When I was in elementary school, I remember colorful illustrations of the ecosystem explaining the concept of interdependence. One thing that left an impression on me was the food chain. "The Circle of Life," they called it, which was described as “who eats whom in the wild.” I found it so sad and brutal.
Thankfully, eventually, I learned and understood that, just like the wonderful animals from which we evolved on this planet, we derive our energy to stay alive from the food we eat—whether it be plant material, fungi, or other animals.
As a child, I felt deeply that everything is connected. For one, I couldn’t understand harming the earth. It just didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t wrap my head around violence against any life forms either. To inflict harm on things for fun made no sense in the least.
These strong feelings and that chain of life impacted me in a profound way, but I had no idea how these realizations and instincts would manifest later in my life.
Inter- means "between," so interdependence is the mutual dependence between things. For instance: your dog provides you with unconditional love and happiness; in return, you gratefully provide your dog with food, shelter, love, and happiness. Your relationship with your dog is one of interdependence. And how wonderful is that?!
Interdependence is expressed in Buddhism in the words from the Buddha,
“When there is this, that comes to be;
with the arising of this, that arises.
When there is not this, that does not come to be;
with the cessation of this, that ceases”
The Buddha describes the interdependent nature of all phenomena in the world—the arising of all causes and conditions are dependent on the arising of every single cause and condition of all phenomena. It’s hard to wrap our heads around that.
To illustrate, I’d like to talk about amaryllis bulbs.
Gardening is one of my great joys, a time of deep mindfulness practice and much healing. Here in Southern Louisiana, amaryllis bulbs can be passed down through generations that trace back to an original bulb from a family member. The original gardener’s name, life story, and love of amaryllis is usually shared, keeping these ancestors alive in our hearts and minds through this continuation. I’ve had the great fortune to have been gifted a few amaryllis bulbs with a 100-year lineage from a dear friend.
Each year, when it’s time to plant, I can’t help but stop and look deeply into the amaryllis bulb. What I see is, within each bulb, it contains ions and ions of wisdom that have evolved from the earth.
They’re planted in the fall, buried beneath the soil in the darkness of the muddy soil, where the bulbs lie dormant. When (and only when) the causes and conditions are just right—sufficient heat, moisture from the rain, nutrients from the soil, and lots of sunlight—the amaryllis begins to make its way toward the surface.
After some time, a green leaf pops just above the surface, followed by the stem, and eventually come the blooming of magnificent flowers, expressing triumphantly their exuberance for life.
What does this all mean? Every cell of this amaryllis bulb has centuries upon centuries of wisdom contained inside it. Every cell of the bulb knows exactly what to do. Some of the cells know to become leaves, some the stem, some the beautiful red flower. However, it is interdependent on all of the causes and conditions to grow that lead to the manifestation of its beautiful flowers.
This truth of the amaryllis bulb is the same truth within us.
Each cell of our body knows exactly what to do. It contains ancient wisdom that we are perfect manifestations of in this life. We are the flowers blooming from all of the causes and conditions of this existence. We are already perfect. We don’t need to be more.
Thich Nhat Hahn, Vietnamese zen master and peace activist, once looked for the perfect English word to describe our deep interconnection with everything else that exists. He came up with the word “interbeing.” He would say, “In order to BE, we have to always inter-be.”
We “inter-are” with one another and with all life on the planet. This includes mental and psychological factors, as well, including our thoughts, words, and actions—they impact everything.
The ecosystem and the “chain of life” from my childhood transformed into a source of immense insight and joy. The seed of interbeing was planted in a small school in Louisiana. After this planting—along with the causes and conditions of my life leading me to study with my spiritual teachers, especially Thich Nhat Hahn—I learned/remembered to experience the miracle of interbeing every day of my life.
I’d like to share one additional lesson in interdependence that showed up in an unexpected place: a cedar amoire.
One of the more-powerful causes and conditions of my life is being raised by parents who liked beautiful things and appreciated the creativity of the craftsmen in these objects. I spent many hours in the French Quarter at antique stores with my folks looking at Italian glass, antique crystal, paintings by Southern artists, Persian rugs, pottery, sculpture, gas lamps... they just loved it ALL. It didn’t have to be high end or of a certain provenance, they just appreciated the care and reverence that was put into these objects.
At the time in my youth, I didn’t have the language or understanding to express how I felt in the presence of so many antiquities. Some were stunning, elaborate, and ostentatious, while others were made simply but with a streamlined beauty—the kind of beauty where you could almost feel the maker resisting an urge to overcomplicate a piece.
I felt at home with these things.
My mind would wander thinking of all the people that touched that spoon or pitcher.
Who designed this way back when? What were they thinking? Who made this? Who lived with this? Was it present for weddings, funerals, birthdays, etc?
I’d reflect on all the happiness this item brought to so many…. and now it’s here in my hands.
As it turns out (and without much surprise), my work and creative life has included refurbishing Victorian houses and furnishing corporate rentals for some 20 years. So many objects and furnishings have come in, stayed a while, and moved on.
Then along came a Ming Dynasty 17th century cedar Chinese armoire.
The armoire was made by a craftsman in the late 1600s—it’s hard to conceive of that much time so long ago. This armoire is simply designed yet incredibly clever. It actually breaks down so you can take it along with your travels or when moving.
The wood used for this impressive piece is still bringing happiness, beauty, and function. The tiny seed that contained all of that ancient wisdom some 400 years ago manifested as a tree, only because all of the numerous causes and conditions were just exactly right. After the tree’s whole life of providing shelter for animals, shade as relief from the heat, and sharing its captivating aroma, it was transformed and became the wood that the furniture builder would use to make this armoire.
I wonder, why did he make it? What were his intentions? Was it for himself and his family? Where did this armoire travel and how many homes or monasteries was it in over all this time? It’s overwhelming to think about.
Inside, this armoire has two small drawers along with remnants of a fabric that lined the interior. It is very well worn (how could it not be?) yet still in good shape. What have the drawers held for so many years? Precious documents for safekeeping? Spiritual objects? Silly objects maybe that brought laughter? Possibly medicinal tincture?
And if all those ponderings weren’t enough, I consider the causes and conditions of how this particular armoire came into MY care. I couldn’t begin to count all of the things that had to happen with this armoire and me to end up together. This is interbeing. We inter-are. Without just ONE of those elements, my owning this beautiful item would not have manifested. So I will cherish and care for it the best I can for as long as it’s in my care.
All of existence/life is a single vast nexus of causes and conditions that are constantly changing; every single one is interconnected to everything else.
All phenomena exist because of interbeing. How fortunate are we?
So then, why don’t we see it all the time? Why aren’t we able to access this joy inside of ourselves every minute of the day? Why can’t we always feel connected? The answer is ...we simply forget. We are caught up in the challenges of being human beings.
This is where mindfulness or concentrated awareness comes in. The more we practice living mindfully, the more insight and understanding is born in us. We can wake from the delusion that we are separate beings going it all alone and we can fully engage with the world in a peaceful, open-hearted, grounded way by remembering the miracle of interbeing.
What can you do in this very moment to experience interbeing? I would humbly offer this:
- Wherever you are reading this right now, STOP
- Relax your body
- Place of one hand on your chest and the other on your belly
- Let your body take the wheel, let the body do what it’s meant to do - breathe.
- Allow yourself to feel your body breathing
Feel the delightful, relaxing, wavelike quality of your chest and abdomen rising and falling like waves on the ocean.
This breathing your body is doing is keeping you alive right now. Remember that just for your body to breathe right now, there are many, many, many causes and conditions, beginning all the way back to your birth. The air right has to have the right air elements, the body has to have nutrients from the earth (the earth, mind you, that needed water from the sky and lots of sunshine). There are countless things that have come together to conspire to keep you alive.
So allow yourself to rest into your body breathing. It's a beautiful act of surrendering, trusting your body to breathe. Your breathing will guide you back to remembering all of these wonderful countless phenomena that are supporting you.
One cell of our body—just like the amaryllis bulb and just like the seed of the cedar tree in China 400 years ago—contains all of the information necessary to create another whole version of ourselves. All the ancient wisdom is in us, present with us, connecting us to all life on this planet. We can never be alone because all life is conspiring to support us, beginning with each breath. This present moment is the gift of all life.
When you stop and remember this miracle of interbeing, it is a source of unlimited happiness, peace, and liberation from suffering.
As Thich Nhat Hahn would say, “To be is to inter-be,” and I’m so happy to exist with all of you and all phenomena in this miracle of interbeing.
From the depths of my humble heart,
May this offering benefit all precious living beings in whatever little way by possibly pointing them to wake up from forgetfulness. And may they all lovingly and peacefully fully engage with life.
Sid Montz, Chân Tiếp Lượng (True Continuation of Generosity) in the Plum Village tradition and Senior Facilitator with studio BE.