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At the Center of All Things is Interdependence

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The first time I consciously remember my mother teaching me about interdependence, one of the central concepts of Buddhism, I was ten years old. She took out the enormous medical book she used to diagnose the ailments of everyone in our extended family. We oohed and aahed over the diagrams of how a zygote grows into an embryo to become a fetus that eventually transforms into a child all within a woman’s body. And then she turned to me and said: Bhoomo (daughter), can you tell me where the consciousness is in this timeline? Where is the self? When is the self? What is the self when the umbilical cord is still connected? And, what about the mother? Where does her self-hood begin if her own existence would not be possible without her mother and father? She listened to me carefully throughout that evening as we debated these questions and gently nudged me towards the understanding that the only way anything exists is through the complex interplay between other existing things and the magic of circumstance. The true nature of existence is interdependence.

I come from Sikkim, a tiny Buddhist-kingdom-turned-Indian state in the heart of the eastern Himalayas. I belong to a Bhutia family that tends to produce Tibetan Buddhist female practitioners including my mother Tsunma Dechen Zangmo, a Buddhist nun and teacher who passed away in 1997. I am a trained field conservationist and environmental scientist and have worked for one of the largest conservation groups in the world, an Ivy League university, and am now based at a Big Ten university. My sacred land of origin is protected by Mount Kanchenjunga, the third tallest peak in the world, which is known to very few people outside of the Himalayas. There is a reason why. Kanchenjunga is alive for the Bhutia and the Lepcha people of Sikkim; he is sentient; he is powerful; he is our protective deity, and we do not allow him to be climbed or his desecration to be monetized. The Bhutia and the Lepcha people have a cosmology where every part of the natural environment has sentient force. We are raised with the awareness that we exist not only in interdependence with one another but with all of nature. And, this continues to be part of my core set of beliefs and values. 

At fifteen, I was sent to study in the United States in the care of my youngest aunt. It was a jarring experience to leave the natural beauty of the Himalayas for the jagged hardness of New York City and to leave a community that prized compassion for a new world that brandished a me-first mentality. I learned quickly that if I wanted to enter the world of science, which upholds itself as the foundation of rationalism, I would have to submerge my faith and cultural beliefs in order to survive. I was constantly presented with a presupposition that faith and science are contradictory knowledge systems and cannot coexist as truth-seeking methods in equal value. You must pick one path or the other. For someone like me, who was raised to be comfortable holding multiple truths in one hand and to be respectful of all knowledge systems, it was a harsh lesson especially because it was so often presumed that my gender and race were the reason I was cognitively less capable of rationalism. 

However, I am an environmentalist because everything that is demonstrably obvious in the biological sciences—in the study of living entities, their properties and their life cycles, ecosystems and their services and adaptations—confirms what I know to be true as a Buddhist. And, I am a Buddhist because the spiritual concepts I most value—interdependence, impermanence and compassion—are evident in the natural world. Consider the necessary role bees play in human agriculture or the constant shedding of our body cells or the innate compassion of the Earth’s hydrological cycle, where water evaporates to condense into clouds to descend as rain and collects to give birth to life again and again.

Over the years of living, working, and navigating life in the United States, I have learned that the dominant American identity hinges upon individualism or what I now refer to as the John Wayne paradigm; a worldview where antisocial lone heroes—almost always hyper-masculine white men—will save the day via decisive and often violent retribution. The John Wayne paradigm exists in a confrontational world defined by scarce resources, competition as the basis for a zero sum game, and the survival of the fittest. It seems to me that American exceptionalism is born out of this worldview, and this is the emotional root for the nation’s militarization within and without. It goes without saying that this kind of mise en scène would be pointless without an enemy to overcome, without frontiers to conquer, and without hyper-feminine principles to rail against. And Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, women, LGBTQ folks, immigrants, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, as well as Nature herself, have all historically been made and continue to be made “the other,” the counterfoil against which to form and reform the parameters of the predominant white American identity. Yes, there is interdependence even to this. 

The planet that we live upon is a closed system. Other than energy and an occasional meteor, nothing naturally leaves or enters the Earth. The atmosphere surrounding the planet protects us from harmful ultraviolet rays and forms a boundary between us and all else that’s out there in the universe. All of life—as we know it—exists in the geosphere (land), the hydrosphere (water), and our atmosphere (air). Everything made up of matter exists, stops existing, decomposes, and is absorbed back into these three spheres. Not only are we all constantly recycling as part of something else, we humans exist and thrive precisely because of the ecological interdependence that surrounds us. Consider yourself right now. The oxygen circulating in your body and feeding your brain cells come from trees, plankton, and other biomass near and far. The food you eat, the clothes you wear, the shoes on your feet, even the house that shelters you—all come from outside of that limited entity we call self. So why do we believe in individualism when we exist only through interdependence and only as part of a larger ecosystem?

The John Wayne paradigm is surprisingly everywhere: in conservation and climate organizations, in international development, in peace-keeping missions, in anti-racism and labor movements, and in science and academia. It is a seductive prospect because it preys upon our fears that we ourselves will go without and that there are others less deserving (or possibly more deserving) than us who will take our share. I am struck by how often it shows up in the views of privileged white men, who presume we are at an ecological and climate catastrophic point of no return and the only future that awaits is an apocalypse straight out of a Mad Max movie. These foregone conclusions overlook all the collective work being carried out today, including community-based solutions led by women and people of color, to protect and save the most vulnerable in our human and non-human societies. 

We know that communities of color—in particular Black communities and First Nation communities—are subject to the worst kinds of environmental racism in the United States. We know that women, children, and people of color are the most vulnerable to climate change globally and will disproportionately bear the costs. Being “othered” in America (and Europe and the parts of the world that bear the scars of European colonization) has cost us in unimaginable ways. And yet, America is as much Native, Black, Latino, Asian, Immigrant, female, and queer as it is John Wayne. Not only have all of these cultures and communities built America from the ground up, America has been made in contrast to “the other” every step of the way, thereby making America “the other” too. America is labor rights and a democracy that was copied from the Iroquois Confederacy; it is civil rights and a Black Lives Matter movement that has now become the largest civil rights movement in history in the United States and around the world; it is Earth Day and a Green New Deal.

In Tibetan Buddhism, we are taught to balance meditation on mindfulness with meditation on interdependence so we always remember that the purpose of meditation is to learn to develop compassion for all sentient beings. And, as it happens, when we allow our mind to rest in non-duality and when we dissolve the barrier between self and “the other,” we find compassion not only for “the other” but also for ourselves. Our happiness is the by-product. The power in embracing interdependence as a way to create community is that we get to exchange the John Wayne paradigm for a more compassionate, messy worldview where we are in caring and fractious community with one another and where we lead through imperfect consensus. This alternative brings us back to the certainty that life, no matter how much we wish otherwise, does not fit into perfect squares or follow straight lines and is therefore more complex, diverse, and divergent than our dominant cultural vision allows. The power in embracing interdependence in the work we do as a collective is that we automatically lean into inclusivity, into compassion, and into diversity as strengths rather than weaknesses. We stop the “othering.” By doing so, we follow the example of the greatest strategic designer and community builder alive, Nature herself.

It turns out Darwin’s theory of evolution was incomplete. Evolutionary biologists such as Elizabet Sahtouris have concluded that the survival of the fittest is but one stage of the larger evolutionary cycle and that without intra- and inter-species cooperation built into the process, a purely selfish and competitive species is likely to die out.[1] Forest ecologists such as Suzanne Simard have demonstrated that trees communicate with one another through their underground root and fungi networks and when one of them is ailing, other trees push nutrients through their root system to help it recover.[2] As a field conservationist, I have seen again and again that greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability in all life forms and creates more resilience within ecosystems. Resilience is the byproduct of building community around the precept of interdependence, and this is both a demonstrable scientific fact and a spiritual truth and awakening.

The John Wayne model has pushed so many of us in a direction where we create complex economic calculations to convince people, corporations, and governments of the monetary value of nature. However, we now know that while the world’s 370 million Indigenous peoples make up less than 5 percent of the global human population, they manage and protect 80 percent of the global biodiversity because their traditional ecological knowledge reaffirms the inherent sacred value of nature and interdependence amongst all living beings. It is time for a paradigm shift. The beauty of knowing that the Earth is a closed system is to understand—without hubris—that we are all part of the same phenomenon, Life. We are all the same: We hope good things happen to us. We care for the people that love us. We are immersed in the communities that surround us. And we exist due to the biophysical interplay of nature. When we take a few steps back, we can see how all species are part of one vast community, living and breathing in tandem with one another, acting in ways that are compassionate rather than competitive. Embracing interdependence as the central organizing principle is to dissolve that boundary between ourselves and “the other” and to expand the circle of community so that there is no “other” left; there is only us made whole.

[1] Sahtouris, E. (2000). Earthdance: Living systems in evolution. Lincoln, NE: IUniverse.com; Sahtouris, E. (June 2014). Ecosophy: Nature’s Guide to a Better World. Kosmos, Spring/Summer(2014). Retrieved May 13, 2021, from https://www.kosmosjournal.org/article/ecosophy-natures-guide-to-a-better-world/ 

[2] Simard, S. W., Perry, D. A., Jones, M. D., Myrold, D. D., Durall, D. M., & Molina, R. (1997). Net transfer of carbon between ectomycorrhizal tree species in the field. Nature, 388(6642), 579-582. doi:10.1038/41557; Simard, S. (June 2016). How trees talk to each other. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/suzanne_simard_how_trees_talk_to_each_other?language=en


Image credit:

“Kanchenjunga, the 3rd one after Everest and K2” by fikander is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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  • Dekila Chungyalpa

    Dekila Chungyalpa is the founder and director of an award-winning capacity building and outreach program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison for faith leaders, religious institutions and culture keepers of Indigenous traditions. Known as the Loka Initiative, its mission is to support faith-led environmental efforts locally and around the world through collaborations with faith and Indigenous leaders on environmental protection, sustainable development, and climate issues. 

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