Interdependence – the relational universe

According to the Chinese poet, Han Shan (who lived sometime in the 7th or 8th Century):

The peach blossoms would like to stay

   through the summer

But the winds and moons hurry them on and

   will not wait[i]

Given that everything is subject to change, all entities can only ever be provisional and contingent, subject to processes of restructuring, decay and dissolution – however fast or slow. Every entity will become something else and has been something else. Mutation and transformation are the norm, not the exception. In this sense we inhabit a changeful universe, ambiguous, paradoxical and uncertain. We can never be sure where one thing ends and another begins, including where we end and someone else begins. The self is not a hermetically sealed kernel or soul, absolute and unchanging, it is a dynamic interweaving of streams of being – of perceptions, emotions, thoughts, imaginative constructions, memories and aspirations – a network of relationships with no fixed perimeter. Our boundaries are fluid, indeterminate and inextricably interwoven into the shifting boundaries of everything else in the universe. Our corporeal skin is a semi-permeable membrane through which moisture, light, tiny organisms and sub-atomic particles pass. Likewise, our minds are permeable indefinite structures flowing with experiences, of every imaginable kind. Our very being is fluid and many-stranded, and not contained within definite mental, physical, social or cultural boundaries.

The German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, provides a useful way of thinking about the self and the nature of our being-in-the-world. Heidegger conceives of being as a field of care and concern that is not co-extensive with a particular human body, but is rather an open network of fluid relationships with others and with the world. Heidegger calls this field of being, Dasein – which can be translated from the German as ‘being-there’. In Heidegger’s view Dasein is without essence, it is indeterminate, a field of possibilities, some of which can be actualised by an individual in the course of his or her life. And each person’s field ‘of care and concern’ is a social space, overlapping, merging and interacting with the fields of other beings. The self is the agent of care and concern, and the channel through which care flows in, out and through us. Dasein, ‘being-there’, is also ‘being-with’ or ‘being-together’ – it is a reciprocal and ever-changing state of relationship with others and with the world. We exist in a state of interdependence with everything that exists.

Buddhists describe this state of interbeing, interpenetration and interdependence as ‘dependent co-arising’ or ‘dependent origination’, awkward phrases that are translations of the Sanskrit term, pratītyasamutpāda – which combines the word, pratītya, meaning ‘meeting, relying, depending’, with the word, samutpa, meaning ‘arising’. 

From the Buddhist perspective there are no separate entities – all phenomena arise within a relational field, bound together by causal relationships extending through space and time. Everything is co-dependent on everything else and everything is in a state of change. There are no fixed essences or identities – for change and interdependence penetrate every entity. This is equally true for us human beings. None of us can be considered as separate, existing for, or of, ourselves. We are deeply porous beings, overlapping, merging and interweaving with our surroundings and with other beings, including our human co-habitants of planet earth. Just as our bodies are porous, our minds aren’t bounded by our bodies or by our conventional sense of self. Our being is both a function of our body’s negotiation of our surroundings, firmly located in this space we occupy, and a non-localised web of connections and dependencies with those for whom we care, and who care for us, with the other organisms who share our envelope of skin, and with all the tissues of ideas, stories, beliefs and values that constitute our cultural commons.

The term, pratītyasamutpāda, dependent origination, also alludes to the currents of causality that are interwoven through the universe, and through us – the causal relationships that give rise to things as they are, to us as we are. One thing leads to another, one action or event gives rise to another, and another – causal effects that ripple out in every direction. If we consider plastic as an example: we notice that plastic comes from oil; oil from fossils; fossils from ancient life forms; these life forms evolved over millennia from other life forms going back to single-cell organisms; and prior to that to chemical interactions, and to the ‘big bang’ origin of the universe; and maybe to other ‘big bangs’ and other universes. This great web of interdependence gives rise to plastic – indeed plastic could be said to be a manifestation of this stream of cause and effect – a piece of plastic, in some way, contains or includes, all these other phenomena.

Likewise, this chair that I sit on is its own history, bound up in its present. It is the coming together of all the forces, actions, ideas and materials that went into its making, and that went into their making, and so on, and so on, throughout time and space. The chair exists in the way that it does, because everything else in the universe exists as it does. Things are as they are, because other things are as they are, because everything is as it is. Change one thing and all things change.

Each can only be what it is

yet it depends on all it is not

– for the stone is only what

the universe displays to itself

when every fibre is aligned

just so, move the most distant

thing and the stone will not be

what it seems to be

the stone is the stone and

all that is not the stone

As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it: ‘This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This ceases to be, because that ceases to be.’[ii]

Causal relationships and dependent origination extend to all phenomena, a continually changing web of mutual influences and connections. Not only are past and future implicated in each other, but they are also contained in the present. This interdependence is an endless process. Nothing is ever fixed as it is, because everything is always subject to change, growth, decay, revision and transformation – the universe is provisional, contingent, conditional.

[i]  Watson 1970: 16 Burton Watson, trans. 1970. Cold Mountain: 100 Poems by the T’ang Poet Han-shan. Columbia University Press. p. 16.

[ii]  Thich Naht Hanh. 1999. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching. Three Rivers Press. pp. 221-222.