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Barbara O'Brien

Buddhists Join Project Supporting Evolution

By September 2, 2012

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Michael Zimmerman, Ph.D., is a biology professor, author, and evolution activist who founded the Clergy Letter Project in 2004. The Clergy Letter Project brings together clergy of many religions in support of teaching evolution in school. The Project also fosters dialog among scientists and people of many spiritual traditions on the relationship of religion and science.

As the name suggests, the Clergy Letter Project hosts open letters from clergy in support of teaching evolution. More than 12,800 American Christian clerics have signed the Christian clergy letter, for example. More than 450 American rabbis and more than 250 Unitarian Universalist ministers have signed their respective letters.

Now a group from the Blue Mountain Lotus Society of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has composed and signed a Buddhist clergy letter. Blue Mountain appears to be unaffiliated with any dharma lineage (I apologize if that is not correct) so I don't know if anyone in the group would be recognized as ordained clergy outside their own society. But let's look at the letter.

"If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims or adopt them as metaphor."

-- The Universe in a Single Atom Tenzin Gyatso - The Dalai Lama

As the above quote indicates, the Buddhist tradition is primarily a rational religion. The earliest Buddhist teachings are intended to help all sentient beings to live a life of integrity in harmony with reality. While the specific science of evolution is not explicitly taught in our faith, it is implicit in the core teaching of interdependent origination, which demonstrates that all things are interconnected and contingent upon one another for their form and development. Likewise, a creator deity is not relied upon for a creation story. The ancient Indian fables of the Buddha's various incarnations from animal to human are readily understood not as a literal history but as metaphor describing the evolving nature of life. In fact, the concept of Buddha itself is best understood as a symbol for humanity's evolutionary potential. For all of these reasons, we admonish public school boards to affirm their commitment to teaching the science of evolution. We understand the role of public schools is to educate students in the established principles of science and in other subjects of general knowledge.

I'd give it a B minus; I am not crazy about "the concept of Buddha itself is best understood as a symbol for humanity's evolutionary potential." Not the "best" understanding, I don't think. I would have put more emphasis on Dependent Origination and less on the metaphors.

Even so, I'd like to see more Buddhist clergy take opportunities to step up on issues like this. Evolution in particular is a no-brainer for us.

September 3, 2012 at 10:35 am
(1) ZenPresence says:

” I am not crazy about “the concept of Buddha itself is best understood as a symbol for humanity’s evolutionary potential.” Not the “best” understanding, I don’t think.”

I would love to hear your understanding. It is a subject of great interest to me.


September 4, 2012 at 10:00 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

I am squeamish about speaking of Buddhist practice as a means of achieving “humanity’s evolutionary potential,” on several levels. IMO any thought that we practice to achieve some utopian goal pulls Buddhism into an entirely different path. It takes us away from realizing intimacy with suchness and directs our attention to something else, something to be sought or grasped. That’s way not Buddhism.

It’s one thing to practice in a way that is responsible to the future, that does no harm and maybe some good in the future. But it’s something else entirely to think of reaching a particular end. That causes us to grasp and manipulate. When someone says “the concept of Buddha itself is best understood as a symbol for humanity’s evolutionary potential,” I see red warning flags all over the field. Concept? Symbol? Evolutionary potential? Very weird.

Keep in mind also that in most schools of Buddhism, linear time itself is an illusion. The past is here. The future is here. The only potential is right now.

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