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Evolution - Lower and Higher

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by Sangharakshita

... with this word thought, but it's the best that we have for the time being, so let's just make use of it - a comprehensive system of thought.

That's what it really is, that's what it essentially is. But when we come into contact with it concretely, when we come into contact with actual Buddhist groups, actual Buddhist individuals, despite the comprehensiveness of Buddhism in principle, what do we find? We find only too often the same sort of piecemeal approach that characterises the whole of modern knowledge.

If one takes for instance this question of schools. There are lots of schools in Buddhism - not exactly sects. You've got the Theravada, you've got Zen, Tien tai, Gelugpa, Kargyupa, Mahayana, Vajrayana, and so on. But very often one finds that the followers of one school of Buddhism, in the East, even in the West, know very little about some at least of the teachings of some of the other schools. I've had in the East quite a lot of contact with Theravada Buddhists, Theravada monks also, of Ceylon and Burma and Thailand, and I was rather surprised at first to find that they knew absolutely nothing about Ch'an or Zen. In the vast number of cases they just hadn't heard about it at all. And in the same way, if you meet Zen monks, even Zen masters, you'll find that probably they haven't heard about the Theravada and they know nothing about it at all. And this is the sort of situation by which one is confronted. In the East the followers of each school know the traditions and teachings of their own school, but usually they know very little, if anything at all, about the teachings and traditions of the other schools to which they do not belong.

And this sort of piecemeal approach we may say is reflected in a very great deal of the literature available in English on Buddhism. Very often what professes to be a book on Buddhism is really a book about the teachings of one particular school of Buddhism, the version of Buddhism put forward by one particular school. You very very rarely get a presentation of the whole field of Buddhist thought in all its richness, in all its efflorescence. So far as I know in fact there are in English only two serious attempts to cover the whole field of Buddhism in a single volume. The first one of course is Doctor Edward Conze's 'Buddhism: its essence and development', which in the course of 250 very succinct and very well written pages covers practically the whole ground, and mentions in some detail all the important schools and all the important teachings.

And the other one in English is of course my own 'Survey of Buddhism', which is about twice as long and which goes into even more detail than Doctor Conze himself does. But apart from these two works one finds that other books on Buddhism don't cover the whole field, but only a part of the field. Either they're about Theravada or they're about Zen, but Buddhism itself they don't really deal with, not totally, not completely.

One finds the same sort of piecemeal approach, even, to the doctrines and practices of Buddhism. Very often one gets a very well-written account of one aspect of Buddhist teaching, one particular set of doctrines, but they're not related to other aspects of the teaching, not related to other doctrines. For instance - just to mention an example without going into details - the teaching about duhkha, the unsatisfactoriness of all conditioned existence is treated usually without reference to another highly relevant doctrine, that is of the Tathagatagarbha, or the seed of potentiality, of Buddhahood, in all sentient beings. So what one usually has, or what one is usually presented with, or confronted by, is a number of teachings, independent, not properly related, all suspended as it were in mid- air, without any overall framework, any overall context.

One might know all about the Four Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Twelve Links, the Seven Bodhiangas - but how do they all fit together? How do they all add up to a system? How do they all combine into something comprehensive, even universal? 3 Worse even than this, we sometimes find that some doctrines and teacings are truncated in modern times. You're not even given the whole teaching, the whole doctrine - you're given only half of it, and you have to make do as best you can with that. The most notorious example, the most glaring example of this sort of thing is the very great teaching, in fact the central Buddhist teaching in a way, of what is called the pratitya-samutpada, the chain of conditioned coproduction, or dependent origination. And this is quite literally cut in half. And in all modern expositions of Buddhism, practically, you're given just half, one half, and not the other half.

You're given the negative half, as it were, but you're not given the positive half. You're given the twelve links, which pertain to the round of existence, the wheel of life, which is the wheel of death and of rebirth at the same time, but you're not given the twelve links which pertain to the progressive path of spiritual development. All these teachings are found, of course, in the texts, but in modern expositions they're not fully presented - only half the teaching is presented.

In this particular case the lost half was restored from the Pali texts first of all by that great Pali scholar Catherine Rhys Davids, then another Indian scholar, Dr Benin Modhasbora (?) - he contributed towards it - and then I myself in my Survey tried to round it all off.

So this is the sort of thing that one finds - that even when one is given a certain teaching, in most books on Buddhism only too often one is given only half the teaching, so one isn't properly able to understand it, or to see where it fits in the total system. On the practical side again we find that very often people try to practise meditation without some knowledge of the general principles of Buddhism. One can of course do this up to a point, providing one restricts oneself to the purely psychological aspect of meditation, but if you want to go into meditation as a religious practice, a religious exercise, a spiritual exercise, then one has to have some understanding, some knowledge, of the general spiritual framework or context. In the East it doesn't matter so much, because there the whole of life, the whole of society in a way, is a context for that, and if one has a good teacher, one doesn't need to know very much about the doctrine intellectually. But that sort of situation doesn't pertain here, we're not supported by our environment, so when we want to take up the practice of meditation in a religious sense it is important that we should have some knowledge at least of the general framework of thought, the general context of teaching, within which the practice of meditation takes place. Otherwise we remain at the level of profane psychology merely.

Now this is all as it were introductory, and is intended to draw attention to the fact that we ought to try to understand Buddhism as a whole, in all its aspects, all its parts, and to see these parts as integrated into a perfect as it were system. The great Western philosopher Hegel said: 'The truth is the whole.' So what we're going to try to do this morning is to place Buddhism itself in the broadest possible context, and to see it in the most far-reaching perspective. And this context of course has to be one which is familiar to the modern mind, so that we have a better chance of understanding Buddhism itself.

Now if there's anything that strikes us about Buddhism it is that it's a very vast subject indeed.

There's a great deal of it. It's very difficult to get round it all. Buddhism covers an enormous area of human experience, so that when we speak of finding a context for Buddhism itself we mustn't take this expression too literally. It isn't like finding a big box into which we can put a smaller box. What we really mean when we speak of finding a context for Buddhism is finding a principle which is in the first place sufficiently familiar to the modern mind as not to require much explanation, if any, which appears more or less obvious or self-explanatory; and two, which is capable of being generalise in such a way as to provide a medium for the expression of Buddhism. In other words, what we require, what we are looking for, is a universal principle of which within its own field Buddhism is, or will be, an exemplification. And at the same time, by the inclusion of Buddhism, the significance of that principle itself will be more fully revealed.

Now so far as I can see there is only one principle of modern knowledge, or only one principle known to the modern mind, which is capable of functioning in this way, and that is the whole concept - this very important modern concept - of evolution. It is so familiar in a way that I need not say, perhaps, this morning, very much about evolution itself, or evolution in general. And 4 of course we realise now that evolution, the doctrine or theory of evolution, was not discovered by Darwin. It was anticipated by a number of thinkers: by Kant, by Hegel, and others - according to some, even by Aristotle himself. But Darwin was the first to trace the operation of this principle of evolution in detail within a particular field of knowledge ie within the field of biology.

And since then the ramifications of this evolutionary principle have been discovered to extend throughout the universe, that evolution is a general concept. Evolution applies to everything, not just to life, not just to living forms, not just to biology, but evolution is a universal principle.

And therefore we find Julian Huxley writing that 'the different branches of science combine to demonstrate that the universe in its entirety must ...

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