains of births and deaths combined with competing survival strategies and actions that continue to have reverberating consequences down to this day.

From our contemporary understanding of natural and cultural selection, we can see that we haven’t literally experienced past lives, but that our ancestors have transmitted to us genes, ideas, and evolutionary strategies that are very good at navigating the world from the vantage of the dual–“We’re here, they’re over there; our circle of empathy starts here–and ends there.”

And this brings us back to suffering. Once human awareness enters into the three billion year stream of life’s evolution on this planet, it becomes a huge and anxious clustermuck of conceptual divisions, self-conscious competition, and alliances. The world’s living body, long at war among its biological members, brings that war to the mental world. Mental life therefore has its roots in prior genetic and environmental factors. It is this mental aspect of life, with its suffering, to which the Buddha attempted to bring therapy.

As Buddha intuited, through long chains of birth and death, we’ve come to be the beings that we are today. In bodily terms, these include such evolutionary innovations as eyes and the ability to run long distances. In mental terms, these include inclinations to things like language, art, anxiety, religion, war, and cooperation. If we were bats, we’d have the karmic baggage of our ancestral bat awareness; but we’re humans, so we’ve got the karmic baggage of our ancestral human awareness.

(4) Awareness leads to awareness of mind-and-body.  Our evolutionary heritage conditions consciousness–our awareness–to be concerned with the dual, not the non-dual–which leads, not just to the distinction between self and other, but mind and body.

(5) Mind-and-body awareness is experienced through the six sense gates. For our survival, we experience our mind-and-body complex through the six sense gates. From the body, we get the five gates of the senses (sight, taste, smell, hearing, and touch), and from the mind, we get the sixth gate: thought (which includes all of our inner states, including emotions). These gates facilitate awareness. They’re the six windows through which we can observe both things and thoughts. While practicing, for example, insight (vipassana) meditation, we might observe these with non-attachment, calmly watching shifts of sense and mind come and go.

So in vipassana meditation, if we stay with it long enough, we start to notice a pattern: that things and thoughts arise, ripen, and drift away. All things pass. Therefore, we don’t attach to them, or identify with them (not “my back aches,” but “back ache”). We observe dispassionately; we treat what enters through the gates of awareness as clouds in the sky. Not attaching to, or identifying with, what passes, cultivates wisdom. It is in the nature of things to arise, ripen, and pass away.  Vipassana counters the anxious dualisms, identifications, passions, and impulses to clinging that evolution has hardwired into our instinctual organism. We say to what comes and goes, not uh oh, or oh no, but ah so.

Our selfish genes, after all, have a very different agenda from our vipassana practice. Calm acceptance is not their concern. As long as their reproductive strategy is in force and working, they don’t care if the individual organism is agitated and suffering. Evolution has given us our six sense gates so as to navigate environments accompanied by anxiety. The six gates evolved to give awareness access to inner and outer worlds, most especially those that serve duality: “I’m an autonomous and mortal creature, ‘alone and afraid / in a world I never made.’ I’ve got to make this situation work for me. I’ve got to survive. What do I think, what do I see?”

As an organism, you’re supposed to be on the alert. It’s what your genes want you to do–to think dualistically; to police the borders. Evolution is urgent, so one way to reduce suffering is to get some distance from that urgency in the practice of things like vipassana, which, at least intermittently, counters evolutionary prerogatives by not identifying with, or reacting anxiously to, what appears at the six gates of perception.

Another way to extinguish anxious survival, aversion, and desire urgency is to close one or more of the sense gates. For example, let’s say you’re trying to avoid the suffering that comes with weight gain. You might remove leftover birthday cake from the kitchen table so that your eyes won’t fall on it when you pass by. But if you fail to remove the cake, on your next trip to the kitchen you may find yourself descending, Dante’s Inferno-like, to the next level of samsara–the sixth level.

(6) The six sense gates give rise to contact with objects of perception. Trouble here. Contact is the serpent-in-Eden moment for Buddhists: one taste of cake won’t hurt, right? But in evolutionary terms, your snake-like, writhing DNA molecules want you to obey their multi-million year build-up of karma. In response to environmental stimuli, they want you to look, smell, taste, touch, listen, think–and feel–feel!

(7) Contact generates feeling. Is sense contact with the object of your current attention pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? Are you indifferent or calm in relation to the experience–or do you have strong feelings about it? We all know what the evolutionary psychology texts say about desires and aversions: they’ve evolved for survival. You’re supposed to like some things (sex, food), and not others (spiders). It’s the long ages of evolutionary karma that condition your awareness. Can’t resist lingering over the siren calls of your inheritance, inclinations, and habits? On to the eighth level.

(8) Feeling generates craving. If you’re under the spell of dualism (again, acquired from your evolutionarily inherited prerogatives), you may not have the presence of mind, despite a lot of training in meditation, to just let your feelings come and go like clouds in the sky. Once you’ve made contact and identified a thing as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, you may want more of what you like, and less of what you don’t. So the next step in the build-up to suffering is greed: you’re mad to have sex, to eat, to get your way in business, to fit in with the alphas of your tribe, to obsess. These are all potentially good things from the vantage of evolution–but not so good if you’re looking to dodge traps of suffering.

In terms of an example of contact leading to feeling, and feeling leading to craving and obsession, think of Fred MacMurray in relation to Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944). Stanwyck plays the femme fatale who, once MacMurray lays eyes upon her and her braceleted ankle–that is, once he makes contact–feelings emerge, and those feelings give rise to a craving that he cannot resist. Stanwyck’s ankle bracelet is a nice symbol for the wheel of samsara and the chain of dependent origination.

(9) Craving generates grasping. Once you’re craving and obsessing, you’re scheming to push one moment away in time (the moment you don’t want) to grasp another (the moment you do want). And once you get hold of the desirable moment, you don’t want it ever to leave. You mean to shore up your position; to hold. You’re akin to a tree. Once roots are in place, you want more; you want to branch out. You’re ready to put forth leaves, extending your will to power in every direction.

It all makes perfect sense evolutionarily. If you wish to survive, you should move from the realms of contact, feeling, and craving to actions that are directed toward reaching (grasping) and conserving (holding fast to) what you take to be desirable. But in the process, you’re in danger of becoming, not an open hand, but a fist. And assuming center stage as a persona, wanting things–and acting to get what you want–you’ve entered the realm of becoming; of theatre.

(10) Grasping generates the theatre of becoming. All the world’s a stage–for evolution. The theatre of becoming is where you lay down your evolutionary gambit under the spell of your self-other duality. What will you stake your existence upon? Imagine yourself in Vegas, and you’ve put your chips on the table. You’re going for broke. A whole new world is going to swerve out of your motives and actions–for good and ill. In Buddhism, one’s private karma consists of three things: your actions, words, and intentions. What will be the produced babe of your karmic vegetation?

(11) The theatre of becoming generates births. You reap what you sow. When, out of desire, you give birth to a new thing, it means you’ve generated a fresh bell curve of arising, ripening, and rotting. In Hinduism, these are known as the three gunas–the rajasic (hot), satvic (ripe), and tamasic (the depleted; the inertial). When Jack Kerouac announced the birth of his daughter to one of his Beat friends, Gregory Corso, he got the head-turning reply, “You’ve given birth to something that will die.”

(12) Birth leads to old age and death. The things we give birth to, we want to endure–and never be separated from. But this isn’t the way the world works–and if we think it is, we’ve come full circle, Sound of Music-like, back to doh (yet another round of ignorance, dualism, and suffering). It’s at this point that the Buddha noses onto the stage, stealing a line from Dorothy Parker: “What fresh hell is this?”

Darwin’s dharma. So the Buddha as Darwin is saying, ultimately, that although karmic inertia, habit, and evolution have conditioned us to experience the world in dualistic terms, we can, with effort, get at least a glimpse of things as they actually are and have always been: non-dual and transitory. All we take for real, permanent, and separate is actually empty, impermanent, and dependent. No self has ever really been an island. No self has ever really been born–not essentially and permanently. With cleansed perception, existence is just this–Blake’s “moving image of eternity”–this now.

And now is means and ends. Buddha’s solution to the problem of mental suffering in an evolutionary cosmos–a cosmos on the move–is, first, to stop moving along with it long enough to see what’s actually going on. If you come to stillness and calm attention, it begins to dawn on you that you’ve always been empty, a mutually interdependent arising, without lack, and non-dual. You and the cosmos are one. You’ve never been two. You needn’t fear death because you’ve never been born–not, at any rate, as a separate organism.

You may witness this organism–“yourself”–and it’s very close in on your awareness, and you identify with it, but it’s not “you” up close while “the world” is out there, far away. You’re not opposed to the world–you are the world–near and far. And you’re also not the world. You’re empty of essential and self-same substance–as is the world. Whatever is, is interconnected, exactly as black needs white and being needs nothingness. It’s paradoxical, but what is, just is–and is not.

It all depends on how you look at it. You can reinforce the hard shell of yourself, or you can train to subvert your evolution and habit driven conditioning and momentum. If you practice letting go of an essentialist identity that narrates itself in only one way (“I’m a particular individual who has to hold on tight to my existing self”), then maybe, just maybe, you’ll wake up from your long nightmare of dualism (Tennyson’s description of life as “red in tooth and claw”).

Think of James Joyce writing this in Ulysses: “History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”

So you needn’t be an armored Apollo, but more like Proteus, the elusive god of waters, open to sea change; to metamorphosis.

A guided meditation for bringing it all together. Stephen Dedalus, James Joyce’s alter ego in Ulysses, tried to wake up, and the Buddha actually did. Now you try it. Be still and quiet. Extinguish words for awhile.

Let go is Be here now.

Ultimately, everything is alright. You’re neither movement nor not-movement, so what are you? Where are you? You’re here (and not-here). Nothing to run to–or from. No life without death. No life or death. No lack.

Whatever you affirm or deny, that’s not you in the non-dual sense.

So relax. Groove now with the monsters you’ve generated out of dual perception. Work with them. Rest in the Unborn–which, when seen from the angle of emptiness, is also Darwin’s (and Yama’s) Wheel of Becoming. No thing ever really gets born because no thing is substantial and self-same unto itself.

Once you learn to sit with your monsters, maybe you’ll start to groove and dance with them as well, and begin to see that they’re not quite as formidable and permanent as you first supposed; that they’re ultimately empty of substantial existence, akin to mirages. Perhaps you’ll begin to comprehend yourself in the same way.

So sit in meditation–then spend the rest of your day like a puckish Hindu or Greek god, dancing, singing, and joking around. Think of Monty Python. Lighten up. The British have always been wise Buddhas of the horsing around sort. There’s wisdom there. Learn from them. One of their posters from WWII famously admonished, “Keep calm and carry on.” Buddha never said it better or more concisely.

And if you sit with your monsters, and chill out in other ways today, it might begin to dawn on you that the world is a bit calmer, more fluid, and less serious than perhaps your conditioning and nervous temperamental set points have you supposing; that the cosmos is an alternation of stillness and motion; that your snakes have always been ropes; that you’ve been subject to some stubbornly persistent illusions of perception and distortions of desire, evolutionarily and conceptually inherited, which stem in the first instance from ignorance of the non-dual nature of the cosmos (which you take yourself, mistakenly, to be merely “embedded” in, and not really inseparable from).

The ultimate truth is interconnection, emptiness, and emergence out of the non-dual. Samsara (the realm of change, suffering, and the ten thousand things) has always been nirvana (empty).

That’s the Buddhist intuition of the cosmos that tracks surprising well with our contemporary understandings of ecology and evolution–and with the added bonus of being a therapy for suffering.


Image source: Wikipedia Commons. The twelve stages of dependent origination are represented, clockwise, by the images within the twelve rectangles rimming the circle. (Akin to the stations of the cross in Catholicism?)


Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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