The Earth (Paṭhavī) is a planet that spins on its axis, moves around the sun and supports life on its outer surface.
The Buddha described the Earth (D.I,134; M.II,127) as having great depth (gambhīra), being of immense size (appameyya) and as spherical or disk-shaped (maṇḍala).
Pre-Buddhist religion in India personified the Earth as the goddess Paṭhavī, equivalent to the Greek Gaia or the Roman Terra.
According to legend, after his enlightenment the Buddha touched the earth and called upon Paṭhavī to witness his great victory over the darkness of ignorance.
Many statues of the Buddha depict this scene by showing him with his left hand nestled in his lap and his right hand on his knee, the finger tips touching the ground.
Although the Buddha never mentioned Paṭhavī herself, he did see the Earth as having certain qualities which made it worthy of our respect.
According to him, the plants which sustain all life grow because they draw a nourishing ‘essence’ (paṭhavīojā or paṭhavīrasa) from the earth (A.V,213; S.I,134). He also pointed to the interdependence of the Earth and life when he observed that ‘Cattle depend on the rain clouds and humans depend on cattle.’
(Ja.IV,253). Although put in simple undeveloped terms these ideas are precursors to the biologist James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis which holds that the Earth should be regarded as an interconnected whole to the degree that it can be considered a living entity. If this is so, then caring behaviour towards nature and the environment would be in harmony with the first Precept.
But for the Buddha, the Earth was not just life-sustaining, it even had certain spiritual qualities worthy of our emulation. He asked us to be ‘clear like a pool without mud,’ ‘unshakable like a pillar set in the ground’ and ‘free from hostility like the great Earth’ (paṭhavā samo novirujjati, Dhp.95).
It was this, the Earth’s seemingly kindly, patient endurance, that the Buddha admired most. On another occasion he said to his son Rāhula:
‘Just as people throw clean or dirty things ... on the Earth and yet it never gets annoyed, humiliated or disgusted, in the same way, develop meditation like the Earth, and then pleasant and unpleasant impressions will not enter your mind and remain there.’
(M.I,423). Of course, although we should endeavour to be unmoved by the various impressions we encounter, this does not mean we should behave towards others in ways that might make them ‘annoyed, humiliated or disgusted.’ And as we treat others, so should we treat the Earth. See World.
Buddhist Perspectives on the Ecocrisis, Klaus Sandell,1987.