Interdependence: A powerful teaching

image of flowers growing from ground as example of interdependence
Nadia Colburn // January 31, 2024 // 19 Comments

 I invite you to take a breath! Almost everyone I talk to these days feels the need to slow down, to take a breath. I know I often do.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about interdependenceas a writer and a person, remembering our interconnections keeps me focused on what's important.

A blog post: On Interdependence
(including writing prompts!)

Interdependence

One of the most beautiful and core teachings of Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is interdependence. At a time of imbalance on so many different levels in our world, what would happen if we all could come into greater understanding of interdependence, whether in our personal, business, national, global, or interspecies relationships?

Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings come in large part from his experiences during the wars in Vietnam, where he was a peace activist, working to stop the senseless destruction. The Buddhism that he teaches is always an “engaged buddhism,” rooted in the interconnection of all beings.

Here are some of Thich Nhat Hanh‘s teachings on interbeing:

Image of flower to show interdependence as taught by Thich Nhat Hanh

“There is no permanent entity within us, there is only a stream of being. There is always a lot of input and output. The input and the output happen in every second, and we should learn how to look at life as streams of being, and not as separate entities. This is a very profound teaching of the Buddha. For instance, looking into a flower, you can see that the flower is made of many elements that we can call non-flower elements. When you touch the flower, you touch the cloud. You cannot remove the cloud from the flower, because if you could remove the cloud from the flower, the flower would collapse right away. You don’t have to be a poet in order to see a cloud floating in the flower, but you know very well that without the clouds there would be no rain and no water for the flower to grow. So cloud is part of flower, and if you send the element cloud back to the sky, there will be no flower. Cloud is a non-flower element. And the sunshine…you can touch the sunshine here. If you send back the element sunshine, the flower will vanish. And sunshine is another non-flower element. And earth, and gardener…if you continue, you will see a multitude of non-flower elements in the flower. In fact, a flower is made only with non-flower elements. It does not have a separate self.

A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower has to “inter-be” with everything else that is called non-flower. That is what we call inter-being. You cannot be, you can only inter-be. The word inter-be can reveal more of the reality than the word “to be”. You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else. So the true nature of the flower is the nature of inter-being, the nature of no self. The flower is there, beautiful, fragrant, yes, but the flower is empty of a separate self. To be empty is not a negative note. Nagarjuna, of the second century, said that because of emptiness, everything becomes possible.

So a flower is described as empty. But I like to say it differently. A flower is empty only of a separate self, but a flower is full of everything else. The whole cosmos can be seen, can be identified, can be touched, in one flower. So to say that the flower is empty of a separate self also means that the flower is full of the cosmos. It’s the same thing.

So you are of the same nature as a flower: you are empty of a separate self, but you are full of the cosmos. You are as wonderful as the cosmos, you are a manifestation of the cosmos. So non-self is another guide that Buddha offers us in order for us to successfully practice looking deeply. What does it mean to look deeply? Looking deeply means to look in such a way that the true nature of impermanence and non-self can reveal themselves to you. Looking into yourself, looking into the flower, you can touch the nature of impermanence and the nature of non-self, and if you can touch the nature of impermanence and non-self deeply, you can also touch the nature of nirvana, which is the Third Dharma Seal.” —From Dharma Talk 28th of July 1998

Interdependence: A powerful teaching 1

“For a table to exist we need wood, a carpenter, time, skillfulness, and many other causes. And each of these causes needs other causes to be. The wood needs the forest, the sunshine, the rain, and so on. The carpenter needs his parents, breakfast, fresh air, and so on. And each of those things in turn has to be brought about by other conditions. If we continue to look in this way we’ll see that nothing has been left out. Everything in the cosmos has come together to bring us this table. Looking deeply at the sunshine, the leaves of the tree, and the clouds, we can see the table. The one can be seen in the all, and the all can be seen in the one.” —from The Heart of Buddha’s Teachings)

soap image to show interdependence

I also want to share with you a similar passage from Dr Martin Luther King, Jr; by 1967, Thich Nhat Hanh and King were friends and influencing one another.

“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality. Did you ever stop to think that you can’t leave for your job in the morning without being dependent on most of the world? You get up in the morning and go to the bathroom and reach over for the sponge, and that’s handed to you by a Pacific islander. You reach for a bar of soap, and that’s given to you at the hands of a Frenchman. And then you go into the kitchen to drink your coffee for the morning, and that’s poured into your cup by a South American. And maybe you want tea: that’s poured into your cup by a Chinese. Or maybe you’re desirous of having cocoa for breakfast, and that’s poured into your cup by a West African. And then you reach over for your toast, and that’s given to you at the hands of an English-speaking farmer, not to mention the baker. And before you finish eating breakfast in the morning, you’ve depended on more than half of the world. This is the way our universe is structured, this is its interrelated quality. We aren’t going to have peace on earth until we recognize this basic fact of the interrelated structure of all reality.” —From Martin Luther King, Jr., from Christmas Sermon On Peace, 24 December 1967.

To read more about how Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings have influenced me, go here.

WRITING PROMPTS ON INTERDEPENDENCE

*Look around you: find one object. Where does it come from? How many different elements, places, hands has the object passed through to get to where it is now. Write a piece about the object and the way it came into being.

*Choose another object and do the same thing.

*Write a reflection on the people who have helped you become the person you are today. They can be people you knew in real life or people in the past who helped shape who you are.

* Look ahead to the future. Imagine how one action you take today will have an ongoing (positive) effect. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Please comment below.

  • Awesome post! In a similar way to interbeing, I enjoy reflecting upon the experiences connected to objects I’ve obtained. For instance, I have a small angel statue made from selenite. The memory of my sister and I, browsing at the rock shop where I purchased the statue brings back feelings of joy and pleasant imagery.
    I believe this processes proves that some humans do have an interbe perspective and attitude.

    • Beautiful, Anna! Nice how a rock can come to mean so much in so many different ways, and how when we bring mindful attention we can have such rich experiences. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • In a western culture predominantly embedded in individualism and being independent – these were remarkable readings and perspectives that I find truly refreshing and grounding. We truly are inter-beings or interdependent.

    I wrote about the computer I was typing on – the items/materials it is made of, the different engineers that designed it, the stores that sell it, the salespeople, the help desk, the money to purchase it, the job that provided money, my health and food that helped me make the money, the car that took me to the store, the electricity and internet network that allowed me to read your email and link…

    It is truly amazing to think about it in this way!

    • Yes, Hanna, so amazing to think of all the causes and conditions that bring computers to us–and us to computers. It’s funny, when we think this way, that anyone can think we are really “independent.”

  • The term interconnectedness always catches my eye, ears.
    A personal desired state of being. Thanks for sharing yourself on this topic.

  • Such a feeling of gratitude arises in me to wonder on the creation of everyday objects and living beings. The wonder of the human body functioning well as a separate entity yet comprised of organs, muscles, arteries streaming connecting fluids around, as our largest organ, skin, holds it all together moving through the world, thinking, feeling, doing and resting, living and passing on. All of creation a miracle of ebb and flow, inter being.
    I immediately thought of a printed book; type, paper, binding from wood,ink and thought through the last 700 years-all to express oneself;
    to persuade, entertain, elevate or educate the reader. Nature provided the materials; mankind the craft to expand it. Working with nature is a high state of inter-being!

    • Beautiful! Yes, it’s interesting how contemplating interdependence seems to give rise to gratitude 🙂

  • To inter-be or not to inter-be. That is a question. One to consider in the way you have shared on your blog. Thanks Nadia.

  • I so appreciate this wonderful peace on being inter connected. I spending some time in Atlanta, Georgia and went to see the King Center and it was so inspiring. I ran into some disappointment by not having a meeting with very important Senator, but walking around the King Center and Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthplace was wonderful. I felt hope bigger than me.

  • Just this morning I was going through some old photographs in search of a picture my younger brother had asked me about. I am twelve years his senior and have been tasked, unofficially, with the job of family historian. I did not find the specific photo I was in search of, but oh my goodness, what a road full of memories confronted me. Layer upon layer of family history, in pictures, reaching out with their own unique story to share. Once I had organized my picture boxes, I opened my email to find a message from Nadia explaining interdependence. Well, that got me thinking for sure. I realized that family is the essences of interdependence, at least in my humble opinion. The size of the family matters not, the connections are there. Good, bad or ugly. We are intertwined like the vines growing up the side of old Mrs. Sloans house. I swear they will swallow that house up in time if not nurtured. Vines are a remarkable example of interdependence. One depends on the other to climb, thrive and survive. Families use the same process – on one hand we want our independence to feel accomplished and necessary, and yet in many cases we continue to reach back to assure ourselves that our support is still within reach. Not to say that is a negative gesture, just a statement of clarity on my personal view. From the beginning of time, we have depended on life forces to maintain our very existence. It is all very miraculous how all this works together.

    • What a beautiful reflection! Yes–we do want our independence, don’t we, and that is also important. And we’re all connected <3 Thank you for your reflections 🙂

  • When I think of interdependence, I think of letting go of ego. It doesn’t always serve us to be separate from others because of a thought that our ego creates. It feels so much better to be inclusive and connected to others where ideas can be exchanged, discovery and dialogue opens us up to new ways of thinking. Everyone is a winner and the world becomes more supportive and kind – a deeper understanding that we are stronger together.

  • When I remember, as I sit down to a meal I try to send thanks to all the people who helped get the food to my table. The list can get to be very long, but what comes up for me is an abundance of gratitude and yes, an appreciation of our human interdependence as well as the forces of nature. Thank you for the blog and prompts!

  • I liked the hands poem. We rarely think of them as helpers because we don’t ask them. They’re naturally part of our particular interdependent world. Like the flower needs sunshine, we need our beautiful hands. There would be not be the me I was born to be without them.

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