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ZEN AND (CULTURAL) EVOLUTION

The faux debate between adherents of creationism and promulgators of evolution has given an unfortunate political spin to any mention of evolution as a dynamic of nature, as in “natural selection.” It falsely pits two imagined forces against each other, that of God’s will opposed to that of the intent of mindless organisms emerging out of the chemical swamp of insentient being. The emergence of sentience, and that of human intelligence, including self-awareness and understanding of the workings of nature, physics, chemistry — even large-scale phenomena such as the motion of planets and stars, imaging of vast and distant galaxies, along with credible analysis of their origins — compel a vision of humanity that seems either starkly out of place, or hopefully ordained by a creator to occupy a special place at the center of creation.

The ungraspable, inconceivable nature of the reality we take for granted on a daily basis, defined as a problem, naturally begs some sort of resolution. It is understandable that all manner of wild speculation would develop in the absence of any real evidence of the true intent of existence, let alone its meaning. As a quest for the understanding of meaning, Zen suggests that the only real and dependable answers to this dilemma will derive from our own direct experience, rather than speculation of a conceptual nature. This implies a deep faith in the ability of the mind to transcend limitations of logic and somehow intuit the deeper meaning of existence in a direct way.

Meditation, in Zen stripped down to its essential simplicity as zazen, is the method that Zen recommends. We claim that it is the essential practice of buddhas and ancestors, the central process by which Shakyamuni Buddha came to enter into realization. It is also the essence of Buddhist teaching handed down in a putatively unbroken line from teacher to student as face-to-face transmission, ever since the first breaking out of Kasyapa’s smile upon Buddha’s raising the Udambara flower blossom.

In Zen Buddhism, we regard Buddha’s transformational insight as the apex of evolution of the human mind. But we emphasize that the nature of the mind realized by Buddha was at one and the same time the same mind that Buddha was born with, and yet had fundamentally changed in the process of realization. When mind and object merge in realization, the long-lost, original nature of mind is recovered. The natural mind of the survival-oriented self is abandoned in favor of a vulnerable, open mind. Open to its own inclusion in the causes and conditions of existence, rendering it as impermanent, insubstantial, and imperfect as everything else in the universe.

To teach this to others, as Shakyamuni decided to attempt, fortunately for us, is to treat the natural evolution of mind, experienced in a condition of extreme desperation and estrangement, as a discovery suitable as a legacy to cultural evolution. Cultural evolution is a relatively recent concept that helps explain the surprising, if temporary, dominance of the human species. As such, it may be included along with Darwin’s theory as a challenge to the creationist belief that we are the chosen species of the creator god, in Buddha’s time known as Ishvara.

However, it is more difficult to refute the premise of cultural evolution as at least an accelerant in the rapid accumulation of humankind’s control — and, some might argue, uncontrolled despoiling — of the earth’s environment. Cultural evolution can be convincingly illustrated and understood through simple examples, whereas biological evolution requires some basic understanding of biology, beyond the ken of most who are not specialists in the field. Thus the decidedly unlevel playing field on which the so-called debate is being held.

One example used in cultural evolution, and its generational multiplier effect, is that of the kayak, or a canoe. It is not likely that any one person, alone and unassisted, would develop the design and engineering of such a device in one lifetime. Certain remarkable, breakthrough advances have been made in one generation, such as the flight at Kitty Hawk of the Wright brothers. That event, however, cannot explain the explosion of air travel to the point that we see it today, where people are on the go and in the air constantly, as well as in outer space. It is as if everyone has been up all night working on nothing but engineering airplanes (as one of my uncles did after his service in WWII). The rapid development of technological dominance can be partially explained by this idea of cultural evolution, simplified though my explanation may be.  

While it is not likely that any one of us would invent and perfect a kayak, it is reasonable to assume that we can all teach our children how to build one, or any other low-, middle-, or hi-tech tool, if we have learned to do so from our parents and teachers. In doing so, we can make incremental improvements, and pass those on to the next generation; and they can repeat the process. So within a few generations it is possible to achieve a dramatic level and scope of progress.

This is one of the principles that Buckminster Fuller pointed out in his analysis of how things got to be the way they were, politically speaking, in the age of the Robber Barons, shortly after Malthus had conducted his world resource inventory, and Darwin had published his theory of natural selection. The powers-that-were of the time corrupted these two great findings as political bumper stickers: “not enough to go around” and “survival of the fittest” respectively; supporting the campaign slogan: “elect me and I will make sure that we get ours” with apologies to Bucky. Continues much the same today.

What human beings are able and likely to do with information, distorting it to further self-serving means, is not the point here. It is that the sharing of information through language is at the heart of the cultural evolution of the human race. But it can evolve in negative, self-destructive directions, as we have seen far too often, as well as positive ones. The information itself is value-neutral.

Just so with buddhadharma. As Buddha is said to have said to a young man who insisted that he answer the “Ten Cosmic Questions” (such as how the universe began, how it will end, etc.) he, the young man, could not recognize Buddha as his teacher: “You are under no obligation to be my student, and I am under no obligation to be your teacher.”

So the propagation of Zen is not a crusade. It may be a true mission, as Master Dogen concluded upon returning from China, but it is not saving souls from eternal perdition. In Zen, all we are saved from is our own ignorance, which is enough of a challenge.

Nonetheless, the transmission of Zen has comprised a form of cultural evolution, and will continue to live in that context. Because it is useless, however, in any commercial sense, its adaptation by past, future, and present generations is not likely to be as rapid, or as wholeheartedly embraced, as physical technologies. The short-term effects and long-term benefits are not as obvious as the ability to hop a plane and be in Paris tonight, or to connect to anyone anytime via the Internet.

However, Zen does constitute a kind of technology, and does lend itself to tweaking, generation by generation. It is not necessary, however, nor a good idea, to obsess over the form of the practice. Zazen itself cannot get much simpler in design, and the cultural trappings that come with it from countries of origin do not get in the way that much, that we should waste a lot of time reinventing this particular wheel. With repetition, after all, the protocols themselves become empty, and thus no barrier to genuine practice.

Zen functions in a way that includes, and is dependent upon, the whole body-mind. Mind and body cannot separate in Zen. So in zazen we essentially stop attempting to control our experience, which is either self-fulfilling or futile, or both. By relinquishing our control-freak mentality, we are able to tune into the wisdom of the body-mind. Listening, looking, and feeling without filtering, we can finally put down the excess baggage of the monkey mind. Entering non-thinking, and real spacetime, we are home at last.

We can also teach our children well, to do likewise. Like all good students, they will eventually surpass us in their own way, or at least come to accord with our understanding of Zen. May all beings be progressively happier, generation by generation.
 

Comments   

 
+1 # Kosetsu 2014-03-26 19:48
I love your reference to "teach your children well" ;-) It is particularly relevant, in that I just obtained a copy of "Sitting Still Like a Frog", to help me with teaching my young son. I have also reached out to a childhood educator and children's program leader at the CHZC we met during our recent visit there to the same purpose. I will indeed strive to 'teach [my] children well'. _/\_
 
 
0 # Sangaku 2014-04-08 11:11
Children come into the Falmouth Soto Zen Sangha often. At Rohatsu we had a Balloons and Buddha event for children that included drawing a mural of Buddhist icons lined-up on a table, and they of course got balloons to take home. One six year old said it was the best party he had ever been to. At the end of the short service they were sitting, bowing, and chanting with ease- so may we.
 
 
0 # jason 2014-04-20 21:56
i hope some day to evolve to two thumb typing. but, i am getting better at prajna.
 
 
0 # Sangaku 2014-05-18 10:42
We just celebrated Hanamatsuri with seven children included in the activities. We colored elephants (actually pictures of them) bathed the baby Buddha and following a traditions from Cambodian monks, had the children bathe me too. Ah the wonder...
 
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