Monday, 30 April 2012

Touching the Earth

This talk was given to people working in Windhorse:Evolution on the 27th April 2012 as part of the celebrations in the run-up to Buddha Day.

Touching the Earth is the English translation of the Sanskrit Bhumisparsha - sparsha means to touch and bhumi is ground or earth.

Bhumisparsha -touching the earth - is the gesture of the Buddha at the time of his Enlightenment. Many Buddha statues (rupas) depict him in this gesture.

There are different accounts in the Buddhist scriptures of what happened when Siddhartha Gautama, sitting underneath the Bodhi tree, became a Buddha, an Awakened One. In some accounts it says that the earth shook and there were great rumbling noises - like an earthquake. In the account given in the Lalitavistara sutra it says that the Buddha was visited by Mara just before he gained Enlightenment. Mara is the personification of craving, hatred and spiritual ignorance. This is also described in the Padhana Sutta of the Sutta Nipata. The Buddha says Mara approached him as he was striving speaking kind words (karunam vacam bhasamano). The words attributed to him are as follows:
“O you are thin and you are pale,
And you are in death’s presence too;
A thousand parts are pledged to death,
But life still holds one part of you.
Live, Sir! Life is the better way;
You can gain merit if you live,
Come, live the Holy Life and pour
Libations on the holy fires,
And thus a world of merit gain.
What can you do by struggling now?
The path of struggling too is rough
And difficult and hard to bear.” [12]

So Mara is saying to Siddhartha – ‘take it easy, don’t be so hard on yourself, have a comfortable life’
Siddhartha recognises Mara and refuses to be tempted. He goes on to describe Mara's army in this way:
“Your first squadron is Sense-Desires,
Your second is called Boredom, then
Hunger and Thirst compose the third,
And Craving is the fourth in rank,
The fifth is Sloth and Torpor
While Cowardice lines up as sixth,
Uncertainty is seventh, the eighth
Is Malice paired with Obstinacy;
Gain, Honour and Renown, besides,
And ill-won Notoriety,
Self-praise and Denigrating Others:
These are your squadrons,

And Siddhartha declares his readiness to take up the fight - the spiritual life is often likened to a battle or a fight in the Pali Canon -
“None but the brave will conquer them
To gain bliss by the victory.…
Better I die in battle now
Than choose to live on in defeat.…
I sally forth to fight, that I
May not be driven forth from my post.” [15]:
“For I have faith (saddha) and energy (viriya)
And I have wisdom (pañña) too.”
 “Your serried squadrons, which the world
With all its gods cannot defeat,
I shall now break with wisdom
As with a stone a clay pot.” [16]

So Mara is all the negative, undermining and tempting mental states and emotions and the spiritual practitioner has faith, energy and wisdom in response.
In the story Mara first sends his army of monstrous creatures against Siddhartha, but their weapons turn to flowers when they come into his aura. Then Mara tries to tempt Siddhiartha with his daughters who dance seductively, but again Siddhartha is unmoved. So then Mara tries a different way - he says that Siddhartha has no right to sit on the spot where all previous Buddhas gained Enlightenment - in other words he tries to sow doubt. He asks Siddhartha whether he has anyone who can witness that he has a right to sit there, and that is when Siddhartha touches the earth and says the earth is my witness. The Earth Goddess then arises and vouches for him.
Before we go into the meaning of this episode there are a few things I'd like to mention that may be worth reflecting on - firstly in many other religions this sort of confirmation of teachers attainment comes from the sky rather than the earth - it may be in the form of angels or a voice from the heavens, but it is often from the sky rather than the earth. It is worth reflecting what this means for Buddhism and Buddhists.
Another thing to note is that, at least according to the Sutta Nipata, Mara and his armies and his daughters is an allegorisation of various mental states. such as boredom, cowardice, malice, obstinacy and denigrating others. Most of us will be quite familiar with some if not all of these, which means we are on very familiar terms with Mara and he probably speaks to us with kindly words quite frequently. So this is also worth reflecting on.
Another thing worth reflecting on is the use of warlike metaphors in the Buddhist scriptures - fighting, doing battle, conquering, staying at your post. Why is all this imagery used and does it have any relevance for us ? What metaphors or imagery do we habitually use and what is the affect of using different kinds of imagery?  Is the kind of imagaery we use or the stories we tell ourselves realy just the kindly voice of Mara?
Another thing woth reflecting on is that Mara did not just turn up as Siddhartha was sitting beneath the Bodhi tree. Here is what happened according to the Lalitavistara Sutra:
“while the Bodhisattva was was seated at Bodhimanda, the thought occurred to him: ‘The demon Mara is the lord of this realm of desire – the master who wields the power; it would not be right to become a Buddha without first informing him. I shall therefore summon Mara Papiyan.’”
What does it mean that Siddhartha summoned Mara?
But to come back to the Earth Goddess and touching the earth. The earth here is firstly a symbol of stability, unshakeability, constancy and also a symbol of  abundance, fertility, wealth
The Earth Goddess is a universal symbol and she has many names around the world - Isis, Gaia, Demeter, Ceres, Sheela na Gig , and Pachamama  are a few names from different cultures. In Sanskrit there are names like Sthavara, meaning Stable One, or Prthvi, meaning Earth or Vasundhara which means the Bearer of Treaure.
So this whole story of Siddhartha touching the earth has three elements that we could look at a little more closely - there is the attack by Mara, there is the response of calling on the earth to witness and there is the emergence of the earth goddess. What this story does is tell us some universal truths about spiritual practice in the form of the rich symbolism of mythology.
There are three spiritual truths in particular that we can draw from this story:
Firstly, spiritual practice involves struggle with forces of resistance which may be experienced as internal or external.
Secondly, we need to find a source of stability and confidence - something to trust in - if we are to be able to access the spiritual riches which are there for all.
Thirdly, we live in a universe where spiritual progress is possible and if we make the effort we will get a response.
Throughout the Buddhist scriptures you will find the Buddha exhorting his disciples to be aware, to develop mindfulness (sati) and one of the things we have to become aware of is our own mental states - we can think of this as becoming aware of our skilful and unskilful thoughts and emotions or we can think of it as becoming aware of Mara and what we might characterise as the Siddhartha within. In the  Dvedhavittakka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha puts it like this:
"Bhikkhus, before my Enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, it occurred to me: 'Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes. then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill-will and thoughts of cruelty, and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non-illwill and thoughts of non-cruelty.
He goes on to say that that is how he practised and then he says:
Bhikkhus, whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind.
I saw in unwholesome states danger, degradation and defilement and in wholesome states the blessing of renunciation and the aspect of cleansing."
So this is the Buddha exhorting his disciples to practise in the way that he had practised by becoming aware of their mental states, both positive and negative.
Throughout the Pali Canon Mara comes to the Buddha to try to tempt him in one way  or another and each time the Buddha recognises him and when he is recognised he disappears. Mara cannot bear awareness.
So the point of this for us is that mindfulness of thoughts and emotions is an important and crucial practice, which will enable us to purify our minds or put more poetically ,it will free us from the clutches of Mara. If we think of our unskilful thoughts and emotions as Mara it may help us to be less attached to them.
Then Siddhartha touches the earth. This symbolises getting in touch with sources of stability, within ourselves and externally. We need to have confidence in what we are doing with our life, confidence in the practices of metta and mindfulness, confidence in our ability to make progress, confidence in our teachers and guides. This confidence is the stable basis from which can flow the energy and persistence that the spiritual path demands. To achieve anything a motivating energy is needed. If we want to get rich we have to have confidence that it is worthwhile and if we are convinced that it is worthwhile we will have the energy and be able to put in the effort that is required in order to get rich. If we want to be successful in any way we need to have a confidence in the value and worth of what we want to achieve and with that confidence comes the motivating energy, the dynamo which powers our efforts and gives us the ability to persist and be constant and consistent in our efforts. Confidence arises out of our intuitive and imaginative relationship to the goal and it also arises out of our reflections on life and it's purpose. We should be frequently thinking about the purpose of life. It is complacent to assume you already know what life is all about and more importantly it’s not making full use of your human consciousness. Confidence also arises out of reflecting on our positive qualities and abilities. Reflecting on what we have already achieved and on the opportunities open to us. A thoroughly positive and realistic appraisal and acknowledgement of our positive qualities and abilities is a really essential ingredient in a successful spiritual life.
We also gain confidence from other people - from seeing them and knowing how they have made progress, from listening to their feedback and just from being in contact with people who are more spiritually experienced and developed than we are - more mindful, more generous, kinder, wiser and so on. And of course we gain confidence in the Dharma from studying the Dharma, engaging imaginatively with the Buddha and his teaching and by hearing what Bhante and our own teachers have to say.
In response to Siddhartha touching the earth the Earth Goddess appears - Vasundhara appears - the Bearer of Treasure and she bears witness that Siddhartha has practised generosity, ethics and meditation for many lifetimes and is therefore well qualified to sit on the vajrasana - the seat of Enlightenment. She rejoices in his merits. The earth Goddess is universally a symbol of abundance, fertility, richness. Reading this more psychologically you could say that Sidddhartha's confidence, his faith or sraddha, gives him access to a depth of riches within, which envelop his mind and flow out into the world. The next part of the story after this is about Brahmasahampati persuading the Buddha to share his Insights with the world - in other words the Buddhas Insight in the nature of reality flows out in compassion.
The Earth Goddess is both Sthavara, which means the Stable One and Vasundhara, which means the Bearer of Treasure – the treasures of confidence and abundance, Sraddha and Dana, Faith and generosity.
So the message of the episode of Touching the Earth for us is that we need to pay attention to our sources of confidence and allow confidence to grow in us and we also need to be mindful of the vast riches available to us both within and externally.
By focussing on what is positive in our lives - even the things we may take for granted such as our health, our ability to see, hear and walk, the trees, grass and flowers, water and air - by being aware of and focussing on these things we can develop confidence by counteracting our tendency to focus on our problems, faults and weaknesses and worse still the faults and weaknesses of others.
And by giving attention to what is positive in us, in others and in the world around us we develop a sense of richness and abundance which reinforces our positivity and gradually turns us into the sort of person who can easily give to others and to the world out of an abundance and richness.
This is something of what touching the earth is about and if we reflect on these things we will benefit just as Siddhartha benefited, when he touched the earth .
I will finish with the passage from the Lalitavistara, where the Earth Goddess appears:
"as the Bodhisattva touched the great earth, it trembled in six ways: it trembled, trembled strongly, trembled strongly on all sides; resounded, resounded strongly, resounded strongly on all sides. Just as the bronze bells from Magadha ring out when struck with a stick, so this great earth resounded again when touched by the hand of the Bodhisattva.
Then the goddess of the earth that is in this world realm of the three thousand great thousands of worlds, the goddess named Sthavara, surrounded by a following of a hundred times ten million earth goodesses, shook the whole great earth. Not far from the Bodhisattva, she revealed the upper half of her body adorned with all its ornaments, and bowing with joined palms, spoke thus to the Bodhisattva: ' just so, Great Being. It is indeed as you have declared! We appear to attest to it. Moreover, O Bhagavat, you yourself have become the supreme witness of both human and god realms. In truth you are the purest of all beings'
Having frustrated the guile of Mara with these words the great earth goddess Sthavara honoured and praised the Bodhisattva and showed in several ways her own power; then with her following she disappeared."
I hope that by reflecting on the Enlightenment of the Buddha and the myths surrounding it we may gain a bigger perspective on our own lives and our practise of the Dharma.I hope, especially that by reflecting on this episode of Mara and the Earth Goddess, we may grow in confidence – confidence in ourselves and confidence in the Path.

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