The Earth as Mother who gives us birth, sustains us, and receives us when we die is known and worshiped the world over. In India, she is known by many names: Paṭhavī “the Vast One”; Mahī “the Great One”; Dharaṇī “the Pregnant One”; Vasundharā “Holder of Riches”; Bhūmi “The Ground”, and many more.
The Kakacūpama Sutta (MN 21) urges us to meditate “like the earth”, with a heart full of love.
Suppose a person was to come along carrying a spade and basket and say, ‘I shall make this great earth be without earth!’ And they’d dig all over, scatter all over, spit all over, and urinate all over, saying, ‘Be without earth! Be without earth!’
What do you think, mendicants? Could that person make this great earth be without earth?”
“No, sir. Why is that? Because this great earth is deep and limitless. It’s not easy to make it be without earth. That person will eventually get weary and frustrated.”
“In the same way, there are these five ways in which others might criticize you. Their speech may be timely or untimely, true or false, gentle or harsh, beneficial or harmful, from a heart of love or from secret hate. When others criticize you, they may do so in any of these ways. If that happens, you should train like this: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected. We will blurt out no bad words. We will remain full of compassion, with a heart of love and no secret hate. We will meditate spreading a heart of love to that person. And with them as a basis, we will meditate spreading a heart like the earth to everyone in the world—abundant, expansive, limitless, free of enmity and ill will.’ That’s how you should train.
Here the earth is subject to violence and pollution, yet she continues to uphold and support all equally. In the early Buddhist texts, the earth is not personified, but it is a locus of love and forgiveness.
The attempts by the man to damage and destroy the earth are presented as being pitifully inadequate. The fact that his acts are not condemned does not mean the Buddha was okay with damaging the earth. Compare the simile a little later that speaks of rubbing a catskin bag; it hardly suggests that killing cats is fine. Nor do similes found elsewhere that talk of cutting down a tree and shredding it into particles somehow mean that the Buddha had a neutral attitude to trees or to nature as a whole. The simile is meant to convey a point. And the point here is that humanity’s acts are tiny when compared to the vastness of the earth, so we should develop our minds to a similar vastness.
Compare the Buddha’s more prosaic approach with the glorious hymn to the earth found in the Arthavaveda, a text not very distant in time from the suttas. Chapter twelve is an extended prayer to the Goddess. Here are a few extracts, from Griffith’s translation of 1895.
May she, the Queen of all that is and is to be,
may Prithivī make ample space and room for us.
Not over awed by the crowd of Manu’s sons,
she who hath many heights and floods and level plains;
She who bears plants endowed with many varied powers,
may Prithivī for us spread wide and favour us.
In whom the sea, and Sindhu, and the waters,
in whom our food and corn-lands had their being,
In whom this all that breathes and moves is active,
this Earth, assign us foremost rank and station!
In both the sutta and the Vedic verses, there is an underlying feeling that “Manu’s sons”, i.e. we humans, are harming the Earth and may potentially destroy it. Thus both traditions, in their own different ways, tried to foster an attitude of caring. The Vedic hymn throughout its many verses depicts an Earth Goddess who is “mild, gracious, sweetly odorous, milky, with nectar in her breast”. In the Buddhist Vinaya, the monastics are forbidden from digging the earth, a rule prompted by concern for the lives of the small creatures hidden therein.
In the environmental movement, Mother Earth is a fundamental point of reference for those who would seek a spirituality grounded in organic experience rather than in abstract and distant theology. She stands for all things natural, for life and pleasure and abundance. For all, but particularly for women, she provides an inspiration for re-valuing of the earth as a sacred place. In an age when industry and profit have stripped the Earth, gifting her bounty to the men who have exploited her most mercilessly, it is natural to turn to positive images of the earth in mythologies ancient and modern.
For many Buddhists, there is a fundamental connection between the Dhamma and caring for the earth. To choose a characteristic example, listen to Regina Valdez speak on how her views on the environment were changed by the Dhamma.
Is it any wonder, then, that I feel a profound obligation to make amends to my mother, Earth, for my own and my family’s transgressions? Like those who’ve seen the error of their ways and the impact they’ve had on others, I could no longer stand the injustice perpetrated against our planet and her inhabitants. And that is the lens through which I view pollution, extraction, and global climate change: It is an injustice.
In America, we drain lakes, blow the tops off once-majestic mountains, and use water to blast apart subterranean rock to release gas, which can damage aquifers and poison drinking water. In short, we plunder the Earth, forcing her to “give up the goods” to allay our unyielding greed.
When I became a Buddhist, I learned that greed is one of what is known as the “three poisons,” the unwholesome roots that are the cause of all suffering. These are greed, hatred, and delusion (more commonly referred to as passion, aggression, and ignorance)—corrupted mental states that cloud skillful action.
While we may not hate the Earth, some of us certainly have no regard for her. If we did, would we blithely throw away single-use plastic grocery bags, knowing they’re a blight to the environment and a danger to animals and sea life? Would we bury our trash in the earth if we respected it as our home? And would we continually buy things to the point that we need to purchase storage space because they won’t fit in our oversized homes?
The easy connection between the idea of Mother Earth and Buddhism, localized by the writer in her journey from Texas to California, raises the question as to what extent her Buddhist spirituality could be simply thought of as Californianism. And there is a whole history of idea and practice bound up in that. The point is, however, not that there is some pristine “Buddhism” that exists somehow outside of locality—for this is merely an idea in the heads of theorists—but that in the particular locus of spiritual growth through which this particular human, Regina Valdez, found meaning, Buddhism and love of Mother Earth go hand in hand.
Like many of us who study Early Buddhism, I tend to be interested in ideas, in the philosophy and practice of the Dhamma, rather than in the complex and rich pantheon of deities and beings known to the different schools of Buddhism. But in my studies, the image of the sacred feminine kept coming back, exerting a strange fascination. I don’t worship a Goddess, and my rational mind has no need of the concept. Yet somehow there is some connection; she means something to me at a level I can’t really explain. And I am far from alone. For many people, having an image in their mind of an anthropomorphic figure helps to focus and inspire their faith and practice. That this is a widespread means of religious praxis, evident in all schools of Buddhism, is obvious. How, then, do early Buddhist texts treat anthropomorphic deities in general, and Mother Earth in particular?
Deities of one form or another are mentioned commonly in the early texts. There are a few who feature prominently, such as Sakka or Brahmā; some appear a few times; and there is a long tail of deities who are mentioned only once or twice in passing. Many of these deities are drawn from the pre-existing Brahmanical pantheon. Others presumably are local deities or beings whose existence is otherwise lost to us.
The suttas have a playfully ambiguous relationship with such figures. They tend to, on the one hand, treat such beings straight-forwardly as real in the same sense as your or I; and on the other hand, to tell humorous or implausible stories about them. It is worth noting that the specific named deities feature much more prominently in background stories (which are less likely to stem directly from the Buddha), while in the central prose narratives, deities and other realms tend to be spoken of in much more general and abstract terms.
What is clear is that the early Buddhist texts are not interested in contesting the existence of such deities. In narrative and verse, they are accepted without quibble. However the texts are quite rigorous insofar as their nature is concerned. They are in no way supernatural or metaphysical. They are beings just like us, who have been born for a temporary period in a higher plane of existence. After some time there they will fall away to the human realm, or even to a lower realm. All of us have spent time as deities in our past lives.
Given this basic philosophical position, it becomes possible to understand why the early Buddhists did not care very much whether specific deities existed or not. It doesn’t really matter in the scheme of things. What does matter is that we will be reborn in one or other realm, and the Dhamma provides us with a means of escape. Thus the overriding tendency from the beginning of the Buddhist tradition was to incorporate and assimilate such deities, rather than contest their existence. They were brought into the monasteries, their images placed to the side of the Buddha, where they could continue to receive offerings, so long as the offerings were harmless.
The Kūṭadanta Sutta (DN 5) shows how a pure sacrifice does not just avoid harming animals; it also avoids harming plants, and must include a just and kind treatment of workers, too. In this way it anticipates programs such as the Green New Deal, which see care for the environment as inextricable from care for the underprivileged.
In that sacrifice too no cattle were killed, no goats were killed, and no chickens or pigs were killed. There was no slaughter of various kinds of creatures. No trees were felled for the sacrificial post. No grass was reaped to strew over the place of sacrifice. No bondservants, employees, or workers did their jobs under threat of punishment and danger, weeping with tearful faces. Those who wished to work did so, while those who did not wish to did not. They did the work they wanted to, and did not do what they didn’t want to.
So much for the general position of deities; what of Mother Earth in particular? In the early texts, while the most prominent personalities among the gods are male, a number of female deities are featured. These may take on fierce or beneficent forms. There is, however, no unambiguous mention of an earth goddess as such.
Later, Buddhist traditions would tell of how, on the eve of his awakening, the Bodhisatta invoked the Earth Goddess to witness his development of Perfections over countless lives. When the Bodhisatta was under attack by the hordes of Māra, she rose up and bore witness to his incomparable devotion. That she could do so was because she is an ancient goddess: she was there when the Bodhisatta undertook the practice of the Perfections; she was there when he was reborn in countless births; she saw him renounce family and home, again and again. And so, just as the early texts invoke the masculine deity Brahmā to put his seal of approval on the Buddha’s awakening, the later traditions incorporated a feminine principle in a similar role.
Despite her antiquity, the Earth Goddess of the Buddhist imagination is no decrepit crone, but a beautiful and voluptuous woman, powerful and sensual. She represents the fertility and abundance of nature, the ever-renewing cycles of life and death. Without her, there would be no awakening, for there would be no suffering sentient existence to awaken from.
In Theravadin rituals she is invoked through recitation as Phra Mae Thorani in Thailand, or in Myanmar as Wathondara, where she is invoked to witness meritorious deeds, as the libation water is poured back to the earth.
In my White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes I showed that, while the Earth Goddess in her manifest form appeared somewhat late in the Buddhist tradition, she was present in symbolic form much earlier. The earliest Buddhist artwork typically depicted the Buddha with such motifs as an empty seat, a Bodhi tree or leaf, or a lotus. All these are symbols of the Goddess. And all these images are closely associated with the Buddha and his teaching from the time of the earliest texts.
There is a direct line from the imagery of the early texts to the symbolism of the first artworks (a few centuries after the Buddha) to the fully realized Goddess of later legend and art. In the early texts, the Goddess remained unmanifest. She is a silent presence, who is always there but never noticed. Perhaps this is appropriate; she is most powerful when she underlies everything. Later traditions drew her out from the unconscious, giving her a voice and a name, so that she may be known to the conscious mind. Even today, though, she most commonly remains implied: the most common of all Buddha images depicts him in the “earth-touching” mudra, where he invokes the Earth Goddess, but she is not seen.
Once you start to notice the Goddess’s presence, she pops up in all manner of places. When you bring a purely rational mind to the suttas, you see a purely rational doctrine; but to read the early texts without the irrational is like playing chess and only seeing the white squares. The fact that she is obscure and half-hidden is the point. Just as a mother performs countless easily-overlooked tasks of cleaning, cooking, and caring, the Goddess is there holding us up, sharing her bounty, forgiving our transgressions whether we notice or not.
However, we must be careful when speaking of her. While we may want to associate Mother Earth with only wholesome qualities, the reality is far more complex. The Mother contains multitudes. She bears her children, then swallows them up. She holds up cities and palaces, but with an earthquake or a landslide she can demolish them all. She gives life with one hand and takes it with the other.
This is the nature of symbols, and it is why symbols play a role in religious and spiritual life that rationality can never fully displace. The rational mind wants to reduce things to either/or; if she is a nurturing mother, she cannot be a dangerous threat to life. But in the real world, mothers are both. They give life, but they frequently take it as well, most commonly through death in childbirth. A mother can be harsh and judgmental as well as kind and forgiving. A mother includes all the contradictions of humanity, but the Goddess includes all the contradictions of all beings.
There is a whole genre of Buddhist story, which starts in the suttas and became very popular a century or two later, that depicts violent and horrific mother deities, known for devouring children. Such ferocious goddesses probably represent the forces of childhood disease and death. To her, children would be sacrificed; better to win her favor by losing a child than risk her anger and lose all children. The Buddha or a disciple would tame her, show her the error of her ways, and convert her to a beneficent protector of children.
From a psychological point of view, the Buddha’s approach in such stories can be seen as the gentle and caring aspect of the rational mind. A more strident rationality might concern itself with explaining endlessly why the Goddess is wrong and should not exist. But she is part of us. We made her. When the rational and emotional minds are at odds, the result is dysfunction and violence. Only when both sides of our beings acknowledge each other and reach out in love and acceptance can there by true wholeness and harmony.
Is a religious doctrine a litany of facts or a conversation? How you answer this question changes the meaning of everything. If the Buddha speaks to people who assume that the Earth is a deity and says, it is a natural element, this helps overcome superstition and attachment to ritual magic. But what happens when you speak with someone who has no conception of the sacred and say, the earth is a natural element? The words are the same, but the context of meaning is entirely different.
The Buddha’s arguments against theistic conceptions were reductive; and to be clear, reductive argument is a valid part of a philosophical discussion. But the Buddha was engaging in a dialogue within a context of meaning. If you ignore that meaning, strip the context, and take the reductive statements as absolute, you no longer have philosophy, you have dust.
The Buddha did not merely desacralize the world: he imbued it with a new value, one that is not dependent on metaphysics. The earth element is not sacred because it is a Goddess, but because it is found inside yourself, because neither you nor the world are independent entities, because the happiness of all beings depends on the earth. But we live in a world where the earth has already been thoroughly stripped of holiness and valued purely as a “resource”. The calamitous results of that are all around us.
It is an essential part of our spiritual journey that we must find ways to discover the value in nature. If we do not, the beneficent vastness of the earth will no longer find room for us on her broad back. And we shall learn what it means to anger a Goddess.