…according to traditional Buddhist teachings, only humans can awaken and become Buddhas. That is why it is so important not to waste our precious human birth.
David Loy will be offering an eco-dharma lecture and workshop at Mountain Cloud, May 18-20. Click here for details about the Eco-Dharma weekend. We are featuring some of David’s recent writing on our website to introduce you to this thoughtful and prescient Zen teacher, writer and environmental activist.
Obviously we are a unique species. Just look around: humans have transformed much of the surface of the earth, remolding it for our own convenience. We have fulfilled God’s injunction in the first chapter of the Bible: “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the sh of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:26) A few chapters later our dominion is reiterated: “And fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air . . . into your hands they are delivered.” (9:2) We may wonder what it means to be made in God’s image (more on that later), but our superiority to all other creatures is thereby divinely sanctioned, with the apparent implication that they exist for us to use.
These verses are often cited as one root of the ecologi-cal crisis, because the consequences of that superiority— technological, at least—have become devastating. It is not surprising, then, that an increasing number of people now doubt that we should anoint ourselves as the pinnacle of creation. Deep ecologists claim that the natural world should not be understood as a resource for humans to exploit, for all living beings have inherent worth. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that evolution does not imply that we are a unique species: any perception of progress is a delusion based on human arrogance.
From a Buddhist perspective, however, our situation is more complex. The earliest texts emphasize how precious human life is. According to an analogy repeated three times in the Pa ̄li Canon, to be born as a human is more rare than the chance that a blind turtle, rising to the surface of the sea only once every hundred years, would put its head through the hole in a wooden cattle-yoke oating on the waves.
In this case, however, the emphasis is not on some innate superior ity but on our unique potential. Viewing ourselves as better than other species, which exist for our benefit, is not the only way to understand the unique position and role of humans on the earth. This alternative perspective needs to be clarified. In what ways are we special, and in what ways are we not?
From an evolutionary perspective, a tendency toward more complexity and greater awareness is apparent. Many important biological traits have originated and improved over time, most noticeably the better information-processing abilities provided by larger brains. In accord with this, not all scientists are as uncomfortable as Gould in viewing evolution as progressive. The renowned biologist E. O. Wilson, for example, claims that progress “is a property of the evolution of life as a whole by almost any conceivable intuitive standard, including the acquisition of goals and intentions in the behavior of animals. It makes little sense to judge it irrelevant.”
But can progression be understood in a way that does not fall into the hubris that worried Gould?
Here I think we can benefit from Buddhist teachings about the “two truths,” which distinguish the highest (absolute) truth from conventional (relative) truth. From the ultimate perspective there is no such thing as progress, because no matter how simple or complex phenomena (forms, things, etc.) may be, they remain “empty” (shunya) of any self-existence. Everything is interdependent, a process arising and passing away according to conditions. In cosmological terms, our self-organizing universe ceaselessly generates new forms, and all of them are equivalent insofar as they are impermanent products of the same cosmic creativity. There is no progress or decline because, in terms of that generative process, there is no gain or loss. There is no more value to a rock or tree than to a chimpanzee or human, because better or worse does not apply here. Each of them simply is, not as a distinct thing, but as an “empty” manifestation. And from this perspective nothing is lost if civilization collapses or even if humanity becomes extinct. Other species will continue to evolve, because the universe will continue to generate forms.
Yet that perspective is not the only perspective. “Form is emptiness,” declares the Heart Sutra, but also “emptiness is form.” In terms of that relative dimension — focusing on the forms themselves — there is evolutionary progress: from unicellular to multicellular life, from reptilian to mammalian brains, from conscious primates to self-conscious human be- ings. And, according to traditional Buddhist teachings, only humans can awaken and become Buddhas. That is why it is so important not to waste our precious human birth.
Are Human’s Special was originally published in Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2017. We obtained a pdf of the article from David’s website, davidloy.org. Click here to download the full article.