On Interbeing by Thich Nhat Hanh
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are.
And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too.
Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too… the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here–time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper.
“To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing.
So, how are you feeling about this country of ours these days? All ready to celebrate its birthday?
I’ll tell you how I am feeling. I love this country. I love its landscapes, its wildlife, its enormous variety of ecosystems. I love the variety of peoples and cultures here. I love our ideals of freedom and equality and justice. This is my home, the country where my heart is.
And because I love this country, in the past few months I have been feeling enraged. I have been feeling heartbroken, and grief-stricken. We seem to be hell-bent on destroying our beautiful lands and completely trashing our ideals.
I am also feeling afraid. Never in my lifetime, which includes the Cold War and the terrors of the Reagan years, has this world faced the extreme level of danger we are facing now. If we in this nation don’t immediately mobilize every resource we have to convert from fossil fuels to renewable energy, our planet will be unfit for human life within 50 to 100 years. Within the lifetime of my own children.
But it’s hard to work on that right now when he who must not be named and his administration of hate occupy so much of our national attention. We find ourselves having instead to mobilize to stop fascism and reclaim basic human rights we thought we had already won.
Do you think that’s an accident?
I am not suggesting conspiracies, though they may be afoot. I am suggesting that the upsurge in hatred and violence, and the extreme destruction we are wreaking our planet, are deeply interconnected.
There is an old story that goes something like this: once upon a time, there was a little town next to a river. One day, a person saw a baby floating down the river. They ran in and pulled the baby out, and called for help. No sooner had the person handed the baby over to someone else, when another baby floated down, and no sooner had they rescued that one when yet another floated along! Soon the townspeople were organizing a brigade: some people would catch the babies as they floated by, others would take them to shore, and still others would find food and housing and clothing for them. The townspeople became very efficient. But after some time went by, two people were seen leaving the town. “Hey, where are you going?!” the townspeople cried. “We need all the help we can get!” The two replied: “Someone has to find out what’s happening upstream.”
Today there are babies floating everywhere, both figuratively and literally. Climate change, war, poverty, mass shootings, hatred and violence toward brown and black people and gay and trans people, toward women and Muslims and homeless people—the list goes on and on. Many people are working as hard as they can to rescue babies—to care for the hungry and the homeless and the victims of abuse and war, to restore ecosystems. This is essential work. If this is your work, thank you for doing it.
And it is also essential to go upstream. It is essential to find out the causes of these interconnected crises. How can we begin to address them? How can we begin to heal our planet and its peoples?
This is what I have spent my entire adult life trying to understand. Lucky for you, I can distill 35 years of study into just a few minutes of sermonating!
What I have learned is this: Western culture is built on a binary, dualistic understanding of the world, in which separation and power over are the main themes. Plato and Aristotle believed that the basic unit of human life was the solitary individual, separate from all others. They called this theory “atomism.” The ancient Hebrews believed that God created humans in the image of the divine, and then separated Adam from all other living things and gave him “dominion” over them.
Western philosophers, theologians, and scientists have spent centuries describing separations between heaven and earth, sacred and profane, mind and body, light and dark, order and chaos, purity and sexuality—with the second term always inferior to the first. The earth, or “nature,” women, and dark-skinned people—anyone and anything not white and male—were equated with each other, and all equated with darkness, sexuality, and chaos. All were to be subdued and used for the benefit of mankind (meaning white men of European descent.) All were considered Other, and relegated to the status of “It,” in Martin Buber’s terms, which permits separation between oneself and another, instead of the “You” that makes relationship possible.
Embedded in this dualistic understanding of the world is the notion of conflict between opposites. Not the kind of constructive conflict that engenders healthy mutual growth, but the destructive kind that keeps us locked in winner-take-all competitions. The kind in which a solitary self, alone and afraid, is pitted against everyone and everything else in the world in a battle for survival. Remember your literature classes in high school, how the three basic plots revolved around conflict? Man against man, man against nature, man against himself. Someone always won or lost. I was one of those pesky high school students who kept raising my hand and asking “What about woman? Why do we use “man” to refer to all people? And why does a plot always have to involve conflict? Isn’t love an important story? What about cooperation?” The teachers would sigh and roll their eyes. “That’s not what we’re talking about right now,” they would say. “You’re missing the point.”
But I wasn’t missing the point. I was making a different point. As I would later learn, this construct, of a fearful, solitary self, in competition with all else for scarce resources, with divine permission to exercise dominion over the world, is what formed the basis of the brand new United States of America.
When our forefathers wrote the Constitution, they relied heavily on the ideas of John Locke and Adam Smith, who borrowed from Plato and Aristotle. In the 17th century, Locke proposed a theory he called social atomism, in which each individual acts solely in his own interest. These interests conflict with the interests of others, and require the consumption of “inert resources.” Therefore society should set up a social contract in order to make sure individuals respect each other’s rights. In the 18th century, Adam Smith applied the idea of social atomism to economics, proposing that the most efficient market would result from individuals acting in their own self-interest.
These theories appealed to men like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, because in their world, people were not free to act in their own self-interest. Instead, they acted from obligation to relationships based on dominion, or power over: God had absolute power over everything. Kings had absolute power over their lands and peoples. Men had absolute power over women and children. Whites had absolute power over people of color.
Our forefathers did not like having to submit to the king. They were men of wealth and privilege, and brilliant minds, and they wanted the freedom to determine their own lives. So much the better if acting in their own interests brought about the best situation for everyone! So what kind of social contract could they set up to make it happen?
Well, for some years they had been observing and admiring the Iroquois League. This was a representative democracy, with every person, including women, having an equal voice. All people were considered equal! And that system of governance explicitly recognized interdependence. The Iroquois League considered the impacts of every decision on their nonhuman relatives, and they considered the impacts on the next seven generations. 1
But alas, our forefathers, like all people, were limited by their own frame of reference. So the only part of this system of governance they could grasp was the idea of representative democracy, in which each man had an equal say. They could not grasp the importance of considering women and men as equals. Or considering persons of different skin colors equal to each other, or considering nonhuman beings as important as human ones. They certainly did not grasp the importance of considering the impacts of their decisions on the seventh generation. But they took what they did understand and used it to form a new nation. They declared that all men were created equal and ought to be guaranteed certain rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Then they made the free market economy the foundation of the new nation, with slavery and genocide as its building blocks.
With a beginning like this, no wonder we still struggle. Our most basic national story is that the self is all alone in a dangerous world, and its survival depends upon harming others. There is a wound here that needs healing. Only if we heal that wound can we go on to heal all the other terrible wounds that have sprung from it: the racism, the genocide, the rape culture, and more.
How do we do that?
By changing the story. By changing our understanding of the nature of the self and its relationship to other people and the rest of the universe. We must unlearn old habitual thought patterns and re-learn new ones.
So how do we need to understand the self?
In answer, I invite you to try to stop breathing. Can you do it? How about eating, or drinking water, would you be able to do that? Think of all that is necessary for you to take a breath, all that happens in your nerves and muscles and lungs and bloodstream when you do. Isn’t that amazing? Now, look at your hand. Is there a dark line delineating the boundary between your skin and the atmosphere in the room? There is not, because your skin and the atmosphere interpenetrate one another, exchanging atoms and molecules at a rate too fast for your eyes to see.
We are embedded in and utterly dependent upon the ecosystems in which we live. We inter-are with them. There is no separation and there can be no separation.
Not only are we radically interdependent with all other nature, we also inter-are with all other humans. An individual can neither exist nor survive by their self. Not one of us here gave birth to ourselves or fed ourselves or changed our own diapers; if babies are not held and spoken to by caregivers they die. The basic unit of human life is not an individual, it is a relationship within a system of other relationships. In fact it is complete nonsense to even speak of a basic unit of human life. All reality is composed of systems within systems within systems. We are sustained by a web of relationships so vast we cannot even comprehend it.
Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part. We sometimes struggle a bit to understand what that really means, in religious terms. But our six sources give us many rich ways to engage with it.
Over twenty-five hundred years ago, the Buddha explained that we and the world in which we live are formed together, in relationship with all that is and ever has been. Therefore we are continuously co-creating the world, by our thoughts, our words and our deeds. Early Christians put it a bit more simply when they said, as you sow, so shall you reap. Western physics reached the same conclusion as the Buddha just this past century. As Maria Mitchell, a Unitarian and early American astronomer, wrote:
“Small as is our whole system compared with the infinitude of creation, brief as is our life compared with the cycles of time, we are so tethered to the beautiful dependencies of law, that not only the sparrow’s fall is felt to the uttermost bound, but the vibrations set in motion by the words we utter reach through all space and the tremor is felt through all time.” 2
And then there is process theology, a union of mysticism and physics, which says all things are interconnected in a moving, flowing, dancing whole, a process of creative love ever becoming. The name process theologians give this living whole, this moving love, of which all things are part, is God.
We might say, then, that the universe is the body of God. As Pagan thealogian Starhawk writes: “Earth Mother, Star Mother, you who are called by a thousand names, may all remember we are cells in your body, and dance together.” 3
A common thread running through all of these understandings of the interdependent web of being, is that every single thing we think and say and do has an effect on the whole of which we are part. We are all co-creating the world we live in, in every moment. We must take care in choosing our thoughts, our words, and our actions, because the universe holds their consequences for all time. This means that as a nation, we will continue to struggle with the consequences of slavery and genocide and misogyny and ecological destruction until we decide to heal them.
The good news is that interbeing means we CAN heal them. We have enormous power, power TO and power WITH. We have power TO work WITH one another to co-create a world that is healthy. We have the power to recognize that the evil things in our world, those things that we are taught are permanent and inevitable, the things that require us to view ourselves as isolated individuals in conflict with nature and each other, are only as real and as contingent as a cloud. Meaning, they are real, and they have effects, but they depend for their existence on a certain set of conditions. We have the power to change these conditions. More than that, we have a responsibility to change them.
How do we do that? What can just one person do? As Kathleen Dean Moore says, “Stop being just one person!” Join with others. Whatever aspect of our interrelated crises you are most concerned about, there is a group of people doing something about it. Find out who they are and join them. Be careful to join groups who understand interbeing and intersectionality, who understand that every problem we have is interrelated with every other problem we have, and are working together with other groups to solve them. For example, poor people and people of color know that climate change and pollution always disproportionately affect those who are most marginalized. They have been getting together with historically white environmental groups to demand environmental justice. And that is how the people of Portland and the people of Oakland got coal banned from their cities. Groups acting on behalf of seniors and women and disabled people and poor people are getting together to demand universal health care.
And this is why I am feeling something else about our country today: I’m feeling hopeful. I’m feeling hopeful because people of many colors and cultures and economic classes, many genders and sexual orientations, are beginning to come together in our love for the earth and all her peoples. We are coming together in a shared understanding of interbeing. We are making real change.
So let us acknowledge our power. Let us take up our responsibility. Let us declare interdependence. Say it with me: We declare Interdependence! And let us go forth and make America beautiful.
1 Jack Weatherford, Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World. Fawcett Books, New York, 1988.
2 Singing The Living Tradition, UUA, Boston, 1993.
3 Ibid, #524.