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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 '15 at 17:20
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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 '15 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 '15 at 23:42
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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 buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/2225/… 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
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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”

and

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
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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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This is a good question for all to think about. We know that although humans were around for 200,000 years, their brains were not developed (to understand any form of reality) until about 7000 years ago. Till then they had only three things in mind- eat, reproduce and sleep- not much better than animals. When our minds developed then we began to think about who made us and where we are going. So for nearly 5 billion years there was no religion. The early animals (female) did produce births. Buddhism is a humanistic religion developed around humans. So my view is that human evolution and concept of rebirth are connected. Root causes for rebirth is -greed, hatred, and attachment to self. Animals kill for food, hate other preditors to protect their young, so the root causes are different. Early humans, 200,000 years ago had similar intentions. As their brains developed animal instincts gradually disappeared and developed the power to think. Religous leaders like some early hindu priests believed re-incarnation and Buddha found that rebirth is the key issue for human suffering.

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Here is an essay I did a few years ago that may help.

Buddhism and the Idea of Evolution How is evolution seen in the Pali?

It is the subtle nature of Darwin's theory of evolution that it plays into the hands of the Devil (so to speak); that is, relying on the idea of the evolution of species, there is little ground for personal evolution: doing good, abstaining from bad, cultivation of the mind; and there are good grounds for hedonistic self-indulgence and domination of others by any means.

Seeing it this way there is reason to empathize with some Christian groups reactions to this theory; but for Buddhists, the solution provided by ignoring the evidence of science and reliance on faith in the Bible is out of the question. So how can we understand what the Pali teaches so as to accommodate the discoveries of science and still allow for personal growth?

In the Pali, the fundamental operating principle of life is the law of kamma: that identification with actions of mind, speech, and body intended to produce pleasurable consequences for one's self result in identification with the consequences of those actions; and by the corollary of this law, in the fact that that with which one has not identified carries no subjective consequences.

The power of this idea is in one's ability to see this principle in action in the here and now in as simple a way as in an act of generosity and by careful examination of that with which we identify (e.g., this body is considered "mine" and is defended and catered to by "the self", but excrementia, that which a few moments before was a part of this "me," is considered disgusting and is abandoned in an instant).

Personal evolution takes place when the individual understands that by controlling his intentional acts of pleasure-seeking and by letting go of identification with body, sensation, emotion and ideas, he is able to stop producing future consequences and to overcome the consequences of past actions (which are limited in the objects in which they can produce results — i.e., body, sensations, emotions and ideas).

From the "theory" of kamma one evolves to the knowledge of kamma not by faith, but by scientific observation of personal experience. From this knowledge of kamma deductions can be made which are harder to "see" but whose conclusions are impossible to avoid:

Given two identical acts, one with which one identifies and one where there is no personal identification, and both of which produce the same material consequences, but only one of which produces identification with the consequence, then the conclusion can be reached that that which is "personal" is not absolutely bound to the material and can transcend it. (Meaning it can be seen that it is the act of identification that is causing identification, so that therefore one can, by not identifying, break the bond to the material.)

In other words, given the mobility of this business of identifying, there is good reason to believe in the idea of rebirth, or the continued identification (under some circumstances) with life (identification with some aspect of the material, such as consciousness) after the death of the body.

Given this, we have opportunity for the evolution of the individual apart from the species, and good reason (in the expected benefits of evolving) for the individual to evolve.

This is the Pali explanation of Personal Evolution.

Based on this, the Pali holds that what is at work in the visible (material) realm, is the natural course of what we call "the imagination."

In it's "playing around" with the controls of personal evolution the imagination tends to form certain patterns of existence: the bad find rebirth in hells and crude and monstrous forms, the good find rebirth in heavens, those whose efforts are at escape find themselves reborn in subtle states of less and less involvement.

What science finds in the layers of carcasses and their identifying marks (DNA) is the material evidence of the consequences of the imagination at work. "I tried it this way, I will try it the opposite way, I will try to do both, I will try to do neither...but also: "that one tried it this way, I will try it the opposite way..." A being (an individual identifying with consciousness and identified forms of matter) will identify with stage one, etc., but is not bound to identify with stage two...and this is not the same thing as saying that being "x" here now (a being identifying with a certain life-form here today) evolved from stage one of that species, etc. How come? because there exists the possibility of evolution apart from the evolution of the material form: One individual may continue identification with a certain level without evolving at all, another may continue identifying with the evolution of a certain species, while still another may skip to higher or lower levels without passing through the intervening stages and so forth.

This is the Pali explanation of the evolution of species, and is an explanation which also accommodates the scientific evidence.

Additionally in the Pali, seers tell us (and in Buddhism we are told that with practice we may see this for ourselves in the here and now, so this is not a matter which necessitates acceptance by faith ... belief is a matter of faith only in so far as we do not make the effort to see for ourselves) that the entire world-system (that which is the material aspect of the universe) which we occupy, also both evolves and devolves.

Given that we do not see this for ourselves, it is still a reasonable proposition given the fact of Time: that which is identified with Time of necessity comes to an end; and given that the material from which the universe evolved is something that can be observed to be "conserved" (science tells us it is not subject to complete disappearance, and is re-usable; and while science does not tell us this, if we are reasonable and logical we can assume that this law of conservation applies also to that element we understand to be consciousness (and in the Pali, consciousness is considered to be an element)).

So this brings us to the possibility of the re-emergance of life forms upon the re-evolution of the world system: beings, identifying with subtle mind states during a period of the devolution or complete destruction of the material world (you could say those reborn in Heaven after the Apocalypse), begin, at the re-evolution of the world, to seize on the possibility of once again exercising their imaginations in world-bound life.

It is no great leap from there to the idea that there may be, of these beings, one who is first to devolve into this newly evolving world. In Buddhism, this individual is known as Pajapati (The Creator of the Created); but those who follow may call him God. He identifies with the process of the re-emergence of the world and believes it is his own work. Those who follow believe that it is his work as well. There is no problem, even, given this view, of the idea of an Adam and Eve. It simply takes a belief that those previous life forms that we find that pre-date the possibility of Adam, were beings that identified with poorly thought-out actions and ended up in crude life-forms.

And this is the third thing we needed to be able to understand in order to explain to ourselves how we can hold the belief that the world is the personal creation of the individual making kamma while at the same time it can be reasonably seen to have been created by a creator god while not needing to deny science or eliminate the motivation for personal evolution.

I conclude by saying that we who have come into contact with the Pali are lucky in the extreme in our association with this system in that it frees us from the wrangling over this issue...a problem with ideas that is clearly holding back the development of all three areas it effects: man, science and society.

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