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I've started my practice as a Buddhist. Currently, I've read a few books about Buddhism particularly the Theravāda lineage for myself it seems more appropriate. While reading about kamma one thing started to bug me.

It is said rebirth is conditioned by kamma. Which implies my good deeds may lead me to be born as human for example, while bad ones as mosquito. Homo Sapiens are on Earth for circa 200 000 years. Does that mean more than 1 million years ago no one could reach Nibbana, since there were no modern humans?

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Maybe Dinosaurs weren't eradicated but simply collectively attained Nibbana? – back2dos Jul 20 '14 at 18:38
dinosaurs weren't eradicated, they evolved into birds. – Jayarava Sep 3 at 17:20

5 Answers 5

up vote 8 down vote accepted

No, evolution does not do that. But this is a hard question to answer succinctly, because of the layers of concepts involved. I'll have a try.

First, consider one of the core notions in Buddhism: that our normal view of reality suffers from three illusory aspects. We don't normally see that the thing we usually call "real" -- tables, chairs, electrons, our brains, the evolving of species of organisms through natural selection, etc -- are impermanent, do not satisfy our desire to be free of suffering, and do not comprise that entity we call "self". A major point of Buddhism is to get to understand and experience the "true" nature of reality.

OK, so far so enigmatic. The point is, according to Buddhism what we see (feel, smell, etc) "out there" is not "real" -- it is merely the way whatever it is that is real appears to us. A well-used but very good analogy is the movie The Matrix. We are, in a very true way, in a Matrix. There actually is a "reality", but what we experience is not It. What we experience is just how It appears. And that idea isn't unique to Buddhism or even to religion.

Now within that set of experiences -- the things inside our Matrix -- are matter, energy, time, and so on; in other words, all the things of which a materialist scientist would say "that's all there is to reality". But in Buddhism, the insight is, no, that's not "all there is".

So to your specific question. The reason evolution -- and 200,000 years of the homo genus -- doesn't disprove kamma is because evolution is a concept inside the Matrix. Kamma, on the other hand, sits outside it.

Here's another analogy. Imagine you're a player of an online video game, like Call of Duty. Within each specific match, you can increase your score, gain points, get better weapons. Those are all like evolution. They happen inside one specific match. But you also have an overall ranking, or "experience points score" (I forget if that's what CoD actually calls it, but the idea is accurate) that lasts from game to game. That's like kamma. So asking if evolution disproves kamma is like asking if the fact that the current match has only been running for 5 minutes proves that no one can have a total "experience point score" of 10,000. The answer is, no, of course not. One is a concept within a game-match/samsaric-existence-instance; the other is a concept outside or "across" game-matches/samsaric-existence-instances.

One last way of thinking. Modern physics allows the possibility of multiple universes within a multiverse. So our current universe's 200,000 years worth of humans-able-to-attain-nibbana may be only one of billions of examples of such instances of human species across the multiverse, and maybe rebirth happens across universes.

So, again, no. The fact that we have a localized phenomenon called Darwinian evolution (which I accept, as far as it goes) really says nothing about the "global" (all-of-reality-scale) nature of things.

(See, I told you I'd find it hard to be succinct!)

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Excellent answer. I've thought many times about the matrix and video-game analogies myself before! However, I don't think rebirth happens across universes. I remember reading somewhere that rebirth happens based on existing attachments (cravings/aversions). So, my particular attachments (towards relatives, country, culture, etc.) would be earth-based, right? Maybe the jhanas actually exist there (across the different universes)? – Shinu Jacob Feb 22 at 3:34
I've literally had these exact same thoughts about kamma and evolution especially the ones that concern rebirth across universes in a multiverse and that of the matrix. Just wow. – user5770 Sep 3 at 23:42

According to the White Lotus Sutra enlightenment isn't restricted to human beings. The daughter of the dragon king (nagas) became enlightened when she was a young girl in that text. In fact she became enlightened extremely fast......

Her meditation, in front of the whole group, allowed her to grasp deep Buddhist doctrine and immediately reach a level of no regression. Throughout this transformation, she remained half human and half dragon—and a girl.

“I see the Saha World clearly now,” she told her father and the others. “We must look within for the true way. Each one of us possesses a priceless jewel within the confines of our earthly bodies. We must polish that jewel and help others do the same.”

Generally I don't think Buddhism has a problem with dealing with concepts such as a planet a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. A browse of the wikipedia entry of Buddhist cosmology gives a flavour of the vastness of the enterprise for instance

A collection of 1,000,000 solar systems are called “Divi Sahashri Loka Dhatu”


The largest grouping which consist of one Trillion solar systems are called “Thri Sahashri Loka Datu”/Thrisāhasra-Mahāsāhasra-Lokadhātu or "great trichiliocosm".

Ouch - that's pretty big.

If space wasn't enough then there are kalpas for time. The Dharma is seen as spanning many kalpas. One definition of a kalpa is

Imagine a huge empty cube at the beginning of a kalpa, approximately 16 miles in each side. Once every 100 years, you insert a tiny mustard seed into the cube. According to the Buddha, the huge cube will be filled even before the kalpa ends.

Ooohh- that's a long time

So in general Buddhism is comfortable with the non-human, other worlds, and vastness of time. I don't think the Dharma would be seem as redundant by the trifling matter of the absence of human beings, 200,000 years ago on one planet.

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I'll just comment on my own question. I just wanted to give you a flavour of the cosmic vastness of Buddhism and why human evolution might not be seen as an issue. Of course you (probably) won't be taking these things literally but it shows a attitude of universalism for the Dharma. Hope it helps – Crab Bucket Jul 20 '14 at 16:12

Humans aren't the only ones who can attain Nibbana. Gods and Brahmas also attain Nibbana. In fact, there are five Brahma realms called the Suddavasa(pure abodes) which are reserved only for Arahath and Anagami Aryans. Sahampathi Maha Brahma who invited the Buddha to preach the Dhamma to the world is from one of those realms. He was already an Arahath at the time. Human realm is said to be the best place to work for Nibbana as the balance between pleasure and pain is ideal to realize the four noble truths. Also, the Buddhas appear only in the human realm. Beings below the human realm cannot attain Nibbana as it requires a birth caused by a ti∙hetuka(triple rooted) kamma.

Incidentally, Buddhists don't believe in the Homosapien theory or evolving from some sea creature. Read the Aganna Sutta to know about the origins of humans.

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I'm not sure that it's universally true that Buddhists don't believe in evolution. I've asked the general question here… so we can perhaps explore this further. – Crab Bucket Jul 20 '14 at 16:30
Agree. I posted an answer there that may help. – konrad01 Jul 20 '14 at 20:18

There could be other habitable planets or even Universes too. So even though nobody could birth as human on the Earth (or Mars), they could birth in other places. Also, fact that somewhere somebody (or everybody) could not reach Nibbana does not disprove kamma. Buddhas are rare, and other beings need Buddha to learn Dhamma.

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This question highlights the real problems of trying to marry Iron Age theology and Anthropocene science. The assumptions in the two worldviews simply do not fit together. The answers to this question which try to make them seem compatible contain a lot of nonsense.

If you want incorporate the evolutionary record into Buddhism then you have to ditch the traditional views and rethink the whole concept. Else the implication you have noticed becomes obvious: there were no anatomically modern humans before about 200,000 years ago. Thus no human realm to be born into per se. Enlightenment was not possible at all, since it can only occur from the human realm. And evolution of humanity is a one time thing.

But there are a lot of other problems too. On one hand you have science and evolution and on the other myth, superstition and supernatural beings. There's simply no place for supernatural beings in science. Such things are entirely ruled out. Science and religion are incompatible. This is why so few Buddhists take science seriously, and why so many Buddhists are openly hostile to science.

The Agañña Sutta gets mentioned a lot in this context. It's a satire on Vedic cosmogony - something acknowledged by scholars for 20 years now. See for example Richard Gombrich's 1992 article 'The Buddha's Book of Genesis?'. Only Buddhists forgot the joke and started to take it literally as an account of the origin of the world. One of many examples of early literalism that either forgot a joke or reified a metaphor.

And yet many early Buddhist texts make very clear that the "world" the Buddha is talking about is the world of experience. He has nothing to say on the subject of "reality", nor even a word for the concept as we understand it. He seeks to understand the arising of dukkha (the experience of misery or disappointment) and in the Vajira Sutta and the Kaccānagotta Sutta says explicitly that "only dukkha arises, only dukkha ceases". In other words the main point of Buddhism is that only experience arises and passes away. It has nothing to do with the evolution of species or worlds or any of that. Only the momentary evolution of experiences.

This precise focus is soon lost. And Buddhist "philosophy" starts to produce a good deal of nonsense that masquerades as wisdom. And so far it has not stopped.

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