The Evolution of Wisdom: A Study of the Evolution of Perception as Understood by Ancient Religions
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" (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.
- Sokushinbutsu and the ancient Japanese monks that mummified themselves to death
- 3: The Perfect Number - Trinity Symbolism in World Religious Traditions
- The Incredible Powers of the Ancient Siddhars
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. (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 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Five Daoist Immortals
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 Ancient Tradition of the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order
- The Mithraic Mysteries and the underground chamber of San Clemente
- The Northern Mysteries Current: Futhark and Mystery Schools of the Viking Age
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. (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. (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 www.JamesVanGelder.com
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)
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Sheng-Yen, M. (1987, October 22). The Five Eyes. Retrieved from Ch'an Newsletter-No.62: http://chancenter.org/cmc/1987/10/08/the-five-eyes/