One of my last posts of 2012, featured a poem by Diane de Prima which included these lines:

the cold light
revealed the “mindborn” worlds, as simply that,
I watched them propagated, flowing out,
or, more simply, one mirror reflecting another.

000a1bI’m not sure what di Prima intended to convey with the image of “one mirror reflecting another,” but the first thing I thought of was Indra’s Net  –  an enormous net in which a brilliant jewel is embedded in each knot that reflects the image of all the other jewels in the net – a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all things that pre-dates Buddhism

Shortly after that post, I read a post on another blog that referenced an essay by a well-known Buddhist teacher, Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Entitled “The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism,” the essay begins with this:

Many Westerners, when new to Buddhism, are struck by the uncanny familiarity of what seem to be its central concepts: interconnectedness, wholeness, ego-transcendence. But what they may not realize is that the concepts sound familiar because they are familiar. To a large extent, they come not from the Buddha’s teachings but from the Dharma gate of Western psychology, through which the Buddha’s words have been filtered. They draw less from the root sources of the Dharma than from their own hidden roots in Western culture: the thought of the German Romantics.”

I don’t know where people get ideas like this. Let’s take a look at interconnectedness to just how rooted in Western culture it is really is:

Interconnectedness refers to pratitya-samutpada, known variously as dependent origination, dependent arising, dependent co-production, dependent co-arising, interdependency, and so on. The early Buddhist texts provide several different descriptions of what the Buddha awakened to that legendary night beneath the Bodhi Tree when he became “The Awakened One.” One version says that it was the Four Noble Truths. Another version, though, presents the Buddha awakening to the truth of pratitya-samutpada, or more specifically, the Twelve Nidanas (Links) of Causes and Conditions.

In Majjhima-nikaya I, the Buddha is recorded as saying, “Whoever sees pratitya-samutpada sees the dhamma and whoever sees the dhamma sees pratitya-samutpada.” Pratitya-samutpada as interconnectedness has its real roots in the formula of “because this is, that is” found in a number of passages from the early suttas such as Majjhima Nikaya iii. 63; Samyutta Nikaya v. 387.

And as I noted above we have the metaphor of Indra’s Net, mentioned in the Avatamsaka or “Flower Garland Sutra.” The Hua-yan (Flower Garland) School in China took the Avatamsaka Sutra as its primary text, and for this school Indra’s Net represented the “the entire cosmos as a single nexus of conditions in which everything simultaneously depends on, and is depended on by, everything else.”*

The interrelating reflection of the various aspects mutually revealing each other, producing multiplication and remultiplication ad infinitum, pertains to the gate of the net of Indra. If all the aspects are together revealed at once without impeding each other, this pertains to the mutual containment.”

Chih-yen (600-668 CE), Second Hua-yen Patriarch**

At approximately the same time, the Hua-yen school were developing their doctrine, Chih-i of the T’ien-t’ai school was working out similar concepts. “Mutual containment” is essentially the same as Chih-i’s notion of the “mutual possession” or mutual penetration of all dharmas (things). Chih-i divided reality into ten dharma-realms or worlds that reflect different conditions of the mind during any given moment:

Now, one mind comprises ten dharma-realms, but each dharma realm also comprises ten dharma-realms, giving a hundred dharma-realms. One realm comprises thirty kinds of worlds, hence a hundred dharma-realms comprises three thousand kinds of worlds. These three thousand are contained in a fleeting moment of thought.”

Mo-ho Chih-kuan***

The mathematics of this is unimportant. There could be ten thousand dharma-realms or three million kinds of worlds – it doesn’t matter. What is important is the idea of mutuality, of a fundamental linkage between all things. That all things are contained within a single moment of thought is a way of stating the oneness of life and the ultimate non-dual nature of reality.

Since the Hua-yen and T’ien-t’ai schools advanced these doctrines over 1500 years ago, they can hardly be called modern. There was no Western psychology influence. German Romantics had no hand in the development of the metaphor of Indra’s Net, and certainly not with the concept of pratitya-samutpada ascribed to the historical Buddha.

In our modern age, interconnectedness is no longer just an ancient metaphor or a theory, it is a scientific fact. Understanding interconnectedness is crucial for the future. On November 12, 2012, UNESCO held its annual World Science Day. The website for this event says,

This year’s theme, ‘Science for global sustainability: interconnectedness, collaboration, transformation’ shines a light on our increasingly interconnected and interdependent economic, social, cultural and political systems, both in terms of the pressure these place on the Earth system and of the potential for solutions that they provide.

Scientific evidence shows that humanity has put the functioning of the Earth system at risk. Current development paradigms and economic patterns are responsible for many of the interlinked and growing social, environmental and economic crises facing the planet. The defining challenge of our age is to safeguard Earth’s natural processes to ensure the well-being of civilization while eradicating poverty, reducing conflict over resources, and supporting human and ecosystem health.

These are interconnected, just as the planet’s systems are interconnected . . .”

And just as electrons, cells, and individual human beings are interconnected, linked together in a intricate net of relationships, causes and conditions.

It seems to me that the fact Buddhism was way ahead of the game on this is something to be acknowledged, if not celebrated. There is nothing wrong with criticism, and no doubt Western psychology and German Romantics have had some influence on modern dharma, but not to the extent that Thanissaro Bhikkhu claims, and to put forth such a case as he and some others do, I feel is misleading.

Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes that interconnectedness  “helps close the gate to areas of the Dharma that would challenge people in their hope for an ultimate happiness based on interconnectedness. Traditional Dharma calls for renunciation and sacrifice, on the grounds that all interconnectedness is essentially unstable, and any happiness based on this instability is an invitation to suffering.”

That point of view might make sense to an author writing from the rather limited Theradvadin point of view. However, in the time-honored Mahayana tradition, interconnectedness is the foundation for freedom from suffering. Insight into the interconnectedness of all beings is the key that unlocks the door to the prison cell of self-cherishing, it leads directly into the practice of compassion, the path of the Bodhisattva.

I can’t help but feel that those who deny this doctrine of interconnectedness also deny the truth of one of the Buddha’s first teachings, that all beings are interconnected through suffering.

According to [the concept of Ten del, or dependent origination articulated by the Madhyamika school of Buddhist philosophy] we can understand how things and events come to be in three different ways.  At the first level, the principle of cause and effect, whereby all things and events arise in dependence on a complex web of interrelated causes and conditions, is invoked.  This suggests that no thing or event can be construed as capable of coming into, or remaining in, existence by itself . . .

On the second level, [dependent origination] can be understood in terms of the mutual dependence which exists between parts and whole.  Without parts, there can be no whole; without a whole, the concept of parts makes no sense.  The idea of ‘whole’ is predicated on parts, but these parts themselves must be considered to be wholes comprised of their own parts.

On the third level, all phenomena can be understood to be dependently originated because, when we analyze them, we find that, ultimately, they lack independent identity.

Dalai Lama, The Nature of Reality


* Entry Into Inconceivable, Thomas F. Cleary University of Hawaii Press, 1994, 2 (Introduction).

** Ibid, 138.

*** Wm. Theodore de bary, editor, The Buddhist Tradition in India, China, and Japan, Vintage Books, 1969, 165


4 thoughts on “Interconnectedness

  1. “On the third level, all phenomena can be understood to be dependently originated because, when we analyze them, we find that, ultimately, they lack independent identity.”

    I think that this is a hard concept for many westerners, myself included. I believe it, but do not fully embrace it in my life. The ego gets in the way. It’s something I work on daily.

    Dan @ ZenPresence

  2. You are not alone, Dan. This trips a lot of people up. Note that the Dalai Lama says “ultimate.” From the ultimate truth, there is no independent identity. From the conventional truth, of course there is. You are an independent identity from me, and vice versa. It’s not a case of having your cake and eating it too. Rather, it’s two truths, which are not independent of each other. Two sides of the same coin.

  3. “I don’t know where people get ideas like this. Let’s take a look at interconnectedness to just how rooted in Western culture it is really is:”

    Thanissaro Bhikkhu stated a fact. Mostly Kant and the huge interest and activity in the philosophy that he wrote about is what is taught at Western universities. German Idealism hugely overshadows Buddhism as an influence on the educated Western mind. Thanissaro Bhikkhu didn’t say that German Romanticism (GR) first developed Buddhist ideas, but that as an influence on Western culture, GR completely overshadows Buddhism as a source of introducing these ideas to the Western mind. I think you don’t know what GR encompasses. Here is a link to a website which covers the territory, while lamenting on the influence of German philosophers, who are 200 years dead, on our culture and thinking.

    “Outside of traditional Christianity, most of what counts as religion and “spirituality” in America nowadays is actually recycled German academic philosophy from two hundred years ago. This might sound absurd, or irrelevant. In this metablog series, I hope to show that it is true, and that it matters.”

    SH: This is what I mean is a fact and that is also what Thanissaro Bhikkhu means. It is irrelevant to this fact that Buddha came first or that the blogger doesn’t like these ideals. Whether in America or other Western countries, the German Romantic philosophers were a lot like Transcendentalists.

    1. I should have stated my objection to Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s comments in more detail. That’s one of the problems of writing a blog. It’s more informal than a thesis so there are times when you gloss over things that later you wished you hadn’t.

      In any case, I think that we are talking on different levels. I think you are referring to folks that live in the world of philosophy, and I am talking more about folks who live in the everyday world. Most people wouldn’t recognize a German Romantic if he rose out of his grave and hit them with a stick. Now, it has been a long time since I studied this stuff, but as I recall when GR’s used words like wholeness and unity they were speaking more in terms of the arts and not of the interconnective (?) web of human existence. But I could be wrong about that.

      I guess what I don’t understand is the phrase “through which the Buddha’s words have been filtered.” What does that mean? Perhaps I am being unreasonable, but I get tired of Buddhism always have to be filtered though, linked to or compared with Western philosophy. They may share words but, to me, the meanings are vastly different. And I certainly think that Buddhist philosophy can stand on its own without any help from guys like Hegel or Fichte. But, you are right, it is irrelevant.

      I don’t know if this is what you meant, but if it was, I’d agree that the Transcendentalists were influenced by German Romanticism, and English Romanticism for that matter. I also feel they probably had a bigger and more direct influence on Buddhism in America than the Europeans did. But again, only with those who are into philosophy, which is probably limited to folks aligned with the Zen and Tibetan schools. They tend to attract the intellectuals. But there is a lot more to Western Buddhism than those two groups and the vast majority of people who come to Buddhism do so because they have problems and want to be happy, not because they want to be one with everything. That is not to say that all of them don’t bring along the baggage of the indoctrination they have received in school and church and from society.

      As far as your link to Mr. Chapman’s metablog is concerned, I have tried on numerous occasions to fathom his meaningness but have failed. I’ve given up.

      Thanks for your comment.

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