Touching the Earth

‘Touching the Earth’ is a Buddhist meditation that invites us into that place where we encounter archaic memory, the memory of blissful unknowing.  It is a place within all of us that recalls – with every animal – that moment when we walked memoryless through bars of sunlight and shade in the morning of the world.

Touching the Earth – A Buddhist Meditation on Mindfulness and Ecology:

Wildness is a source of our liberatory imagination that disrupts, questions and celebrates the transcendent possibility of returning and inhabiting ‘beginner’s mind’…

Where we encounter the archaic memory of blissful unknowing of the animal that once walked memoryless through bars of sunlight and shade in the morning of the world.

The practice of ‘Touching the Earth’ is to return to the Earth through the body, a journey to our roots, to our ancestors, and to a recognition that we are not alone but connected to a whole stream of spiritual and blood ancestors. We are their continuation and with them will continue into the future.

We touch the earth to let go of the idea that we are separate and to remind ourselves that we are the Earth and part of an unfolding creation.

The term ‘engaged Buddhism’ was created to restore the most compelling dimension of Buddhism. Engaged Buddhism is simply Buddhism applied to daily life. If practice is not engaged, it cannot 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 and ethic of mindfulness. (Thich Nhat Hanh, paraphrased).

Of Systems, Commons and Indra’s Net

In one of Buddhism’s iconic images, Guatama Buddha sits in meditation with his left palm upright on his lap, while his right hand touches the earth.

The forces of death and negation try to unseat the contemplative, because their King, ‘Mara’, claims that place under the Bodhi tree. As they proclaim their leader’s powers, Mara demands that Guatama produce a witness to confirm his spiritual awakening. The Buddha simply touches the earth with his right hand, and Creation itself responds: “I am your witness”. Mara and the minions disappear. The morning star appears in the sky. And it is from this mytho-poetic moment of supreme awakening to the human-nature condition from which the whole Buddhist tradition unfolds.

Mara, interestingly, is linked etymologically to the figure of ‘death’. It refers to the Vedic or pre-Buddhist mythic figure, including a manifestation related to Namuci or a ‘demon of drought’ [A God of Death]. This is interesting in our current times of climate change and its impacts on water scarcity.

Mara [Namuici] threatens not by witholding seasonal rains but by witholding or obscuring the knowledge of truth.

Namuci is a figure who was transformed in early Buddhist texts to become Mara, the god of death. In Buddhist demonology the figure of Namuci, linked to death caused by calamities such as drought, was taken up in the symbolism of Mara, threatening the welfare of humankind.

The 20th century Vedantin sage, Ramana Maharashi noted that the Earth is in a constant state of dhyana (meditative absorption). The Buddha’s earth-witness mudra (hand positioning) is a beautiful and poetic example of “embodied cognition” or embodied knowing. The posture and gesture embody unshakeable self-realization as interbeing. He does not ask heavenly beings for assistance. Instead, without 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 three billion years the Earth has borne witness to the evolution of innumerable lifeforms, from the single cell creature to the extraordinary diversity and complexity of plant and animal life that flourishes today – and in which we are embedded as an integral element of ‘interbeing’ and custodian.

Many biologists predict that half the Earth’s plant and animal species could disappear by the end of the century. We are living through the sixth mass species extinction – with all the physical, resource, aesthetic and spiritual implications that heralds for our interbeing.

This sobering fact of extinction reminds us that phenomena such as climate change is a primary but not the only ecological crisis facing us today. Indeed it is only one of three critical ‘Planetary’ thresholds that are currently being broken by our political, economic and technological institutions and practices today.

Mara appears to us today as a collective experience of ‘deep dualism’ and discrimination. Ecological insight has been supplanted and dismissed by collective delusions and denials that are not incidental but expressions of deeply embedded, habituated institutional responses to our shared experience on Earth.

Behind the delusion is a universe and an earth system in which everything inter-penetrates, in which everything needs everything else and where there is no single speck of dust that does not affect the whole.

In the Flower Garland Sutra a most resounding metaphor, the Diamond Net of Indra, points to all existence as a vast net of gems that extends throughout the universe, not only in the three dimensions of space but in the fourth dimension of time as well.

Each point in the huge net contains a multifaceted diamond which reflects every other diamond, and as such, essentially contains every other diamond in the net. There is no centre and no periphery.

The diamond represents an entire universe – or reality – of past, present and future. In a sense, what the metaphor depicts is how each and every thing in the universe contains every other thing troughout all time, including responsibility for each and every other part’s fate.

The Diamond Net of Indra is not just a philosophical postulation. It is a description of realized reality. It is the direct experience of thousands of awakened women and men.

In this age of the Anthropocene, the cry of the earth has entered deeply into our wild hearts….it is an intimate and collective cry all at one, captured in the ritual of ‘touching the earth’:

  • The one who bows and the one who is bowed to are both by nature empty (inter-being);
  • Therefore the communication between them is inexpressibly perfect;
  • Our practice centre is the net of Indra reflecting all Buddhas everywhere;
  • And my own person reflects all Buddhas to whom with my whole life I go for refuge.

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