This is 4th of July, and today all of America celebrates Independence Day. I have been thinking about the idea of independence, juxtaposed with the notion of interdependence. I wanted to explore the difference between them, and to reflect upon the spiritual significance of interdependence.
Now, I don’t want to minimize the importance of independence, and the significance of this day in our nation’s history. In the social and political realm, and in the world of economics, independence is essential to the quality of life. Autonomy is a basic human need.
We need to be able to make our own choices about how we live our lives, on the personal level as well as how we govern ourselves as a nation. I’m very grateful that we are no longer a colony owned by another nation. I’m grateful for my personal independence, that I can choose what kind of work I do, the people I associate with, who I marry, my freedom of movement, of speech, of religion.
The concept of independence is inextricably linked with social equality and freedom. The most famous statement from the Declaration of Independence has been called "one of the best-known sentences in the English language" and "the most potent and consequential words in American history:"
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men (people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
So, on a socioeconomic and political level, independence is an essential key to our well being, to the “pursuit of happiness.”
In the spiritual realm, however, independence is an illusion. To the Buddhist mind, for example, the concept of independence doesn’t even exist. I will explore that in a moment.
I first want to share the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from a sermon he gave on Christmas day in 1967:
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.
When there is this, that is.
With the arising of this, that arises.
When this is not, neither is that.
With the cessation of this, that ceases.
So what does all that mean? It means that everything relies on everything else in order to manifest.
When we look at a wooden table, we think that the origination, or the cause, of the table is the carpenter who made it. Maybe we also think of the tree that is the source of the wood. But we often think very simplistically about the causes of things. The causes of the table are actually infinite.
If we look more deeply, we can see that there had to be certain conditions that came together, all in perfect timing, in order for the table to manifest: there had to be nails, screws, certain tools, wood, time and space.
Okay, that may be obvious.
But there also had to be the carpenter’s mother and father, and their parents and grandparents, spanning back countless generations to the beginning of time. There had to be food grown to nourish him (or her). There had to be medicine, shelter, clothing, over many years in order to sustain the life of the carpenter. There had to be someone to train him in his work—and for each person who trained him, who fed him, who supplied the materials, there also needed to be all those things, all that support, and all those infinite generations of ancestors.
So, the entire universe had to come together to produce this simple table.
When we look at a flower we see the same thing. The gardener is only one of the causes. There must be the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the rain, the compost, the seed, and many, many other conditions. If you look deeply, you will see that the whole cosmos came together to help the flower to manifest.
If we continue to look deeply, we see that a cause is at the same time an effect. The gardener is one of the causes that has helped to manifest the flower, but the gardener is also an effect. She has manifested because of other causes: ancestors, father, mother, teacher, job, society, food, medicine and shelter. Just like the carpenter, the gardener is both a cause and an effect.
This is true for everything—every phenomenon in the universe. There is nothing that we can call “pure cause”—every cause is at the same time an effect.
So the crux of this teaching is that nothing can exist by itself alone. It has to depend on every other thing. This is what Buddhist Master Thich Nhat Hanh calls interbeing. There is no being—there is only interbeing.
When we look at the flower, we can see that the flower is made of non-flower elements: Sun, rain, soil, insects and animals that are part of the ecosystem, etc. We can describe the flower as being full of everything—there is nothing that is not present in the flower. If we were to remove one element from this interconnected web of causality, the flower would not manifest--it would not exist. So we can say that the flower inter-is with everything else.
So how does this relate to us and how we live in the world?
Everything we do ripples outward in all directions, sometimes further than we can ever imagine.
Everything we do impinges on all beings. What we buy, the choices we make as consumers, what we throw away and how we dispose of the things we use…The way we parent our children, the way we use speech, how well we listen to one another.
Native American Spirituality teaches us to ask ourselves: Are we thinking about the effect of our choices and actions on those who will inhabit the planet seven generations from now? Since everything we do has an impact, either positive or negative, how does that call us to be more conscious in everything we do?
These teachings offers us a vision of life or an understanding in which we see the way everything is interconnected—that there is nothing separate, nothing stands alone.
We don't have to invent or construct our connections. They already exist. We already inseparably belong to each other, for this is the nature of life.
A DECLARATION OF INTERDEPENDENCE
Among All Beings
We hold these truths to be self-evident:
· That all life is interconnected, and endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights and responsibilities,
· That among these are presence, compassion, and the pursuit of happiness.That to secure these rights and responsibilities,
· We hear the sound of the living universe in our ears, and add our voices to the song,
· We live every moment with awareness of the purity and power of existence.And for the support of this Declaration, we pledge to each other our love and our breath,
· For the freedom of the one is the freedom of the all, and the pain of the one is the pain of the all;
· The breath of the one is the breath of the all, and the breath of the all is the breath of God.