Apr. 5, 2008

Mind is the Forerunner

Every Sunday, we have a sutta study class that I lead. The other week we did the Agganna Sutta, the Sutta on "origins," and once again I was struck by this powerful mythic vision.

In this Buddhist version of Genesis, the earth in primordial times was dark and watery; an unformed primeval chaos. The first beings to appear by the force of their karma from previous world-systems were god-like entities, "self-luminous, feeding on bliss." As the earth congealed, a nutritious substance formed on it's surface ("oja") which intrigued the god-like entities and piqued their curiosity until some of them tried tasting it with a little on the ends of their fingers. Immediately upon ingesting gross matter, they fell from their high station and became gross material beings upon the surface of the earth.

In the history of our planet as reconstructed by modern science, there was a mysterious event called the "Cambrian Explosion." Prior to that time, some half-billion years ago, there were only algae and other simple one-celled organisms. Then, in the blink of a geological eye, the seas were suddenly filled with an astonishing array of complex life-forms. The lord of the world then was the trilobite.

These two visions describe the same event, which I suggest is the descent of mind into this gross material plane. The real explanation of evolution, it's hidden mechanism, may be the play of mind trying out new forms to manifest itself in this level of reality. Natural selection, as posited by Darwin, surely plays a part; unviable forms will be pruned ruthlessly. But it doesn't seem a complete explanation. Creationists love to point out anomalies like the impossibility of complex systems such as a working eye arising all at once. But why would a creator god stick us with an appendix, for instance?

I have argued before that the biggest single anomaly is human intelligence itself. Our hyper-trophied brains are a huge biological deficit; they consume an inordinate amount of the body's calories and our large-headed infants make childbirth more difficult and dangerous than in other mammals. Once our brains had reached the level where we could consistently outwit our prey species, strictly mechanistic Darwinian theory should have stopped further growth. Beautiful and haunting as they are, the Cro-Magnon cave paintings had no strictly survival value.

Materialists insist that brain generates mind. The truth may be quite the other way around. This would certainly be consistent with the teaching of the dependent origination, "because of consciousness, name-and-form (body and mind)" And the Dhammapada, "Mind is the chief, mind is the fore-runner."

I would venture a prediction. If we manage to get through the coming climate crisis with any kind of civilization intact (granted, a very big "if") the next big revolution is science will be the recognition of mind as a separate category independent of matter and energy. Materialism will come to be seen for what it really is, an out-moded superstitious way of thinking. Many of the mysteries of science will become clear. Quantum mechanics will begin to make sense once the mind is allowed as the observer which collapses the wave-function. We will realize that the universe is indeed, in a sense, created but that we ourselves are continually doing the creating. The initial breaking of the symmetry after the Big Bang, the arising of the trilobites, the emergence of homo sapiens all these are easier to explain when mind is taken into account than otherwise.

If that happens, it won't mean the end of human hubris. If we ever do get a technological fix on actual mind, perhaps in the form of Sheldrake's "morphogenetic fields," we might really get ourselves into trouble. The potentials for messing around are literally unimaginable now. Genetic engineering will seem like the crudest kind of tinkering if we can access the underlying informational fields that govern all living forms. It certainly won't mean the end of samsara, at best we may become something like the Nimannarati Deva, the "Gods Who Delight in Creation." Think of Q in Star Trek.

Mind has entangled itself in matter, in samsaric manifestation. Driven by desire ("that oja looks kind of tasty") it seeks always new experience, new manifestations, new forms of delight. The wisdom of the Buddha was to cut through all of that, to seek transcendence of all forms, all manifestations no matter how god-like. The trilobites were our first mistake.