Freed from [re]Birth: The Evolution of Consciousness

This is a continuation of my contemplation of the traditional Buddhist doctrine on pratityasamutpada, the chain of dependent origination, karma and rebirth. Part 1, Pratityasamutpada: The Evolution of Evolution is here. Please excuse my fumbling words, but it feels like a breakthrough for me, breaking out of the trap of literalist, doctrinaire teaching (an “enlightened” one is never reborn in a physical body). I’m not saying that this is what the Buddha taught, or that this is the “correct” understanding of the traditional teaching. Rather, this is a modernist revision of the ancient doctrine that takes into account how we as human beings, as a human species, actually live, learn and evolve.

“Then, monks, being subject myself to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, seeking the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke, Unbinding, I reached the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding. Being subject myself to aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, seeing the drawbacks of aging… illness… death… sorrow… defilement, seeking the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, unexcelled rest from the yoke, Unbinding, I reached the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding. Knowledge & vision arose in me: ‘Unprovoked is my release. This is the last birth. There is now no further becoming.’ (Ariyapariyesana Sutta: The Noble Search, MN 26)

I figured out for myself, to my own satisfaction, what “birth” is in the chain of dependent origination: it’s what we’re born with. It’s instinct, ignorance, feeling, craving, grasping, becoming (evolving), and birth. Instinct is what we’re born with, the instinct to survive, to get what we think we need, whether or not we actually need it.

We are also born into certain kinds of statuses and conditions: caste, race, gender, ability. We are born into race and gender and ability. The Buddha identified “birth” as the cause preceding old age, sickness and death, grief, loss, etc. But it’s what we’re born with, what is inborn, our instincts. The master instinct is the instinct for self-preservation, for survival. What Buddha taught was that we have to go beyond our instincts,  especially our instinct for self-preservation as atomized individuals.

Dependent origination shows that the root of suffering is not birth, per se, but ignorance, the ignorance we are born with. To overcome the ignorance of our birth, our existential ignorance, we can cultivate wisdom, learning, knowledge. We are not born with this wisdom or knowledge, although we are born with certain capacities for learning. But we can go beyond our inborn instincts and ignorance ; we can go beyond what we are born with. We can overcome ignorance and cultivate learning, knowledge and wisdom. We are born ignorant, knowing nothing except what we learn from our circumstances in life. Those are the conditions that limit us. But we can overcome the ignorance that we are born with and acquire wisdom and learning.

It is also heredity, we’re are born with our genetic heritage. But it’s also what we acquire by birth; not only our genetic heritage, but our relative social position, power, status. In the Buddha’s day, one was born into or inherited one’s status as brahman, priestly status and power, or one’s status as prince, royal status and power. The Buddha rejected the brahman priesthood as an inherited status. He said that a brahman becomes such because of his moral character and deeds, not because of a status he was born into. Conversely one was born with or inherited one’s position as trader or poor labourer, as woman or slave. These are all oppressive “inherited” conditions that cause individual suffering and social oppression. These are the fetters and oppressions that the Buddha said could be thrown off by adhering to the path of acquired wisdom, ethics and knowledge.

We can also overcome what we are born into. We can free ourselves and each other from racism, from gender oppression, from dissed-ability, and other kinds of oppressive social conditions. In Buddha’s day, and up to the present in Hinduism, one was born into a caste, and one could not escape it except to die and hope to be born into a higher caste. But the Buddha said that we could destroy those fetters. We could free ourselves from the caste we were born into. We could learn the Buddha’s way of ethics and wisdom and thus become noble ones.

How do we avoid being “reborn” into another miserable state? Simple (but not easy), don’t go back to what is inborn, to instinct, especially the master instinct for self-preservation at all costs. Don’t go back to what we are born with, to ignorance, to the limiting conditions that we were born into. Don’t go back to the old ways, the old dysfunctions and addictions, and thus you will not cause those conditions to be reborn in your life. Don’t go back to the old ways of life of inherited status, whether demeaned or privileged status. Ambedkar taught the same when he told the Dalits not to go back to Hinduism, so as not to get caught again in the caste system of the mind.

If you go back to the instincts that you were born with, go back to the ignorance, go back to the old dysfunctional ways and the old addictions, then you will suffer the karma of those behaviours. Your karma will follow your actions into the rebirth of the old unconscious self-defeating ways. If you do not go back into your old inborn life, those ways will not be reborn and you will be free of that karma; it will be extinguished.

How do we overcome what we were born into? To free ourselves from that mental oppression, we understand and deconstruct those forms of oppression, and we dismantle the social apparatus that give rise to those forms of oppression. Thus, generations that come after us will not be born into those kinds of oppressive and limiting conditions. Those oppressive conditions will die their last death and will not be reborn in future generations or future societies. The collective karma of the older, oppressive ways will not be carried forward or revisited on future generations.

This is the cultural evolution that is available to all individuals. But it goes beyond individual libration and is embedded into social conditions that enable future generations to be born into fraternity, equality and liberation (Ambedkar). This is the cultural evolution that succeeds instinctual biological evolution. So in a non-traditional sense, I interpret the Buddhist teaching on karma and rebirth as pointing a certain kind of cultural evolution. Social scientists are in general agreement about the process of cultural evolution within the human species. Cultural evolution happens within the lifespan of individuals and the cohort generations they are born with.

We know from social and ecological science that species evolve in response to persistent stress from their environments. So we could interpret the Buddhist concept of “suffering” as, “stress”, specifically ecological stressors that provoke further evolution. Thus we could understand suffering or “unsatisfactoriness” not as a moral failure, nor even as ill-fated, but as the necessary causes and conditions that provoke evolution. In that sense, ecological stressors (i.e. “suffering”) is actually “a good thing” that provokes us to grow, change and evolve. If Buddha had not felt the intense “unsatisfactoriness” of his life as a young man, he would not have left it all to find a spiritual solution and his ultimate awakening.

This phase of evolution is not merely physical, but primarily cognitive, or cultural. It involves the evolution of consciousness which one can acquire within a lifetime. It is learned behaviour, and we also know from recent studies in animal genetics that even what animals learn within a lifespan can be passed on to their offspring. This is a form of evolution that takes places through learning, an increase in the complexity of conscious awareness of self, other and world. This is not consciousness that we a born with, like instinct, although we are born with the ability to learn and develop this kind of consciousness. So it is a consciousness that is not dependent on birth, but on learning that is acquired throughout the lifespan. Furthermore, once this consciousness has been acquired, it can be passed on to others during their lifespans.

Therefore, the continued evolution of this consciousness is not dependent on anyone’s birth, but on our learning throughout life. Because it is not dependent on birth, it is also not subject to death, because what is learned can be passed on through cultures that exceed many lifetimes and generations. It is as the Ariyapariyesana Sutta suggests, “the unborn, the undefiled, undying, etc.” Our bodies are still subject to birth and death, as was the case with the Buddha. “Then, monks, being subject myself to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, seeking the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke, Unbinding, I reached the unborn, unexcelled rest from the yoke: Unbinding.” The “yoke” is the yoke of oppressions that we are born into: religious or caste oppression, racial and gendered oppression, class oppression. But the evolution of consciousness is not dependent on birth or subject to death because it can be learned and passed on within the lifespan of individuals. The evolution of consciousness is the process of freeing ourselves from these oppressive conditions, the yoke that we are born with, through wisdom and learning.

So there is rebirth, but it is not “your” rebirth, because there is no “you” that is here now or is reincarnated. But there is rebirth. Of what then? Rebirth of the same human capacities, tendencies, behaviours, problems and suffering in every person that is born. What causes suffering, old age, sickness and death? Being born. When I hear that now, I hear it as almost ironic. In other words, “if you’re born, you’re going to suffer, it’s inevitable”. Because there is birth, there is suffering. “You” didn’t do anything to deserve it; you’re not to blame. But because “you” were born, “you” suffer. Describing reincarnation as “rebirth” that is not “your” rebirth, as “not you”, is another way out of the cycle of nidanas, of dependent origination. Human life is rebirthed with each and every birth. I can look back on all my ancestors, through all the species of life on earth, and see myself going back to the beginning of time, the beginning of the universe. I can look back on all the previous lives of my ancestors, and see what led to the birth of “me”, but I cannot see myself in the future. There is no “I” in the future. What is rebirthed is life-form itself, on it’s continuous journey through evolution. Understanding that it’s “not me” that is rebirthed is the way out of this cycle of reincarnation, this entrapment in the cycle of nidanas. “I” know that “I” am not coming back in another body because there is no “I.” What is rebirthed is life in ever more complex, subtle, conscious and evolved forms. Form and consciousness evolve together. Rebirth is simply another way of saying “evolution”. One way to look at Buddhist sangha is to see it as creating conditions that promote the evolution of a more conscious, social, connected and compassionate species of human being. And non-self and interdependence are the necessary conditions of that higher evolution of human being.

In the Mahayana, “suffering” that persisted when the individual was supposedly far along on the path was reinterpreted as “compassion”, as “suffering with.” So the suffering that one felt was not one’s own suffering, since there is no “me” who possesses “my suffering’. Instead, the Boddhisattva experiences the suffering of others; “suffers with” or has compassion for others. It is the Mahayana justification for why the experience of suffering persists so long on the path and why the advanced practitioner does not suddenly transcend into the total and permanent liberation of the arahat who experiences the end or absence of suffering (without remainder, etc.). The practitioner continues to experience suffering because he is so “advanced” that he selflessly experiences the suffering of others, and “remains” in the suffering body in order to save others. I think this is a religious justification for a “failure of results” that has worked pretty well on psychic, ethical and doctrinal grounds. But there is another way to understand “suffering and the end of suffering.”

The “end of suffering”, therefore, is not the absence or cessation of suffering, which is impossible. The “end of suffering” is to work with suffering or “unsatisfactoriness” to motivate us to evolve to a higher state of consciousness. As suffering pushes us into this higher level of consciousness, and we adapt our behaviour, we are than able to reduce the experience of suffering because we have adapted to the demands of the environment. The ecological stressors are relieved and we are more adept or “skillful” in thriving within our environment. Buddha taught the Eightfold path as a gradual, i.e. evolutionary, path to higher consciousness, and becoming an adept. (Here I’m trying to make an audible connection between “adapt”as “evolved” and “adept” or “skillful.”)

We know from studies of the social dimensions of early Buddhism that the Buddha, and his followers, were opposed to ascribing status to anyone because of their birth (Ling 1974, Chakravarti 1997), or what they were “born into.” A Brahman was not a brahman by his birth, but because of the virtues he practiced. The Buddhists taught that the king was not “born into” his power to rule. In other words, he was not entitled to power by his royal birth, but he could legitimate his authority to rule through the practice of virtuous administration, through rule by the laws of dhamma, the dhammaraja. (Ling 1974, Chakravarti 1997).

The early Buddhists did not regard the caste system as having any spiritual significance, reality or authority. However, they recognized different classes of people, based on their occupation. (Chakravarti, 1974). According to her exhaustive study in the Pali cannon, the early Buddhists substituted modern notions of class for caste. They also had a notion of class mobility. They recognized four classes: kings, tribal elders or the raja, the ruling class; brahmanas and shramanas, the priestly class; the gahapati or the land-owning or entrepreneurial class, what Westerners call the “bourgeoisie”; and workers, or dassa, the labouring or servant class. Individuals were a member of each of these classes not necessarily because they were born into it (although they recognized that people were born into relative social statuses), but because of the work they did, their occupations. One could be “born into” a dassa class, obtain some property, work the land to produce wealth, and use that wealth to become a gahapati, or land-owning class. Or a dassa might study until they became skilled as an accountant or civil administrator, joining the gahapati or the raja. Furthermore, one could free oneself from the caste that one was born into, or the class that one acquired, by becoming a bhikkshu. One is not born a bhikkshu; one acquires that status by entering into the path of practice prescribed by the Buddha. By establishing his sect as one that is acquired through learning and practice, and not by birth, the Buddha presented a strong challenge to a culture in which one’s status and path in life was entirely determined by birth.

What is it that survives physical death? According to Graziano and Consciousness and the Social Brain, it’s consciousness. Consciousness is passed on, continued from one person to another, through communication and attribution during the lifetime of individuals. Consciousness is a mental construct that can be known (“I am conscious of X”) and communicated to another (I tell you that “I am conscious of X”). According to Graziano, what the receiver acquires is a snapshot of the communicator’s consciousness. That snapshot, or that apprehension of the consciousness of another, is as much a “consciousness” as that which originated in the mind of the communicator. All consciousness is attributed or ascribed: the person who says “I am conscious of X” attributes that consciousness to “I” or “me”; and also attributes a similar kind of consciousness to another (“You are conscious of X”). Because consciousness is always ascribed, and because it can be communicated and learned by another, thus consciousness “survives” outside of and beyond the person who first had it and communicated it. There is, in Buddhist terms, a stream of consciousness that is learned, passed on from person to person within a lifetime. Consciousness that is learned, or culture, is therefore not something that one is “born  with”, nor is it subject to death. It does not end at the death of the physical organism, but can be passed on from one lifetime to the next.

The current evolution of evolution is the cultural evolution that has been unfolding through human civilizations for the last ten thousand years. The next phase of the evolution of evolution is the evolution of higher consciousness, the consciousness beyond the limits of self, universal consciousness. Beyond that and into the future, it is the evolution through higher consciousness, the evolution through cosmic consciousness. This unfolding evolution is the conscious awareness of our interdependence with all humanity and all life on this planet.

The evolution of evolution is the capacity to choose, consciously choose, how we will evolve. Up till now, all evolution has been pre-conscious. Even cultural evolution was limited by instinct and environmental conditions, but it was the beginning of a more conscious evolution. The evolution of evolution is a conscious choice about how we will evolve, what kinds of mental and social capacities we will have, even physical capacities, and how we will use them. How we evolve from here is now up to us. We can choose our evolutionary future.

What emerges from this evolution is not a new kind of spiritual being that transcends physical death, but a new kind of human being that lives a different life.

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