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Is it possible to reconcile the evolution theory with Buddhism, or they are 2 things that simply cannot go along? In other words you have to choose one.

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    Did you find information leading to either view, or relating both in any way? If so, please share your findings in the question, it is very valuable for who is reading :) – Thiago Sep 23 '14 at 14:53
  • Isn't there supposed to have been, according to the suttas, on Earth, 20 something other Buddhas in the past behind Gotama Buddha, each appearing thousands of years between each other and each seeming to be living in the same technological period? That seems to be a conflict with Darwin's theory of evolution. Maybe it was meant that the other Buddhas were not of Earth? – Lowbrow Sep 23 '14 at 15:02
  • @user535875 before anything, AFAIK, darwin's theory is about natural selection and fitness; how organisms mutation plays a role in favoring (or not) their survival on a setting. Not about technological progress or economic maturity. If -- and that is not clear -- each Buddha appears in the same technological setting, this can be either to (a) a stable society; or (b) the decay of the first period, followed by the rise of a second period to the point of maturity the first was. None of these talk about environmental/social changes benefiting different mutations -- and no clue to these are given. – Thiago Sep 23 '14 at 15:19
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    Hi all, I see buddhism as the religion with most connections with science, it is known as a "science of the mind" in many places, but this particular topic seems to be a problem (very hard to reconcile) as according to Buddhism beings used to leave 10.000 years in the past and nothing in modern science can support that, so: was that to be taken literally? Maybe not, maybe the Buddha was talking about a previous world cicle, not this one, I dont know... – konrad01 Sep 23 '14 at 15:52
  • @konrad01 i think your question seem more inclined towards the known history (drawn from archeology and preserved evidence of ancient societies) and how awkward these seem contrasted with some suttas than with evolution theory. Is this correct? – Thiago Sep 23 '14 at 16:02

12 Answers 12

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I'm really not sure what one has to do with the other. The Buddha taught the path leading to the cessation of suffering. Evolutionary theory explains what happens through the interplay of a given species and its surroundings. I think the example set by the Dalai Lama is very instructive in demonstrating how a Buddhist should approach science. He strongly embraces what science has to teach us about reality - which is what Buddhism seeks to do in it's own way. He even goes so far as to say that if science (and by science, I understand him to mean rigorous testing and reproducible evidence) could prove an aspect of Buddhism teaching false, a Buddhist would have to side with science. I'm really don't see anything in evolution that would impinge on the dharma.

  • HI, thanks, I was referring to the suttas where the Buddha taught many things, not only the path to enlightment, I guess he spoke about origins of life here. Regarding Dalai Lama he is the leader of Tiberan Buddhism, let's wait for answers from others tradicitons as well :) – konrad01 Sep 23 '14 at 12:43
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Agganna sutta is accepted in most traditions. Here's some of what it says about the origins of the humans.

‘There comes a time, Vasettha, when, sooner or later after a long period this world contracts. At a time of contraction, beings are mostly born in the Abhassara Brahma world. And there they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self luminous, moving through the air, glorious—and they stay like that for a very long time. But sooner or later, after a very long period, this world begins to expand again. At a time of expansion, the beings from the Abhassara Brahma world, having passed away from there, are mostly reborn in this world. Here they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self-luminous, moving through the air, glorious—[5] and they stay like that for a very long time.

So most Buddhist traditions wouldn't agree that humans evolved from some sea creature. But the sutta says that humans looked much different compared to how they appear today. It also goes on to explain how they changed over time. So there's a similarity. But this change occurred due to the change in the mental states and due to the different types of food they consumed over time. Humans were intelligent beings at the start. Not single-celled organisms. And they didn't share any common ancestor with other species.

  • Just to add a quick point: After his enlightment the Buddha was able to contemplate 91 world cycles, that is why we say time has no beginning and will never end, it goes on and on expanding and contracting, this theory can easily fit with modern science (we still dont know for sure if the universe will contract but there is a good chance according to some cosmologists) – konrad01 Jul 20 '14 at 17:40
  • Yes, that is a good point for those who feel the need to verify Buddhism with Science. Buddhists(those who put their faith in the Triple gem) wouldn't have a problem, even if Science says something different. :) – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 20 '14 at 17:48
  • Yes! I think buddhism neither affirm nor deny the evolution theory, it is really an open question, also let's not forget that the Buddha intentionaly left some questions unanswered – konrad01 Jul 20 '14 at 18:14
  • Well, even with certain similarities, Agganna Sutta is not compatible with the evolution theory. Maybe you should explain in your answer as to why it is not so. – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 20 '14 at 18:36
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    "Humans have been formed fully human" can be misleading as the beings came from the Abhassara Brahma realm were very different from modern day humans. They didn't even have a gender to start with. But i have added your other point. – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 21 '14 at 11:03
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Buddhist theory of evolution and cosmology is covered in the Aggañña Sutta. There is a article The Origin of Life in the Universe: Buddhist Perspective which discusses this topic which might be of interest to you.

We have to consider this has been handed down as a oral tradition before it was written down. So there might be variations. Having said this Buddhism can can stand the test of scientific scrutiny. Buddhism is empirical.

Also see: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhist_cosmology_(Theravada)

Origin of Species

Aggañña Sutta is in complete agreement with scientific evolution. The Aggañña Sutta presents water as pre-existent to earthlike planets, with the planet forming with water and the life moving from the water onto the earth. The first life formed on the surface of the water and again, over countless millions of years, evolved from simple into complex organisms. . According to Buddhism, world systems always appear and disappear in the universe.

(Sourced: http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2010/01/27/the-origin-of-life-in-the-universe-buddhist-perspective/)

Above is exactly what Drawin also said. Though Buddhism goes beyond by describing who the whole world system formed and how biological life forms came to being from other life forms (non biological). Within the scope of biological life forms it is the same as Darwin.

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This will not answer your question, but maybe it can help a lot:

"Thia samyutta is organized around questions that the Buddha left unanswered. Most of the discourses here focus on questions in a standard list of ten that were apparently the hot issues for philosophers in the Buddha's day: Is the cosmos eternal? Is it not eternal? Is it finite? Is it infinite? Is the body the same as the soul? Is the body one thing and the soul another? Does the Tathagata exist after death? Does he not exist after death? Both? Neither?

MN 72 lists the reasons why the Buddha does not take a position on any of these questions. In each case he says that such a position "is a thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views. It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, & fever, and it does not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation; to calm, direct knowledge, full awakening, Unbinding."

These reasons fall into two categories. The first concerns the present drawbacks of taking such a position: It is accompanied by suffering, distress, despair, and fever. The second category concerns the effects of such a position over time: It does not lead to awakening or Unbinding. AN 10.93 further explores the first category of reasons. MN 63 further explores the second.

Some of the discourses in this samyutta explore a third category of reasons for why the Buddha does not take a position on any of these questions: Such a position is based on attachment to and misunderstanding of the aggregates and sense media. When one sees these things for what they are, as they're actually present, the idea of forming them into any of these positions simply does not occur to one."

Source:Introduction to the Avyakata Samyutta (Undeclared-connected) Thanissaro Bhikkhu

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From the standpoint of secular Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism there has been a focus on teachings as practical guidelines.

Quoting the Dalai Lama that:

“If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”

― Dalai Lama XIV, The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality

In this way combining both Buddhism and Science, using each for it's strength's; seeing Buddhism as source on:

  • the mind, meditation and morality and seeing
  • meditation
  • morality
  • freeing suffering
  • philosophy

And seeing Science as the expert on:

  • The natural sciences
  • Mathematics
  • History
  • Engineering
  • Architecture

Edit, adding interpretation of Aganna Sutta

One the more skeptical interpretations of Aganna Sutta has been of Prof. Gobrich. That is was never to be taken literally, but as parody to the cosmology in the Veda, and trying to get across that both language and the caste system was of not divine origin.

He came to this conclusion because the Buddha had always been reluctant to posit a cosmology. Source Used:

http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=features/buddhas-universe-vs-western-science.

Original Source:

Richard Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988, page 82-85.

  • “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” - 'Conclusive' is the keyword here. Conclusive according to Science or Buddhism? That again brings the argument back to knowing it by direct experience. :) – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 21 '14 at 11:10
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    I think the Dalai Lama means conclusive according to Science, His Holiness has a great affinity with science. But I'm not trying to start an argument, simply to describe a position held by some Buddhist. – DirkM Jul 21 '14 at 11:23
  • Yea, if that is the case, it means taking refuge in Science instead of the Dhamma. So the question arises if one can still be considered as a Buddhist. – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 21 '14 at 11:39
  • That's why I added The Dalai Lama, including with secular Buddhism. As is with other religions, one can argue that Catholicism or Protestantism can be seen as not true Christianity. But the question is whether this is useful. – DirkM Jul 21 '14 at 11:52
  • But questioning if one can be considered a Buddhist is more relevant to this question than questioning if it is useful to take refuge in science instead of the Dhamma. :) – Sankha Kulathantille Jul 21 '14 at 12:25
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Both Buddhism and the evolution theory agree that beings change with time. The conflicts are only in the details. Buddhism says that humans were much more pure and radiant at the beginning. Evolution theory says that humans were ugly and primitive at the start. Buddhism says, beings came to this world from another world. Evolution theory or modern science says that beings evolved from a single celled organism on earth.

Which one to pick is your personal choice. Some prefer to reserve judgement for various reasons. I pick Agganna Sutta since I take refuge in the Buddha instead of Darwin.

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    Buddhism claims human beings used to live for 10.000 years, right? Should one take that literally? – konrad01 Sep 23 '14 at 15:44
  • Much more than 10,000 years. Unlike other beings, human life span changes with time and is said to be in correlation with the purity of the mind. Yes, there's nothing wrong in taking it literally. – Sankha Kulathantille Sep 23 '14 at 15:52
  • Ok, so I would say not reconciliable with the origin of species (by Darwin) unless I'm missing something here :) – konrad01 Sep 23 '14 at 15:55
  • Reconcilable only on the similarity. Which is the change itself. – Sankha Kulathantille Sep 23 '14 at 15:58
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    I think we should take refuge in the triple gems and believe in Buddha’s words instead of scientists. – TheDBSGuy Nov 10 '18 at 16:03
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The thing about 10 000 years is mentioned as part of a long story in DN 26 about a wheel turning monarch who lived a very long time ago who passed on the throne to his son and things went wrong when he stopped caring for the poor, and as a result people started stealing, and the whole society began to degenerate into worse and worse virtue, humanity's life span began to decrease, and eventually it will be shortened to ten years of life and be plunged into great violence, some people will flee and change their ways, and their descendants begin to become better, regaining what was lost.

I don't take the story literally as even the other material given in this sutta is non-literal. For example the Buddha says that if they practice correctly things like their beauty, wealth, and power will increase, but the Buddha gives non-literal explanations of these things, being virtue, the four brahma-viharas, and liberation of the heart and wisdom.

Also the fact is that the Buddha often used similies and stories to make a point that was non-literal. I think that this particular sutta is mostly an extended parable, with lifespan symbolizing the stage of human development. The story in this sutta is very rich with meanings when understood properly. It is a story about human nature, and about society, good governance, and the effects of widespread immorality. I think trying to demand that it only be understood literally is totally missing the point on why the Buddha would have told this story in the first place.

  • Thanks Bakmoon, I vote for this answer, but I will let the topic "open" for new ones – konrad01 Sep 23 '14 at 17:07
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There exists, for example, the notion of the "kalpa": which Buddhism may have inherited from Vedism.

If it were true that a kalpa is 4 billion years, and that the age of the earth is about 4 billion years, and that there have been several kalpas of existence, does that imply that ... Buddhism describes life on another (previous) planet?

Other religions, e.g. Judaism and Christianity, permit their members to view their "book of Genesis' as a metaphor; or as being informative on some subjects (e.g. the sequence of creation, light before matter, sea before land, land before animals) while not 'literally' true in other ways (e.g. that the world was created in 6 "days").

If some Buddhist texts and modern cosmology disagree, I don't think that's important: because IMO the reason why Buddhism is important is not because of what it says about cosmology. If I want to know how to mend my computer, I expect to read a modern book on that subject, not an ancient book. Similarly, if I want to learn more about the modern theory of evolution, I don't expect to find that in an ancient text.

What I can assume is:

  • The Buddha lived about 7000 years ago
  • The Buddha's teaching was insightful (into man's relation with the world), helpful (for people relating with the world), and general (useful to anyone who is able to understand and apply it)
  • Human beings (we, the human species) have not changed/evolved so much in the last 7000 years that the Buddha's teaching is no longer relevant to us.

It would not be sensible to reject all Buddhist doctrine, just because its texts include one or two details that don't jibe with modern science: and especially when those texts are unimportant to the Buddhist doctrine.

The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow makes it very clear what's important:

  • "Live the holy life with me"
  • The four noble truths:

    And what is declared by me? 'This is stress,' is declared by me. 'This is the origination of stress,' is declared by me. 'This is the cessation of stress,' is declared by me. 'This is the path of practice leading to the cessation of stress,' is declared by me. And why are they declared by me? Because they are connected with the goal, are fundamental to the holy life. They lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding. That's why they are declared by me.

Questions answered by evolution (i.e. "On the Origin of Species") seem to me more academic, less personal: i.e. "not connected with the goal, not fundamental to the holy life; they do not lead to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, calming, direct knowledge, self-awakening, Unbinding." In other words, it's unrelated to Buddhism.

Wikipedia on the Agganna Sutta says that the main purpose of that Sutta is to stand in contrast to some brahminical claims about the caste system, and in contrast to a specific Vedic hymn. If so then perhaps that Agganna Sutta was skillful then, at the time when it was written, and for that audience, but not intended/important for me.

Evolution theory and Buddhism don't need to be reconciled because they're different subjects:

  • Evolution theory talks about how species evolve, for example because of competitive pressure (survival of the fittest) combined with inheritance of semi-random genetic mutation.

  • Buddhist theory talks about personal suffering, attachment, cessation, and a path of practice.

  • Let me explain it better: Some Buddha's teachings cannot be proved scientificaly (karma and rebirth) but they are KEY for the Buddhist practice, we need to believe them using some kind of faith (in Buddhas enlightment), but if Buddha said things proved wrong by science it does make it harder for us to believe in topics like rebirth, BUT I'm not saying he was wrong, this is just a possibility, I was trying to explore that... – konrad01 Sep 23 '14 at 19:25
  • I agreed with this answer of yours. – ChrisW Sep 23 '14 at 21:02
  • Yes, good point, but you see... it is impermanence! Lol! My personal conflict of scientist x religious guy is not done yet :) – konrad01 Sep 23 '14 at 21:19
  • If it's unsatisfying (dukka) isn't that to be expected? :) I expect descriptions to be illustrative, not literal. E.g. if someone says that a photon is like a wave, or that an atom is like a plum pudding, I don't take it literally. A model is a simplified description of one aspect of something. There can be several models describing different aspects, e.g. a photon is "like a particle' and also "like a wave". – ChrisW Sep 24 '14 at 17:06
  • See also the parable of the blind men and an elephant. – ChrisW Sep 24 '14 at 17:07
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theory of evolution by natural selection.

This is two things. Plain idea of 'evolution' supposes progress and positive development of species. Buddhists probably should not hold such position, as species could regress as result of bad karma. And about 'natural selection' part, why not? Idea of selection, natural or not, doesn't coincide or contradict idea of karma. Idea of genetic engineering either.

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Isn't the question really asking is science and Buddhism compatible or are they like oil and water, never finding common ground? Buddhism teaches that all sentient beings can eventually be free. This process called evolution has led to self-conscious beings with the potential to evolve and awaken into what Buddhists call awakened consciousness. What science also says is that 4% of the universe is visible. And 96% is dark matter or energy that is not visible and is unknowable with the mind. The problem is that science is a theoretical field and Buddhism has many certainties in its teachings. However some branches of Buddhism introduce the concept of uncertainty. This very much corresponds to the 96% unseen part of the universe. So if we use the intellect we are only capable of describing the visible universe. Buddhism seems to imply that the seen is not the power of the universe, but the unknown is the source of uncertainty and power. Getting back to evolution, it describes the visual universe. Buddhism does not deny evolution as the Dalai Lama tries to reconcile religion and Buddhism, but Buddhism goes far beyond the theory of evolution because it infers the existence of awareness not subject to the laws of form. Science and Buddhism look at existence and non-existence with different lens, but one does not exclude the other.

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Evolutionists take the view that consciousness arises from a material cause. Buddhists cannot accept this. You have to divide the cause into two: the main or substantial cause and the cooperative cause. Matter can only be a cooperative cause, never the main or substantial cause for consciousness. According to the Buddhist view of evolution, there is an infinite universe. In Buddhist cosmology, any world system will go through phases. Sometimes it is destroyed, sometimes it arises, sometimes there will be gross matter, sometimes no gross matter, but really there is no beginning or end to it. And there is always subtle consciousness. So what is a sentient being? A sentient being is an entity designated upon the basis of a body and a mind, and fundamentally what is referred to by the mind here is the extremely subtle mind, which is continuous through all the cycles. Note: In the tantric Buddhist tradition of Tibet, it is regarded as possible for an accomplished practitioner to transfer his consciousness into the body of an animal that has just died if the body remains essentrially intact.

  • Evolution is a position about how different species arise from common ancestors. No textbook on evolution that I know of says that consciousness arises from a material cause. In fact, even the field of psychology doesn't even try to answer questions like "What is the mind and where does it come from?" Individual scientists might be materialists, but even among them I think there is a strong consensus among scientists that those kinds of questions are philosophical questions, not scientific ones. – Bakmoon Sep 23 '14 at 15:36
  • @Bakmoon, your last sentence is not entirely correct. The nature of mind as "intelligence" is studied by cognitive sciences. The nature of mind as "awareness" is studied in a (relatively) new interdisciplinary field called "consciousness studies" that brings together research from neuropathology, neuroscience, quantum physics, artificial intelligence etc. Although I agree that strictly speaking the question of evolution belongs to a different context than the question of the nature of mind, the two overlap in an emerging discipline called "memetics". – Andrei Volkov Sep 23 '14 at 16:08
  • @AndreiVolkov Intelligence is studied, yes, but not from an ontological perspective in psychology. And even with consciousness studies, much of it is considered to be a branch of philosophy, not science. Scientific evidence is relevant to the field but the actual conclusions made are part of philosophy, not science. That is why it is considered to be a Humanities-Science interdisciplinary field and not just an interdisciplinary field between branches of science. – Bakmoon Sep 23 '14 at 16:19
  • True, but in comparison with what we're used to call "philosophy" for centuries, "consciousness studies" is a philosophy of mind that is surprisingly well grounded in empirical research. Anyway, my point was, to say that the nature of mind is not at all related to evolution, sounds like naive pigeonholing, esp. in context of the question. – Andrei Volkov Sep 23 '14 at 17:01
  • Bakmoon is correct in that no proof of how consciousness can arise from a material cause has yet reached textbooks. However it is a persistent theme in science fiction, notably in Isaac Asimov's Robot series, and it is the aim of constructing neural networks for "artificial intelligence". – cuddlyable3 Sep 25 '14 at 17:20
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Based on the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow, Parable of the Leaves in the Forest and the Discourse on Unconjecturable Things, the Buddha would definitely put the creation or non-creation of the world and living things, and the evolution or non-evolution of living things into the category of "unimportant for the ending of suffering".

In other words, Buddhism would neither support nor oppose Darwin's Theory of Evolution, because Buddhism considers it to be irrelevant to the goal of ending suffering.

That said, you shouldn't be surprised if many Buddhists, in their personal view, choose to accept as true the mainstream consensus of the scientific community, that is based on the scientific method.

protected by Andrei Volkov Sep 23 '14 at 16:12

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