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Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one, a painting in the litang style portraying three men laughing by a river stream, 12th century, Song dynasty.

The Evolution of Wisdom: A Study of the Evolution of Perception as Understood by Ancient Religions

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Traditionally, the study of evolution observes a slow and unconscious progression of physical adaptations stretched along multiple generations of a species. However, what if a more immediate and controllable process of evolution was apparent? When looking at Daoism, Buddhism, Eastern Christianity, and Tibetan Dzogchen, an idea shared by these ancient religions of the world is the capability for the progression of one’s perception. This is a subtler evolution; it is evolution from an experiential stand-point.

"The dragon, image, and demon; or, The three religions of China: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, giving an account of the mythology, idolatry, and demonolatry of the Chinese"

"The dragon, image, and demon; or, The three religions of China: Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, giving an account of the mythology, idolatry, and demonolatry of the Chinese" (Public Domain)

-The meaning of a "Buddha" is one who has achieved a conscious development beyond earthly suffering. The nomenclature of this achievement traces back to Siddhārtha Gautama, who "attained" the transcendental state known as enlightenment.

-In Daoism, reaching a higher transcendental state is commonly known as "reaching the Dao." It is a state of silence where one becomes “the sage” and perceives clearly.

-Early Christianity, still predominant in Greece, explains that Jesus was not “the son of God,” but was instead “a son of God,” similar to us all, a connotation that he was a human who transcended “into” God.

-In Tibetan Dzogchen, the state of Dzogchen is described as a conscious state where one resembles a mirror—a conceptual emptiness allowing the ability to perceive clearly.

These ancient religions look at heaven not as a location reachable after death, but instead as the development of a mutable transcendental quality inherent in man. The focus of this form of evolution is towards developing human perception. This mutable quality, often compared with the effects of psychedelic substances, can be physically understood as the stimulation the glands within the brain associated with existential perception (pituitary/pineal gland).

The Daoist Concept of Destiny

Heavily centered around the evolution of perception is the Daoist concept of Destiny. The Daoists look at destiny not as something that one is born into, but instead something that is consciously cultivated into. Through understanding destiny, the individual’s perceptual “self-understanding” develops allowing them to discover potential within themselves that allows them to reshape their future. This concept is based around the pursuit of silence. With mental silence, sometimes referred to as “calming the monkey mind,” the individual comes to deeper realization of their true nature and purpose. The Daoists view destiny as a potential that is realized and not “awarded” before a person’s birth, as is often understood in the West.

Conscious Development as Comparatively Mapped

When looking at the conscious experience in terms of evolution, many of these ancient religions have developed ranking systems in order to map progression. These frameworks can be seen as ladders of “attainments” along an individual’s quest for wisdom and understanding.

The Buddhist Five Eyes

The Buddha explained to his disciple Ananda that beings on different levels, although they may look at the same thing, will actually see it according to their own perspective.  -Surangama Sutra

In Buddhism, the development of perception is measured by what is known as awakening the “Five Eyes.”

One of the first representations of the Buddha, first to second century CE, Greco-Buddhist art, Gandhara.

One of the first representations of the Buddha, first to second century CE, Greco-Buddhist art, Gandhara. (Public Domain)

Each level of experiential evolution is seen along a progression of opening the Five Eyes. The first eye is known as the Flesh Eye and normally corresponds with ordinary perception. Beyond that is the Heavenly Eye, Wisdom Eye, Dharma Eye, and finally, the Buddha Eye. When these eyes are developed, the individual “sees” life more directly and gains higher levels of understanding from their experience/wisdom.

The eyes of Buddha

The eyes of Buddha (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Five Daoist Immortals

The Neijing Tu, A Daoist Diagram of Evolution

The Neijing Tu, A Daoist Diagram of Evolution (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In Daoism an individual’s evolution is ranked in stages known as the Five Immortals. Each stage, or level, has defining characteristics used to determine where a person is along their development. The Daoist immortal classes are: Ghost Immortal, Human Immortal, Earth Immortal, Spiritual Immortal, and Celestial Immortal. These rankings are based around the development of one’s existential quality. The Neijing Tu, above, is understood as a visual illustration of this “ladder to heaven.” The illustration is a human body, but has the look and quality of a mountain. This is a metaphor describing the internal “climb” to greater “heights” of self-realization/heaven. 

Seven Stages of Man – According to Gurdjieff

Based on Christian esoteric teachings are the “Seven Stages of Man.” These stages are most popularly noted in works by Gurdjieff and Mouravieff. The Seven Stages of Man are a mapping of developments according to the evolution of an individual.

The first three stages illustrate characteristics of what are commonly the traits of a “normal” human. They are described as lost and un-centered. “Man Four” through “Man Seven” are stages that describe the characteristics of an individual that has developed a consistent awareness of self.

A common theme across ancient religions worldwide is the idea of an evolution, ascension, or journey of the soul. Engraving, 1888.

A common theme across ancient religions worldwide is the idea of an evolution, ascension, or journey of the soul. Engraving, 1888. (Public Domain)

Ascension in Tibetan Buddhism

Ascension in Tibetan Buddhism is categorized in two stages. The first stage is known as “Trekcho” and is a practice focused towards realizing Dzogchen. The next stage of training is “Togal,” which is the development of the “rainbow body.” The Tibetans, primarily the Dzogchen lineage, map one’s progression of conscious awareness by the transformation of the body after death. Changes in the body’s form after death are said to occur after the practitioner completes the Trekcho training and is practicing Togal. One of the most commonly regarded transformations by the Tibetans is the “shrinking body,” which is where the corpse is said to actually shrink down to the size of a small child.

Detail; Dzogchen text from Dunhuang, ninth century.

Detail; Dzogchen text from Dunhuang, ninth century. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

If your achievement is beyond yourself, you are missing the point.  -Bhodhidharma

Arguably, heaven and the purpose of life according to many ancient religions lies in the development of one’s self. It is a focus towards “true wisdom,” which is the result of a higher experiential quality. It is an understanding that no one can simply be handed, or given through teaching, but only achieved through evolution.

James Van Gelder spends most of his free time studying Buddhism, Eastern Christianity, Western Hermetics, Daoist Meditation/Nei Gong, Tibetan Buddhist Alchemy, and the systems of Indian Kundalini Yoga. He is author several books, including Enter the Infinite. Learn more at

Top Image: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism are one, a painting in the litang style portraying three men laughing by a river stream, 12th century, Song dynasty. (Modified for clarity) (Public Domain)

By James Van Gelder


Fan, L. (n.d.). Liao Fan's Four Lessons. Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc.

Markides, K. C. (2001). The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality. New York: Penguin Books.

Ping, W. L. (29 March 2012). Ling Bao Tong Zhi Neng Nei Gong Shu. (R. Liao, Trans.)

Sheng-Yen, M. (1987, October 22). The Five Eyes. Retrieved from Ch'an Newsletter-No.62:



Thanks for your - somewhat long - comment. A lot of what you write I have come across in the last years and especially in my recent research into this topic. What I miss in your account of these facts is the relation with 'magic'. I've come to the conclusion that a large part of the teachings in the different mystery schools in the end had the goal of teaching these followers about 'magic' or how to influence the world in which we live with the mind. And in my opinion this was also one of the reasons why these teachers took such a long time to teach there pupils. First because the supposed powers of magic could turn against the user if it wasn't done properly and that could be disasteres. And second because of the immense power a true magician was thought to be able to get. And for this second reason it was important that the student had to have great knowledge of morals so he didn't misuse his powers.
The basic technique for this magic was to increase the sexual energy from the sexual organs and bring it up - through the spine - to the pineal gland. And then with this 'refined' energy create an emotion on a subconsious level - heart region - which could influence the outer world.
A great book that led me to my understanding of this subject is: John Allegro, The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. A very controversial book and somewhat outdated but there are some truths in there I belief.
On the internet there's a PDF version of this book available. (Hmm... Not anymore...) But here's another version:

My apologies for the length of this comment. I have tried to say what ever it is I am trying to say or perhaps not say as short as possible.

Some could say that your idea for this style/form of retreat has been used in our past and continues up to the present day. There are a number of religious orders, brotherhoods, fraternities, traditional beliefs, esoteric and mystery schools of the past and present that may practice this utilizing a variety of techniques ( from various substance use to physical/mental techniques) to produce various results
As to the use of a pharmaceutical pill which seems to be what you are referring to, I question the use. I will freely admit that in part this biases comes about from a number of perspectives. The pharmaceutical industry in itself is one that I personally do not trust, for a number of reasons. Feeling ill, have a physical, mental or emotional well being problem- here we have just what you need- which pill (S) would you like.

There is also the philosophical belief pattern of instinct gratification. I want this right now so I do what I do to attain it right now. Want to be ‘enlightened’ here take a pill. Want anything, here take a pill.

The human body functions as a whole, which is comprised of various systems. These systems are “inter- related, co- dependant and born of each other”.


A collection of glands that produce and secrete various hormones into the blood supply that influence growth, physical and mental development, tissue function, sexual activity, reproduction, sleep, moods and or emotional states and various other metabolic activity.

The endocrine system is comprised of the following glands; Pineal, Pituitary, Thyroid, Parathyroid, Adrenals, Ovaries, and Testicules. These various glands produce and secrete various hormones and select and remove material from the blood, process them then secretes the finished chemical product into the blood for use some where in the body. The pineal gland is locate outside of the blood brain barrier. This gland receives a very profuse supply of blood second only to the kidney. The Endocrine System affects almost every organ and cell throughout the body.

Pineal Gland ;

Traditional Teachings;

In modern literature the pineal gland is described as being the size of pea shaped like a pine cone. It is also described as being shaped like an almond. Both the pine cone and almond shape description has been used in various ancient writings. Believed to be referring to the Pineal Gland.

This pine or almond shaped structure referred to in various Esoteric and Mystery Schools was seen as the “connecting link between the spiritual and physical worlds”.

Seen by some as the Third Eye, the Sixth Chakra, the Eye of Shiva, the All Seeing Eye. In Egypt it is depicted as a Uraeus Snake. In Greece it was represented as a pine cone topping the wand of Dionysius.

Some teachings see the “Horns of Moses” representing the petals of the 3rd eye. The flowering of Aaron’s rod is seen as the activation of the seven chakras ( the 7 endocrine glands? ). With Revelations the opening of the 7 seals is thought by some to represent the activation the enlivening of the 7 chakras.

On a church in Alpirsbach Germany a mason carved a device called the Vesica Paslis. An almond shaped device derived from the Egyptian hieroglyph translated as ‘Ru’. A symbol used to represent a “birth portal”, the 3rd eye or brow charkra. This almond shaped device surrounds Jesus and was used to imply that “ ‘YOU’ can have direct experience and communication with the great spiritual beings”. In Catholicism it is depicted as a pine cone.

These traditional teaching of the 3rd eye, the brow/6th charkra, the all seeing eye, the pineal gland where associated amongst other things with the capability of looking upwards, with what today we would refer to as ‘psychic abilities’, with imagination and dreaming.

Western Medical Research;

A pea sized pine cone shaped gland located at the base of the skull. A small endocrine gland located in the vertebrate brain. Located in the epithalumus near the centre of the brain. From a biological evolution perspective it represents an atrophied photoreceptor. Almost all vertebrate species has it. It is linked to a vestigial organ, the parietal eye which some refer to as the 3rd eye.

As a gland little is known. It still remains much of a mystery to medical science as to all of it’s functions and purpose.

What is known is that it produces and secretes melatonin a serotonin derived hormone. Amongst other things this hormone is used for thermoregulation. It helps maintain the body’s circadian rhythms, regulates reproductive hormones. The pineal gland works in conjunction with the hypothalamus to direct and control thirst, hunger, sexual desire, our biological clock which determines our aging process. Melatonin also influences our sleeping patterns.

It is a light sensitive gland. Melatonin secretion is dictated by light. The brighter the light (daylight hours) the less is secreted. Low secretions during the day, higher rate of secretion during the night. The importance of a good sleep is vital for the proper function of the pineal gland. The higher rate of secretion of melatonin during the darkest hours is vital for the body (to recharge).

Some research suggests that the pineal gland influences the ‘action’ of a number of ‘recreational drugs’ such as cocaine, ergot or it’s manufactured double being LSD/Acid, DMT from various plant sources aka ayahuasca (used traditionally for divinatory or healing purposes), psilocybin/psilcin aka various mushrooms/fungi, virola bark resin used to produce YOPO snuff (South America ) or the venom from the colorado river toad. Other research has lead one researcher to theorize that the pineal gland can produce N.N.Dimethyltryptamine DMT under certain circumstances.

Research using various meditation techniques with conscious meditation on the 3rd eye/pineal gland produces a ‘rush’ of melatonin affecting our dreams, imagination and in sufficient dosages can also cause waking hallucinations.

Research indicates that the pineal gland begins to solidify to calcify with the onset of adolescence. It has been observed and stated by some that it is during this time that we humans seem to begin to draw away from the world of imagination
There is also some research which seems to indicate that the function of the pineal gland is hampered or damaged under certain circumstances.

Constant light appears to decrease the weight size of the pineal gland. Research on urban cites with constant light during the ‘night’ inhibits the pineal gland which affects our circadian rhythyms affecting amongst other things our sleeping patterns.

During the late 90’s a researcher discovered that the pineal gland absorbed more fluoride then any other part of the body including bones and teeth. The fluoride seems to contribute to the increased calcification of the pineal gland which inhibits it’s function.

Some believe that fluoride contributes to creating a more ‘docile mood,’ individuals who will not question authority.

Fluoride may decrease melatonin production. Research seems to indicate that this shortens the time to reach puberty.

The National Research Council has stated “ fluoride is likely to cause decreased melatonin production and to have other effects on normal pineal function, which in turn could contribute to a variety of effects on humans”.

When I review all of this information in regards to both the traditional teaching and western medical science research into the function and purpose of the pineal gland/3rd eye, I can’t but help to think that in many ways the medical research reflects the ancient traditional teaching (speaking here of thousands of years of). One has to ask just how did they know this?

It could be and appears to be that over the passage of time various substances where used throughout the world, various physical mental spiritual techniques where developed that produce a number of various’ altered states of consciousness”, for application in a number of ways. Seemingly involving the pineal gland.

These techniques developed by various esoteric and mystery schools etc where aware that if the pineal gland is activated in the ‘wrong’ way, to soon or activated with the ‘wrong’ intent,(wrong or course being a matter of perspective), instructors adapts elders and masters where careful in the training of ‘initiates’. The training was a ‘secret’ and conducted in secret not so much as it being a ‘secret’ as in- the steps required to activate this gland could produce adverse affects which could be detrimental to both the individual initiate and others. Hence the selection of initiates their training, understanding etc was carefully ‘regulated’. A pattern of development is established.

All this information I combine with other information from both western and the tradiitonal teachings and notice that from either camp the pineal gland plays an important if not vital role in the development of human life, physical, mental/emotional and spiritual.

This understanding contributes to my personal opinion for any ‘instant enlightenment pill’. The vast variables and conditions that can tribute to the pineal glands function contributing to various functions, a ‘pill’ may not be the answer. Nor I believe a week course on enlightenment. With the research that is being conducted in this area, the research going into the possible creation of such a pharmaceutical ‘pill’ you can be sure that the expense and production of, would be such that only the few (comparatively speaking) could afford. Perhaps also if this instant pill was to be taken by the greater mass this could be problematic for some. With in the individuals enlightenment they might discover that ‘they’ do not require or need certain things that have come into being, and this would not do.

Coincidentally I recently did some research about 'kundalini-awakening'-phenomena. Many doctrines concerning this point to the pineal-gland as the source of these kinds of 'enlightments'.
In the near future I foresee short programs, programs of for instance a week, where with a little training and the help of a couple of pills, people have the enlightment-experience. Maybe even just as recreation... Why not?!? In the end "... it's all in the brain ...". And some of these phenomena are already being induced by drugs.

Nope. No short cuts. It's something that requires effort. Conscious working. Most short cuts end up not being so much of a short cut. In Daoism they refer to the brain as a 'ball of mud/clay'. The reference here is to the making of pottery/ceramics. The taking of a clump of mud/clay, working it , shaping it into some thing useful.

Isn't there a shortcut... Like.., an instant karma PILL!?!

James Van Gelder's picture

James Van Gelder

James Van Gelder spends most of his free time studying Buddhism, Eastern Christianity, Western Hermetics, Daoist Meditation/Nei Gong, Tibetan Buddhist Alchemy, and the systems of Indian Kundalini Yoga.

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