The Dharma Door of Interconnectedness

Sunyata or “emptiness” is a difficult concept and many people find it confusing. One of the first misconceptions folks have about emptiness is that is nihilistic and implies nothingness. It doesn’t. Emptiness does not deny the existence of things. It merely says that things exist in a temporary, non-substantive way. The “self” that is an individual, has a personality, thoughts and feelings, is not negated, rather what is negated is the idea that “self” exists as an independent entity in the ultimate sense, that it is unconditioned and does not depend on anything else to come into existence.

Some people understand the non-substantiality part but do not fully grasp the crucial element, which is the relativity of things.

Nagarjuna, who, pardon the cliché, pretty much wrote the book on emptiness, as far as Mahayana Buddhism is concerned, famously stated:

All things which arise through pratitya-samutpada, I explain as emptiness. It is a conventional designation. It is itself the Middle Way.”

Pratitya-samutpada is a term that is variously translated as dependent origination, dependent arising, dependent co-production, dependent co-arising, and so on. I prefer to use interdependency, or sometimes openness. Today, I will call it interconnectedness.

Why are things empty? Because everything is interconnected. Nothing comes into being on its own, and therefore, nothing can exist on its own. Things exist because of other things. They are empty, devoid of svabhava, own-being or self-being.

Another well-known expression of this understanding is found in the Heart Sutra:

Form is emptiness, emptiness is form. Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.

Thich Nhat Hanh comments on this phrase by saying:

Emptiness is quite an optimistic concept. If I am not empty, I cannot be here. And if you are not empty, you cannot be there. Because you are there, I can be here. This is the true meaning of emptiness. Form does not have a separate existence.”

Understanding emptiness is prajna-paramita, transcendent wisdom. The central message of the Heart Sutra is that because of emptiness, the Bodhisattva path is possible. If emptiness meant only that the self is non-substantial, that alone would provide no important reason to practice compassion. But, because beings are also interconnected, compassion is not only possible, but paramount. Interconnectedness means that we are all equal, we are essentially one, therefore there can be no reason not to practice compassion. The Bodhisattva path is practice for “self and others.” Ultimately, self and others are like form and emptiness, they do not differ from one another.

The Diamond Sutra says,

A Bodhisattva does not entertain concepts such as self, a separate person, a being, or ego-entity. Thus, there is no “I” who liberates and no “they” who are liberated.”

Nagarjuna called this essential oneness advaya-dharma, which Dr. K. Venkata Ramanan in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, translates as “the undivided being,” noting,

As an individual, one is different from another; this is the mundane truth where distinctions are essential. But in the ultimate truth, with respect to their ultimate nature, the individuals are not different; for the ultimate nature of one is itself the ultimate nature of all.”

Of course, emptiness has many other implications, such as the importance of non-clinging, the emptiness of views, even the emptiness of emptiness. Yet, this understanding of interconnectedness is the dharma door that opens to the Bodhisattva path that leads to awakening. And awakening means the journey to the Endless Further, awakening and ever re-awakening to transcendent wisdom, which in turn means walking the Bodhisattva path.

Even as we understand that reality is non-dual, that is no self or other in the ultimate sense, without the practice of compassion, that is making efforts for the benefit of others, on behalf of others, there is only knowledge, mere intellectual understanding, which is not sufficient enough to even generate real bodhicitta, the thought of awakening.

In his Compendium of Doctrine, Shantideva writes,

But what of the passage in the Talhagataguhya Sutra, where we read: ‘In whom is there the thought of awakening, Master?’ ‘In him, O King, who has the intact resolve to gain it.’ ‘And who has such a resolve?’ ‘He in whom is the spring of great mercy’ ‘In whom is this?’ ‘He who never neglects all sentient beings.’”



In the Bodhicaryavatara, or “Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”, Shantideva wrote,

All those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others.”

When human beings think of nothing but their own cares, they become selfish and small-minded. Self-cherishing is like a cold abyss in which a person flounders, numb, without real feeling.  Many people in our modern society have lost sensitivity. They feel isolated. Alone.

Buddhism teaches that we are not isolated.

The Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Sogyal Rinpoche says,

Throw a pebble into a pond. It sends a shiver across the surface of the water. Ripples merge into one another and create new ones. Everything is inextricably interrelated.”

The Buddha said that understanding the interdependent nature of phenomena was equal to understanding the dharma itself. He taught interdependency to demonstrate how selfishness stems from the false notion that we are independent and isolated from others, and how this is the root cause of suffering. The Buddha wanted to empower people. He wanted people to understand the causes of suffering so they could change those causes, change their lives, change the world . . .

Let no one be discouraged by the belief there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills – against misery and ignorance, injustice and violence… Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation…

It is from the numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Robert F. Kennedy


“Like the circles that you find, in the windmills of your mind.”

It’s been said that pratitya-samutpada is the foundation for all Buddhist concepts. One Buddhist scholar, Jeffrey Hopkins has called it the “king of reasons.” 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.”

This term is known by many names: dependent origination, dependent arising, conditioned co-becoming, co-dependent production, and so on. I often prefer to use interdependency or interconnectedness. All of these renderings taken individually fail to capture pratitya-samutpada precisely, and actually, a precise, literal definition is hard to come by.

In general, it means, “the arising of things in dependence of causes and conditions” (Chandrakiirti). In Mahayana, pratitya-samutpada includes interconnectedness, the multiplicity or diversity of forms, emptiness, compassion, and the Middle Way.

Because all things come into being as the result of causes and conditions, they are interconnected, and while all things have a reality, it is a transient one as none posses independent existence. By reason of the emptiness of both self and phenomena, everything is equalized, thereby eliminating any foundation for preference, prejudice and hatred. However, if we are all fundamentally one, there is a foundation for compassion. The Indian scholar Dr. Krishniah Venkata Ramanan, in his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sastra, writes,

Comprehension has its dimensions of depth and width and to the farer on the Great Way this means, on one hand, the penetration into the deeper nature of things which culminates in the realization that the ultimate nature of the conditioned is itself the unconditioned reality. On the other hand, comprehension stands also for the realization of the essential relatedness of determinate entities . . . with regard to the human individual it has the all-important bearing of one’s essential relatedness with the rest of the world. It is the insight into the true nature of things that is the basis of the universal compassion of the wise.

This is the same message the Heart Sutra imparts, and it’s the heart of Mahayana Buddhism.

Sufferings arise from causes. The Buddha’s method is to try to trace back the causes and reverse them. The primary cause for suffering is ignorance. Here, ignorance is different from our ordinary understanding of the word. It means un-knowing or mis-knowing, a deluded state of mind based on the idea of svabhava or self-being, the notion that we possess an inherent essential nature that is unconditioned, self-contained, self-supporting, and permanent.

Self-being is rejected because such an essence or nature would have to come into being on its own, without causes and conditions, it would have to stand on its own side as an entity independent from other things, and it would need to be able to persist indefinitely in an unchanged state. This is considered untenable. It’s a delusion.

In Mahayana, the general view is that ignorance is dispelled through a deep understanding of emptiness. In turn, emptiness is the ground of pratitya-samutpada or dependent arising, the foundation for this diverse world. Buddhapalita, the great master of the Prasangika tradition, said that to understand emptiness, you must understand dependent arising.

Sunyata (emptiness) is often discussed in terms of “relativity”, “relatedness”, “interconnectedness”, and “interdependency.” Even to take this holistic aspect of the term for its entire meaning is insufficient. In Emptiness, A Study in Religious Meaning, Frederick J. Streng states,

Sunyata is both relatedness and emptiness; it stands ‘between’ the absolute and the conditioned phenomena . . . If we use the symbolism of a circle, with its center and circumference, we would suggest that ‘emptiness’ is represented neither by the center (from which all points on the circumference radiate) nor by the points at the end of the radius. Nor is it even the relationship between the center and the circumference; but it is the recognition that ‘center,’ ‘circumference,’ and ‘radius’ are mutually interdependent ‘things’ which has no reality in themselves – only in dependence on the other factors.”

This, I believe, leads us to the true spirit of renunciation, which ultimately must mean leaving behind the idea of self-being. As Streng states, “The alleviation of suffering could not apply only to some single individual entity, since such an ‘entity’ could not come into existence or change. Release from the bonds of karma [is] feasible for ‘one’ only if it involve[s] a relationship to ‘all’.”

I feel true renunciation is a state of mind and it does not necessarily mean to renounce the material world. It’s not letting go of transient things themselves, but rather to letting go of our attachments to them. That’s not my contention because it’s a more modern or Western point of view, or because I’m picking and choosing and trying to bypass practicing austerities, it’s because I think it is a deeper view that goes right to the heart of the matter. It stands to reason that the highest form of renunciation is to let go of our attachment to the notion that things, including living beings, have an independent self or soul, a delusion that lies at the very heart of suffering. Renunciation is the genuine desire to transcend suffering for the sake of others.

You are independent, and I am independent; each exists in a different moment. But this does not mean we are quite different beings. We are actually one and the same being. We are the same, and yet different. It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so. Because we are independent beings, each one of us is a complete flashing into the vast phenomenal world. When I am sitting, there is no other person, but this does not mean I ignore you, I am completely one with every existence in the phenomenal world. So when I sit, you sit; everything sits with me. That is our Zazen [meditation]. When you sit, everything sits with you. And everything makes up the quality of your being. I am a part of you. I go into the quality of your being. So in this practice we have absolute liberation from everything else. If you understand this secret there is no difference between [Buddhist] practice and your everyday life. You can interpret everything as you wish,

– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

The title of today’s post comes from the English lyrics to “The Windmills of Your Mind” (“Les moulins de mon cœur”) by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman, from the 1968 film, The Thomas Crown Affair



A portrait of no-self? Nah, the Invisible Man.

In November 27th’s post, the Dalai Lama and Nagarjuna both stated that the doctrine of no-self (anatman) will sometimes cause fear, with a somewhat extreme example offered by the Dalai Lama of a man shaking when he was given the teaching. In most cases, however, we see that this fear manifests itself as resentment, or obliviousness, and often, as confusion or doubt about the doctrine.

Some who have a hard time grasping this concept are just dealing with inner resistance. With others, it may be a case of not being able to get past what they perceive to be nihilistic aspects. And in other cases, it is simply a matter of poor teaching and/or poor learning.

I think most people who have been exposed to Buddhist teachings understand impermanence and interdependence, at least on some level.  Nearly all Buddhist schools teach about the doctrine of dependent origination. On the other hand, some groups focus on concepts other than the traditional core concepts.

The Soka Gakkai (SGI), for instance, favors such Tendai concepts as esho funi (the oneness of life and environment), shiki shin funi (oneness of body and mind), shobutsu-funi (oneness of living beings and Buddhas), meigo-funi (oneness of delusion and enlightenment), and zen’aku-funi (oneness of good and evil).

Each one of these contains the word funi that, according to the SGI Dictionary, is “an abbreviation of nini-funi, which indicates “two (in phenomena) but not two (in essence).” This points to non-duality, how things may appear to be separate, but are not, instead they are, figuratively speaking, one. It also points to interdependency, the inter-connectedness of things.

These teachings are perfectly valid and illuminating, but in a way, it’s a case of putting the cart before the horse. Without a prior understanding of how the entity of human life fits in the grand scheme of things, it is difficult to have a very deep appreciation of interdependence.

The teachings are there, though. If one looks for them. Ichinen sanzen (three-thousand worlds in a single life-moment) is another way of expressing emptiness and the 10 Worlds and their Mutual Possession is essentially the same as Dependent Origination. Focus on less well-known concepts may be due in part from the SGI’s (and Nichiren traditions in general) desire to set their form of Buddhism apart from the rest of the pack, so to speak. Or it could simply be the Tendai influence. In any case, basic concepts that in most traditions are the starting point, may be obscured.

SGI President Ikeda has on occasion discussed, however briefly, the concept of “no-self”, as in this passage from Unlocking the Mysteries of Birth and Death: Buddhism in the Contemporary World:

We cannot deny that a sense of “self” or ego is necessary for a fulfilling life, but Buddhism firmly points out that there are considerable dangers in the attachment to the idea of “self” as the whole of all that exists. By contrast, Buddhism teaches that the road to liberation from the sufferings of birth and death lies in our awakening to the far broader life that lies beyond the confines of the finite self.

Here the focus is on the “far broader” aspect of life. The way this is phrased, one might be tempted to think that it is inferring the existence of some sort of super-self that “lies beyond the confines of the finite self.” Yet, those with some understanding of no-self will infer the broader context to be the whole matrix of interdependence.

Language or semantics is the root cause for misunderstandings between Buddhist traditions. Whenever I read criticism, say from someone on the Zen side, toward, say, Tibetan Buddhism, or vice versa, it tells me that they have not gotten beyond the appearance of the words to see what’s really there. To me, there is no radical difference between Zen and the Tibetan Gelug school. They’re saying the same thing, just using different words. I could say the same thing about several other traditions as well.

Speaking of semantics, here is an interesting question and answer with the Dalai Lama (from my transcript of teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland, UCLA 1997):

Q: When people ask if Buddhists believe in soul, I don’t know how to answer them. It seems that they are asking about spirit, a belief in a higher power than the ordinary human being’s consciousness. Is the biggest problem semantics?

A: There is probably an element of semantics. Although I use the English word ‘spirit’ or ‘soul,’ I must admit that I do not really know the full implications of these English terms. However, when Buddhists talk about whether or not there is ‘self’, we must take into account the context in which this discourse on no-self takes place. Within the historical context of Indian Buddhism the discourse is about whether or not atman [Brahman concept of a permanent self that is one essence with Brahma or god.] exists. By rejecting atman, Buddhists are not rejecting existence or any basis on which the natural sense of ‘I’ or ‘I am’ arises. Buddhist are not rejecting that. What is being rejected, in the anatman theory, is the metaphysical concept where atman is said to be a metaphysical reality that is eternal and permanent. The problem arises for certain philosophers to accommodate that never-ending continuum with the transient nature of life.

Certainly your point that sometimes the difficulty being semantics is very true. If we were to understand by the word ‘soul’ a basis upon which the natural sense of thoughts of ‘I am’ arise within the individual being, then we could say that soul exists. However, if one understands by the word ‘soul’ a metaphysical reality, like the atman theory, and is independent of mind and body, independent of mental and physical aggregates, something  that is self-sufficient, autonomous, and so on – then, of course, that concept is not tenable in Buddhist thought.

From the Buddhist point of view, ‘self’ or ‘soul’ is not a substance but a stream of consciousness. All that actually exists is a series of states of consciousness, one of which may be a consciousness of those states, but no one of which may be viewed as the true self, something that is permanent, abiding, everlasting. If we think we possess a self that is immortal, to which we should be true, that we must serve and promote, then we are only deceiving ourselves.

Poussin described it in this way: “There is not a self, a permanent substantial unity, but there is a person to be described as ‘a living continuous fluid complex’ which does not remain quite the same for two consecutive moments but which continues . . .” This continuum stretches over an infinite number of existences, bridging an infinite number of births and deaths, without becoming completely different from itself or being conscious of the previous rounds in the cycle.

Regardless of whether or not one believes in the cycle of birth and death or rebirth, the no-self concept is still valid. Instead of an infinite number of existences, think of it as an infinite number of moments. The personality and sense of “I” that we cling to so tightly is not tenable as a permanent entity regardless of whether it’s a matter of one lifetime, or many.

The question that comes up a lot is that if there is no self or soul, then what transmigrates through the cycle of birth and death? The answer is as indicated above, but if it does not seem clear, perhaps that’s because we are not asking the right question. For the majority of Buddhist thinkers of the past, the real question was how is karma carried over into this life and future lives.

The question was resolved by positing this continuum of consciousness. That’s the short answer. I’ll present the long (or longer) answer in tomorrow’s post.


Freedom and Interdependency

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.