Student Reflections

Touch the Earth: Self-Awareness & the Willingness to Change

Introduction to the Touch the Earth Series

This ongoing series explores environmental stewardship as part of the Dharmic path. It aspires to encourage others to deepen their practice by engaging in the world with deeper awareness and conscious conduct. It will explore creative and practical ways to adopt environmental practices as compassion practice by drawing on familiar Buddhist teachings and offering reflective and hands-on exercises for you and your families to explore.

1. Self-Awareness & the Willingness to Change

As a bee gathers nectar
And moves on without harming
The flower, its color, or its fragrance,
Just so should a sage walk through a village.

Do not consider the faults of others
Or what they have or haven’t done.

Consider rather
What you yourself have or haven’t done.

The Dhammapada: A New Translation of the Buddhist Classic with Annotations. Gil Fronsdal, trs. (Boston: Shambhala, 2005) (4:49-50), 13.

In these verses from the Dhammapada, the Buddha encourages us to proceed gently on the path with ahimsa  (nonharming), to inquire inwardly regarding one’s own conduct. If we were like a bee, the world would be a different place; likely it would be a calm and more balanced place. But most of us are not like a bee, and thus the earth is clouded by complex environmental issues that are all part of the “wicked problem of climate change.”1Climate Change: A Wicked Problem These issues have bearing on all life—ecology, biodiversity—and affect human infrastructure and social systems, bringing about such suffering as geographical displacement, poverty, war, hunger, illness, and psychological trauma.2For more information on the wide spread effects of climate change visit the following links: Climate Change Impacts, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Climate Change and Health, World Health Organization, Climate Change is Threatening Mental Health, American Psychology Association, Environmental Refugees. National Geographic educational resource, and The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change

As we witness the daily news—or perhaps first-hand catastrophes like hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, drought, homelessness—we are met with an opportunity to either react … or respond. 

Touch the Earth

As Buddha sat before Mara and his demon army, just prior to his Enlightenment beneath the Bodhi Tree, he too faced a great darkness of mind.

Mara in desperation challenged the bodhisattva again, asking him by what right he dared to occupy the seat that belonged to himself. He launched a whirlwind at Gautama…a raging deluge, then blinding sheets of fire. The bodhisattva remained untouched and profoundly composed. Then he answered Mara’s question. He declared that he had earned the right to that sacred seat through the merit of countless lives of practicing generosity and the rest of the ten transcendental virtues.

Mara roared with laughter . . . ” What witnesses do you have?” he lashed out.

The bodhisattva reached out and touched the earth with his fingertips. “The earth is my witness,” he said. Then from very deep down came an immense booming and rumbling from the shaking of the very essence of the earth element itself. All the earth shook and its thundering drowned out the terrified cries of Mara’s minions.

Sherab Chödzin Kohn, A Life of the Buddha, (Boston: Shambhala, 2009), 31.

When Buddha touches the earth gently with enlightened intention and calm confidence, he demonstrates a fundamental shift in his practice. He applies awareness in a renewed way, one that rejoices in inherent possibility and interconnectedness of all things, and affirms his aspiration to free the world of suffering. In this moment of awakening, he acknowledges a truth rooted in an awareness of change, impermanence, suffering, interdependence and ultimately compassion.

Buddha Shakyamuni, 16th century. Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum

When we choose to be on the path we also choose to work with awareness of change (impermanence and interdependence). For those of us who feel deeply about environmental issues and the harrowing promise of climate change, intense complex emotions can be testament to our Interdependence. How we train our minds in the presence of (impermanent) complex emotions, will determine how much we are able to ameliorate individual and global pain of specific environmental issues and climate change as a whole. If we train well, and cultivate a profound depth of awareness, we spontaneously find within our fertile hearts, the deep taproot of compassion.

A key point to remember is that climate change is just that: change. This is not to diminish or underplay its immensity. It has profound ramifications for all beings and life on earth in complex and unpredictable ways. However, it is at its heart change, and we can work with it as we work with any type of change, with compassion and wisdom.

Now imagine for a moment you are Buddha beneath the bodhi tree. Mara and his demon army take the form of climate change, natural disasters, and all the earth’s environmental problems. What would you do? If you draw upon Buddha’s story, and have even a small amount of faith in his teachings, you—the imagined Buddha—would likely touch the earth. 

When we touch the earth, gently, what does this look like in our practice, our daily life?

Willingness to Change

In the context of this series, “touching the earth” signifies the practice of an environmental steward on the path. Such a steward maintains an ahimsa mindset and practice of being present with interdependence and impermanence in the world with compassionate heart and hands. While touching the earth can happen in infinite ways, subtle and overt, inherent in this gentle act is ever deepening and refining our awareness and a constant willingness to change—our beliefs, perspective, our relationship to others, the world and our behaviors—from the inside out. This practice is in service to the greater good, for the earth and all beings. 

This requires working directly with our minds and discovering a special quality of space in which we are mindfully aware of the moment and we pause before reacting. Even if we do react, and we notice it later, that moment of disappointment (over what we thought, said, did) can become a momentous pivot point in our practice. Phakchok Rinpoche often reminds us that “a moment of self-judgment inspires in us a willingness to change”3Phakchok Rinpoche, Dharma-stream: The 8-Fold Path of Supreme Mind Training, Teaching #5. and that “we need to notice what kind of behavior we have. We don’t need self-judgment, but we do need self-awareness.”4Phakchok Rinpoche, In the Footsteps of the Bodhisattvas, (Boston: Shambhala, 2020), 49.

In his teaching, Compassion in Action, he emphasizes the import of understanding your own problems before you try to make change in the world. He explains that “when you understand yourself more, your judgment becomes less.” When working with complex world issues (like climate change), “you first need to develop yourself,” to “cultivate equanimity within oneself.” As we cultivate self-awareness, we can reduce negative emotions and then compassion for others naturally arises: “less judgment, boundless compassion.” As we cultivate self-awareness, we can also reduce negative behaviors which impact our use of resources that contribute to climate change. In doing so we can practice compassion through environmentally conscious choices.

Part of cultivating self-awareness and equanimity within oneself involves attention to one’s basic health and well-being. This teaching appears in an often-understated detail of Buddha’s Enlightenment. In the six years prior to his Enlightenment, Buddha’s spiritual seeking was that of wandering ascetic, engaging in a life of self-denial, renunciation, and practices of harsh means. In the days just before his Enlightenment he makes a momentous choice of ahimsa towards himself: he takes food, he gets sleep, he bathes and regains his strength. By supporting his strong meditation practice with a healthier physical body, he is able to respond to Mara in a way that realizes his Buddhahood. This is a poignant reminder to practitioners to care for their health as a way of caring for their minds.

In a recent online retreat, Tsoknyi Rinpoche spoke briefly on the subject of practicing with climate change, and all the afflictive feelings that arise with it.  First, he explained that the situation feels so complex because in our experience of climate change there are two things at play: our own personal karma and experience, and communal karma and experience. It is important that we stay healthy and positive before exploring meaningful ways to help; we are wise to engage in the “dance” between inner simplicity and outward complexity. Secondly, as we each “are part of the turmoil,” there is great import in making personal change from the inside out to help the situation. As part of making personal change, we can practice compassion for both ourselves and the larger world. As we develop compassion, it can evolve past an ego-based compassion into one that is unbounded and infused with unconditional love and pure motivation. He reassures us that, “if we have a large compassionate aim, we are tireless because beings and the environment are endless.” Lastly, he explained that our efforts toward personal change, and outward compassion, are deeply supported by our clear aspirations, and recitation of aspirational prayers.

These contemporary teachings of Phakchok Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche echo the Buddha’s narrative of the bee. They also resonate with my own experience as an environmental steward on the path. Within our awareness we can discover a dynamic interplay between our own personal change and the work we do in service to others. As we make personal change, we intuitively act with compassion in the world.

Being the Change

While many experiences contributed to my becoming an environmental steward, I formally devoted myself to it as a spiritual practice when I was 36 years old. I was in the beginning stages of my Ngöndro practice when I calculated my carbon footprint for the first time. I don’t remember what my specific carbon footprint was, but I do remember feeling shock and shame (self-judgment?). I began working closely with environmental themes in my formal practice and daily life. It took me “only” seven years to complete my first Ngöndro; it took me sixteen years to approach the “Pureland of Carbon Neutrality.” In the beginning, both practices felt brutally difficult. Over the years as I approached each respective accomplishment, I felt more resolve, ease, quiet and joy. Compassion would arise spontaneously in small everyday moments.

CO2 Emissions by Nation: Visualization by Ewa Tuteja

While climate change is a global issue, I find engaging with it in one’s practice to be deeply private and individual. There is great disparity between the living standards of individuals, communities, countries and continents. Carbon footprint statistics reflect this in very clear ways. Everyone’s disposition, life situation (and karma) is unique, and while there are obvious global responses to climate change, the inner change we each must make will be unique. If your basic needs are not met—if you navigate food and water scarcity, itinerant living, ill health, etc.—standard environmental practices will be in the background as you struggle to survive. Your first steps will be to practice patience and perseverance and seek help to fulfill your basic needs. For those whose basic needs are met, your environmental practice can be in the foreground and may take the form of renunciation and generosity. 

Regardless of your situation, all environmental stewards on the path will contemplate their role (their carbon footprint) in climate change, and respond with compassion in accordance with their best motivation. They will aspire to walk like a sage gently on the earth, practicing self-awareness with each step.

Reflective Exercises

1. Learn your part in climate change by reflecting on your carbon footprint:

  • Calculate your carbon footprint with at least two online calculators, such as  Global Footprint Network or carbonfootprint.com. (See others here). (At present, no carbon foot calculator is comprehensive, so it is helpful to have at least two calculations for perspective).
  • Observe what sectors of consumption are highest for you and your family.
  • Reflect on what surprises you, what emotions arise. If you have a formal sitting practice work with these emotions, or your carbon footprint statistics, as objects of meditation in your shamatha or vipassana practices. Contemplate on how you might change—inwardly and outwardly—in response to what you’ve learned.
  • Participate in a simple environmental act with greater awareness. For example, as you recycle, reduce food waste, or bike/walk (instead of drive) be present with how that relates to the larger cycle of consumption.

2. For children:

  • Enjoy the book Sometimes Rain. (There are read aloud versions on YouTube). Explore the themes of impermanence in weather, and the ability to feel at home no matter where you are, or what is happening.

About the Author

Kirstin Alana Baum is a trained artist and craftsperson with graduate studies in religious ethics, phenomenology and narrative theory.

She began learning yoga as a college student in 1989, and her practice evolved into deeper mind-training in 1999 when she began working intimately with the lojong teachings. She took refuge with her first teacher in the Dudjom Lineage in 2004, and studied closely with him for a decade. His pith teachings gifted her with a spacious map and precision compass to guide her well on the path. In recent years she has deeply benefited from studies with generous teachers in both the Nyingma and Kagyu Lineages. She has been a grateful student of Phakchok Rinpoche since 2015.

Over the past two decades she has engaged in global environmental education through Cornell University’s Civic Ecology Lab and Ecosattva Training, and participated in citizen environmental programs such as eBird.org, Project GREEN and Valley Stewardship Network. She became a Land Ethic Leader with the Aldo Leopold Foundation in 2014.

She has been in semi-retreat since 2012 and maintains daily practices in the Dudjom and Chokgyur Lingpa traditions. In 2013, she became steward to over eight acres of prairie and woodland in the Mississippi River watershed in rural SW Wisconsin, USA. Restoring the land has become an integral part of her spiritual practice.

To learn more about her and her creative work visit www.tsondu.com.

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Suggested Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991), vol. 1, pages 468–474.

Ngawang Zangpo, Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002.

Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, trans. Richard Barron (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 2005), pages 41–48.

Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1973

Padmasambhava & Jamgön Kongtrul, The Light of Wisdom, trans. by Erik Pema Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1986-1999), pages 43-47 & Appendix 5.

Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava, Shang Shung Edizioni, 2005

Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala, 1996.

Yeshe Tsogyal, Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, translated by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays (Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1978, republished 2008).

Yeshe Tsogyal, Lotus Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004.

‘The Life of Guru Padmasambhava’ in A Great Treasure of Blessings, The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2004.