Buddhist Teachings can appear mythical and yet are often very practical. I’ve always been touched by the account of this particular moment in the Buddha’s struggle: during his last night before awakening, upon being challenged by Māra, Siddhārtha reaches out to touch the earth. It’s a confident, trusting gesture – but also a humble call for support; as the epitome of the male warrior ascetic he had proven himself to be unassailable by Māra yet he remained unfree and under siege. In this encounter he is alone.
Māra, however, has his squadrons to cheer him on. Lacking anybody to take his side, the Bodhisattva calls the earth itself to be the witness for his virtues, to testify that he belongs on this seat under the tree of awakening. In response, the earth – understood by tradition to be the personified feminine – offers a powerful sign of verification; some accounts tell us that she trembled and quaked in assent; others speak of the earth opening up to reveal the beautiful Earth Goddess, rising to testify for the Bodhisattva. This call for support proves transformative, to be the turning point; the process of awakening goes into its final phase as Māra and his armies retreat in the face of the earth goddess’ testimony.
So how do we touch our earth? How do we reach out with both trust and humility?
One way of touching the earth is a practice called “turning attention to the origin” (yoniso manasikāra). Manasikāra means “application of mind” or, put simply, paying attention. Yoni means the womb, and, figuratively, the place of origin. An idiomatic translation would be “radical attention”: wisely turning our mind to the root of things. The idiom appears many times in the old texts and invariably speaks of an appropriate response and attuned thoroughness in examining – a practice that is at the heart of genuine understanding. Yoniso manasikāra is one of Early Buddhism’s unique contributions to the human emancipatory effort from suffering.
An example of this practice in seven steps:
- Withdraw from the entanglement of your momentary situation; if this is physically not possible, do so mentally.
- Relax by a method familiar to you; release tension while breathing out.
- Recall the possibility of choice: as practitioners we can choose in every moment to act or not to act in a particular way.
- Briefly note whatever intentions to act arise in your mind.
- Recall your goals in this situation – both big and small. Engendering peace, diminishing problems, and not causing suffering are good guidelines. Mutual respect and harmony are likely the most suitable climate for the completion of whatever task is at hand.
- Evaluate the appropriateness, suitability and purposefulness of the intentions that you’ve noted in your mind. Make sure you reaffirm one of the forms of universal empathy.
- Decide and resolve of what you deem the most purposeful strategy; then act. Such action can take place in an imaginative inner space where you exercise your chosen approach; or it can take place in the outer and interpersonal space.