Buddha & Darwin: best of pals?
Sometimes, it seems that religion & science are diametrically opposed, and that contradiction & conflict occur whenever we attempt serious dialogue between them. This can be witnessed in the ongoing (mainly) verbal battle between the theories of evolution and creationism. To those sincere believers in the doctrine that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and that everything in it is literally true, the evolutionary theory that we are evolved creatures is heretical. On the other hand, to the majority of evolutionary scientists, the notion that a dimity created life on earth in one swell swoop in 6 days is equally unacceptable.
On the face of it, Buddhism doesn't seem any more open to the theory of evolution than the creationism found within Christianity & Islam. Buddhist scriptures describe the process of rebirth with no reference to the evolution of life from single-celled organisms to plants and animals (including humans). Indeed, Buddha is quoted as stating that the creation of the universe and all life in it is beyond human ken, and that to ponder such matters is a waste of time. And yet, it is the argument of this article that the Buddhist & scientific world views are compatible.
When seeking what is important in a religion or philosophy, it is the view of this writer that it is the essentials that should be considered, rather than those teachings that are 'add-ons,' often appended to the simpler, original teachings at a later date. The existence of God, for example, is central to all theist religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and (arguably) Hinduism. No such figure is central to Buddhism, however, as Buddhism denies the existence of a permanent self, whether that of an individual soul or that of a transcendent deity. In this sense, Buddhism is more akin to science than it is other religions. In fact, many modern-minded Buddhists are loathe to call essential Buddhism a religion at all, a view which this author is sympathetic to.
Traditional Buddhism does recognize the existence of deities however, albeit not the eternal creator-god that is found in monotheism. Like polytheistic Hinduism, Buddhist scripture acknowledges the existence of many gods. Unlike Hinduism however, Buddhist teachings state that these beings are not immortal, and are subject to birth and death like all other living creatures. These deities (and other supernatural beings and places) in Buddhism differ between Buddhist traditions, however, and are culturally dependent. Moreover, they are not considered central elements to the Buddhist teachings. Which brings us to an important consideration: what are the essential teachings of Buddhism?
Different Buddhists will give somewhat different answers to the question, but the following are some points are probably accepted by all that practice Buddhism. The essential teachings of Buddhism are called the four noble truths and consist of 1) there is suffering, 2) the cause of suffering is desire, 3) the ending of desire is the ending of suffering, 4) the path to the ending of suffering. The details of that path differ according to sect, but are based upon the so-called threefold training of morality, concentration & wisdom. The ending of suffering, by the way, is often referred to as nirvana, and a buddha is an 'awakened one' that has realized this. It is worth noting that none of this is supernatural or unscientific in nature; quite the contrary, many Buddhists find in these basic teachings a kind of scientific spirituality.
So, having found what can be described as the core Buddhist teachings, how do these compare with evolution? Well, the truths themselves do not actually touch upon the subject of evolution - as most prescientific religions & philosophies do not, unsurprisingly! On the other hand, is there anything in the four noble truths that is incompatible with the theory of evolution? Well, evolution states that life on Earth evolved over billions of years, starting as the most simple of organisms and developing into all the myriad forms of life we see today. The first noble truth of suffering is viewable observing humans and other sentient creatures; science would concur with this. That he cause of suffering is desire might be more controversial to the scientist, but it isn't exactly contradicting evolution. The third noble truth logically follows from the third.
As to the fourth noble truth, based as it is on morality, concentration and wisdom, all developed by humans through their own efforts rather than bestowed on them through the grace of a divine being, there is nothing to conflict with evolutionary ideas. Indeed, it is possible to see the four noble truths as part of humanity's ongoing development or evolution to the nest stage of its development. In this, it would stand alongside science itself, for if humans are to continue our evolutionary development and not stagnate or die out, surely science has a crucial role to play in this. In this light, it is interesting to reflect on how 'evolutionary Buddhism' might go hand-in-hand with science. As the Buddha said: Walk on!