Essay: Buddha touched the Earth – By John Seed

An Exploration of Engaged Buddhism
By John Seed

(See below for an embedded pdf version with illustrations)

Buddha Touched the Earth is the title of a new workshop facilitated by William James, Lisa Siegel and I that was first held at North Farm near Bellingen in northern New South Wales, Australia Feb 7-10 2012.

The workshop brought together Buddhist meditation with experiential deep ecology processes. Mornings were spent in silence, yoga, sitting and walking meditation. Afternoons and evenings consisted of experiential deep ecology processes as devised by Joanna Macy, myself and others.

The title “Buddha Touched the Earth” refers to the famous story about the Buddha, on the eve of his enlightenment, assailed one last time by Mara who challenged him by asking “By whose authority do you claim this supposed enlightenment?” The Buddha replied by touching the Earth as depicted in countless images and icons and the Earth roared her assent.

I had been involved in Buddhist meditation since my first meditation retreats in 1973 – in Nepal with Lama Zopa and Lama Yeshe and with Goenkaji at Bodh Gaya in India (where the Buddha’s enlightenment took place). Upon returning to Australia, I began to organize meditation retreats around Nimbin in northern New South Wales, first for Phra Khantipalo a Thai Buddhist monk and then for Christopher Titmuss at the Dhamananda Meditation Centre that we built in the forest. After Christopher’s first retreats in 1976, participants from those events jointly purchased land and began building a community based on Buddhist principles: Bodhi Farm.

The Buddha had an intimate relationship with nature. Prince Siddahartha was born in the Lumbini Sala grove. He attained Buddhahood under a Bodhi (ficus religiosa) tree and on the fifth week after attaining enlightenment the Buddha remained seated under a (Ficus bengalenisis) tree. The seventh week e spent under a tree called Raja-yatena. The Buddha died under a sala tree.

In August 1979, I was part of what is believed to be the world’s first direct action in defense of rainforests which took place at Terania Creek some 8km from Bodhi Farm. Since that time my life has been devoted to the protection of Nature and I have had a recurring interest to bring together these realms of spiritual enlightenment and the conservation of the natural world.

One of my teacher’s, the late Vimala Thakar (1921-2009) saw the film about the Terania Creek actions, “Give Trees a Chance”, and she exclaimed “But this is pure Gandhi! People in India have forgotten how powerful non-violent direct action can be. Please take this film and the story of Terania Creek to India.” Mahatma Gandhi had developed “satyagraha” or “truth force” in his struggles for India’s independence blurring the distinction between political action and spiritual growth.

Through the Gandhi Peace Foundation, Vimala organised a tour and in 1986 Patrick Anderson (Terania activist and Bodhi Farmer who went on to initiate Greenpeace’s first rainforest campaign), my 9-year-old son Bodhi and I travelled by train the length and breadth of India preaching non-violent direct action and rainforests. In Bangalore our gig was organised by Vandana Shiva, in the Himalayas by Sunderlal Bahaguna and the Chipko Movement, in Kerala by Sathis Chandran Nair and in Gujarat by “War Resistors International”.

Not long before her death, Vimala wrote,

“In this era, to become a spiritual inquirer without social consciousness is a luxury that we can ill afford, and to be a social activist without a scientific understanding of the inner workings of the mind is the worst folly. Neither approach in isolation has had any significant success. There is no question now that an inquirer will have to make an effort to be socially conscious or that an activist will have to be persuaded of the moral crisis in the human psyche, the significance of being attentive to the inner life. The challenge awaiting us is to go much deeper as human beings, to abandon superficial prejudices and preferences, to expand understanding to a global scale, integrating the totality of living, and to become aware of the wholeness of which we are a manifestation.” (from Moving in Wholeness, 2007)

And it was with these words that I introduced the Buddha Touched the Earth workshop to the participants.

An earlier project to join ecology and spirituality was the Dharma Gaia Trust (DGT) whose mission is to nurture awareness of the complementarity of Buddhism and ecology through, among other things, “generating funds for Buddhist-inspired ecological projects in Asia and the developing world”. Over the years DGT has helped fund ecological projects by Buddhists, especially Buddhist clergy in India, Ladakh, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

One of these projects was the ordination of trees by Thai forest monks who protected important old growth forests by ordaining literally millions of trees in the 1990’s. A suitably qualified monk performs the ordination ceremony and wraps orange cloth around the tree offering it considerable protection from woodcutters and developers.

Photo from one of the tree ordinations in Thailand supported by DGT in 2000. More photos at http://rainforestinfo.org.au/projects/DGT/thaiord.htm . See also The Ordination of a Tree: the Thai Buddhist Environmental Movement By Susan M. Darlington

Along the same lines, all Buddha Touched the Earth workshops will be benefits to fund other such projects.

After reviewing suggestions from the DGT Board of Directors as to which program we would fund from the proceeds of this first “Buddha Touched the Earth” workshop, we settled on the Cambodian “Blessing Trees Project” to support Buddhist monks who were preparing to conduct tree ordinations to protect trees and raise consciousness.

One of DGT’s directors, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of San Diego wrote us about “Buddha Touched the Earth” – “I am not aware of any similar project, at least in the Buddhist world. Thanks for breaking new ground!” We replied that we were inspired by “Stillness in Action” which has been working this ground since the late ‘90’s.

Another initiative which brings together Buddhism and ecology are Yatras. The Sanskrit word ‘yatra’ means ‘journey’, ‘path of life’ or ‘pilgrimage’. Yatras organised by http://yatra.org.au/ are largely silent walks through wilderness areas which offer an opportunity to explore and experience a variety of teachings for personal development in the company of like-minded people while travelling together through the outer as well as inner landscapes of our natural world. Apart from walking through nature, a yatra offers a number of other activities including meditation practice and instructions, yoga and, since 2012, experiential deep ecology processes.

Of course it is of the utmost importance to nourish the growing shoots of ecological concern not only in Buddhism, but in all the world’s spiritual traditions.

My last presentations in North America (sponsored by various churches) were titled “Ecology & Spirituality” and included stories about the overlap of ecology and Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Earth is where all these mighty faiths meet, each has grown from the soil of this planet and it is in the Earth that they are reconciled. One of these stories as depicted in our film “Reweaving Shiva’s Robes” is about a mountain sacred to the Hindu faith.

Arunachala is one of the most sacred sites in India because, in the Hindu tradition, the story is told that their supreme deity, Shiva, manifested as a column of light stretching from infinity to infinity. He was so dazzling that the others gods in the Hindu trinity, Brahma and Vishnu, complained that they were being dazzled beyond endurance.

In his compassion, Shiva took on a new form as this mountain, Arunachala and a vast temple was built at its base. Many believe that walking the 11 km around Arunachala is the fastest way to enlightenment and pilgrims by the millions have thronged there since time immemorial.

In the long line of illustrious sages who have taken up abode in caves on Arunachala was Ramana Maharshi, one of the most celebrated Hindu mystics of the 20th century who died in 1950. In 1987, the Rainforest Information Centre received a letter from one of the nuns in Ramana’s ashram telling us that when Ramana had arrived at the mountain as a young man, it had been clothed in a mighty jungle and tigers could be met walking along its flanks. But now, nothing remained but thorns and goats, couldn’t we please do something?

We helped the nun set up an NGO and raised funding including two substantial grants from the Australian Government aid agency while volunteers from Australia spent more than seven years helping to reclothe the sacred mountain. After some years, the authorities from the main temple invited us to move our tree nursery inside the temple walls and allowed us the use of their precious waters. Consequently, we initiated the regeneration of the temple gardens, growing flowers for their ceremonies as well as hundreds of thousands of native tree seedlings each year.

When I returned to Arunachala in 2011, I was heartened to find that more than 10 new NGO’s had sprung up around the base of the mountain. These inspired groups have constructed native tree nurseries and are engaged in tree planting, environmental education, fire prevention and fire fighting. Not only was I able to walk in the cool shade of the trees our project had planted, but I was able to witness also the regeneration of the ancient association between plants and temples, nature and spirit, God and Earth.

The facilitators have resolved to offer another such workshop in Bellingen August/September and to see whether there is interest in other places.

List of images (see PDF below)

Monks ordain a giant tree in an area of forest recently

slash and burned to make way for a plantation in Ta Tay

A Buddhist monk stands beside a giant tree that has been

ordained to try and save it from forest clearance for

Ler, Cardamom mountains, Cambodia.

plantation expansion. Usually saffron cloth is tied around

the trunk but in this case the girth is so large that only a

square of cloth has been pinned to the trunk.

Buddhist monks walk through tropical forest set on fire to

area of Ta Tay Ler to try and stop forest encroachment.

Buddhist monks ordain a tree in forest next to the village

clear it for a plantation. They are ordaining trees in the

of Ta Tay Ler in the Cardamom mountains of Cambodia.


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