Why the Buddha Touched the Earth

Posted on in On Our Radar by John Stanley


“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

It is one of Buddhism’s iconic images—Gautama Buddha sits in deep meditation with his left palm upright on his lap, while his right hand touches the earth. Demonic forces have been trying to unseat him, because their king, Mara, claims his place under the Bodhi tree. As they loudly 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 complete awakening to reality is the central experience from which the whole Buddhist tradition unfolds. The Buddha’s earth-witness mudra (hand position) is a beautiful example of embodied cognition: his posture and gesture embody unshakeable selfknowledge. He does not ask heavenly beings for assistance. Beyond words, he touches the earth as witness.

The earth has observed much more than the Buddha’s awakening. For the last three billion years, our jewel-like planet has bore witness to the evolution of innumerable lifeforms, from unicellular creatures to the extraordinary diversity and complexity of plant and animal life that flourishes today. We don’t just observe this multiplicity, we are an intrinsic part of it—even as our own species puts this whole living world in rapidly increasing danger.

Given the current growth trajectories of human population, economy, and pollution, many biologists predict that half of all plant and animal species may disappear this century. Although global warming (anthropogenic climate change) is the primary ecological megacrisis of the 21st century, unprecedented increases in the rate of species extinction and human population growth are also grave and interdependent threats to life on earth.

Informed commentators have described these converging threats as the “war on nature.” So has Mara adopted a new form today—our own species? Just as Mara claimed the Buddha’s place as his own, Homo sapiens today claims, in effect, that the only important species is itself. All others are permitted to have meaning and value only insofar as they serve human purposes. Ruthless exploitation of nature and society is regularly practiced by transnational corporations that have relocated to a state of “zero empathy”—institutionalized narcissism and psychopathy.

The life sciences of ecology and evolutionary biology show us that the earth’s community of species has a self-emergent, interdependent, and cooperative nature. Even if humans can commercialize fantasies of colonizing other planets, we are as adapted in every aspect of our physiology to the world from which we emerged as any other living species. We have no real possibility of existence apart from the earth community. As Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh points out, we and all other species “inter-are.” That interbeing is a truth upon which we can base our life and conduct. In doing so, we go beyond limiting beliefs that define religion or spirituality only in human terms. If the earth is a unique integral community and authentic witness of enlightenment, how can we fail to offer it our love, gratitude, and mindful activist protection?

The psychologist Carl Jung put it clearly and simply: “the earth has a soul.” The implication is that the fate of our own soul is inextricably linked to that of the soul of the world (anima mundi), from which the human psyche itself evolved. James Hillman summarized the archetypal psychological view of our ecological dilemma thus: “Even the high intellectualism of the Renaissance, to say nothing of the modes of mind in ancient Greece or contemporary Japan, allowed for the animation of things, recognizing a subjectivity in animals, plants, wells, springs, trees, and rocks. Psychology, so dedicated to awakening human consciousness, needs to wake itself up to one of the most ancient human truths: we cannot be studied or cured apart from the planet.”

Just as the earth bore witness to the Buddha, the earth now needs us to bear witness—to its creativity, steadfastness, and the incalculable matrix of support it provides for living beings. New types of eco-bodhisattvas are called for, who can combine the practice of self-transformation with devotion to social and ecological transformation. The decisions made by political leaders in this 21st century no longer affect only the status of their great god Economy. They directly impact the survival of humanity itself, and of a unique natural world that is the product of billions of years of evolution. Will we succeed in saving our environment, and thereby our own species, from extinction? The earth will always be here for us as witness.

John Stanley (HarmonicWave.org) and David Loy (DavidLoy.org) are lead contributors to the Ecobuddhism project. EcoBuddhism.org

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