Why the Buddha Touched the Earth
By John Stanley & David Loy
“The entire cosmos is a cooperative. The sun, the moon, and the stars live together as a cooperative. The same is true for humans and animals, trees, and the Earth. When we realize that the world is a mutual, interdependent, cooperative enterprise — then we can build a noble environment. If our lives are not based on this truth, then we shall perish.” –Buddhadasa Bhikkhu
“The term ‘engaged Buddhism’ was created to restore the true meaning of Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is simply Buddhism applied in our daily lives. If it’s not engaged, it can’t be called Buddhism. Buddhist practice takes place not only in monasteries, meditation halls and Buddhist institutes, but in whatever situation we find ourselves. Engaged Buddhism means the activities of daily life combined with the practice of mindfulness. –Thich Nhat Hanh
In one of Buddhism’s iconic images, Gautama Buddha sits in meditation with his left palm upright on his lap, while his right hand touches the earth. Demonic forces have tried to unseat him, because their king, Mara, claims that place under the bodhi tree. As they proclaim their leader’s powers, Mara demands that Gautama produce a witness to confirm his spiritual awakening. The Buddha simply touches the earth with his right hand, and the Earth itself immediately responds: “I am your witness.” Mara and his minions vanish. The morning star appears in the sky. This moment of supreme enlightenment is the central experience from which the whole of the Buddhist tradition unfolds.
The great 20th-century Vedantin, Ramana Maharshi said that the Earth is in a constant state of dhyana. The Buddha’s earth-witness mudra (hand position) is a beautiful example of “embodied cognition.” His posture and gesture embody unshakeable self-realization. He does not ask heavenly beings for assistance. Instead, without using any words, the Buddha calls on the Earth to bear witness.
The Earth has observed much more than the Buddha’s awakening. For the last 3 billion years the Earth has borne witness to the evolution of its innumerable life-forms, from unicellular creatures to the extraordinary diversity and complexity of plant and animal life that flourishes today. We not only observe this multiplicity, we are part of it — even as our species continues to damage it. Many biologists predict that half the Earth’s plant and animal species could disappear by the end of this century, on the current growth trajectories of human population, economy and pollution. This sobering fact reminds us that global warming is the primary, but not the only, extraordinary ecological crisis confronting us today.
Has Mara taken a new form today — as our own species? Just as Mara claimed the Buddha’s sitting-place as his own, Homo sapiens today claims, in effect, that the only really important species is itself. All other species have meaning and value only insofar as they serve our purposes. Indeed, powerful elements of our economic system (notably Big Oil and its enablers) seem to have relocated to the state of “zero empathy,” a characteristic of psychopathic or narcissistic personalities.
The Earth community has a self-emergent, interdependent, cooperative nature. We humans have no substance or reality that is separate from this community. Thich Nhat Hanh refers to this as our “inter-being”: we and other species “inter-are.” If we base our life and conduct on this truth, we transcend the notion that Buddhist practice takes place within a religious framework that promotes only our own individual awakening. We realize the importance of integrating the practice of mindfulness into the activities of daily life. And if we really consider Mother Earth as an integral community and a witness of enlightenment, don’t we have a responsibility to protect her through mindful “sacred activism“?
This year the U.S. president will determine whether or not to approve a proposed pipeline, which will extend from the “great American carbon bomb” of the Alberta Tar Sands to the Texas oil refineries. The implications are enormous. The devastation that would result from processing and burning even half the Tar Sands oil is literally incalculable: the resulting increase in atmospheric carbon would trigger “tipping points” for runaway global warming. Our best climate scientist, NASA’s James Hansen, states that if this project alone goes ahead, it will be “game over” for the Earth’s climate. This is a challenge we cannot evade. It is crucial for Buddhists to join forces with other concerned people in creative and resolute opposition to this potentially fatal new folly.
As the Buddha’s enlightenment reminds us, our awakening too is linked to the Earth. The Earth bore witness to the Buddha, and now the Earth needs us to bear witness — to its dhyana, its steadfastness, the matrix of support it continually provides for living beings. New types of bodhisattvas — “ecosattvas” — are needed, who combine the practice of self-transformation with devotion to social and ecological transformation. Yes, we need to write letters and emails to the President, hopefully to influence his decision. But we may also need to consider other strategies if such appeals are ignored, such as nonviolent civil disobedience. That’s because this decision isn’t just about a financial debt ceiling. This is about the Earth’s carbon ceiling. This is about humanity’s survival ceiling. As the Earth is our witness.
John Stanley & David Loy are part of the Ecobuddhism Project.