dharma monkey

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‘Ego’ as a function of evolution


The anatomical structures of the brain, according to Dr. John Medina.

I’m reading a fascinating book by Dr. John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist, about the physiology of the human brain.  Aptly called “Brain Rules,” the book provides insights into how the various areas of the brain function and makes recommendations about how to adapt our daily work and school routines to better exist within this evolutionary framework.

For instance, according to Dr. Medina, the human brain evolved under a set of circumstances that required it to: a) be in a state of near-constant motion, b) forage for sex and food non-stop, c) do so in unpredictable weather conditions, and d) to constantly evaluate whether or not  an object within its field of awareness would either eat it or could be eaten.  Through the process of natural selection, only those brains that could meet each of these conditions survived to pass genetic material forward to the next generation.  Is it any surprise then that, generally speaking, the human ego is so darn strong?

Until this point, I’ve always taken ego for granted, never stopping to consider that it could be part of the very DNA that makes us human — that we are, perhaps, “hard-wired” at a cellular level for ego.  And if that is the case, is there a similar physiological explanation for the innate Buddha-nature  that resides within each sentient being?

Across the entire spectrum of life on this planet, a mother’s (loosely stated) “love” toward her offspring is instinctual, so could there be another series of sub-cellular processes at work that creates the innate compassion and loving-kindness associated with  Buddha-nature?  And would a better understanding of the underlying science help us to reduce the influence of ego and magnify the power of Buddha-nature in our daily actions?

In my spiritual practice, I work to completely free myself from all attachment to this life, even at the most subtle of levels.  My instincts, formed over the last 200 millennia that Homo sapiens have walked the earth, tell me to only act in my own self-interest.  At what point will evolution catch up with the teachings that tell us we must cease all grasping and instead embrace the concept of sunyata, or emptiness?

Perhaps the next step in human evolution — enlightenment, maybe? — is one that we must take alone, as individuals.  In the words of Sogyal Rinpoche, “Samsara is mind turned outward, lost in its own projections. Nirvana is mind turned inward, recognizing its own true nature.”

While I’m quoting the masters, this beautiful passage on Buddha-nature comes to mind, courtesy of the fourth Shechen Gyaltsab, Gyurme Pema Namgyal:

Buddha-nature is immaculate. It is profound, serene, unfabricated suchness, an uncompounded expanse of luminosity; nonarising, unceasing, primordial peace, spontaneously present nirvana.

I realize this is a big topic to try and wrap one’s brain around (no pun intended), so what do you think?  Could the keys to human happiness lie with the study of the brain’s structures?  Could scientific study tell us something about sunyata?  Or is all of this bigger than science?

Author: Sean

I am Sean, a writer/PR guy originally from the Rural South who grew up and settled down in Washington, D.C. My interests include local politics, Eastern philosophy, languages and reality television.


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