Earth touching awakening

Since we recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, this might be a good time to briefly reflect on the relationship between our mother the earth and awakening.

Legend has it that when Lord Buddha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, he was challenged by Mara, the voice of limitation, death and delusion. Mara asked the Buddha by what authority he could claim awakening. In response, Buddha extended his right hand, touched the earth, and said, “The earth is my witness.” These words and this gesture have been immortalized by countless images of Buddha touching the earth, showing the earth-touching mudra.

The meaning of this symbolic story is profound. Many forms of spirituality claim descent from immaterial or “higher” spiritual realms, and set up an opposition between the spiritual and the material. In contrast, Buddha was a human being and he taught that his awakening came from the earth itself. This earthly orientation to awakening permeates the Buddhist teachings. For example, in contrast to the traditional yogic technique of withdrawing the senses—pratyahara, the fifth limb of ashtanga yoga as taught by the father of yoga, Patanjali—Buddhist meditative techniques commonly teach the development of mindfulness and awareness of the senses and their objects.

According to Buddhism, the earth and the objects of the senses are not themselves an obstacle to awakening. It is only a wrong relationship with them, based upon craving and ignorance, that creates our suffering. In the innermost essence of real dharma, the earth and all its forms, when seen without craving or ignorance, perfectly reflect and embody awakening. This wisdom teaching implicitly underlies Buddhism’s many manifestations—from the early Buddhist practice of mindfulness; to the Prajnaparamita teaching that form is emptiness, and emptiness is form; to the Third Turning teaching  that Buddha Nature pervades everywhere; and beyond to the secret teachings of Tantra, Mahamudra and Dzogchen.

Seen with the eye of wisdom, the earth, its forms, all of its beings and we ourselves are embodied awareness, and are all worthy of reverence and love.