In the final moments leading up to his enlightenment, when the voices of doubt all around him were challenging his worthiness for this task, the Buddha reached down and touched the earth. This simple gesture was the answer to the incessant, internal and external questioning of his right to take the next step on the journey of awakening.
As we enter into this first week in October, being recognized by Buddhist Insight Meditation groups all around the country and internationally as Earth Sila Week, it is good to remember the Buddha’s deep commitment to the earth. He undertook the journey for the sake of both the awakening and the protection of “all sentient beings.” This term easily expands into the concept of ecosphere, that space which we all share, “the commons.” Many of the images used to symbolize the Buddha’s first teachings include a large wheel supported by two smiling deer, one on each side, depicting the joy available to all beings as the teachings of wisdom and compassion enter the world.
Sila is traditionally translated as “ethical conduct,” and includes the wise speech, action, and livelihood aspects of the Eight-fold Path, as well as the ever-present wise mindfulness, effort and understanding. Bhikkhu Bodhi, a contemporary scholar, translates sila as “harmony.” So, Earth Sila becomes living in harmony with the earth and all its beings, developing a harmonious, non-contentious, resonant relationship with the world around us.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher, reflects that the disharmony evident in the wounded earth mirrors and is mirrored by our own deep heart wounds. Natalie Goldberg, a Buddhist writer, suggests: “Stress is a disconnection, a disconnection from the breath, a disconnection from the earth. Nothing is that important. Just lie down.”
Joanna Macy, a Buddhist environmental activist, writes that the first step to healing the broken connection with the earth and within ourselves is found in the intentional practice of gratitude. Indeed, perhaps the Buddha’s gesture of touching the earth could be read to be: “Just lie down and be grateful, full awakening will happen from there…”
This could serve as a good metaphor for us during this Earth Sila Week. Whether you lie down or sit down or just take a brief walk, whether you have five minutes or the whole day: make a commitment to go outside every day with the intention of freshening and renewing your relationship with the natural world. Take time to notice the smells, tastes, sights, sounds, and your own body sensations with a clear, bright awareness. Let yourself settle into a moment of gratitude for all that is so freely offered to us. Remind yourself that you are safe, and relax. From this sense of ease, extend some of the metta wishes outwards: imagine yourself “…radiating kindness over the entire world; spreading upwards to the skies and downwards to the depths; outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.”