Most Buddhists are taught to think of the Four Noble Truths as four separate doctrines, each one leading to the other in succession. Stephen Batchelor teaches it as “the four tasks”, as four separate tasks, practiced successively or simultaneously in combination as a total path.
I have begun to think of the Four Noble Truths as a one whole evolutionary cycle: The one noble truth is that suffering (dukkha) causes one to seek an end to suffering that leads to the path which brings about the end of suffering.
This book, Dukkha: Suffering in Early Buddhism By Madura Venkata Ram Kumar Ratnam (2003, New Delhi) is an academic treatise on the concept of dukkha in Indian philosophy and religious history (god knows, a much needed treatise). Here is are excerpts from the Introduction.
In Samkhya philosophy, it is suffering (dukkha) that causes one to engage in philosophical inquiry, in order to understand the nature and causes of suffering and to embark on a quest (a path) to end suffering. This is much like my own formulation: suffering provokes the need to understand the nature and causes of suffering (the root), and to embark on a path or pratice that leads to the end of suffering.
Both Samkhya philosophy, what has come to be known as the Samkhya Karika, and yoga were influential in early Buddhist thought. That there is an entire treatise on the Indic roots of dukkha in the Vedas, Upanishads, and various philosophical and yogic systems is yet more proof that almost none of the ideas attributed to ‘the Buddha’ (or the Buddhists) were his invention, but were already present in the religious and intellectual culture of his day and widely debated. This demystifies Buddhism as some kind of supernatural revelation coming from an superordinary (‘divine’) being and places it within it’s historical context as the product of a particular culture.
Dukkha as Evolutionary Stressor
Living beings on this planet do not evolve unless they are under stress by their environments. If there were no evolutionary stressors, the species will not evolve.The cycle of birth and death is another critical condition that enables, or ’causes’ the evolution of a given species. If organism did not reproduce (birth), pass on their adaptive mutations, and die, they would not evolve. There are microorganisms on this planet, ancient bacteria, that are millions of years old, which essentially do not die, but they also do not evolve. It is evolutionary stress, or ‘suffering’, and the cycle of birth and death, that leads to the evolution of higher life forms, i.e. life forms that are more complex and better adapted to changing environments. The one noble truth of the Buddha is a description of an evolutionary cycle in the life of an individual, collectively of a species and of a ecosystem of interdependent species. I have written in the past that I see the Buddha’s teaching as a proscription for the conditions which lead to a more advanced evolution for human beings. Humans no longer evolve by the cycle of birth and death, but by cultural evolution. We pass on what we have learned to future generations. Evolutionary scientists have confirmed that humans engage in cultural evolution, that human culture (language, brain anatomy, technology and social organization) is an evolutionary force. I have written in the past that humans are undergoing a more advanced form of evolution: conscious evolution. We as a species have the intelligence and know-how to choose how we will evolve physically and culturally, what new kinds of physical capacities we will have, and what kinds of cultures we will create for our species. We have evolved this capacity for cultural evolution without the mechanism of birth/death. We pass on our adaptive mutations through culture rather than through genes. This is evolution that does not depend on the cycle of birth/death; it is the evolution of evolution.
But what I would like to focus on in this post is the particular capacities that we need as a species in order to assure our survival and evolution in an epoch of extreme climate change and resource scarcity. On his 75th birthday, Stephen Hawking was asked in an interview whether he thought the human species would survive the epoch of climate disruption. Hawking said he didn’t think so because humans were too aggressive, too violent, not cooperative enough to survive the crisis, and that aggression was genetically encoded. As a species, we need to become less violent, aggressive, selfish and tribal; and become more cooperative, empathic (compassionate), peaceful and allocentric (beyond one’s tribe), and that on a species-wide, global scale. These are all traits that the Buddha’s path of awakening fosters in the individual, and which at the collective level, could contribute to a species-wide adaptation to a adverse climate. In other words, what the Buddha’s Four Noble Truth’s point to is an evolutionary cycle beyond birth/death, and beyond the typical forms of suffering that the human species experiences: violence, grief, deprivation, prejudice, domination and oppression, as well as individual psychological suffering.
This shift would take more than a change in behaviour. It requires a change in brain structure and function and its response to social and environmental stressors. Perhaps the meditator’s brain is the kind of brain we need to develop as a species to survive the crisis and enable this continued evolution. This includes reduced activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (the ‘me’ center), increased activity in the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (the ‘Other’ center), reduced reactivity in the amygdala or ‘fear’ center, increased capacity in the insula, which connects to body sensations and is involved in empathy for others, and increased capacity in the lateral prefrontal cortex, the ‘objective assessment’ center.
- Lateral prefrontal cortex: the part of the brain that allows you to look at things from a more rational, logical and balanced perspective. In the book, we call it the Assessment Center. It is involved in modulating emotional responses (originating from the fear center or other parts of the brain), overriding automatic behaviors/habits and decreasing the brain’s tendency to take things personally (by modulating the Me Center of the brain, see below). (Psychology Today, May 22, 2013).
If we are conscious of the desirable changes in the brain that meditation induces, then we can consciously choose to cultivate those faculties. The dharma, or ethical teachings of the Buddha, are instructions that verbalize those faculties to train our ‘thinking brain’ into consciously choose those capacities. The Buddha’s Noble Path may be not just a path to the end of suffering for the individual, but to the end of suffering for the entire human species, should we choose to take it.