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Life in full circle

Darwin and Dukkha, What's That?

No question: life is wonderful. But also no question: it's full of trouble, too!

As I’ve been describing, Buddhism—more than any other spiritual/religious tradition—is deeply immersed in biology. It is no coincidence that the Buddha’s famous encounter with the world’s pain—specifically old age, illness and death—was the immediate stimulus that led to the enterprise of Buddhism, a fact that for our purposes is notable in several respects. “Dukkha” is a Sanskrit often translated as “pain” or “suffering,” but more accurately seen as “disappointment” or “trouble.” And the first of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths is simply that dukkha exists; in fact, it pervades life (don’t despair, however: the remaining Three Truths speak to its amelioration).

In any event, those phenomena that so troubled the young Buddha-to-be are things that continue to bedevil thoughtful, sensitive people today. The Buddha certainly wasn’t unique in being beset with anguish owing to the biological necessities of our lives. In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “melancholy Jacques” dilates upon aspects of life that are certifiably as we do not like it:

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“Thus we may see,” quoth he, “how the world wags …

And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,

And then from hour to hour, we rot and rot:

And thereby hangs a tale.”

For a different response, although one no less melancholy, here is the Irish poet, W. B. Yeats, whose Sailing to Byzantium expressed a very different sentiment, namely hope of extricating himself from the flesh’s mortification by retreating into art: notably beauty and the allure of artificial (if misleading) permanence:

"O sages standing in god’s holy fire,

…consume my heart away; sick with desire

And fastened to a dying animal.

It knows not what it is; and gather me

Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take

My bodily form from any natural thing,

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling."

Jacques satisfied himself with a series of melancholy observations. When Yeats bemoaned his biological state (“sick with desire/ And fastened to a dying animal”), his response was to imagine himself reincarnated as something artificial, albeit beautiful, and presumably eternal. Others react differently. In his now-classic manifesto, Essays from Round River, pioneering ecologist and founder of wildlife management Aldo Leopold wrote that to have an ecological conscience is to "live alone in a world of wounds." The Buddha himself did not live alone—nor do the rest of us—although much of his search for enlightenment did in fact involve trodding a fundamentally solitary path. Moreover, the dukkha that so troubled the Buddha derives from experiences that are common to all sensitive persons, especially those attuned to the world’s immense burden of pain.

The story is told of a young mother, devastated by the death of her child, who came to the Buddha seeking relief from her pain. He said he could cure her distress with a magic potion, which required as a special ingredient just a single mustard seed from the home of a family that had never known death. She dutifully went from door to door, and of course, couldn’t find any such people. That realization, itself, didn’t eliminate her dukkha, but by understanding its universality, her own was easier to bear.

It is interesting, by the way, to compare this Buddhist tale about confronting death with the traditional Christian one, in which Christ ostensibly brings the dead Lazarus back to life. In my opinion, the former is not only more believable, it also provides a psychologically meaningful way that all people can deal with this universal biological reality, without expecting or hoping for a literal miracle.

The world Darwin described, examined, and helped explain is the same world that produces those sources of dukkha that so troubled the grieving mother and the young Siddhartha Gautama, and that besets all of us in proportion as we acknowledge our unavoidable and shared participation in life. It is a world in which disease, old age, and death take place, not only for individuals but increasingly for whole ecosystems.

At the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Othello, when that tragic character is taking responsibility for his misdeeds, he urges his listeners to “Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate …” By the same token, biologists realize that many aspects of the world are less than pleasing, but exist nonetheless. Accordingly, we are well advised to speak of the world as it is, nothing extenuate. Although nature is often beautiful (sometimes breathtakingly so), the reality is that it is also harsh, unfeeling, arbitrary, unfair, and unethical—or, rather, non-ethical. All living things eventually die, many of the them horribly. Disease is everywhere, and although old age is comparatively rare in nature, this is simply because most living things die “prematurely,” that is, something else—often, something quite gruesome—knocks them off first, thereby sparing them the ravages of old age.

Darwin knew this. He understood that natural selection isn’t always “nature red in tooth and claw,” but that it is nonetheless deeply enmeshed in the often-ugly struggle for existence. “[A]ll organic beings are exposed to severe competition…” wrote Darwin.

We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.

For Darwin, and for his intellectual descendants among biologists, “there is no exception to the rule that every organic being naturally increases at so high a rate, that if not destroyed, the earth would soon be covered by the progeny of a single pair.”

This, of course, doesn’t happen. And why not? Because something intervenes between the huge reproductive potential of every organism and objective biological reality: that most living things give rise to far fewer genetic representatives than they are theoretically capable of doing. That “something” is natural selection: differential reproduction among organisms and genes, which results in some leaving substantially more descendants than others. And this process of differential reproduction is likely to be none too pretty. “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write,” noted Darwin, in a letter to the botanist, Joseph Hooker, “on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horribly cruel works of nature.”

At the same time, what a wonderful and universal story it is! More on the Darwinism of dukkha to come.

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time Buddhist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, whose most recent book is Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science, just published by Oxford University Press.

David P. Barash, Ph.D., is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington.

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