Interdependence: A Personal Perspective


By Jampa Mackenzie Stewart

My first experience of interdependence was not in a Buddhist temple, nor at the feet of a Lama or Zen master, nor was it in a mountain cave. It happened quite unexpectedly when I was in seventh grade science class. Our teacher had just begun introducing us to earth science and the new subject of ecology. He showed us some charts that depicted plants and plankton releasing oxygen that serves an essential role in survival for humans and animals, and in turn illustrated animals and humans producing carbon dioxide as food for plants. There were lots of circles and arrows, and more pictures of sunlight and water and rain and earth, all interacting with each other. This instantly cracked open up a part of me, a part that felt deep and primal, and I became filled with a quiet vast wave of awe and wonder, of meaning and belonging, as if some great universal secret had just been revealed to us about the meaning of our existence and of the interconnected web of life. I experienced a feeling of grace, of love, of belonging, of oneness.

I naturally expected that from that day forward in the course of our science studies, more and more of these wondrous revelations would be explored and opened to us, and that my life would grow richer in meaning as a result. But sadly, in subsequent classes, nothing further was mentioned of our interconnectedness, and eventually this epiphany faded and disappeared into the deep forgotten recesses of my memory.

It wasn’t until twenty years later that I received a reaffirmation of this vision. In the interim I had become a Zen Buddhist in the Japanese tradition, studying and practicing at the Zen Center of Rochester, New York under Roshi Philip Kapleau. Outside our zendo meditation hall was a wood block, inscribed with the words:

Life and death are serious business.
All things pass quickly away.
Wake up! Wake up!
Don’t waste a moment!

Indeed, my Zen practice was painfully serious. I wasn’t enlightened yet. I had Buddha nature, yet I wasn’t awake to it. Death could occur anytime, and if I didn’t quickly attain satori, I was more or less screwed when I died. Any pursuit other than meditation was a waste of precious life: lovers, friends, entertainment were all diversions. I felt compressed and unhappy.

It happened that during one extraordinary week in 1983, during the height of the Cold War, Roshi Kapleau and the Zen Center were hosting Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh for a series of teachings. At the same time, Pulitzer Prize winning poet and Zen teacher Gary Snyder was also in town giving a series of lectures at a local college, which I attended with great interest and delight. At the end of that week, the Zen Center arranged to have all three of them together present an evening of talks and panel discussion at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester called, “Affirming Non-Violence in a Violent World.”

The church was filled to capacity. When the three teachers entered from the back, they approached the stage silently in slow serene walking meditation, with Thich Nhat Hanh leading. The peacefulness and gentleness of their demeanor was palpable, like “the thundering silence of Vimalakirti.” For whatever reason, until that moment I had never before considered how my personal peacefulness could be a part of the Peace Movement. Yet as they walked together in silence, the approach of these three masters spoke volumes. Their message was clear: the true essence of the peace movement is to embody peace – to be peaceful oneself.

Thich Nhat Hanh was invited to speak first. He began by saying, “You should ask yourself, ‘What does my daily life have to do with my government?’” He went on with his talk from there, but I was somewhat distracted and taken aback by that question. After all, these were the Reagan years! The U.S. and the Soviet Union were both sabre rattling while sitting with fingers nervously poised on the red button of the nuclear trigger, ready to bomb the whole earth and all that lived upon it back to the Stone Age. I was against almost everything that Reagan stood for. I felt despair and powerlessness to do anything significant to change the world situation. I now had a one year old son, and I felt such sadness about the violent world I had brought him into.

When it came time for questions, I was the first to raise my hand and be called on. I said to Thich Nhat Hanh, “You told us to ask ourselves what does our daily life have to do with our government. Well, I don’t feel that my daily life has ANYTHING to do with my government. Our president and his administration are on a course of action that I totally disagree with. They seem bent on pushing the world into the horror of nuclear war. I am totally against their course of action. I don’t see how my daily life has anything to do with my government.”

Thich Nhat Hanh responded, “If your daily life has nothing to do with your government, then what does? He paused for a poignant moment, and then continued. “We are all interconnected. Everything is interdependent. When you look at a table, you should be able to see the tree that was cut down to make the table. If you can see the tree, you should be able to see the cloud that brought the rain to water the tree, the sun that brought its light so that the tree could feed itself and grow, the earth that supported the tree. You can also see the person who cut down the tree, the driver who brought the tree to the mill, and the carpenter who designed and built the table. So what we call a table is full of non-table elements.”

As he calmly spoke these words, my heart, compressed by years of isolation and frustration in my pursuit of enlightenment, suddenly just exploded open into a vast feeling of love and oneness. Deep within I saw that I had known this interconnectedness of all life all along, but had denied its import until this moment. In contrast to holding to a cold void as the ultimate truth of Buddhism, this affirmation was teeming with life, with belonging and with great warmth.

It was then that I became Nhat Hanh’s student. Over the following years I attended a local group led by two of his close students, and four years later was ordained into the Order of Interbeing by Thay (meaning teacher, as his students called him). I became close with him and attended numerous retreats with him, and my realization of interdependence continued to deepen under his wise and kind teaching and guidance.


Elsewhere, Thay has said,

“There is no phenomenon in the universe that does not intimately concern us, from a pebble resting at the bottom of the ocean, to the movement of a galaxy millions of light years away. Walt Whitman said, ‘I believe a blade of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars….’ These words are not philosophy. They come from the depths of his soul. He also said, ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ This might be called a meditation on ‘interfacing endlessly interwoven.’

“All phenomena are interdependent. When we think of a speck of dust, a flower, or a human being, our thinking cannot break loose from the idea of unity, of one, of calculation. We see a line drawn between one and many, one and not one. But if we truly realize the interdependent nature of the dust, the flower, and the human being, we see that unity cannot exist without diversity. Unity and diversity interpenetrate each other freely. Unity is diversity, and diversity is unity. This is the principle of interbeing.
“…. If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.

“Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter” with the verb “to be”, we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud, we cannot have paper, so we can say that the cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.

“If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.”


As Thay puts it, “We inter-are.”

In an article published in Lion’s Roar, Thay describes the relationships between the fundamental teachings of Buddhism and interdependence:

“All authentic practices of the Buddha carry within them three essential teachings called the Dharma Seals. These three teachings of the Buddha are: impermanence, no self and nirvana. Just as all-important legal documents have the mark or signature of a witness, all genuine practices of the Buddha bear the mark of these three teachings.

“If we look into the first Dharma Seal, impermanence, we see that it doesn’t just mean that everything changes. By looking into the nature of things, we can see that nothing remains the same for even two consecutive moments. Because nothing remains unchanged from moment to moment it therefore has no fixed identity or a permanent self. So in the teaching of impermanence we always see the lack of an unchanging self.

“We call this “no self,” the second Dharma Seal. It is because things are always transforming and have no self that freedom is possible.

“The third Dharma Seal is nirvana. This means solidity and freedom, freedom from all ideas and notions. The word “nirvana” literally means “the extinction of all concepts.” Looking deeply into impermanence leads to the discovery of no self. The discovery of no self leads to nirvana. Nirvana is the Kingdom of God.=

“…. Impermanence should also be understood in the light of inter-being. Because all things inter-are, they are constantly influencing each other. It is said a butterfly’s wings flapping on one side of the planet can affect the weather on the other side. Things cannot stay the same because they are influenced by everything else, everything that is not itself.”

In most schools of Buddhism, interdependence is introduced in the context of pratītyasamutpāda, interdependent origination, to explain the stages of karma/causality, of how we arrive at confusion and suffering in samsara, and how we might unravel these karmic causes and conditions to end our suffering. This is elaborated as the twelve nidanas, the twelve links of interdependent origination:

  1. Avidyā (Ignorance)
  2. Saṃskāra (Action, constructing activities)
  3. Vijñāna (Consciousness)
  4. Nama-rupa (Name and form)
  5. Six sense bases
  6. Contact
  7. Sensation
  8. Craving
  9. Attachment
  10. Becoming
  11. Birth
  12. Aging, decay and death

However, Thay presents interbeing in a positive light, in showing us how to transcend the limited view of an independent inherently existing separate self to see the oneness and interconnectedness of all existence and appearances.

Aside from Thay, Joanna Macy was my next teacher who focused on the vital importance of interdependence in our personal and social lives. In a training called, “Despair and Empowerment in the Nuclear Age”, she introduced us to the ancient concept of “Indra’s Net.” The idea of Indra’s Net, thoroughly unpacked in the beautiful Flower Garland Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism (Avatamsaka Sutra, Huayan Sutra), presents an elaborate and poetic perspective of our universe as a hologram, of each part linked to every other part and of each part also containing every other part. So in this way of seeing, the view of non-self could be described as an constantly changing interconnected whole.


His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, writes of the importance of interdependence in understanding the Buddhist teachings on emptiness:

“How do you relate to this infinite ground of possibility that your life is built on? How can you create a meaningful life within whatever shifting circumstances you find yourself?

“Buddhist thought devotes a great deal of attention to these questions. The view that life holds infinite possibility is explored using the concepts of “interdependence” and “emptiness.” When you first hear the term “emptiness,” you might think this suggests nothingness or a void, but actually “emptiness” here should remind us that nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything is embedded within a context—a complex set of circumstances. Those contexts themselves are endlessly shifting. When we say that things are “empty,” we mean they lack any independent existence outside of those changing contexts. Because everything and everyone is “empty” in this sense, they are capable of endless adaptation. We ourselves have the basic flexibility to adapt to anything, and to become anything.

“Because of this, we should not mistake emptiness for nothingness. On the contrary, emptiness is full of potency. Understood correctly, emptiness inspires optimism, rather than pessimism, because it reminds us of the boundless range of possibilities of who we can become and how we can live.”

We inter-are. Where does our so-called self end and the universe begin? We depend upon the earth to stand, on plants and animals for food and clothing, on water to drink, on our parents and ancestors for our body, for language and for knowledge, on the sun for light and warmth, on plankton and trees for oxygen. The line between self and other blurs and disappears as we stop and look deeply into who we truly are, and is replaced by a profound sense of interconnectedness and love for all things and all beings.