The word ‘sacred’ has two related dimensions. One dimension of something sacred is that it connected to God, or whatever is the object of religious devotion, reflection, and faith. The second related dimension is that something sacred is worthy of veneration.
And this second dimension is where we get into trouble when we talk about the sacredness of Earth. Because some religions, and I think it fair to say both Buddhism and Islam are of this sort, have strong suspicions about the danger that veneration will turn into worship, and thence into either idolatry or ignorance of the true nature of reality.
On the other hand both religions have taught us that the Earth can be a primal source of wisdom and connection with reality in its transcendent and fully immanent dimensions. In its first dimension of sacredness the earth really can be our mother, or at least give birth to a nascent grasp of the Divine.
At one level there is an obvious connection between Buddhist explorations of non-difference and the Sufi Islamic tradition of wahdat al wujud, the unity of existence. Yet even the universally accepted Islamic concept that maintains that each event and part of nature is an ayat, a revelation of God’s reality and nature can help us. As can the long standing Mahayana tradition of the inter-connectedness of all beings and the concern for their suffering. For both religions each part of our world cannot be separated from the whole, and the whole cannot be separated from transcendent reality. Nor can we be separated from the ethical demands placed on humans to both understand the truth it reveals, and the ethical demand that it be protected from and freed from harm.
This is particularly necessary now. We live in an age in which the sacredness of earth is precisely what is denied by scientific and materialistic philosophies that regard the natural world as nothing more than a repository of resources to be used by humans, as by other creatures, for their own benefit.
Such an exploitation of resources may be hedged in by concepts of responsibility and sustainability. But that is a far cry from valuing the earth as a source of wisdom drawing us into compassion and thus a deeper and more fulfilling understanding of our human selves.
When earth is less than sacred, we become less than human – a truth I believe both Islam and Buddhism, as I have listened to their teachings, affirm. When we fully acknowledge the sacredness of the earth we also become aware of our particularly human task as khalifa, stewards, or as those beings living in that unique realm where we have both the teaching of the Buddha and the capacity for taking moral responsibility for other creatures.
And perhaps, although Muslims and Buddhists, and Christians like myself will construct our religion differently we can work together. For we all agree that our fellow humans will be more at peace, more liberated from their anxieties and fear, if they will awaken to reality. Then they will walk through a world where every blade of grass and every budding flower speaks of God, and where every whisper of the wind or howl of the wolf cries out for our compassion and care.
Perhaps then we could become such creatures as would ourselves become an sign of God’s presence in this world, of the Dharma realized, or in my own native language, the children of God.