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.


Hi venerable,

IIRC there was some discussion about this back in Dharmawheel and nobody could actually find a proper citation for Indra’s net directly from the Avatamsaka source text. It seems like this idea actually dates back to the Chinese Huayen masters. It certainly is not an interpretation of the Avatamsaka which is used in Tibetan Buddhism (according to Acarya Malcom Smith).

Whatever the case, it seems the major difference here is that early Buddhist thought speaks of particular dhammas as being mutually interdependent (such as viññana and nama-rupa), but the Huayan philosophy sees every single dhamma in the multiverse as being equally mutually interdependent with every other single dhamma in the multiverse.

To differentiate these two perspectives, perhaps one could say that Early Buddhism teaches Specific Interdependence, while Huayan teaches Universal Interdependence.

The other major difference is that Huayan thought is an offshoot of Chinese Yogacara, and thus posits a form of Idealism.


With not washing hands before eating … comes transmission of disease via oral route…
:baby: :cake: :biohazard: :scream:

Not that not washing hands causes transmission of disease.

In the same way in paticca samuppada.

It is worth noting that paticca samuppada is list of logical antecedents, not temporal antecedents.


I was part of that conversation. You recalled mostly right, by my remembering. “Indra’s Net,” merely as terminology for “something,” shows up in the Sinitic Buddhāvataṁsaka, not once in the Tibetan. It’s in the East Asian subforum on DharmaWheel, I’m pretty sure, but the thread devolves into an argument between me and Malcolm is to what sin is that isn’t helpful to the conversation.

In its settings it does show up in, it’s not clear it has the meaning of interdependence between/among all phenomena (IMO, IIRC) and Venerable Fǎzàng was the first person to make this association that we could find collectively.


I myself take exception with this, but it’s off topic so I won’t argue it. I see (East Asian and Indian) Yogācāra as nominalism, rather than idealism.


The term 因陀羅網 does occur 24 times in the Chinese Avatamsaka Sutra that Cleary translated, and he translates it as “Indra’s Net” (ex. p.216, para 5), so it not that it’s absent from that sutra. It’s just difficult to find without a proper index. Fa-zang discusses the metaphor in a passage in his commentary to the Avatamsaka Sutra.


Yes. He was misremembering. It was absent from the Tibetan, and shows up in the Chinese, but if you’ll look at the rather mysterious passages it pops up in, you’ll note perhaps it’s not clear that the Buddhāvataṁsaka has a fully-formed Huáyán sensibility with regards to radical interdependence. Your Chinese is better than ours though, and we didn’t have you present while we had the conversation, which spanned two threads, one here and one at DharmaWheel.


Yes. I haven’t looked at all of references, but they seem ornamental without explaining the metaphor. I saw a blog post by a Hindu claiming that it’s fully explained like Fa-tsang does in the commentaries on a vedic passage, which wouldn’t surprise me, I guess. I don’t know if this is correct or not, though.


Sorry, I should have been more clear. What I should have said is that the actual Huayan doctrine of Interdependence or yuanrong , 圓融 (and the use of Indra’s net to illustrate it) does not seem to be found directly in the Avatamsaka. You are correct though that the term “Indra’s Net” does appear.


Is this for sure the terminology Huáyán uses? I recognise this from studying Tiāntāi, but it’s used quite differently, if this is the term they both use. I daresay it has two completely different meanings for the two schools.

I know this as “the round fusion” or the “perfect fusion” or the “interpenetration” of the three truths, a Tiāntāi Madhyamaka proposal.


I believe so. 圓融 is referred to in:

  • Hamar, Imre (ed.) Reflecting Mirrors: Perspectives on Huayan Buddhism

Also I found it referred to in this essay: Ch’eng-kuan on the Hua-yen Trinity by Robert M. Gimello


Also, I will note that this term is already being used in a different way in both of these Chinese schools than the English term “interdependence” and the Pali term for mutual conditionality.

For there seems to be a difference between “interfusion” and “interdependence”. Interfusion seems to imply mutual containment, as in the metaphor of Indra’s net, eat jewel contains every other jewel’s reflection. But “interdependence” or “mutual conditionality” seems to be merely referring to conditional relationship (but not that, say, viññana actually contained within nama-rupa and vice versa).

So when I think about it, its even more different. The Chinese view is not just about Universal Interdependence, it also means another thing, the Universal Interfusion of all dharmas. This is quite unknown in the EBTs I think.


No, it’s a logical consequence of the doctrine that all things are sunya in their inherent nature, which is a later concept of many Mahayana teachings. Fa-tsang may well have invented this interpretation of Indra’s Net, or extended a metaphor that was circulating already. Either way, it’s an attempt to explain the parallel points of view that seem contradictory: 1) everything is empty and so equal, 2) everything is unique and so different. The Chinese philosophers in general are syncretic in orientation. They attempt to find ways to explain how contradictions exist together and make sense on another level.


Perhaps, but this is still different than the EBT and Pali Buddhist concept of mutual conditionality.


I would agree regarding the Pali canon, but I’d be a little more reserved regarding the other EBT traditions until I’d examined them closely. I wouldn’t expect them to go so far, but I think the doctrine of emptiness is the reason Fa-tsang is able to make that leap from inter-dependence to mutual identification. The emptiness of all dharma is found throughout the Indian Agama traditions.


One reason why something might not appear in the Pāli Canon or Āgamas is that it might be addressing a misunderstanding that arose after their time.

When the first type of person hears that “all dharmas are reducible to the neither defiled nor non-defiled,” they take it to mean that all dharmas are inseparable from emptiness and that even if one were to traverse the entire universe, everywhere would be the same suchness [i.e. emptiness] as that found here as the suchness of, for example, this vase.

(Ven Zhìyǐ, 法華玄義 The Dharma Flower’s Profound Meaning , T33.703a, citing the Mahāprajñāpāramitāsūtra T220.561b20: “故一切法趣[…]”, as appearing in Brook Ziporyn’s Evil And/or/as the Good: Omnicentrism, Intersubjectivity and Value Paradox in Tiantai Buddhist Thought, Ch. 4, “Tiāntāi Basics: Omnicentric Holism,” p. 123)

The emptiness, suchness, of my vase is not the emptiness, suchness, of your tablecloth. This is a point that needs to be made to refute a certain position, namely that my vase “is” your table cloth in some way, and the slippery slope that that line of thought implies with it. This isn’t a debate that I’m extensively aware of in early Buddhism, but I might be uninformed. Either way, this debate rears its head amongst Buddhists in China.

Tiāntāi and Huáyán were historically antagonistic sects whose interactions seem mostly to have been doctrinally combative, and I wonder if this was a point that would have came up in their debates.


Thank you Bhante, for the interesting essay.

Another aspect of “interdependence” is the “lack of distinction” that comes up in analyses of the elements, such as in MN140 SuttaCentral, MN115 SuttaCentral, MN28 SuttaCentral, etc

And what is the earth element? The earth element may be interior or exterior. And what is the interior earth element? Anything hard, solid, and organic that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This includes head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, diaphragm, spleen, lungs, intestines, mesentery, undigested food, feces, or anything else hard, solid, and organic that’s internal, pertaining to an individual. This is called the interior earth element. The interior earth element and the exterior earth element are just the earth element. This should be truly seen with right understanding like this: ‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not my self.’ When you truly see with right understanding, you reject the earth element, detaching the mind from the earth element.

I was struck by the how this was brought up by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda in the 28th of the Sermons Nibbāna –The Mind Stilled, (See also Bhikkhu Anālayo Lectures, Analayo Bhikkhu---E-learning course on Nibbana: The Mind Stilled (23--33)---2019 After a couple of years of talks on technical aspects of Dependent Origination and so on, which comes across as very inward looking, he turns to practical applications, quotes this passage and comments (in part):

What, then, is the true purpose of resolving the distinction between
internal and external with regard to the earth element? The purpose is the
breaking up of the foundation for cravings, conceits and views.

For 'me’ to acquire some object out of craving that object has to exist
apart from 'me’ and 'I’ have to stand apart from it. The statement `this is
mine’ presupposes a duality between 'me’ and 'mine’. Similarly, the
statement 'this am I’, expressive of conceit, smacks of duality. For
instance, one gazing at a mirror is imperceptibly involved in this duality
when he tries to compare his face with its reflection on the mirror. This is
the irony of the situation in ordinary life. But what we have here, in this
Sutta, is the opposite viewpoint. Not: 'this is mine’, not: 'this am I’, not:
'this is my self’.

What fosters this opposite point of view is the very absence of the
distinction between the internal and the external. The fundamental basis
for acquisition or measuring is gone. It is as if the unending game of chess
with all its vicissitudes has ended in a peaceful draw.

As a matter of fact, our entire samsāric existence is a chess game
between the organic, upādinna, and the inorganic, anupādinna. For
instance, the four elements within this body, the grasped par excellence, or
the clung to, and the four elements as nutrition and atmosphere are always
in conflict in their game of chess. This chess game has as its vicissitudes
the disturbances of the three humours wind, bile and phlegm, on the
physical side, and greed, hate and delusion on the mental side.

These disturbances are to a great extent the outcome of this false
dichotomy. The task before a meditator, therefore, is the resolving of this
conflict by a penetrative understanding of the mutual interrelation
between the two sides, internal and external. When the gap between the
two is removed, the mind becomes equanimous. …


Very interesting. Worth a new topic (EBT based).


Which part in particular you found interesting - about the causes or logical vs temporal antecedents?


All of it. I suggest starting a new topic, supporting your assertions with EBT passages(out of respect for Bhante Sujato and our lovely moderators).