Sunday, September 02, 2012

ARTICLE ~ Drdha ~ Part Seven

Footprints upon the Earth

Two and a half thousand years ago, during the Axial Age, many significant individuals emerge, who found religions that have survived with varying degrees of success until today.  Lau Tsu founded Taoism, and Gautama Buddha founded Buddhism, during this time. This era is before historical documentation, in an age of oral transmission of teachings. All that we come to know now as Buddhism and Taosim, comes from texts written down and assembled several centuries later, or from more recent archaeological discoveries in the last century and a half.
Due to this factual absence and lack of substantial verification, it is unclear how historical these figures actually were. Did they actually live at all ? Both Lau Tsu and Gautama Buddha could have existed, but they may also be compound figures created around a coherent body of teachings that had no single founding figurehead. The consistency of the teachings might indicate the authority of a single visionary figure, but this might also have been created retrospectively  Both religious traditions appear to have been aniconic in their early days, and only developed a tradition of symbolism and representation of their founders, around the same time as their oral traditions became written ones. It could be there was no prohibition about representing their founder, because there was no specific individual founder to represent. To prevent this viewpoint hardening into objective fact, lets just recognise that it’s all conjecture, and only one of many such conjectures with very different assumptions as their basis. Until more concrete evidence emerges we can only conjecture on the basis of very limited and frequently unreliable sources.

Our twenty first century perspectives and assumptions themselves, may be be blinding us or distorting our perceptions of what was really going on then. Misinterpreting the perceptions and motivations of people of this time. They may have had significant cultural reservations about the making of images in general, that we do not have now. It is not uncommon for early agrarian societies to see making an image of someone as imprisoning their souls in stone. Imagine then how loaded making a representation of a supposedly enlightened being might then become.

The first Buddhist images when they do arrive two centuries later in the 3rd Century BC represent the Buddha symbolically, as an empty chair, a riderless horse, a stupa, or a pair of footprints. The common theme being of an absent presence. They show that the Buddha once sat, rode and walked upon the earth, but he does so no more.  He left his mark, but now he has gone. One of the epithets of the Buddha is ‘the trackless one’ the one who has gone beyond making his self distinct in the world. So it’s paradoxical that the Buddhapada, the Buddha’s footprints, his stylised tracks, should become a cult object of veneration. There are a couple of apocryphal stories surrounding the Buddha and his footprints, that give some background to why this was. The Buddha was said to have walked immediately from birth, and each step he took left a footprint with a golden lotus flower in it. The lotus being an early symbol for the unfolding of Enlightenment, this was meant to be a presentiment of his future attainment. After his Enlightenment, the Buddha’s footprints are said to have left imprints in the earth of the dharmachakra embossed in their soles. Everything he did was now so imbued with the Dharma that even as he walked he left an imprint of it. So however ‘trackless’ he’d personally become, he did leave the track of the Dharma.

Over the millennia these representations of the Buddha’s footprints have developed from single embossed lotuses and Dharmachakras on the sole, to an extremely elaborate and often esoteric iconography covering the whole foot. Symbolically representing his numerous virtues,qualities and attainments.  But why were the Buddha’s feet given such reverence?  In India it has always been a sign of obeisance and devotion to kneel down and touch the feet of a revered figure. So there was a pre-existing cultural tradition, but this symbolism goes further than just social convention. Feet in hot countries gather dirt and dust, and they leave tracks behind them wherever they go, ones that everyone can follow. The accumulation of the dust and dirt is the evidence of having walked and travelled across and upon the earth. So those pair of footprints in the earth are a sign literally to follow in his footsteps, to copy his footsteps, to revere and rely on his footsteps, to have sraddha (faith) in his footsteps. To manifest and walk the dharma into the ground, imprint it upon ourselves like a footprint does in the dust of the earth. Don’t follow me, follow my example, follow my path, follow the Dharma.

The Dharma is the Buddha’s footprint, it is the tracks of these tracts that will takes us, if we’ll let it, towards the trackless state of Enlightenment itself. A footprint is quite personal, each one distinct in size and shape. Its imprint upon the earth proves you were here, identifiable by the marks you’ve left in the soil. A footprint, even that of the Buddha, is recognisably human. But in the Buddha’s case, his Buddhapada takes the fact of his earthbound humanity to another level. Once enlightened he goes beyond the earthly, the worldly, even whilst he still walked upon it. It’s a reminder that he was not different to us, whilst he also was, and that we can become like him, though we currently are not. The mark that a Buddha’s footprint leaves is of a transcendent human being having touched the earth. This alone makes it worthy of reverence, so even the Earth Goddess herself must seek it out, and bow down to who-so-ever that person may be.

The Earth Goddess Drdha

forever scans the heavens
scouring every rock and crack in the surface of the earth.  
each country, district, forest or mountainous region
each village, town or city,
every poor humble dwelling or rich royal palace,
for signs of the excellent Dharma being expounded.

The Earth Goddess Drdha
goes wherever that place may be
to arrive beneath the Diamond Throne
and making visible her invisible body
leans her head upon the soles of the feet
of whoever is expounding the Dharma
and satisfies herself with hearing its sweet nectar.

The Earth Goddess Drdha
will pay homage and rejoice
until this suffuses her whole being
extending down as far as that founding thunderbolt
respect for the earth she shall cause to multiply
moistening it until it reaches the shores of oceans

The Earth Goddess Drdha
will then possess great power, fortitude and strength
the brilliance and glory of the Dharma having entered her body
will increase the savouring and love for the earth
and all beings living dependent upon it
will likewise be blessed.

The Earth Goddess Drdha
searches the earth for an expounder of the Dharma
and finding them already sat upon the Diamond Throne
leans her head upon the soles of their feet
To ensure that in a future time
all may be awakened to supreme and perfect Enlightenment
and all the manifest woes of the world will be wholly cut off.4

4 -  A freely adapted rendering by Vidyavajra based on excerpts from Chapter 10 The Sutra of Golden Light
   ~ based on the translation by R.E.Emmerick

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