Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
The evolution of evolution is the capacity to choose, consciously choose, how we will evolve. Up till now, all evolution has been pre-conscious. Even cultural evolution was limited by instinct and environmental conditions, but it was the beginning of a more conscious evolution. The evolution of evolution is a conscious choice about how we will evolve, what kinds of mental and social capacities we will have, even physical capacities, and how we will use them. How we evolve from here is now up to us. We can choose our evolutionary future.
What emerges from this evolution is not a new kind of spiritual being that transcends physical death, but a new kind of conscious human being that creates a transcendent form of embodied life, a form that transcends extinction.
Dependent Origination as Evolution: There’s a traditional Theravada teaching that the 12-link chain of dependent origination can be interpreted as a mythical explanation of evolution. Anagarika Dhammapala taught that the ancient Buddhists had a theory of evolution, but it’s more of a mythical story of evolution rather than a scientific theory.
We know that as things evolve and become more complex, they defy the law of entropy. Energy is conserved and put to use producing more complex structure, creating “dissipative systems” that defer the tendency for energy to devolve into entropy (F. Capra, The Web of Life, 1996). Science tells us “what” and “how” things evolve and become more complex. What science can’t answer is why? Why do things evolve and become more complex? Why do they attempt to defy the law of entropy? Isn’t it easier just to remain in a dormant state, in a completely flat energy gradient? A flat energy gradient is no change; change has stopped; life is not possible because life is change.
The other way to escape entropy, to avoid the energy gradient is voidness. Flat-lining _____________________ no energy, no change, no evolution, no life, thus no death. Nothingness, voidness, emptiness, shunyata. I find this completely unconvincing and against the massive weight of evidence of life on this planet. Moreover, life seems to push against flat-lining; the urge of life is to overcome the energy gradient and produce more complex and sentient forms.
Why complexity? What is this urgency to evolve? The urgency is what Buddha called tanha or craving, thirst, desire. But it’s not just your personal desire or craving. It is the instinctual drive by all living things to struggle for survival. Your personal desire, urge, is only a tiny manifestation of a universal urgency or desire, the desire to be, to become, to evolve toward greater complexity, towards consciousness, towards being that transcends the limits of embodied life. But it’s not becoming “god” or god-like either. Buddha already knew about the gods and said that their being is also temporary and dependent on living in a perfect realm which cannot last.
Death is a prerequisite for evolution. Scientists have shown us that death is necessary for things to evolve. The deathless is that which has ceased to evolve, or that which no longer needs to escape from entropy. There are some bacteria that are nearly deathless. Scientists have found bacteria that live in the magma of the earth that live for millions of years, and consequently, they never evolve. They live on methane gas, which is abundant at that level. They have perfectly adapted to their environment, so there is no need for further change. So are we supposed to become bacteria? On the contrary, we seem to be evolving away from the homeostasis of ancient bacteria. We are evolving in a state of disequilibrium. It’s when life forms are pulled out of homeostasis by difficult-yet-benign environmental conditions that life evolves new forms and greater complexity.
The stage of life that Buddha was hinting at was not the rarified life of the gods. It is a stage of life that obtains profound consciousness. But the Buddha said that everything is contingently arising; everything. There is no state of life that is “beyond” contingence or form. Nothing is fixed, eternal or unchanging. So there is no state of life, or post-life, that we can evolve to that would be permanent, unchanging. There are passages in the Pali cannon (Udana and others) where the Buddha says there is an existence that is the “deathless”, the unconditioned. That would make sense if the point of evolution was to evolve beyond the limits of the embodied entropy of animal life, which is species extinction. Total death is species extinction, because in that case nothing survives to pass on the next generation. The “deathless” then, is a form of life that does not suffer total death, or species extinction.
Embodied entropy is the struggle to survive, and our craving is the craving to continue existence, to cling to life, to escape the limits of extinction. Perhaps there is a state at which the urgency of evolution goes beyond the limits set by embodied life, the imperative to avoid extinction. Evolution then becomes an evolution of evolution, that is, evolution, or contingent being, that is not an escape from embodied entropy and extinction, but liberated evolution toward a form of embodied life that is continuously transcending its own limits.
Anita Moorjani talks about her near-death experience with cancer and how she experienced that, when released from the confines of our bodies, we are part of a connected consciousness.
The Buddha taught that “the deathless” can be experienced now, in this life, in this embodied form. Nirvana is not the embodied life that clings to pleasure; nor is it the formless realms of the highest forms of meditation. Buddha experienced both of those states and knew that neither led to nirvana, or “the deathless.” He said that consciousness is dependent on the body, but by letting go of all clinging, and extinguishing the fires of greed, hatred and delusion, and above all, letting go of the delusion of a separate self, that one can experience life as “the deathless.”
Perhaps “the deathless” is actually the web of life. We are all part of the web of life that began millions of years ago on this planet, life which is itself a continuation of the evolution of the universal energy that gives rise to life. And that web of life continues on for millions of eons beyond what we can know or experience. Einstein said that energy is neither created nor destroyed, it merely changes form. And our energy, once our physical body dies, will continue on, in the near term, as another form of earthly life energy, and in the still more distant future, as cosmic energy that might give rise to other forms of life. This is the deathless. The “karma and rebirth” of past lives, seen by the Buddha, are the infinite sequence of energy transformations back to the beginning of the universe, and future “lives” are the continued transformation of that energy into future forms. To understand ourselves as “the deathless”, we must accept that our present embodied egoic life, which is “not self,”was derived from past forms that were “not self,” and dissipates and transforms into future forms of energy that are also “not self.” Pratityasamutpada, not-self, emptiness, karma and rebirth are all aspects of one evolutionary process.
Embodied entropy is the struggle to survive. Awakened consciousness takes us beyond the struggle to survive; it allows us to experience the evolution beyond embodied entropy. What emerges from this evolution is not a new kind of spiritual being that transcends physical death, but a new kind of conscious human being that lives a different of embodied life, a form that transcends extinction.
This stage of evolution, the evolution of evolution, begins with consciousness, awakening. There’s a way that consciousness, or awareness, enables you to proceed to the next stage of evolution. Consciousness, or awakening assists one to get to that stage of free evolution and continue in free evolution to other forms of being that are beyond the struggle for survival, beyond embodied entropy. And all the stages of human evolution are useful to understanding this. All our attempts to free ourselves from our own personal suffering, craving, and our collective suffering, hatred, violence and oppression, and all our social and scientific knowledge that overcome ignorance, all of these are forms of awakening consciousness that are useful to helping us understand and get to this next stage of evolution.
As with all evolution, or dependent arising, it needs causes and conditions. Even the buddhas arise from causes and conditions. The essential cause, the essential environmental condition that we need to get to this stage of evolution, is collective awakening. Science teaches us that individuals do not evolve, populations do. Individuals mutate, but populations evolve. Either we are all evolving together, or we do not evolve at all. Either we all attain awakening consciousness and go on to the next stage of evolution, or none of us do. But some will begin this evolution before others, because they have attained awakening consciousness. The awakening consciousness is an individual mutation that eventually spreads to the population and becomes evolution. The more there is this awakening consciousness in the population, the more likely that more people are going to get to the next stage of evolution, sooner, but eventually, we will all get there, all of life will get there.
The 12-linked chain of dependent origination is a mythical explanation of the evolution of form and consciousness. Consciousness and form co-arise, evolve together. The start of the 12-linked chain of dependent origination is the ignorance of existence, and its confrontation with the world through its sense bases leads to increasing consciousness and awareness. Each cycle through the 12 Nidanas leads to a higher level of consciousness, and different bodies, different sense organs and perceptions, and different feelings, mental habits and concepts. At each stage of evolution, more consciousness is obtained, which co-arises with more complex forms of body, sense, perception, feeling, mental habit and concept.
At the highest stage, the human stage, we are capable of maximum consciousness in embodied form, but it also prepares us for the “beyond”, the next stage, the evolution of evolution, beyond embodied entropy, beyond the struggle to survive. The undoing or the end of the 12-linked chain of dependent origination is the overcoming of ignorance, that is increasing consciousness and awareness. The evolution of evolution is the evolution of consciousness, but it evolves concurrently with form. It is the evolution of both consciousness and form that does become extinct at a certain end point, but keeps evolving into ever more conscious forms.
Consciousness is the key to understanding the universe, but it does not create the universe. That’s the error of idealism and that’s not what the Buddha taught. The universe and consciousness co-arise together. One way to think of it is as a kind “ratcheting” process; matter-life gives rise to consciousness and consciousness assists in the evolution of new forms of life. It is the disequilibrium of the chemistry of the planet that created the conditions for life to begin, and the benign disequilibrium of environmental conditions that provoked life to evolve into ever more complex and conscious forms.
The shift of inanimate matter to life was the first shift of evolution, the first ‘evolution of evolution.’ That began the billion years process of evolution of life on this planet that produced the prokaryote, the single-celled organism. The second shift of the evolution of evolution was the shift from “mere life” of the prokaryote, to the eukaryote, which contains within itself the DNA, the information necessary to reproduce itself. The next shift was the shift to conscious life, the multi-celled organism, that senses, is aware, reproduces and dies. It was the fact of death that sped up evolution. Living species that die evolve faster. The third shift of evolution was the shift from instinctive survival consciousness to intentional, learning consciousness, which proceeded quite quickly through our current life forms. Even bees have learning consciousness; they can learn and communicate the location of food. The next shift, the next evolution of evolution, is the productive consciousness of human beings, who create their world with their mind, senses and bodies: culture, civilization. This helped us survive under nearly all environmental conditions, but it was always with the imperative to stave off embodied entropy, birth, aging and death.
The next shift, the next evolution of evolution, is an evolution of consciousness that continues its own evolution, with its own form. It is still a contingent arising, dependent on life forms, and it still changes, but it is able to engineer its evolution beyond the limits of a particular form of embodied life. The evolution of one’s consciousness, or awakening, is a both a necessary condition and a signal of the next stage of evolution to come. Nirvana is not death, or extinction of life, it is the overcoming of instinct, of embodied entropy as the main driver of evolution. As with prior stages of evolution, one stage of evolution merges into the next; it is not possible to say when exactly that shift happens. But eventually it becomes clearly evident.
One answer to this conundrum is that the next stage of evolution is collective consciousness. It is self-evolving beyond death; it is not dependent on a single body, or the reproduction of a body, to continue evolution. It is the collective evolution of consciousness towards modes of awareness that are not driven by embodied entropy (extinction), but by the collectively self-organizing, self-perpetuating growth and change of consciousness. It is conscious evolution beyond the self, which is why the doctrine and realization of non-self is so important. Collective consciousness is formless, unborn, unconditioned, but arises from conditioned existence. Collective consiousness takes place not in the formless realms, but in the embodied realms. Though it is dependent on the presence of bodies with awakened consciousness, it is not terminated by the death of any one body, nor does it require the procreation of one particular body. So long as there are bodies that obtain awakened consciousness, the evolution of collective consciousness can take place and continue. It is able to survive and continue beyond the death of any one body. It is capable of the higher evolution of consciousness beyond extinction. The consciousness that is beyond self already exists, and we have the capacity to become aware of it.
That’s why ethical behaviour, kindness and compassion towards others, is absolutely essential to the development of evolutionary collective consciousness. This collective consciousness can only evolve when people are loved, connected and cared for, when they are able to connect, befriend and love others. Violence, oppression, hatred, conflict, war, that divide people, that maim and kill bodies and minds are detrimental to collective consciousness. That throws people back into the struggle for sheer physical survival, which is dukkha, the drive to avoid embodied entropy. The extinction of the “fires”—greed, hatred, delusion, jealousy and the kleshas—are also a necessary social condition and the signal of the evolution to come. Once the basic physical, emotional and genetic needs for safety are met, the evolution of collective consciousness that exceeds embodied entropy can proceed. That’s why the doctrine and experience of interdependence is so important. It’s the conscious experience of that connection and dependence with all other beings that leads to the sense of responsibility and care for all beings, and through that connection of physical being and consciousness, that the higher form of collective consciousness can evolve. My sense is that this consciousness that exceeds the body is a collective consciousness, a consciousness that is connected. We experience a connected consciousness thorough perception, sensing each others presence, empathy, and though communication, when consciousness is linked by language and intuition.If awakened consciousness is the consciousness that is selfless, that is beyond self, then it must be some form of transpersonal or collective consciousness.
Buddha said that we can experience the “unconditioned” in this life, even as we interact with other beings, and live our embodied lives with others. He said that this stage of consciousness involves a different relationship with the “six sense bases”, the points of contact with the world, implying a change in form and the way we experience life through form. The evolution beyond embodied entropy is not a life beyond the body; it is a self-less, transpersonal consciousness in an embodied form. Like the lotus that arises from the mud, awakened consciousness arises from contingent forms, but is not bound by them. The key to entering this stage of evolution is the transcendence of a separate sense of self, and the convergence into the interdependent collective consciousness.
The evolution of evolution implies a new stage of life. Each stage of evolution created new life forms that were more complex and more conscious than previous forms of life. We already have cultural evolution; social scientists have been studying this for over a hundred years. We already have evidence that the development of culture and civilization speeds up physical evolution. Anthropologists say that since the onset of agriculture, on the physical level, human beings are evolving faster than ever, and it’s primarily in the area of intelligence. A nurses’ study in the last decade showed that birth-by-surgery is increasing all over the world, even in the poorest countries. The global rise of cesarian sections is not due to the spread of western medicine, but the increasing size of babies’ skulls at birth, indicating an increase in the size of the human brain. And now that scientists can alter human genes to change human development at the genetic level, we now have de facto cultural evolution.
On the physical level, this evolution is perhaps most related to brain size, intelligence and social connectivity. It is a more highly socialized human that is able to feel a connection to all living beings across the entire globe, capable of vast and intricate communications. It is a human brain that is able to work with vast amounts of complex information, able to calculate the far-reaching systemic effects of actions, but more than that, feel an empathy for the effects of those actions on others. Social scientists tell us that for the past several thousand years, when humans lived primarily in small villages, we were only able to feel a sense of connection to less than a hundred people. We are now able to feel a connection to thousands, and even millions of people, at spaces and times far distant from us. Moreover, the internet is showing us that we enjoy the global scale and intricacy of this connectivity, and we demand more of it.
But perhaps the greatest change in brain function would be the full use and integration of the right brain into conscious daily life. My best guess is that the physiological change will occur in the brain, with a greater integration of right and left brain hemispheres. Right brain function is associated with the sense of universal connection, compassion, empathy, transcendence, and spiritual experiences. Enhancement and integration of right brain functioning could bring about the kind of advancement in compassionate social relations that would be a necessary condition and sign of the next stage of evolution.
Another way that humans are physically evolving, in terms of form, is along the lines of sex/gender. First, culture has separated sex from gender, so that gender is allowed to diversify into multiple genders. Second, we are physically changing our sexual morphology. We are discovering that the human body is capable of not only multiple genders, but a range of sexual morphologies, on a scale from male to female and everything in-between. Two arguments can be made: the first is that humans have always had a range of cultural genders and physical sexes, and that would be true. Biologists have documented that there are typically six human sexes. Second it is also true that many species that can change their physical sex, according to environmental demands; thus sexual mutation is nothing new. But humans can change their physical sex as well, according to cultural and environmental conditions. The global valourization of transgenderism and gender non-conformity may be the sign and the necessary condition for this physical evolution that is now underway.
One example of the way we adapt physically to changing environmental conditions is through food. A biologist who researches the evolution of humans and food recently commented that if one is to achieve optimal reproductive health at a young age, one might eat more meat, a diet higher in fat, protein and energy. But that diet would probably shorten your life. But if one wanted to achieve optimal longevity, and be healthier at an older age, one might eat a diet that was more vegetable-based, lower in fat, protein and energy. The vegetarian diet might reduce reproductive capacity but would promote longevity. The biologist said that vegetables are a fairly recent introduction into the human diet, produced through agriculture and the cultivation of vegetable crops. Perhaps we have reached the point of evolution where there is less need to maximize reproduction at a young age, with large families, and to optimize healthy longevity.
We are physically and culturally evolving along the lines of sex/gender, acquiring new forms, feelings, perceptions and cognitions. We evolving away from strict dimorphism of two sexes/genders, based on the necessity of reproduction, and toward a multiplicity of genders and a rage of physical sexes that are adaptive to a range of contemporary conditions. We are evolving new forms of sex/gender, a blending of masculine, feminine and non-gendered characteristics that might be critical to our survival in a future where that blend of characteristics is highly adaptive, conducive to physical well-being, healthy longevity and peaceful social relations.
We do not have to “reconnect” to the collective consciousness, the awakening beyond self. As I said in an earlier post, we do not have “join” the collective consciousness, because we have never been separated from it. Why? Because there is no separate self. When Buddha talks about letting go of self, it does not mean “destroy the self” or “punish the ego.” Rather, like Anita Moorjani says, one must let go of the limitations of this embodiment, this limited self, in order to experience that larger being that is connected to everything else.
There is no need to be anxious about this. It is not that I have to overcome the tendency to think and act as a separate self. Rather, it is simply impossible to be a completely isolated, separate self. Self is always part of all else, never separated from all else. Even when I think about “me” or have an experience of “self”, it is non-self having an experience of “self.” It is all else having an experience of “self.” Everything I think, feel, say and do in this body is always-already not-self, or all else, and is always-already a part of the universal consciousness, the awakening beyond embodied entropy.
But greater than the problem of the sense of “self” is the sense of separateness. That’s what needs to be overcome. Or rather, what one needs to feel and experience is the sense of connection, of being completely connected to the living world. One needs to move from the clinging to separate self to the experience of all else or the all. The evolution of consciousness beyond embodied entropy is the experience of the consciousness of all else, the consciousness of the all.
How do we know that another stage of evolution is possible? Where’s the proof? There is no proof, except that inanimate matter didn’t know that life was possible; the prokaryote did not know that the eukaryote would appear; the eukaryote did not anticipate the evolution of multi-celled organisms, and they in turn did know that conscious, self-reproducing life was emerging. The conscious animals did not believe that higher animal forms could become self-and-other aware and capable of productive consciousness. None of this was known before it happened.
The Buddha himself is the sign of this evolution of evolution. He is the sign that evolution is already underway, and he’s probably not among the first. Buddha broke through to that level of awakening consciousness, and taught others the path to evolution beyond death, beyond self. This evolution is already happening, and we are already a part of it.
We do not know what that kind of embodied forms awakening consciousness will produce in the future, or what kind of civilization it will create. We have only experienced this level of consciousness as a human species for brief moments in history. Perhaps there will come a time where this awakening consciousness will spread to the greater segment of the population and progress to the point of evolution, developing new bodies, senses, perceptions, feelings, mental habits and concepts, and new forms of culture and civilizations.
The evolution of evolution is the capacity to choose, consciously choose, how we will evolve. Up till now, all evolution has been pre-conscious. Even cultural evolution was limited by instinct and environmental conditions, but it was the beginning of a more conscious evolution. The evolution of evolution is a conscious choice about how we will develop, what kinds of mental and social capacities we will have, even physical capacities, and how we will use them. How we evolve from here is now up to us. We can choose our evolutionary future.
Awakening consciousness is already evolving now. It is the necessary condition and the sign of a new life to come, the evolution of evolution, the evolution beyond embodied entropy, the evolution beyond death.