Buddhism, Mother Earth, and the Environment

“Heaven is under our feet as well as above our heads.”
—Henry David Thoreau

Buddhists in Asia celebrate their savior’s birthday on different days, and this year the date ranges from April 8 in Japan to April 30 in China and South Korea. Between those two dates we have the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, so the topic for today’s column is especially apropos.

The essence of Buddhism is summed up in this one statement: “They who know the interdependent web of existence know the Dharma.” The Dharma is the way we should act towards other people as well as all sentient beings. The truths we discover in this process will be personal truths—moral and spiritual values that are, as the Greek philosopher Aristotle says, “relative to us.”

Our personal Dharma is crafted by developing the virtue of mindfulness. By fine tuning our awareness of how we are treating others and as well as ourselves, we will know what to do. By this process we naturally embrace the Golden Rule: treat others as you would be treated. This ethical norm is found in virtually every human culture.

Like most ancient religions (including the Hebrews), Buddhism believes that animals have souls, which simply means that they are infused with the life principle. The same divine breath (neshamah) that God gave to Adam (Gen. 2:7), he also gave to animals (Eccl. 3:19). We now know that many animals have a moral sense (even dogs have it), so there is even more reason to respect them and include them in our ethical world.

The Jains of India and Aristotle also believed that plants have souls—Aristotle called them “nutritive” souls—and we now have good reason to believe that these ancient thinkers were correct. Trees communicate through their roots and care for others, even the stumps of those cut down.

Even more extensive and amazing are the fungi that connect, nourish, and heal all life on earth. They are a veritable internet of support for all living beings. (I urge you to see the film Fantastic Fungi.) They are essential to the Buddha’s interdependent web of existence.

During the night of the Buddha’s Enlightenment, he was attacked by Mara, the Buddhist equivalent of Satan. Mara boasted, Trump-like, that he alone deserved the Buddha’s seat of meditation. The Buddha called on the earth goddess as a witness to his greater powers and good deeds. It is said that she “roared” her approval, and Mara then vanished.

This event is represented in a gesture (mudra) that has the Buddha pointing his right hand towards the earth. This mudra is most commonly translated as “overcoming Mara,” and it is depicted in a majority of Buddhist statues I saw in my Asian travels. I believe that its popularity is based on a basic religious need to be protected from evil.

The Buddha never mentions this event again, and no goddess plays any role in the rest of his life. (Jesus never mentions his temptation in the desert either, so this is yet another common legendary feature they share in what I call the “savior archetype.”) This earth goddess, however, is worshipped by Buddhists in Southeast Asia.

Most Buddhists assume that it was the Buddha alone who defeated Mara, but the earth goddess is given much more credit in Thai, Burmese, and Lao legends. In these stories she unleashes a veritable tsunami that drowns Mara, his evil daughters, and his armies. Mara was associated with deadly droughts so this was a fitting end for him.

The Greek goddess Gaia gave birth to the sky, the earth, and the seas, and the Gaia hypothesis proposes that the earth as a whole is a single organism that is meant to operate harmoniously. We should definitely use our natural resources wisely, but it is not necessary to see them as living things to follow a robust environmental ethic.

I conclude with some lines from the Buddhist “Loving Kindness Prayer”: “May all beings and our earth be loved kindly. May all beings and our earth stay healthy and well.”

Nick Gier is Professor Emeritus at the University of Idaho and can be reached at ngier006gmail.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *