I am a biologist ‘by trade’ and have studied a form of Mahayana Buddhism, but do not claim to be a buddhist, just a follower of the Buddha’s teachings and a wanderer in the maze of life. I ‘believe’ that Life evolved on Earth over a period of several billion years and was not specially created a few thousand years ago because of the overwhelming evidence from many branches of science. Fossil evidence and aging of rocks indicates that the planet is billions of years old and that fossils of living forms began appearing a couple of billion years ago. During the Cambrian period there was an explosion of fossils indicating the emergence of multicellular life forms that diversified into a multitude of forms. Some of these survived almost intact to this day, true living fossils, such as Peripatus (Phylum Onychophora), the Nautilus (Phylum Mollusca) and the Coelacanth to name just three. Others evolved into modern forms over the past 500 million years while others clearly became extinct, such as the trilobites and the dinosaurs.
As well as fossils, we now have genetic evidence that we are all leaves of one tree, branches of one great Tree of Life. We all share that remarkable self-replicating molecule, DNA, from the lowliest bacterium to the most evolved and specialised creatures in the modern world. The closer our relationship, the closer our DNA, so that we share more than 95% of our DNA with our closest relatives, the chimps and other apes. This means that we share common ancestors with monkeys and apes, not that we “came from monkeys” as Creationists like to think evolutionists are saying. There is a subtle difference between being descended from apes and having common ancestors with apes that seems to elude the average creationist, but the difference seems pretty clear to me. Because I could not accept fundamentalist Christian teachings in the face of Scientific evidence to the contrary, I chose to look beyond Christianity and that search has included Buddhism.
I have a strong spiritual streak to my nature. I feel ‘instinctively’ at a gut level that there is a more to Life than simply chaos. The atheistic arguments against any God concept do not ‘feel right’ to me. For my own beliefs, I think this Universe came out of the Mind of the Omniscient, Omnipresent Being that some would call God. at the time of the Big Bang and that the Universe was created in such a way that it could evolve. This is what gives living beings Free Will, the ability to make choices and live or die by the consequences. What appealed to me when i first investigated Buddhism was that the Buddha, having lived in a polytheistic society, just put aside all arguments for or against God(s) and got on with the business of mind training. Siddhartha Buddha taught, from his Hinduism background, that there has been an endless cycle of Birth and Death and this to me sounds like a reasonable interpretation of 2 billion years of life on earth.
The concept of reincarnation seems to me to be an older, religious explanation of what we now call Evolution. The major difference is that many people who believe in reincarnation have described it as endlessly repeating similar lives whereas I see it as being a Spiral, because of Time and the evolutionary process which has meant that each generation is unique. From single-cells to balls of cells to worms to fish to amphibians to reptiles to mammals to primates to humans requiers millions of unique lives with unique lessons to learn and problems to solve. Did I live some of those lives? That is debatable, but what is fact is that within my body, in my DNA, is the genetic record of every life ever lived in order for me to have what the Buddhists’ call “this precious Human body”.
I believe I have lived before. I cannot prove it scientifically, but I had dreams as a child which did not relate to any experiences in my life at that time, which I do believe are reincarnational in origin. So I had no trouble with this aspect of Buddhism, while the teachings of the Buddha of the Four Noble Truths appeals to me. He says that all Beings are suffering; that is what they have in common at this level of existence. Some Buddhists talk about seven levels of heavens and seven levels of hells but I can only deal with this level and it does seem to me that from the trauma of birth to the terror of death, that all beings do suffer in this life. Even the richest man on earth can get sick and will get old and will eventually die and all the wealth in the world cannot bring happiness.
Once having recognisied this basic truth, the Buddha went on to teach that there is a way off the endless cycle of birth and death and that is to achieve Enlightenment. I like that word because it incorporates the word Light and my understanding of Light Energy is that it is basically what we are all made of. The atoms of our bodies are 90% empty space and 10% pure energy… so when my Buddhist sadhana says ‘May All of these Offerings be herebye transformed into their Actual Nature of Voidness”, I think that they already are Void because they are made of emptiness and energy and you cannot get any voider than that, even though we feel solid to the touch.
The reason I love Mahayana Buddhism as a Path goes back to my being a Biologist. I love Life. I love animals and the great diversity of Life on Earth. But I see that so many animals as well as humans are suffering and the Mahayana path is based on compassion, not just for friends, family and neighbours, but for all Beings, and for me that certainly includes all animals. So does that mean that I want evolution to stop? Not really, but wouldn’t it be nice if the heavy matter part of our bodies were to disappear and we were all Beings of Light and didn’t have to eat or poop or die? We could still be people and horses and eagles but with Light Bodies instead of Earthly bodies. So my prayer is for everybody, and I ask the Buddha or that Omniscient Omnipotent Creator to take Compassion on us all, to relieve all the Suffering and to Enlighten All Beings. Amen to that.