The Buddha Fields in Our Backyard
At the beginning of the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha is seated before a large assembly of his followers. Some are arhats and kings. Others are yoga masters. There are gods and dragons, and animals, ghosts, and beings of hell all there too. This ray of light emerges from the white tuft of hair in the center of his forehead, and through it, everyone there is able to see all these thousands of worlds existing simultaneously to their own. In all of these Buddha fields, there are other Buddhas arising, instructing in the dharma, and then passing away. From their presence, still more Buddhas arise, thousands begin awakening, and this holds true across every species in each of these worlds.
By chapter two, the Buddha affirms that Buddhahood will also be achieved by all even minimally striving to take refuge in the dharma. This fascinates me most about the imagery this sutra employs. Just as the Buddha is not creating the worlds which emit from his forehead, rather he is (perhaps even inadvertently) sharing his perception of them with his followers, he is also not personally promising us that we will all obtain Buddhahood, but making an observation plain to all the beings gathered there. The worlds revealed show us the Buddha nature in all living beings, and offer us a glimpse of how each is already achieving Buddhahood. Our world is fundamentally no different than those revealed.
In some senses, this scene theologically lends itself towards monism. Buddha nature is inherent in all living beings, and the Buddha’s vision of this appears to be some sort of consequential siddhi or power arising from his own enlightenment. By awakening to his own non-self, he is able to see the same non-difference in all living beings. The shared essence here is paradoxically both an intrinsic Buddha nature and an emptiness of all the identity markers we are familiar with. In some more esoteric teachings, our Buddha nature and journey to bring it out arise from clouds of illusion rippling out from the enlightenment process of Vairocana, the primordial Buddha.
We are all becoming our most exalted self. Our trials and delusions of separateness and perpetual suffering are but memories of Vairocana, slowly being brushed away as we realize our true nature. Though our Buddha and specific form of delusion are human in form, humanism and human imagery are not the point. Animals, ghosts, gods, devils, and people alike are all on this journey. We are all awakening to the nature of self beyond the specificity of these forms.
Sure Thing. Also, the Ice Caps Are Melting AND THE TIDES ARE RISING.
So how do we reconcile abstract spiritual ideas like these with the tangible struggles before us, specifically the ecological crisis facing the entire Earth at this time?
In Buddhism, there are five aggregates of existence. These are the things that make up what we perceive to be our individual self. They include our form of existence as humans, the sensations we experience, our perceptions or ideologies, our thoughts, and our consciousness. Attachment to these things is thought to lead to suffering, and so attachment to them over many generations has given rise to this ecologically destructive and socially segregated world we find ourselves in. To put it more plainly, human attachment to things like human and white supremacy, economic ideologies of greed and pleasure at the expense of others, class hierarchies (including rigid gender roles), and more have left us to inherit a polarized and collapsing civilization.
But Buddhist doctrine also teaches us that these conditions are impermanent and relative to the actions we apply to changing them. We have the power to change them, even if our form, our sensations, our politics, our thoughts, and our consciousness tell us we’re too small or too unimportant to matter. In fact, the path of the bodhisattva expounded on by the Buddha in the Lotus Sutra is a vehicle for liberating us not just from these conditions we find ourselves in now, but ultimately all suffering of every kind.
Bodhisattvas vow to liberate all beings. To some, this process looks like teaching and coaching others in understanding the nature of their conditions. To others, it looks like taking intentional action from a place of compassion to directly free others from their suffering. This work is about enabling those infinite Buddhas arising in every world. All work for the liberation of humanity, animalkind, plant life, minerals, and the planet herself is part of this path. Dismantling the destructive sources of Earth’s pain so that more Buddhas may arise is work on this path.
Whether we frame it through a Buddhist lens or not, climate change necessitates action on our part—both to prepare for changes in order to ease future suffering, and to tear apart the inputs perpetuating this toxic relationship between humans and Earth. Buddhism offers one vehicle of inspiration to act—to fulfill the bodhisattva vow on our collective path to liberation—but the results of human action (regardless of why we take them) are and will forever be tangible, not purely an abstract shift in consciousness.
The Buddhas in our Soil
The Buddha fields of Siddhārtha Gautama in the opening of the sutra may likewise seem abstract or supernatural, but I believe these passages are meant to be a more literal descriptor of the change in consciousness that awakens in Earth’s bodhisattvas.
Assume for a moment that only humans can become Buddhas. This Buddha nature is thought by some schools to be relative to our consciousness. We are each somewhere on the spectrum of either believing the Buddha to be completely independent of us, or recognizing that we are Vairocana breathing out the clouds of illusory distinctness. When we die, we are buried or cremated and likely returned to the planet in one way or another. The aggregates of our existence break down. And so where does our Buddha nature go without our human form to contain its consciousness?
The form that was once ours actually persists though. It becomes part of the dirt or a stream on the way to the ocean. Our remains are decomposed by bacteria and fungi, worms and birds, flowers and weeds. ‘We’ become a mix of things, including soil and food for animal and plant life further up the food web, potentially infinitely transforming until coincidentally making it back to a human in food of one form or another, then again becoming soil, and so on. Our Buddha nature continues contained within our physical form through all these transformations, and perhaps that’s why we feel so much better when we eat fresh vegetables and fruits, or participate in their entire life cycle from seed to plate. We are cultivating our Buddha nature, we are nourishing our Buddha nature, we are bringing ourselves so close to seeing the lack of separation between us and all the other lifeforms in this cycle.
Now take what the Buddha teaches in the Lotus Sutra literally. In all the forms of existence—from animals to gods and devils—there are Buddhas arising and Buddha nature being awakened. Alongside our own experience of the cycle above, there is Buddha nature arising and transforming in the animals and plants and minerals who share this world with us. This is the perception we have faith in as bodhisattvas, and bear witness to in our enlightenment.
The Ants All Emanate From Vairocana, Their Queen
In the park, the red-spotted purple and Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies are emerging like arhats resplendent in the rainbow body of the dharma. Mosquitoes perch on my skin and drink deep the Buddha nectar within. The buzz of the carpenter bees is the undulating vibrations of their own mantra. And April heralds the existential chirping of birds and frogs alike, while the solitary heron might catch your eye and there pose still as a tree contemplating the illusion that keeps our minds distinct.
They say cockroaches could survive a nuclear holocaust, so depending on how things go, cockroaches may one day be the only Buddhas from our era left alive. And if that’s possible, then chickens could be the descendants of Buddhas in the dinosaur age. Does a rooster’s crow not shake you to an awakening beyond just physical sleep? Is a hen’s dust bath not the perfect dance of a lotus birthing herself from the mud? Does the way she pecks at each kernel of grain one at a time not remind you of Kwan Yin reaching one arm at a time to all struggling beings in need?
Is your enlightenment kept behind a cage or imprisoned in a cycle of birth, reproduction, and slaughter?
Call it Buddha nature. Call it soul or spirit or autonomy. There’s a shared essence in us, in the soil, in the roots, and in all the avenues passing between us. There are cages and chains restraining the Buddhas in slaughterhouses and farms. There are monocultures of domesticated sameness where even a solitary Buddha will be weeded out. There are factories and mines where the Buddha is kept locked in unbearable conditions. And if you perceive the Buddha fields around you, you will see there are countless bodhisattvas drawing attention to the conditions of all these and still more Buddhas—women, of all people of color, of LGBT+ people, disabled people, prisoners, animals, the oppressed and the exploited everywhere.
How would we act if we could see the Buddha in all living beings? What would we do if our vision of this reality was completely clear?
The answer is our role to play in the liberation of this world.
This essay appears as part of the Deepening Resilience community blog project. Project coordinator Syren Nagakyrie and the project’s contributors are creating conversation on climate change and human responses to the issues our ecological crisis raises. Learn more or even submit your own thoughts at the blog project’s home page or Facebook group page.
Enjoyed this post? You can buy me a coffee here.
Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage therapist and life coach in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His work is especially focused on creating permaculture in his community, which sometimes looks like providing bodywork, and other times looks like writing or designing gardens for people and bees.
Get connected with him via email to firstname.lastname@example.org