Biology | The Darwinian role of Zen Buddhism

Darwin, feuds, and Zen.

Tom X Hart
Aug 7 · 2 min read

Hypothesis: Japan is a highly crowded country that operates a refined code of conduct to mediate social encounters. In the past, breaches of etiquette could lead to actual retributive violence or feuds – especially if a person “lost face”.

In such a society, what was the evolutionary purpose of Zen Buddhism?

Zen provides a way to avoid killing each other if offence is caused. This is exemplified by the parable of the Zen master who was knocked down in a street but simply got up and walked on. He refused to start a fight because Zen teaches people to move without resistance, so to be hit by a man is no different to being hit by an empty boat. You would not hit or get angry at an empty boat. If there is no ego, there can be no intention of offence. If there is no intention of offence, there can be no cause to initiate social censure or retributive violence.

By teaching the elimination of ego, Zen provided a justification that allowed people to avoid getting into feuds over broken etiquette. It was a socially acceptable way to ignore convention. Zen’s justification was provided by its own elaborate rules and regulations, so giving a “social permission slip” for a person not to engage in social disagreement.

In this way, practitioners of Zen would have an evolutionary advantage over other people. They would avoid getting into time consuming and expensive feuds, and they would ultimately avoid death in actual fights. Therefore, the practitioners of Zen would pass on more of their genes than people who lost money (the ability to support larger families) or their lives in social quarrels.

This theory requires empirical evidence, but I’m too lazy to gather any – someone else will have to do that.

Tom X Hart

Written by

West Midlands, UK

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