The Buddha touched the earth with his right hand the moment before he was enlightened, but he continued to touch the earth with his two feet for the rest of his days. When we typically imagine the Buddha, we picture a sedentary figure seated in contemplation, but in the immediate aftermath of the Buddha’s life and death, the icon that represented him wasn’t a seated person but the image of a human footprint.
Picturing the Buddha as a walking rather than a sitting man is suggestive on many levels. Picturing the Buddha as a walking man reminds us that Buddhism isn’t primarily an idea; it’s a practice. What you believe isn’t as important as how you live: do you walk the walk? As an awakened man, the Buddha was fully engaged in the world: he wasn’t as unmoving and aloof as his statues would suggest. If you want to follow the Buddha’s teachings, you needn’t pay lip service to anything he said; instead, follow in the footsteps of what he did.
It’s significant that the cornerstone summation of the Buddha’s teaching is known as the Eightfold Path. A path is something you have to walk: a path is useless if you don’t use it. The Eightfold Path tells you how to live an enlightened life if you are willing to take the steps to get there: looking at or merely thinking about the path will get you nowhere. You have to put one proverbial foot in front of the other if you want the Eightfold Path to be efficacious.
Walking demands balance: if you are lopsided or top-heavy, laden down with worries and obsessions, you won’t be able to walk well…but the very act of walking will help you find balance, your wobbly steps gradually becoming more stable and assured. The Eightfold Path is often represented by the eight spokes of the Dharma wheel, each spoke balanced in turn. A one- or two-spoke wheel won’t get you very far, so you need to walk the fine line between excess and abstention: a just-right state the Buddha called the Middle Way. It is by walking the way of the eightfold path that you find your own inner balance.
The Buddha’s footprint is evocative of many things. A footprint is grounded, and it is also balanced. A footprint marks a journey, and it marks the incremental steps from “here” to “there”: a journey of a thousand miles, the saying goes, begins with a single step. People who fly, float, or otherwise transcend the earthbound world don’t leave footprints: only people who take things one step at a time do. Walking upon two even feet replicates the repetitive coupling of inhalation and exhalation: a two-beat routine that will take you wherever you need to go, and every place in between.
Early depictions of the Buddha don’t feature or fixate on his face, for the Buddha could be Anyman. By the scandal of particularity, the historical Buddha was a particular person born to a particular family in a particular clan in a particular tribe. By the scandal of particularity, the historical Buddha was an Indian prince born to a life of ease…but anyone, anywhere, can wake up. If you fixate on Buddha’s face, you might think he is different from you: a person of a different time, tribe, or personality. But if you contemplate the Buddha’s footprint, you realize this is a path you too can walk. The focus isn’t so much who you are as where you are going, and how.
How might we live our life? This is the question underpinning the Buddha’s teaching, particularly the concept of the Eightfold Path. We do not set out to perfect ourselves through conscious striving for this goal; instead, we ramble and wander, often unaware. But if we persevere in practice, continually bring our mind back to this present moment (the ground under our very own feet), we gradually attain the grace the Buddha himself described. By following in the Buddha’s footsteps, we come into a right and well-aligned relationship with the world.
Footprints mark the spots at which a particular person touched the earth. A celestial or purely cerebral person doesn’t leave footprints; only people who are down and dirty, grounded in the actualities of life do. The Buddha’s footprint reminds us not to be too ethereal or too pure. Like a lotus flower rooted in mud, we lead lives that are silted in the nitty-gritty details of mundane life. Without our feet planted on the earth, we can’t reach, strive, or grow.