Evolution of the Buddhist Mind

Looking at ourselves biologically, I have to ask “how did we evolve to creatures that suffer (i.e. dukkha)? Certainly, if evolution creates being best suited for its environment, then the concept of suffering must somehow be linked to what is needed for our species to survive. How could Darwin translate Buddhism?

Now this is a pretty big subject, but here is one small part of how neuroscience and Buddhism meet for greater understanding why we the way we are.


We are all creatures living in a continually changing environment. Adaptability is required not only physically but mentally. The best reference point for understanding the world around us is through the perspective of the form of our body (Pali: rupa). This vantage point uses its senses to experience the world around us (vedana). From those experiences we create perceptions and cognitions of what those experiences mean (sanna). From there we created mental formations to the purpose and meaning of those perceptions (sankhara). It is on the canvas of consciousness (vinnana) that all of this plays out to create the actions of the person; just as shape, color, hue, brush stroke and texture create art on a canvas.

And just as no two artists create the same painting when looking at the same landscape, no two people create the same understanding of the world they live within. The person is the sum of the full collection of his aggregates and, unless properly developed, bound by them. The mind and body are experiential in their existence.


The mind and the body are not separate. Emotions are psycho-phyisical occurrences. The mind requires access consciousness to process the interactions with the world around us, and the world within. This allows phenomena consciousness to aggregate that information.

In the same token, the body cannot work independently of the mind. The body cannot be relaxed and calm with the mind is agitated. The mind cannot be calm when the body is agitated.

The early Western concept that the mind is something that is unique and independent of the body (rupa)  does not work in most modern science or in Buddhism, but it still widely accepted by most lay people.


Man has a unique aspect to its evolutionary existence: it strives to actualize itself. Whether this aspect is part of Darwinistic natural selection or an unfortunate byproduct of the complexity of an evolving brain, the mind’s ability to philosophically address the questions of “why,” “purpose,” “meaning” to our experience is significant. Ability for self-actualization also comes the ability for simulation, obfuscation, and evaluation, which are tools that the mind can use for survival and advanced thought.

Simulation: We have the ability to process concepts with inner dialogue. We can present ourselves hypothesis and create the future theater of “what if.” In this way we can not only create, but we can predict. That ability to simulate also helps create the senses of desire, fear, craving and greed.

Belief/Obfuscation:  Intentional deceit requires the ability to present false beliefs to others. This also requires that you have the ability to possess the skill of “belief.” While most animals use deceit to survive, it usually evolves through a process of mutation and trial and error not immediate adaptive reasoning. Humans are able to deceive others for myriad reasons, or no reason at all. Whether used for a good or ill, obfuscation is a tool that can be used to realize the goals of simulation or self-delusion.

Evaluation:  One evolutionary trait of homo sapiens is that they have the ability for inner inquiry. According to Daniel Dennett, Ph.D. in philosophy and cognitive science, the minds ability to ask ourselves questions and elicit responses creates a constant stream of “inner speech” or “Joycean machine” that can result in the ability for self-actualization, contemplation and realization.


The ability to simulate, which requires the mind/body to process vedana experiences into sanna cognitive perceptions and formulate meaning to those perceptions (sankhara), is also the same ability that creates the fear that creates aversion and clinging.

It is the ability to deceive for benefit that is also the ability for the mind/body to rationalize our experiential reality into the ego and delusion.

It is through evaluation, conducted through meditation practice and study, that Buddhism is able to overcome the animal natures of man, as well as its unique evolutionary complexities. Through our ability to become “mindful,” actualized and aware of ourselves and our surroundings, we can become unbound by the fears and delusions our mind creates. In an awakened state, the integrated senses are unfettered by motivations of desire, fear, greed, and ignorance. This mental viewing is an “unconditioned” outlook and thus results in the aggregates creating different and fully-engaged experiences with the world.

I cannot tell you why we have not evolved into creatures who are not already enlightened. My conclusion is that the path of least effort creates a brain that creates habits and routines to conserve energy, establish social norms, and ensures survival. Even when playing basketball, life is moving too fast to analyze much. Your mind just needs to know which jerseys to pass to or habitually learn when it is advantageous to shoot for the hoop. Creating the habits and conditioning that is one of the roots of our suffering, also creates the skills for survival. Using the evolutionary mind skills, we are able to actualize our suffering. Using the practice of Buddhism, we can develop a harmony to become enlightened and full engaged with the world.

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Categories: Buddha, Dharma, Lifestyle, Meditation, New Age, Philosophy


Joshua Hudson is a license clinical social worker with post graduate certificates in mental health. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, he has worked as an healthcare advocate for the Department of Veteran Affairs, Director of Psychological Health for the Air Force, in-patient counselor for inpatient adolescents, child and family therapist; and currently is a Prevention Interventionist for the Air Force creating programs to reduce interpersonal and self-directed violence (e.g. Sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, etc.) in the military


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