Our ideas about evolution are usually tied to the Earth, in particular, the living beings upon it. But we can also learn about the evolution of the universe at large: how it has developed over time to produce the world we live in. But what if this was all a small portion of what is really out there? What if the evolution of conscious beings took place across many different worlds in many universes? This is an idea from esoteric Buddhism, the inner doctrine of Buddhist philosophy that is usually hidden from the majority of monks (for more about esoteric Buddhism, see my previous post). The quote for today is:
From A. P. Sinnett's Esoteric Buddhism (1883):
“The evolution of man is not a process carried out on this planet alone. It is a result to which many worlds in different conditions of material and spiritual development have contributed…The system of worlds is a circuit round which all individual spiritual entities have alike to pass; and that passage constitutes the Evolution of Man.”
These worlds form what Sinnett calls a planetary chain, consisting of worlds into which souls can incarnate in living beings. There are seven worlds (planets, globes, spheres…call them what you will), each with differing degrees of spirituality and materiality. Although they are physically far apart (likely in different universes), they are “bound together by subtle currents and forces” that the souls can travel through. The first world is entirely spiritual: there is no matter in it, but only spiritual forms that will later take shape physically. I like to think of this as the world of Plato’s Forms, though Sinnett doesn’t mention that.
As you progress through the chain, the worlds become more physical with the introduction of matter, which life energies are bound up in. On our world (Earth), spirit and matter are approximately equal, so we are at about the middle of the chain (4th world). The picture on the right illustrates this with the spiritual worlds at the top and more material worlds at the bottom.
Throughout this planetary chain, there is a flow of souls which Sinnett calls the “human tide-wave,” though a better term would be the “soul tide-wave” because these souls don’t always incarnate in humans. In any case, the tide-wave is the flow of the majority of souls between the worlds. The tide-wave only occupies one planet at a time, though some rare souls break apart from the tide-wave and have their own wave of evolution. On each planet, the souls pass through a series of incarnations and are able to develop throughout their lives on that planet. When the time is right to move to the next world (after the souls have passed through a series of seven “races” of humans [and by races, I mean stages of development, like Neanderthals, homo sapiens, etc.]), the souls are all ferried to the next world to start the process again. There is a limit to how much we can evolve on any particular world, and so this series of worlds, all with different physical and spiritual properties, serves as the vehicle for higher evolution beyond that which a single planet can provide. As A.P. Sinnett said, “The Darwinian theory of evolution is simply an independent discovery of a portion—unhappily but a small portion—of the vast natural truth.”
We don’t pass through the chain merely once, but many times, so we will return to Earth again after our present evolution here is complete (though only after we pass through the other worlds…which takes a while!). At each new round, the souls will progress to a higher stage of their development even though the world they incarnate in is less spiritual. So “there is a progress downwards, so to speak, in finish and materiality and consistency; and then, again, progress upward in spirituality as coupled with the finish which matter or materiality rendered possible.” So to develop spiritually, there needs to be some form of matter (the progress downward) in order to go back upward spiritually. An artists needs to not only have the idea of a perfect sculpture (spiritual world), but they also have to be able to build it (physical world) to truly be an artist.
To use another silly analogy, it’s like a bouncy ball: it starts out at, say, the height of your chest, and then you throw it down to the ground. When it bounces up, it goes even higher than it was originally, most likely soaring above your head. So there’s a sort of “rebound” for souls descending into matter: although it seems that going into more material worlds is devolving, it allows for the possibility of attaining higher spiritual development.
So there is a co-evolution between matter and spirit, and although it’s hardly fathomable to us, it’s easier to grasp when multiple worlds are taken into consideration. So our view of evolution on the Earth is incomplete without recourse to the other worlds we came from and the ones we are headed toward. Indeed, Sinnett believes that the primary driving force of evolution is the spiralling progress of souls upward, and so the evolution we perceive on Earth, with natural selection and survival of the fittest, is only a subset of this. The impulse of the Earth to develop higher forms for souls to incarnate into is initiated by the tide-wave from the previous planet. Evolution begins with inorganic substances and progresses to all forms of life. It is about developing organized forms, going through the minerals (inorganic substances), vegetables (all plants, really), and then animals. It is only in the animal kingdom, however, that forms are progressed enough to support the development of souls. In the mineral and vegetable stages, there is just one undifferentiated spiritual “monad” directing the evolution of the world.
And so, “in the scale of spiritual perfection it [the soul] is constantly ascending.” A nice way to visualize this is to have each world as a point on a 3-dimensional plot with space on one of the lower two axes, the spectrum of spirituality and materiality on the other, and time on the vertical axis (see pictures below). Of course, this represents 1-D space because to have 3-D space, you’d need 5 dimensions (which I can’t draw for the life of me), so this is just an analogy.
Imagine starting at the pink world on the very bottom, the most spiritual world, as seen by its position on the spirituality/materiality axis. The grey dots represent the tide-wave of souls travelling to the next world after their incarnations on the previous world is complete. These are those mysterious “subtle currents and forces.”
We progress upward in the spiral as time passes, going from one world to the next. So the souls travel through the worlds in loops, and additionally, the progress upward is simultaneously a progress toward higher forms of life in each of the worlds. The different colours represent the different world cycles: the souls starting in the first planet, say, planet A, progress to B, and so on until G, after which they return to planet A again (shown by the start of a new colour). These waves continue on to the next planet to help prepare for the next stage of life.
This means that the evolution on one planet is in direct connection to that on the next (and previous) planet. And since at each round, the souls progress to higher states of spirituality and refinement, despite obscuration, some developments from the previous cycle are preserved, for as Sinnett says, “there are processes of vital action which go on in the resting world even during the most profound depths of its repose. And these preserve, in view of the next return of the human life-wave, the results of the evolution that preceded its first arrival.” So there is some information, in the matter and spiritual properties of the world, that is preserved—or “remembered”—by the world through countless eons. We could thus say that the planet has a sort of memory, and perhaps (though this is more speculation) the beings that live in a particular world can tap into that memory and so learn of the previous cycles of life that have progressed on their planet. Indeed, perhaps this is how the Buddhist mystics discovered the planetary chain and the worlds that comprise it.
Currently, it is thought that we are in the fourth round of the tide-wave, and on Earth, we inhabit the fifth “race” of human beings (which supposedly began around a million years ago. The fourth race, according to Sinnett, was the Atlanteans). There are also seven sub-divisional races, and in each of these, seven branch races, which a soul incarnates in at least twice. So for each soul to make its way through all these incarnations takes a LONG time, especially considering that the soul goes into a state called Devachan between incarnations (which we won’t even get into in here!). Sinnett estimates that any given soul will have at least 800 lives (taking some other factors into account) on each world. Yet although these enormous periods of time are unimaginable to the human mind, this evolution does have an eventual end: it doesn’t go on indefinitely. To put it crudely, the end goal is for us to become gods.
Turning to recent times in this vast evolutionary scheme, physicists on our world have been grappling with the quantum world of subatomic particles and have postulated a multiverse to account for how quantum particles can appear to be in more than one place at the same time. But Buddhists (and the Ancient Greeks, and various other ancient cultures: see my previous post) already theories about a plethora of worlds well before modern physics came into existence. Although much of this is beyond that which we can hope to learn by scientific methods (e.g., how can we use physical science to learn about spiritual worlds when science is about understanding the physical world? This then falls under the realm of occult science, which deals with both), we might hope to catch a glimpse of it through our human science and philosophy.
So this is the general idea of the world cycles in esoteric Buddhism. It might sound far-fetched, but if those studying the occult sciences are correct, then the 200,000 years since humans have developed on Earth is hardly a drop in the vast ocean of all the lives that have existed and those that we are evolving toward in the future.