Buddhism and Evolution: History
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Subjects: Religion

Evolution is not explicitly mentioned in the Tipitaka. As no major principles of Buddhism contradict it, many Buddhists tacitly accept the theory of evolution. Questions about the eternity or infinity of the universe at large are counted among the 14 unanswerable questions which the Buddha maintained were counterproductive areas of speculation. As such, many Buddhists do not think about these kinds of questions as meaningful for the Buddhist goal of relieving oneself and others from suffering. One does not need to know the origin of life in order to achieve enlightenment. Dalai Lama dismisses the element of randomness in the theory of evolution based on natural selection: Lopez elaborates that the process of Rebirth (into any of a large number of states of being including the human, any kind of animal and several types of supernatural being) is conditioned by karma (action of consciousness), which explains Dalai Lama's view. Buddhists believe the beginning of this world and of life is inconceivable since they have neither beginning nor end. Buddhists believe that the world was not created once upon a time, but that the world has been created millions of times every second and will continue to do so by itself and will break away by itself.

  • theory of evolution
  • evolution
  • origin of life

1. Buddhist Views

Anagarika Dharmapala once stated that "the theory of evolution was one of the ancient teachings of the Buddha."[1]

In the Majjhima Nikaya, a potential follower asks the Buddha for an answer to the problem of cosmogony:

"Suppose someone was hit by a poisoned arrow and his friends and relatives found a doctor able to remove the arrow. If this man were to say, 'I will not have this arrow taken out until I know whether the person who had shot it was a priest, a prince or a merchant, his name and his family. I will not have it taken out until I know what kind of bow was used and whether the arrowhead was an ordinary one or an iron one.' That person would die before all these things are ever known to him."[2]

This Parable of the arrow has often been used to illustrate the Buddha's teachings that "practitioners who concern themselves with the origins of the universe and other topics are missing the point of their religious practice."[3]

Albert Low, a Zen master and author of The Origin of Human Nature: A Zen Buddhist Looks at Evolution, (2008) opposes neo-Darwinism and the selfish gene theory as he claims they are materialistic. He also opposes creationism for being dogmatic and instead advocates spiritual evolution.[4]

Stephen T. Asma has noted that the Buddha himself largely avoided answering questions about the origins of the universe.

But the historical Buddha shunned metaphysical speculations. He refrained from spooky conjectures generally, and thought that origin-stories about how the universe started were avyakata (unanswerable), given our empirical constraints. Most Buddhists take all this as an invitation to embrace the sciences.[5]

The Buddha argued that there is no apparent rational necessity for the existence of a creator god because everything ultimately is created by mind.[2] Belief in a creator is not necessarily addressed by a religion based on phenomenology, and Buddhism is generally accepting of modern scientific theories about the formation of the universe. This can be argued either from the standpoint that it simply does not matter, or from an interpretation of the Agañña Sutta favoring the notion that it describes the basic concept of evolution.[6]

1.1. Aggañña Sutta

In the Aggañña Sutta, found in the Pali Canon, the Buddha does appear to give a highly detailed answer to this issue. The Buddha, speaking to the monk Vasettha, a former Brahmin, states the following:

‘There comes a time, Vasetha, when, sooner or later after a long period this world contracts. At a time of contraction, beings are mostly born in the Abhasara Brahma world. And there they dwell, mind-made, feeding on delight, self luminous, moving through the space, 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 Abhasara 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— and they stay like that for a very long time. At that period, Vasetha, there was just one mass of water, and all was darkness, blinding darkness. Neither moon nor sun appeared, no constellations or stars appeared, night and day were not yet distinguished, nor months and fortnights, nor years and seasons; there was no male and female, beings being reckoned just as beings. And sooner or later, after a very long period of time, savory earth spread itself over the waters where those beings were. It looked just like the skin that forms itself over hot milk as it cools. It was endowed with color, smell, and taste. It was the color of fine ghee or butter and it was very sweet, like pure wild honey.[7]

Because the Buddha seems to present a model of cosmology wherein the universe expands and contracts over extremely long periods of time, this description has been found by some to be consistent with the expanding universe model and Big Bang.[8]

This story is sometimes called a Buddhist creation myth. But read as a fable, it is less about creation and more about the refutation of castes. It seems intended to counter stories in the Rig Veda that justify castes.[9]

According to the Agganna sutta, animals must have been present before humans completed their "devolution"; moreoever, the asexual proto-humans had apparently domesticated the cow and lived in towns and villages.[10]

2. Spiritual Evolution

The concept of spiritual evolution has been taught in Buddhism. William Sturgis Bigelow, a physician and Buddhist, attempted to merge biology with spirituality; he accepted the existence of both material and spiritual realms. Many of his ideas were discussed in his book Buddhism and Immortality (1908). Bigelow used the concept of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution. According to Bigelow spiritual evolution is when an individual emerges from "unconditioned consciousness" and "moves up the scale of evolution guided by natural selection". Next the individual moves to a level of celestial experience, and finally is able to "return to the unconditioned consciousness from which all things emerge." Bigelow accepted both material and spiritual evolution; he believed Buddhism and science were compatible.[11]

The content is sourced from: https://handwiki.org/wiki/Religion:Buddhism_and_evolution


  1. Buddhism and Science: Probing the Boundaries of Faith and Reason by Dr. Martin J. Verhoeven. Religion East and West, Issue 1, June 2001, pp. 77-97 http://online.sfsu.edu/~rone/Buddhism/VerhoevenBuddhismScience.htm
  2. "Buddhist Studies (Secondary) The Buddha's Wisdom and Compassion". http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/buddhism/bs-s16.htm. 
  3. "Four reasons Buddhists can love evolution". Wildmind. http://www.wildmind.org/blogs/on-practice/buddhism-evolution. Retrieved December 23, 2013. 
  4. Low, Albert (2008). The Origin of Human Nature: A Zen Buddhist Looks at Evolution. Sussex Academic Pr. ISBN 1-84519-260-5. 
  5. Asma, Stephen. "Evolution doesn't bother Buddhists". Chicago Tribune. http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/religion_theseeker/2011/03/evolution-doesnt-bother-buddhists-.html. Retrieved December 23, 2013. 
  6. Williams, Paul (2004). Buddhism. Routledge. pp. 102. ISBN 0-415-33228-1. https://books.google.com/books?id=zuoMLtQoMJcC&pg=PA102&lpg=PA102&dq=Agga%C3%B1%C3%B1a+Sutta+evolution&source=bl&ots=6YSLIARjjm&sig=HCXmly_Bw5xuaAeN1xE4Zj44OOU&hl=en&ei=3THPTOmzL5venQfykp3aDw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CBIQ6AEwADgK#v=onepage&q&f=false. 
  7. Aggañña Sutta http://www.urbandharma.org/pdf/AggannaSutta.pdf
  8. Beginnings and Endings: The Buddhist Mythos of the Arising and Passing Away of the World by James J. Hughes Ph.D. Buddhist Perceptions of Desirable Societies in the Future: Papers prepared for the United Nations University, eds. Sulak Sivaraksa et al. IRCD: Bangkok, Thailand. 1993 http://www.changesurfer.com/Bud/Begin.html
  9. "The Agganna Sutta". About.com. December 23, 2013. http://buddhism.about.com/od/thetripitaka/a/The-Agganna-Sutta.htm. 
  10. http://dhammawheel.com/viewtopic.php?t=4122
  11. Tweed, Thomas A. (2000). American encounter with Buddhism, 1844-1912: Victorian culture & the limits of dissent. UNC Press Books. pp. 107–108. ISBN 978-0807849064. 
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