In the Sutra on the Root of Unfolding (Mulapariyaya), the Buddha teaches a gathering of monks how all possible things one could conceive of as an originating entity are not the original root. The sutra caught my eye because it begins with an analysis of the elements: earth, water, fire, and air. But let me back up. The Buddha describes consciousness progressing from perception (this is), to identification (I am this), to dualistic conception (I am in that), to division of self and other (that is mine), and finally to a sort of enjoyment value (I delight in that). The Buddha sees all these views as faulty and makes clear that only through the dissolution of the kleshas (lust, aversion, delusion), conceptual consciousness, and the development of direct knowing can one hope to attain genuine realization.
All that aside and going back to where this started, earth. Buddha begins his dissection of root reality with the first element and works his way to infinity. What humanity is doing and has done for millennia to the planet is exactly what the Buddha describes. We have perceived the world, that is the basic awareness of its structure; identified with the earth, in as much as we acknowledge our building blocks to be the same as those existing on this planet; considered ourselves to be in earth and vice versa, i.e. Adam constructed from dust becomes flesh only to return to dust; we have ‘owned’ the planet, natural resources are here for our use alone and all that nonsense; we have undeniably delighted in the latter, taking sensory pleasure in worldly things to inconceivable heights. Yet by our lust we have plundered all the goods the earth has to offer, by aversion we have made extinct countless species, subjugating the wild to human comfort, and through delusion we perpetuate our own demise and misery. For delusion/ignorance (avidya) is fundamentally to be unaware of our inseparability, not conceptually but functionally, from all things.
My rambling is not the Buddha’s. He was talking to a group of would-be Brahmins looking for a root cause to all things. He denied this and they were not happy (this is one of the few sutras that concludes with the monks being displeased). None of us like to be pushed beyond our comfort zone and yet it is what all good teachers do. It is how we should judge our teachers, not on how well they affirm our own views but how well they challenge us. Watching Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi last night I was pushed from my own place of comfort. I realized, any time I rage against the injustices of modernity and the ills of consumption, there is little but hypocrisy. For all my attempts to reduce any negative impact upon this earth I have never fundamentally changed my creature comforts and have given up relatively few luxuries. Some would say it is a matter of moderation, that we need to take care of ourselves to live. Perhaps, but perhaps the truth is we must take care of others if we want to live better.