“If there were no gratification in the earth element, beings would not become enamoured with it; but because there is gratification in the earth element, beings become enamoured with it. If there were no danger in the earth element, beings would not experience revulsion towards it; but because there is danger in the earth element, beings experience revulsion towards it. If there were no escape from the earth element, beings would not escape from it; but because there is an escape from the earth element, beings escape from it.”
“I set out seeking the gratification in the earth element. Whatever gratification there is in the earth element - that I discovered. I have clearly seen with wisdom just how far the gratification in the earth element extends
I set out seeking the danger in the earth element. Whatever danger there is in the earth element - that I discovered. I have clearly seen the wisdom just how far the danger in the earth element extends.
I set out seeking the escape from the earth element. Whatever escape there is from the earth element - that I discovered. I have clearly seen with wisdom just how far the escape from the earth element extends.
“The knowledge and vision arose in me:unshakable is my liberation of mind; this is my last birth; now there is no more renewed existence”5
The earth has shaped us, made us breath, made us dream, and has made us to die. The earth embodies and positively embraces our mortality. In the Bible, god creates Adam, the prototype man, out of the earth. In so doing the earth performs an eternal role mythically in the minds of humanity. From earth all life is formed. The seed that is planted in its soil, is watered until it bursts out from under its blanket of soil, to become a flourishing plant, with an illusory sense of its uniqueness and independence, its own individual life in the midst of a field of corn that will ripen until golden. Every cornhead knowing that at some point there will be a harvesting, a reaping, a turning over of the straw stumps to replenish the earth’s fertility, to renew its ability to go through this cycle all over again. This is the existential angst that coerces, chokes and cloaks human lives. It stimulates our religious impulse, our spiritual striving, our prescient dreaming for life to be otherwise. It also causes us to bury our heads in hedonism, to drown our sorrows in upturned glasses of ale, to party party party until we drop.. Our mortality has both a creative and a crippling force behind it.
Despite our tribal and family loyalties, our shared cultures, cities and civilisations, we still feel abandoned and alone even whilst we are walking upon the earth. It was reassuring for us to imagine gods and minor deities inhabiting the everyday world of fields, trees, streams, air, fire, even our hearth and home. These gods became like our invisible, secret friends, who in difficult times will hold our hands and give our hearts the strength to carry on. You’re never alone in a world filled with earthbound gods and goddesses.
But then there are times when the gods and goddesses seemed to desert us. Why do they do that? Where do they go? Where do they disappear too? They must go somewhere, perhaps its to a godlike realm, a heaven of sorts, from which we must beseech them to return. Then they do return, but less and less frequently, almost begrudgingly. They seem to prefer to stay in heaven and rule the earth from there. The gods and goddesses look down upon the earth and its creatures, and become bored with our neediness, indifferent to our aloneness and existential despair.
One by one the gods and goddesses abandon humanity, until only one god is left behind to mind the earth. He has become more like a caretaker at a school, than its headmaster. He opens the gates every morning, mops the floors, clears up litter after us, and locks the gates again of an evening. The caretaker god is unappreciated, people notice less and less what he does, until they stop believing in him altogether. Leaving humanity to face the reality of their aloneness upon the earth. Trapped in the earthly cycle of life and death without a transcendental friend. Without the guidance of a divinity, what are we to make our lives about? We can make it about what we do ~ our work, careers, celebrity,the money we make, the kind of house, car, sofa or TV we own. Or we can make it about our relationships ~ the number of friends we have, the interests and enthusiasms we share, the companionship we have through life, the children we can live out our un-fullfilled ambitions for life through. Every earthly thing we choose to build our sense of purpose around, will always feel flawed, because ultimately such things let us down at the point of our death, or their death, or they break, tear or decay. All our possessions become ownerless. All earth-bound luggage is left behind on the station platform as the train bound for heaven departs.
Severing our dependence upon heavenly divinities, has paradoxically reinforced our dependence upon that earth-bound luggage. We may believe that this is the only life we have, or that we will be reborn or reincarnated after this life is over, or that we go to some sort of perpetual afterlife in heaven. Yet what concern is it of ours exactly what happens when life is over, when life is not yet over? Who really knows anyway? The afterlife is for the afterlife. The purpose of life is during the living of it. It’s rarely what we are in life, but who we have become through life, that matters. Who we are at the point of our death? Will we still be craving for death to be anything other than death, for life to be about more than life? Can we shatter the earthly bonds that cause us to suffer, the craving and the clinging for and to earthly existence?
Human life can seem to be about leaving clearly distinguishable tracks upon the earth - through the history, buildings, ideas, art, people and genes that we leave behind. We leave such marks, carved like graffiti on castle ruins, to show that we were here. In the forlorn hope that ‘GH loving JW’ will be fondly remembered. A life that is lived and quickly forgotten, is a common occurrence. Yet we expend so much effort and time trying to ensure we are remembered, only to find that even the tracks of our mourner’s tears will soon evaporate. Not everyone can end up written in history books, even as an obscure footnote or reference in the appendix. We mostly disappear without remainder.
Even the figure of the Buddha is so historically shrouded in ambiguity and mystery, because time has already erased so much. The Dharma gives us a glimpse of how he was, what he was, and what he did. Yet without a direct experience of Enlightenment within ourselves, we cannot fully understand who he was. Yet the power of who he was is central to why Buddhism has lasted over two and half thousand years. This human being who awakened to reality as it really is, is a potent idea to place in the hands of mankind. Instead of humanity transcending life and death through the medium of heaven, and its gods and goddesses, he demonstrated that humanity could discover transcendence within themselves. That Enlightenment could be found whilst one is alive upon the earth. A life extinguished then has just ‘the remainderless fading away’.
“‘A great bonfire was burning, consuming ten, twenty,thirty, or forty loads of wood, and a man would cast dry grass, cow dung,or wood into it from time to time. Sustained by that material, fuelled by it, that great bonfire would burn for a very long time. So too, when one lives contemplating gratification in things that can be clung to, craving increases....such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering”
“When one dwells contemplating danger in things that can be clung to, craving ceases. with the cessation of craving comes cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of existence..cessation of birth...aging-and death, sorrow, lamentation, pain,displeasure,and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.”
“ A great bonfire was burning, consuming ten,twenty,thirty,or forty loads of wood, and a man would not cast dry grass, cow dung,or wood into it from time to time. When the former supply of fuel is exhausted, that great bonfire, not being fed with any more fuel, lacking sustenance, would be extinguished. So too, when one lives contemplating danger in things that can be clung to, craving ceases...Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering” 6
5 - Taken from Ch22 & 23 the Dhatusamyutta, in the Samyutta Nikaya, Translated by Bikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publishers.
6 - Taken from the Ch52 the Nidanasamyutta, in the Samyutta Nikaya, Translated by Bikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publishers