When Dharma Meets Darwin: The Birth of a Buddhist Social Evolutionary Theory in Modern China

Monday, February 10, 2020 at 12:00pm to 2:00pm

This is a past event.

Doheny Memorial Library (DML), 110c
3550 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles, CA 90089

A lecture by Jessica Zu, Princeton University

Where can we find moral agency in a world governed by scientific laws and Darwinist competition? Are human beings puppets controlled by invisible natural laws and doomed to compete for survival? Some monotheistic cultures have drawn from the concepts of God and soul, and theorized a rational individual endowed with free will, thus conceptualizing an agent who can make ethical choices. However, in pan-theist or non-theistic cultures, without indigenous equivalents of God or soul, what moral sources have thinkers used to resolve these pressing issues?

How have their solutions molded the modern transformation of Asia?

This talk directs us to the philosophical culture of early twentieth-century China by analyzing the efforts of a group of intellectuals, including Lü Cheng (1896-1989), who turned to an extreme form of Buddhist idealism—Yogācāra, the school of consciousness-only—as a source for theorizing moral agency.

This talk shows how modern Chinese Buddhist thinkers drew on older Yogācāra theories of consciousness and karma, redefining science in terms of karmic causation and streams of consciousness. Ms. Zu argues that by reframing scientific laws as karmic causality, they re-enchanted an otherwise grim scientific world with Buddhist ethics and recast social competition as collective spiritual progress.

This talk uncovers the motivations, context, doctrinal inner workings, and broader influence of Yogācāra theory of social evolution with implications for the Buddhist underpinning of Chinese modernity, calling into question the otherwise neat boundaries separating religion, science, social theory, and moral philosophy.

Event Type

Lecture / Talk / Workshop


Students, Faculty/Staff


University Park Campus


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School of Religion

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