The word “freedom” is often used to refer to an absence of restraint or control of a person’s physical and mental activities. This kind of freedom is always limited by conditions that prevent individuals from doing certain things. These conditions may be natural or human-made laws, or they may be physical or mental limitations.
Different people feel free in different ways. Everyone has a somewhat unique sense of personal freedom. Some persons may feel that one way to be free is to be entirely unconnected with anything else. However, this sense of freedom is only an illusion because in truth there is nothing that is unconnected with anything else.
As far as Buddhism is concerned, spiritual freedom is release from suffering. Buddhism teaches that an understanding of interdependency is crucial to attaining this kind of freedom.
The Indian term for this relativity is Pratitya-Samutpada, rendered in English variously as dependent origination, inter-dependent origination, dependent arising, conditioned co-becoming, co-dependent production, etc. I like interdependency. It’s short and to the point.
Interdependency is often explained with the formula of “because of this, that arises; because of that, this arises.” Nothing exists by itself because everything is inter-connected and nothing can arise or come into being without be produced by causes operating under various conditions.
Since the Buddha was primarily concerned with the problem of human suffering, he used interdependency to trace the causes of suffering, which he ultimately attributed to ignorance. This resulted in a reverse formula: “because this is not, that ceases; because that is not; this ceases.” According to this reverse formula, if ignorance is not then suffering is not. The Buddha taught that if we remove ignorance and replace it with wisdom, suffering can be transcended.
What do we mean by ignorance? In 1997, while giving teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, the Dalai Lama offered these words:
The very word avidya or ignorance in itself shows a state that one cannot really endorse as positive. It is said to be fundamentally confused, so, surely it cannot be a state that is desirable. The point is that if our existence is said to be completely determined and conditioned by that fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world, how can there be scope for lasting freedom or lasting peace? Therefore, it becomes crucial to see whether avidya or fundamental ignorance can be eliminated.
Some schools of Buddhism consider the root of ignorance to be self-grasping; the mind grasping at self-existence on one hand and ignorance on the other. In the Madhyamaka (Middle Way) school, ignorance is understood as a state of mis-knowing, viewing the world in a distorted way, and this arises from non-comprehension of the interdependency of all things.
I feel that interdependency is a key word for the future. As our world keeps shrinking though advances in technology, we are seeing more and more how things are truly interrelated. Each day, science provides us with new examples of how life and our environment are both like fabrics woven into a complex pattern of causes and effects. In medicine, recognition of the mind-body connection is now more commonplace than ever. If, in the future, we human beings can ever begin to cultivate a deep understanding of interdependency, we might be able to turn the world around and establish some measure of lasting peace.
This last point is the great benefit of the concept of interdependency because it leads us to a true understanding of equality. Owing to the fact that we are interconnected and because we are subject to the same causes and conditions, we are all equal.
Seeing ourselves as unconnected to other things, particularly other beings, is not freedom. Here again the reverse applies in that true freedom is embracing inter-connectedness. It’s seeing the world as it really is.
The person who thinks that freedom means being unconnected is just grasping after a “self” which does not exist. A self that is independent, permanent, and unchanging, and nowhere can such a thing be found. We like to feel we are a self that is different in both appearance and substance from other beings, which is true, but only in relative terms. Science tells us that the components which make us different from other beings constitute only a percent or two of our total being, so ultimately the rest is the same as every other being.
If nothing else, here lies freedom from hatred and racism, for it makes no sense to hate another person because one or two percent of difference. Not to mention that for any reason, hate is not cool.
Nagarjuna said, “Everything stands in harmony for the person who is in harmony with interdependency.” He taught that peace and harmony in the world is possible when we reject the idea of the unconnected self, and further, that anyone who comprehends interdependency deeply can help all beings realize freedom. Such a person is called a buddha, one who has awakened.