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Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Buddhist view of interdependence

This is a talk I gave Feb. 26 at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester CT.

“We are the 100 Percent” Nancy Thompson

The UUS:E Buddhist Group read the book “One City: A Declaration of Interdependence,” over several months, one or two chapters each month. When we got to the end, one of the members commented that she preferred the UU view of interdependence. What is that view? I asked. “It’s self-explanatory,” she said, “respect for interdependent web of all existence. Everything is connected.”

That’s pretty much the Buddhist view of interdependence too.

But interdependence has been a UU principle only since 1985. The Buddhists have been playing with the idea for 2,500 years, so we’ve had a lot more time to complex things up.

In Buddhism, interdependence operates on two levels, which the two readings described. The reading from “One City,” about waking up, is about interdependence on the relative level, the physical world, where we live and breathe and function.

(Contrary to what you may have heard about Buddhist ideas of non-self and emptiness, you do exist.)

But on the absolute or ultimate level, which is described in the reading from Thich Nhat Hahn, you don’t exist the way you think you do. On that level, we’re connected not only by manufactured goods or the Internet, we’re connected because we all share the same nature – which is inherently pure and rich and free from limitations; It’s the energy that precedes the labels good or bad, the pure perception of the moment.

It’s described as beyond concept, and it’s not a place we can go with our relative, or form, bodies. Those bodies have to eat, sleep, earn money, function in this world. But that feeling can inform our actions in the physical world.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan teacher whose Shambhala Buddhist lineage aims to make traditional teachings relevant to the modern western world, describes the two aspects as “earth, which is what you have in your refrigerator and bank account,” and “heaven,” or your lofty ideals. Human beings bring them together.

So … if our role is to manifest the all-encompassing goodness of the absolute in this relative existence, how do we do that? What does that look like? How would we act – how would we resolve disputes, celebrate life events, organize our households, our cities, our governments?

How would we behave toward one another if we knew, REALLY knew without question, deep in our bones, that we’re all parts of the same organism, not separate bits?

One of the things Buddhism shares with Unitarian-Universalism is that it doesn’t provide answers to the questions. The Buddha set out a process by which we investigate for ourselves – starting with ourselves.

The Interdependence Project, which Ethan Nichtern founded and where I study, has this slogan: “Change your mind to change the world.” The only way to create true, lasting change is to examine the assumptions that guide our actions. That goes for our cultural, societal assumptions, as well as our personal ones.

This is a passage from “One City”:

“Interdependence doesn’t only mean that conditions and events in the world exist inseparably –like the link between a half-liter plastic bottle, oil, and the environment. It also means the mindsets of individuals and the society that those individuals co-produce are likewise inextricably connected.

“The logic of this relationship is almost painfully obvious: our society has manifested in its present form because the people who comprise it – knowingly or not – collectively acted to make it this way. So where do those actions come from? They spring from the thoughts, habits, and conditioned beliefs of the many individuals who create our society.

“Not only is it important for us to examine our actions in the world, but we also need an ongoing method for examining the thoughts, habits, and belief structures from which those actions unfold.”

That’s done through meditation, the main practice of Buddhism. You’ve probably seen statues or paintings of the Buddha sitting cross-legged. Meditators still sit that way, as still as possible, only their minds moving. Because in meditation, we watch thoughts arise, observe habitual patterns assert themselves, pick apart the source and meaning of thoughts to learn how our minds work.

While meditation is an internal practice, it changes how we relate to the world.

Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun and student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, says that if we begin to let go of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world and simply sit with the sometimes messy and awkward and painful stuff of reality “we begin to find … the tenderness that’s underneath all the harshness. By being kind to ourselves, we become kind to others. By being kind to others—if it’s done properly, with proper understanding—we benefit as well.”

The point, she says, ”is that we are completely interrelated. What you do to others, you do to yourself. What you do to yourself, you do to others."

If we see someone as our enemy, we approach them in a certain way – warily, with our defenses up, ready to defend against attack – or to attack first. If we start instead from a view of commonality, our approach is different.

One approach encourages separateness, defensiveness. The other considers all possibilities. Rather than operating from a view of scarce resources, it sees shared richness.

Look at our consumption habits. We buy a lot of stuff. We buy a lot of stuff we don’t need, in packaging that uses more material than necessary. Why?

Because, Nichtern argues, we feel that we are inadequate, and our culture reinforces that. We’re constantly presented with images of a life that’s better, bigger, with brighter things. He equates this to the Buddha’s first and second noble truths: We are dissatisfied with our lives and feel inadequate because we misunderstand our fundamental nature. We pursue our ideal of perfection – whether that’s a more muscular body, a nicer car, a better social life, a certain political candidate – instead of looking at and becoming comfortable with reality.

If we examine those views, we could find that the present moment is enough.

He writes: “Buddhism’s contribution to interdependence starts with individuals trying to understand what makes our minds tick – why we want what we want, fear what we fear, act how we act, do what we do. From there we can initiate a discussion about how our world works. And once we gain some insight into our minds and the world, we can begin to control our personal projectors and the collective projection, in small ways and big ones. Who knows what this world might look like if we transformed it? It might look a little bit different. Or maybe we would look at it a little bit differently.”

Nichtern is a shastri, or senior teacher, in the Shambhala tradition. Trungpa Rinpoche wrote about the need for enlightened society; his son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, who now leads Shambhala, recently has made that his focus.

Enlightened society, he says, is one that recognizes that all beings share an inherent richness, a primordial goodness, much like the inherent worth and dignity of all beings in our first Unitarian Universalist principle.

The question is: How do we act from that recognition? What does an enlightened society look like? How do people behave? What are the structures?

There are no set answers. The closest to a directive is the Sakyong’s emphasis on creating “a culture of kindness.”

I just got back from two weeks at a retreat contemplating enlightened society with a group of other dedicated meditators. If that society can exist, this was how it starts.

What I can tell you is that even when people are willing to be open-hearted and honest, to interact from a place of kindness, they still have disagreements. They still snore. They stand too close or smell too strongly. They are human.

But they’re willing to own their reactions. And they’re willing to assume that others’ actions are not intended to harm them or judge them so that awkwardness dies out and love arises. And if we replace judgment and condemnation with kindness and acceptance, the culture cannot help but transform.

The actual practice of interdependence means making choices throughout the day. Nichtern writes, “Practicing interdependence requires constantly examining our lifestyle and making decisions about what habits to cultivate and what to avoid.”

He lists three daily practices (in addition to meditation) that he chose to do at the time he wrote the book:

1) Question one consumption choice.

2) Thank everyone who serves you.

3) Pick up a piece of garbage you did not create.

Not too hard. My own daily practices include answering the phone with friendly curiosity rather than hostility, telling people about the good I see in them, delighting in the world around me. Small things, but they begin to turn our minds from a base of conflict to kindness.

Nichtern writes: “Fumbling blindly for what is mystical, we miss what is holy within the mundane event of walking down a city street. Interdependence only SEEMS like a profound truth because we don’t recognize it 99 percent of the time.”

Chogyam Trungpa suggests that the secret is appreciation. “We have fundamental appreciation and respect for what we do,” he said. “Every act is a sacred act. With that inspiration, we regard every experience in our life as sacred as well.”