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the contemplative vehicle

January 17, 2015

On newbuddhist.com today, a university student doing some research for an essay regarding contemporary Buddhism asked, Why does Buddhism appeal to you? My answer to such questions changes depending on the day, with certain aspects taking the forefront in my mind, and today was no different. Since recently starting Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, some of the things mentioned in the introduction and foreword have given me a new appreciation for what the Buddha taught from an evolutionary standpoint.

According to people like Dawkins, for example, there are two kinds of units in natural selection, the gene (as replicator) and the organism (as vehicle). And while the vehicle may be more or less altruistic, doing things out of compassion, generosity, love, etc., the genes are decidedly ‘selfish.’ In this context, deceit is arguably fundamental in animal communication, therefore, as Robert Trivers points out, “there must be strong selection to spot deception and this ought, in turn, to select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray – by the subtle signs of self-knowledge – the deception being practiced” (The Selfish Gene, xx).

Here we see that some of our motivations, influenced by a subtle form of selfishness (original sin?), lay hidden within us. This is akin to the Buddhist teaching that many of our actions are conditioned/coloured by greed, aversion, and delusion (i.e., selfishness and self-deception); and one of the Buddha’s insights was that we can master these mental processes of conditionality in such a way as to ‘go against the stream‘ of craving (tahna, which here can be seen as the influence of genetic selfishness on human psychology) and ultimately transcend craving altogether. As Dawkins puts it, “Our brains have evolved to the point where we are capable of rebelling against our selfish genes” (xiv); and the Buddha was one of the greatest revolutionaries in this regard.

So looking at it from the perspective of evolutionary biology, I’d say that it’s the contemplative aspects of Buddhism that appeal to me the most. Although other religious traditions have their own forms of robust contemplativism, Buddhism has a very thorough and explicit form that I think cuts straight to the heart of the human condition. By practicing things like mindfulness meditation and constantly observing our actions via MN 61, we begin to remove this evolutionary veil of ignorance or avijja (‘not knowing’), allowing us to see within the hidden depths of our psyche so that we can begin to condition changes in our behaviour and perception that lead to fuller awareness, self-knowledge and control, and liberation via transcendence of our genetic programming.

Today, Buddhism comes in all shapes and sizes, arising out of a peculiar Indic culture, replete with its own religious traditions and worldview, and further shaped by the diverse cultures in which it’s taken root, giving rise to numerous schools and approaches. Much of it may appear to be outdated and superstitious to the scientifically minded; but I think the underlying goal, as well as the various practices and insights that characterize ‘Buddhism,’ have a lot to offer us in terms of understanding and transforming ourselves.

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