The concept of interdependence has become so standard in contemporary Buddhism that it may come as a surprise to hear that it is not a part of early Buddhism. The teaching of dependent origination, which is the cornerstone of all Buddhist teachings on causality, describes not a general principle of interdependence, but specific factors relating to other specific factors. This principle is known as “specific conditionality” (idapaccayatā), which is summed up in the early Suttas: “When this is, that is.”
Teachings on interdependence, rather, derive from certain tendencies in such Mahāyāna texts as the Avataṁsaka Sūtra, and were applied in the modern era to environmental concerns, and in particular, to climate change.
Or at least, that’s what a cursory survey might suggest. But the situation, as so often, is not as simple as that.
It is certainly true that the teaching of dependent origination, in its classic series of twelve links, cannot be reduced to the idea of interdependence. It has a different purpose: to spell out how suffering arises, and how it comes to an end. It thus deals not with causality in the abstract, but with a particular application of causal principles. Nevertheless, the idea of interdependence does play a role, as certain factors are explicitly said to be mutually interdependent. “Consciousness” and “name & form” are said to give rise to each other. This kind of relation was, in the Abhidhamma, given the technical name aññamaññapaccaya, “mutuality condition”.
While the scope of this kind of condition as depicted in the early texts is limited, it takes only a little imagination to see how many, if not all, of the factors of dependent origination are, in fact, mutually dependent. Interdependence, then, is not a synonym of dependent origination, but it is a conception of causality that is clearly relevant in understanding it.
One should not think that the classic series of twelve factors is the only example of casual dependency taught in the early Suttas. On the contrary, the Buddha employs similar teachings constantly, in all kinds of situations, whether in the progress of meditation or the reasons for social unrest; in the psychological process of cognition or the causes for anger.
And sometime he applied these principles to the environment, specifically to changes in the climate caused by human activity. In DN 27 Aggañña Sutta, the evolution of the planet, the ecosystem, human beings, and human society, are all seen as interdependent. Human choices affect the environment and the environment affects human choices.
One of the insights of the Avataṁsaka Sūtra is that each phenomenon, each occurrence of reality, reflects all others. No matter how deeply you go, how close you look, the smallest thing contains the same essence as the cosmos. The image of “Indra’s Net” captures this idea unforgettably: a vast net of diamonds, with each reflecting all the others. This is similar to the scientific concept of universality; by observing how an apple falls, Newton was able to understand the movements of the stars.
Again we find that, while the principle is not expressed so directly in the early Suttas, similar ideas can be discerned. Insight into a single phenomenon reveals its nature as impermanent, suffering, and not-self. Insight into the present reveals the nature of the past and the future. Indeed, the power of wisdom is the ability to infer from a limited range of information to general and universally applicable conclusions.
It is asking too much to expect teachings on causality to supply their own ought. Things cause other things, that’s just how it is. The ought is supplied from what we want. If we want to escape from suffering, we ought to let go of the ignorance that powers dependent origination. If we want to live on a habitable planet, then we ought to understand the way human activity interacts with the natural environment.
Interdependence, like all forms of causality, is neither good nor bad. Again, in this it is like science. Gravity is neither good nor bad, it just is. It keeps the earth spinning round the sun, and that is good, because we like the sun. It also makes it hurt if we trip over, and that’s bad because we don’t like pain.
For many people, it is a revelation to understand that human life is interdependent with the environment. We have become so cut off, so alienated from the natural world that it never occurs to us that we are a part of it. Even to use the word “environment” is misleading, for in truth we are just a part of the ecosystem. The very idea of the “environment” is already anthropocentric.
This is not just a philosophical idea. For those of us with a deep sense of concern and responsibility to care for our planet, there is an emotional relation that cannot be reduced to words. When we feel a sense of connection, it opens us up to profound sense of mystic union.
On a recent retreat I taught in central Australia, we would spend each evening talking Dhamma and meditating together. If you have ever been lucky enough to visit our beautiful country, you will know that at night the sky is so clear and full of stars. In the middle of the desert, a thousand kilometers from the nearest city, the stars stand out even more brilliantly. But still, even knowing this, I was still struck with awe one night. I was walking back to my swag after the talk; I was sleeping on a dry creek bed some distance from the camp. As I walked, I happened to glance up. It was a clear, moonless night, so bright that there was no need to even think about a flashlight. But when I saw the stars, my jaw literally dropped open and I staggered, nearly falling over. It was not like the “milky way”, it was like a three-dimensional cathedral of glorious multi-colored lights.
What does this “mean”? What it meant to me was one thing. For the local indigenous people, the stars meant something else entirely. Their stories tell of the adventures of the spirit-animals of the Dreaming. These are not just abstract records, but are reflected in the rocks, the creeks, the sand and sky all around. They are literally living inside the story. And it is also reflected in the stars, telling about what is right and what is wrong, where there is food and where there is death. Theirs is a depth of interdependence that we have long lost. This is not something that can be assumed, or just rationally inferred. It must be won by long years of experience.
By seeing their story as the land’s story, their life as the land’s life, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia lived for 50,000 years, slowly cultivating the land as a bountiful garden. They survived even the harshest deserts and adapted to ever-changing situations. For, though we might think of their ancient culture as timeless and unchanging, that is not how they see it. On the contrary, when I asked the Nyoongar elder Noel Nannup about the essence of Aboriginal philosophy, he answered with a single word: impermanence.
The land of which we are a part is changing as it ever has. Stories do not depict a stasis, but a series, a flow of events, one influencing the next, yet the whole coming around again as a new instance of the old pattern. A little bit, in fact, like dependent origination.
Here’s a lovely clip with Noel Nannup on aboriginal spirituality.