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How Consciousness Evolves

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by Sangharakshita


Lecture 83: How Consciousness Evolves In the course of the coming eight weeks we shall be concerning ourselves in various ways and from various points of view with the subject of what we have come to call the Higher Evolution of Man. As we begin, we cannot but remind ourselves that this subject of the Higher Evolution is, without exception, the most important with which we could possibly concern ourselves. Nowadays we hear mooted so many questions of so many different kinds: social questions, political questions, ethical questions, questions about the pollution of the environment, questions about violence, questions about aggression; questions of all kinds. But this question to the consideration of which we are going to address ourselves in the course of the next eight weeks - this whole question of the Higher Evolution of Man - is far more important, is far more weighty, is far more vital, than any of these other questions that one might possibly consider or imagine. One might even go so far as to say that this question of the Higher Evolution is more important even than any religious question, in the ordinary sense of the term religion - that is to say, conventional religion or formal religion or established religion. Therefore, from this we conclude that, for those of us who gather here week by week during the next two months to consider this question of the Higher Evolution, the two or the three hours that we pass here - during which we consider this question, hear it talked about, perhaps discuss it ourselves - are the most important and the most significant of the whole week. Unless we really realise this, unless we really feel that we are not just coming to a meeting, that we are not just hearing a lecture or a talk, but that we are coming into contact with something which is of vital importance for ourselves - in fact, for all men and women, for the whole human race, potentially - unless we really realise this, unless it really sinks into our hearts and minds, we won't get out of these meetings a much as we should get, as much as we might otherwise have got.

Many of you know that this is not the first time that we are considering this question of the Higher Evolution. We dealt with it a year ago in this very place, in the course of a series entitled 'The Higher Evolution of Man', and on that occasion, in that series, we began by taking up for consideration the whole question of evolution, especially Lower Evolution as distinguished from Higher Evolution, and Higher Evolution as distinguished from the Lower Evolution. We learned on that occasion, at the very beginning of that course, that the concept of evolution, the concept of development, was the most fruitful concept, perhaps, in the whole range of modern Western thought. We remember that the operation of this principle, the principle of evolution, was first traced out in detail in the field of the biological sciences, and thence its application was extended very rapidly to almost every other field of knowledge. In fact, it would perhaps not be going too far to say that this principle of evolution was discovered to be at work in each and every department of life, including human life. We saw then - at least, we caught a glimpse of the great truth, difficult to realise in concrete detail though perhaps easier to appreciate in the abstract - the great truth that the whole universe, this whole system, this whole fabric of existence, is in fact, in its length and its breadth, its height and its depth, one gigantic process; one gigantic, ever-changing process; a process of becoming, a process of attaining new levels and ever new levels of existence and organisation; in other words, that the universe is an evolution.

And man, too, we saw, is included in this great process. man himself is in process of becoming.

Man himself is ever attaining new levels of existence and new levels of organisation.

We went on to point out - and here we encounter something very important - that any evolving phenomenon whatsoever can be studied in two ways, from two points of view. It can be studied in terms of the past and it can be studied in terms of the future. it can be studied in terms of its origins, in terms of that out of which it has grown and developed, and it can also be studied in terms of its possible, even its probable, destination or goal. This principle, this distinction, applies to the phenomenon of man, inasmuch as he, too, is part and parcel of the general evolutionary process. We can look at man, that is to say, in two ways. We can look at him in terms of what he has developed out of, and we can look at him in terms of what he can develop into. And it is the first of these - that is to say, the whole range, the whole series of stages out of which man has developed - which constitute man's past, that constitute also the whole Lower Evolution. And the second - that is to say, what man can develop into, the whole range of possibilities open to man - this constitutes the Higher Evolution.

Now the Lower Evolution, it is obvious, is dealt with the science, especially the science of biology; and the Higher Evolution is covered by such studies as psychology, by the fine arts, and by religion in the sense of the universal religion; in other words, covered by what one writer, J. Middleton Murry, calls the metabiological sciences. These metabioiogical sciences it is that cover this whole range of the Higher Evolution of Man.

Last year, we went on to subdivide both the Lower and the Higher Evolution, but we are not concerned with that at the moment. In this series of talks, as we shall see presently, we shall be adopting, as the basic foundation of the series, a slightly different principle of classification.

The Lower Evolution and the Higher Evolution are, in a sense, continuous. One grows out of, develops out of, the other. At the same time, despite that continuity, there are differences, even very important differences. The most important of these differences is that the Lower Evolution is collective, whereas the Higher Evolution is individual. In the Lower Evolution, it is the whole species, at least, that goes forward, the whole group of lives, the whole group of organisms. But in the Higher Evolution, it is the individual, going it on his own - going it, even, in isolation. it is for this reason that, in the matter of the Higher Evolution, the development of self-consciousness, the development of awareness, of mindfulness, is so important, because it is this which is the growing point, as we may call it, of the Higher Evolution. Among lower forms of life, forms lower down in the evolutionary scale than man - among vegetables, among animals of the same species - one cannot outstrip another. One may be bigger than another, stronger than another, but there is no essential difference between these bigger and stronger specimens and the other members of the species. In other words, there is no difference of kind. But in the case of man, we find something different. In the case of man we find that one man, an individual man, can outstrip other men, even all other men - at least all other men of a particular time and place. Man, as it were, is able to become different in kind from other men, from the mass of men, from the generality of men. A man can become what we call a New Man; what in the Buddhist tradition is called a Buddha, an Enlightened or an Illumined One. And by a New Man, by a Buddha, we mean not just the old man re-issued in a slightly improved edition. We mean what may be described as an altogether new species of man, not to say an altogether new species of being; in a way a fresh biological, or rather metabiological, mutation. And what we normally call religion is, or at least should be, concerned, above all else, with the production of this New Man.

Having distinguished last year between the Lower Evolution on one hand and the Higher Evolution on the other, we went on to study different aspects of the Higher Evolution. We studied the Axial Age - that great creative, crucial period of human history in the course of which the Higher Evolution began or at least got properly under way; that period in the course of which the New Man started to emerge in different parts of the world, started to emerge in ancient India, in China, in Greece, in Palestine, in Persia. Again, we studied the New Man as artist or as artistic genius, and we tried to understand the place of art in the spiritual life, i.e. in the whole process of the Higher Evolution. We also studied the difference between ethnic religion, on the one hand, and universal religion, on the other; between, that is to say, group or tribal religion on the one hand and the religion of the individual on the other; and we saw that the former, that is to say, ethnic religion, belonged mainly to the Lower Evolution, whereas universal religion, the religion of the individual, belonged mainly to the Higher Evolution.

We then went on to deal with Buddhism itself as the Path of the Higher Evolution: not just as a religion in the ordinary, conventional term, but as the whole evolutionary process became as it were self-conscious in man, and consciously trying to develop and even leap forward in the evolutionary scale. We also dealt with the point of no return and with the cosmic significance of the Bodhisattva ideal. Finally, we related the subject of the Higher Evolution to modern Western thought to a limited extent, and dealt with Buddhism, Nietzsche, and the Superman.

In other words, we tried to realise, to understand, to fully comprehend the idea of the Higher Evolution in ever wider and wider contexts. We tried to understand, to realise the idea of the Higher Evolution in the context of world history, the development of the whole human race, human civilisation; in the context ...

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