The Buddha’s unwavering connection to the Earth shows the path to liberation
As a child growing up in rural Ontario, I instinctively retreated to nature during times of trouble. A small island close to the banks of the river that ran through our 100-acre property was a tangle of willow trees and aspens. Here, shielded from the open eyes of our house across the water, I’d lie down on a springy bed of lush grass, feeling safe, protected, cradled by the Earth. Although I never put it into words, I sensed that the Earth loved and cared for me.
In the story of the Buddha’s awakening, Siddhartha Gautama, soon to be the Buddha, vows to remain seated under a tree until he reaches enlightenment. Past lives, karma, eternal truths, the countless world systems of the cosmos whirl and spin in his consciousness. Mara, a Hindu deity representing greed, hatred and delusion, assaults the steadfast meditator with his horrendous armies, but when Mara sends poisoned arrows in his direction, they bounce off the Buddha, turning into flowers. Frustrated, Mara demands to know why Gautama feels he has the right to awaken from the limited existence of his own mind.
For someone like me, whose upbringing fostered a love of nature and a belief in the Earth’s power to restore, the Buddha’s action at this point is one of the most moving images in the Buddhist tradition. Reaching his right hand down, the Buddha touches the ground, calling upon the Earth herself to affirm his right to sit and awaken. With this beautiful gesture, the armies of Mara are washed away, the hapless god tumbles from his mighty elephant, and the Buddha’s awakening is complete.
Mara had tried to deter the Buddha with his own fears, temptations, hateful thoughts, the very difficulties we all grapple with every day. But the Buddha knew he was not alone. He knew the Earth was there to help him, and it was this final gesture that defeated Mara.
I’m no scholar so I won’t try tracing in detail when humans began their slow and destructive move away from the embrace of Mother Earth. I suppose the shift from nature-based religions to monotheistic ones was an obvious turning point. Undoubtedly, as we got better at controlling our environment (agriculture, machinery, cities, technology) we lost our respect, even our fear, of nature and decided we could go it alone. This denial of Gaia’s rightful place in our lives has been at its most harmful this past century. Most of our indigenous societies have been wiped out or compromised to the point where their deep connection to the Earth is irrevocably damaged. Millions of people spend their days walking on concrete and asphalt, cocooned in steel and plastic cars or high above the ground in glass-and-steel towers.
“No two trees the same to Raven/no two branches the same to Wren,” writes Washington poet David Wagoner in his poem Lost, based on Northwest native elder wisdom. “If what a tree or a branch does is lost on you/You are surely lost.
And surely we are lost. Our consumer society tries to convince us that overconsumption is a form of protection against pain and loss, that we can equate material goods with abundance, that shopping is a form of community, that work means worth. We have fewer and fewer opportunities to experience what Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing,” the state of interconnectedness and interdependence of all, from a rock to a cloud, from an earthworm to a star. Many of us live lives that careen from computer to car to television. Some children grow up never seeing a field or a forest, never knowing how a carrot almost tugs back when you pull it from the ground.
Had the Buddha not reached down and touched the Earth, had he not acknowledged he was connected to everything in existence, he would have simply perpetuated within himself the belief that he was separate. Instead he healed his separation and saw the true nature of existence.
For me the Buddhist path has been a healing path. Learning to sit in silence, breathing in and out of the body, observing the sensations, thoughts, emotions and energies that pass through like changing weather systems, has been a profoundly healing act. On longer practice periods and retreats (often held in beautiful natural settings), I may experience my body as made up of the same energies as the trees that breathe in and out, as the waters that flows, as the fires that blaze. Sometimes, for brief but ecstatic moments, it’s as if I dissolve into the air itself.
Can we heal the planet? I believe we can, but only if we can heal ourselves. If we try to restore balance using the same tenets of separation and competition that put us here in the first place, we may succeed in applying bandages to the wound, but the blood will continue to seep and the wound will never heal.
What is the nature of that festering wound? It is different for each one of us, of course, but I’ve found the chakra system, which originated in India more than 4,000 years ago, to be an instructive tool in my personal inquiry. According to this ancient system of understanding the human body, we each have seven vortexes of energy. However, it is the health of the first, the muladhara chakra at the base of the spine, that determines whether we can feel a connection to the Earth. When that chakra is not operating efficiently, the emotion that can dominate our lives is fear.
In the Christian tradition, the most prevalent phrase in the bible is: “Be not afraid.” Spiritual teachers of many stripes trace the energies in the body that spiral out towards unskilful action as arising from fear. Fear is a natural biological response to our environment, but it is also an unpleasant energy in the body. The pulse races, the breath thins or even stops, the stomach churns. The natural inclination is to rid ourselves of the feeling by denying it and turning our gaze outward, looking for someone or something to blame. Or we may look for ways to make ourselves feel more powerful and in control. Or we may become addicted to something in a misguided attempt to ease our pain. Many of these strategies can lead to anger when our attempts to alleviate our fear fail. Anger can then lead to aggression. And aggression can lead to violence, war, and the kind of unbridled plundering of the Earth’s resources that has lead us to the very brink of disaster.
In the practice of mindfulness, which is at the heart of many meditation traditions, meditators sit and do their best to “be with” whatever comes up. If fear or anger comes into the body or mind, they note it and experience it; if pleasant thoughts or sensations arise, the approach is the same. Craving or restlessness, confusion or joy, all are met with mindful attention and a compassion for oneself if a difficult energy is present. What this form of meditation has taught me over the past 15 years is that it’s OK to feel these difficult states. I still have many challenges working with them in my daily life. But I have made a measure of peace with them and I recognize when they are operating. When I can admit to myself and those around me that I’m afraid or hurt, angry or greedy, I can often access more courage and compassion. (The companion practice to mindfulness is metta or loving-kindness, which the Buddha taught as an antidote to all the myriad things we humans fear.)
This kind of honesty has strength in it; there’s a disarming quality to admitting our vulnerabilities. When we “disarm” ourselves, the heart opens and the struggles we have with ourselves and others lessen because we accept ourselves, others and circumstances as they are. Our war against the planet, then, is much the same as our wars against each other: futile attempts to get something “out there” rather than accept what is “in here,” in our own hearts and minds. When we can make peace with ourselves, peace of all kinds is a real possibility. Gil Fronsdal, a Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher in Northern California, puts it this way: “What’s required of us, I believe, is a very radical trust in the innate intelligence that’s here when the mind doesn’t cling . . . You trust, then, that your human heart will know how to respond.”
Eco-philosopher, activist and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy has spent 40 years studying how the human heart responds in the face of war, social injustice and ecological disaster. Her groundbreaking work marries ancient spiritual practices with a new theoretical framework for far-reaching social change. In her introduction to an exercise for social activists she calls “Strengthening Our Resolve by Dialoguing with Mara,” Macy recounts the story of the Buddha’s awakening, re-investing the narrative with the wisdom it holds for each of us in our daily lives. When Mara asked his fateful question of the Buddha-to-be, says Macy, “Gautama offered no personal credentials. No curriculum vitae. He didn’t say, ‘I’m the son of a king. I graduated summa cum laude from the Yoga Institute or went to Harvard Business School.’ He said nothing at all about himself. He just touched the Earth. It was by the authority of the Earth that he sought liberation from suffering.”
We can make that gesture, too, says Macy. We can touch the Earth. “That act, even if only mental, reminds us of who we are and what we are about as we confront the collapse of our oil-based economy and our oil-damaged climate. We are here for the sake of life. By the authority of our belonging to Earth from the beginning of space and time, we are here.”
We’re used to big blows here on the west coast of Vancouver Island, but the night of December 16, 2006 was different. Gusts up to 150 kilometres an hour knocked down trees, sending them plummeting through roofs and turning power lines into spaghetti on the roads. My partner and I had moved into a front room to be further away from the large trees behind our house. As I lay on the floor in the dark, the wind sounded like a 747 taking off from the patio. I could feel the Earth rumble and shake as trees crashed to the ground. I began silently reciting part of the Buddhist metta (loving-kindness) prayer to calm my fears, bargaining with Mother Nature. “May I be free from danger. May I be well,” I repeated. Suddenly I realized it was not I who needed protection from the Earth, it was the Earth that needed protection from me and slowly the words I was reciting changed and they’re still changing. May we all reach down and touch the Earth with kindness and with mercy; may our own healing be a healing for our planet.