Intricate Interdependence

Thich Nhat Hahn, the renowned Zen teacher, has described the Buddhist ideas of emptiness and interdependence (which he calls “interbeing”) by saying that to examine a flower, you have to see the existence and interconnection with the entire universe, indeed see its history as well:

A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower has to “inter-be” with everything else that is called non-flower. That is what we call inter-being. You cannot be, you can only inter-be. The word inter-be can reveal more of the reality than the word “to be”. You cannot be by yourself alone, you have to inter-be with everything else. So the true nature of the flower is the nature of inter-being, the nature of no self. The flower is there, beautiful, fragrant, yes, but the flower is empty of a separate self. To be empty is not a negative note. Nagarjuna, of the second century, said that because of emptiness, everything becomes possible.

So a flower is described as empty. But I like to say it differently. A flower is empty only of a separate self, but a flower is full of everything else. The whole cosmos can be seen, can be identified, can be touched, in one flower. So to say that the flower is empty of a separate self also means that the flower is full of the cosmos. It’s the same thing. So you are of the same nature as a flower: you are empty of a separate self, but you are full of the cosmos. You are as wonderful as the cosmos, you are a manifestation of the cosmos. So non-self is another guide that Buddha offers us in order for us to successfully practice looking deeply. What does it mean to look deeply? Looking deeply means to look in such a way that the true nature of impermanence and non-self can reveal themselves to you. Looking into yourself, looking into the flower, you can touch the nature of impermanence and the nature of non-self, and if you can touch the nature of impermanence and non-self deeply, you can also touch the nature of nirvana, which is the Third Dharma Seal.
– Thich Nhat Hahn, The Island of Self; The Three Dharma Seals (retrieved here)

These concepts are so profound and simple yet so difficult to express. I feel like conceptual thought experiments can get us partway there, but to really feel the wonder of it takes some extra insight that is honed through meditation, as the consistent experience of seeing ourselves as separate things in a world of objects separate from ourselves limits and guides our normal, everyday perception. Meditation is needed to shake us out of this frame. In a sense, it takes a slowing of the discursive mind’s analytic thought processes to really just sense things as they are.

An example from my recent life: I came down one morning to make some coffee after having finished a morning meditation session. I picked up a knife from the drawer to scrape the coffee grounds off the sides of the grinder, and as I saw the knife and touched it, I suddenly was aware of its intricacy and the long history of civilization, development, and design behind it. Small bubbles protruded out along the edges of the hilt; these caught my eye, and I thought of the aesthetic design and metallurgy behind these decorations as well as how this wouldn’t have been mass-produced only a few generations ago. My mind exploded even further, thinking of recent books I’ve read about the history of the Earth’s mass extinctions and the epically long oceans of time that are behind the world we live in/on and the species that currently inhabit it, as well as how they’re related to this momentary brilliance of tool-making. These results of eons of evolution are both creator of the tool and the food for which the tool is utilized — neither of which would be without everything that came before. Even just a simple knife in my kitchen drawer implicates the entire history of the creation of knives, of buildings, of drawers, and other cultural conventions/industrial standards around design, metallurgy, and culinary etiquette as well as the entire development of civilization, the evolution of the human race, and all the forgotten biological and cosmic events that led up to now.

A few years back, I read a book that described the symbolism of the famous calligraphy circle from Zen Buddhism: the enso. The zen monk explained that it isn’t showing a border between inside and outside or a process of completion; rather, it’s supposed to indicate everything. All is buddha-nature. All is included. All is interdependently shown in the circle.


A fractal enso? Cosmic interdependence?

These concepts go against so much of our standard operating procedure of discernment, but there is great wisdom in the flash of insight that our independent distinctions are cuts between the intertwined chiasm (to borrow the wonderful term from Merleau-Ponty) that is existence (note: the etymological roots of “de-cide” are to cutting off or cutting away. The same applies to the German: “ent-scheiden”).

May this offer a flash of insight into interdependence to all who read it.



Ode to Port Townsend

Weathered, old, musty
From days long gone
No longer remembered
Save for pictures
A faulty and impersonal
Memory, at best

Years have marched on
History has been made
Not here, though
Left behind in an earlier time
Forgotten, yet still here
Sharing glimpses of secrets
–A proffered hand full of mysteries

A sublime place
A masquerade where the clock stands still
The town that time forgot
Port Townsend
Playful ghost town kept alive


Written while adventuring in Washington’s wonderful Olympic Peninsula a couple weeks back. I hope this inspires you to take a trip there as well.