Touching the Earth

Nov 00

One of the most beautiful images in Buddhist iconography is the "Earth Touching Buddha." This is a seated Buddha with the fingertips of his right hand gently touching the ground. After his enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, the Lord Buddha was challenged one last time by Mara, the Great Tempter. Mara claimed the earth as his own domain, and said that now the Buddha had transcended this realm and should leave it. In reply, the Buddha called the Earth to witness by touching the ground at which the Earth quaked in recognition of his right to be here.

It has been noted by many commentators that all the significant episodes in the Buddha's life, his birth, enlightenment, key teachings and death all occurred out of doors, under trees. Likewise, the Buddha often advised his disciples to seek out lonely forest glades in which to meditate. To this day, in the East, those monks who specialize in meditation are called the "Forest Monks."

From a more philosophical perspective there is no concept in Buddhism of the world having being created for our use, nor of humans having "dominion" over the animals. In the Buddhist teachings, animals are sentient beings in their own right, subject to suffering, birth and death just like us.

If we think in this way, then ecological issues such as habitat preservation and protection of wildlife need not be phrased in terms of human concerns. Sometimes the argument is made, for instance, that the Amazon rain forest needs to be preserved because there may be undiscovered medicinal plants of great importance growing there. This may be true, but more to the point is that it is the natural home of many millions of living beings, including but not limited to, human ones.

Buddhism has always had this profound connection with the natural world. There is in the tradition a deep recognition that humankind is an integrated part of nature. The free, wild places of the earth refresh, calm and vitalize the spirit. Who has not felt uplifted by a quiet walk in the woods? In contrast, much of the spirit of modern civilization is based on a separation and an alienation from nature. Much of our material culture is devoted to separating us from the living earth. Our great cities with all their comforts and conveniences can often be very alienating places, and the result of our insulation from nature is all too often spiritual and mental illness. It is almost too obvious to mention that there is a physical price to pay as well, in polluted air and water.

An important aspect of this alienation is a strictly conceptual one. Living in a modern city, it is all too easy to ignore the connections of our activities with the rest of the planet. We can try and overcome this by reflecting on the web of which we and our technologies are a part. When you plug the toaster into the wall, where is the energy coming from? What are the results of the way in which it is generated? When you flush the toilet, where is the water coming from and where is your waste going to? Where did your morning coffee come from and how did it get all the way to your kitchen?

The environmentalist slogan of "thinking globally and acting locally" is very good Dharma. In Buddhist philosophy, we "think globally" by contemplating the interdependence of all things; nothing exists except in relationship with other things. And we "act locally" by living mindfully, with clear comprehension of the purposes and consequences of our smallest action. These principles can be said to to define the ethical life.

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