1. Our Interdependent World

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Our Interdependent World

OUR WORLD IN THE twenty-­first century is smaller than it used to be. People from widely dispersed societies are in closer contact than ever before, and just as importantly, we are more aware of our closeness. In this age of information, experts and ordinary observers alike can identify many ways that actions in one part of the world have far-­reaching effects elsewhere on the planet. Awareness is growing that we live in a world where all of us, and the natural world that sustains us, are profoundly and radically connected.

This interconnection has long been described in Buddhism as interdependence, and that term now forms part of conversations far beyond Buddhist contexts. Professionals in diverse fields increasingly find interdependence to be an important framework for explaining what they observe. Environmental scientists find it indispensable for understanding ecosystems, economists apply it to international trade, and social theorists use it to chart the systems that reproduce racial and gender injustice, just to name a few.

Interdependence may be used to explain a great many systems, from the relationships among natural phenomena to groups of people and nations — 14in other words, the world around us. But I believe that an understanding of our deep interconnection can do far more than that. Interdependence is not a mere theory or interesting philosophy. It impacts our lives directly every single day. By deepening our awareness of interconnectedness, we can create a far more harmonious and healthy society and live far more satisfying lives. For that to happen, we can’t just stop our analysis at the interdependence of the physical world. The human heart and mind — what we might call our inner world — form an integral part of these webs of interdependence.

Inside each of us is a complex constellation of perceptions, ideas, feelings, and intentions that mutually affect one another. Our inner worlds interact with outer conditions to shape the world around us. We respond to external circumstances, but we also create them. In other words, our inner worlds and the outer world are intimately connected, and that interconnection is part of interdependence as well. Recognizing the full extent of interdependence will lead to a fundamental rethinking of who we are as human beings and of our place in the world we help create.

Our inner world is the pivotal domain for bringing about real change in the world that we all share. Neither social nor environmental justice is possible without significant changes in our attitudes and the intentional behavior they give rise to. The transformation of our social and material world must begin within us.

The intellectual awareness we are gaining about interdependence is an important first step. The next — and crucial — step is to gain an emotional awareness of interdependence. We need to feel our profound interconnectedness and not just know about it. We have within us numerous qualities that help sustain such an emotional engagement with our interdependence. By enhancing our understanding of the interdependence of our inner world, we become better able to cultivate such qualities.

Once we do, the emotional awareness we have gained will pro15foundly reorient our relationships to others and our ways of being in the world. We will begin acting in ways that truly reflect our interdependence. When our understanding of interdependence has moved from head to heart and into action, our lives become fully effective and meaningful.


Our interconnectedness matters in all our relationships and in every aspect of our lives. Interdependence is a definite force in the world. It has great value for us. Because of it, we can respond and adapt to circumstances. We can change. We can work toward our goals by gathering the conditions needed to accomplish them. If we were not interdependent, we would be unable to do any of that. Understanding how this fundamental principle works in our lives enables us to consciously reorient our lives and to change the world itself.

Interdependence describes our deep connectedness, but it also explains why and how we are interconnected. We can start by observing that everything in life happens due to various causes and conditions coming together. Interdependence reveals the profound implications of this simple fact. It shows us that everything that exists is a condition that affects others, and is affected in turn, in a vast and complex web of causality. As part of that web, we ourselves are a condition that impacts those around us. That means if we change, so do others.

As we can see, not only is the physical realm intimately interconnected; social systems are also subject to interdependence. So is our emotional life; so is everything, material or immaterial. Once we begin to look for it, we find interdependence no matter where we direct our gaze: from the largest astronomical systems to subtle shifts in our sensations. Interdependence has practical consequences in virtually every sphere of life on this planet. In fact, it has environmental, 16economic, social, psychological, and ethical implications that we as a global society have only just begun to fathom.

In the broadest view, the health of our planet depends on our recognizing how interdependence works in the natural world and especially how human actions — greatly amplified by technological advances — are interacting with other forces. On a personal level, our ability to find lasting happiness also depends on understanding how interdependence works within our own life and relationships. In short, the well-­being of our global society as well as our individual happiness both depend on our learning how to live fully in tune with our interdependence.

To recognize the workings of interdependence in our inner as well as in the outer world, we must ask some basic questions. How would the way we relate to others change if we began to feel our interconnectedness? What human values come to the fore when we acknowledge our interdependence emotionally as well as intellectually? What would a global society that fully embraced interdependence look like? What can we ourselves do to help create that society?


In Buddhism, applying the view of interdependence leads us to examine the nature of the self, and it challenges how we see ourselves in relation to others. That rethinking transforms how we engage with others, emotionally and in our actions.

We can start by observing our own experience. From the vantage point of interdependence, we can begin to see that our connections to others cannot be severed. Our happiness and suffering are so closely connected to the happiness and suffering of others as to be inseparable. This means that no individual is fully self-­sustaining or divisible from others.

To see whether this rings true, reflect on what you are referring 17to when you say “I” or “me.” Most likely you will find that you are thinking of yourself as solid and separate, as a truly independent entity. But is there such a thing? When you say “I,” if asked to specify what exactly you are referring to, you will invariably point to your own body. Where else would you point? But this body came from others. Your body developed from cellular material provided by your two biological parents. Without them, it would not have come to exist.

After those cells began dividing, your body formed and grew based on all the nutrients you received. The physical form you have today is the product of what you first received in the womb, followed by a whole lifetime of meals. Those meals were mostly prepared by other people and made of ingredients that come entirely from resources outside of yourself, namely plants and animals. Since there is no such thing as a living body that did not grow based on what it takes in from its environment, nor any human being that did not come from parents, your body is not in reality a separate you. It comes from others. Your body exists because of many factors that you think of as other than you. Therefore it is not entirely correct to call it me. But neither is it someone other than you.

In my own case, my father is named Karma Dondrup and my mother is Lolaga. My features bear some resemblance to theirs, as my body originates from the combination of their DNA. Basically, I was produced by them, much as a product is produced by a company. You could even say I bear their mark. Unlike an industrial product produced in a factory, our parents do not literally stamp a label or a brand on our body, even if parents do act sometimes as if they held the copyright to their children!

If you cannot point to your body as me, what about the other things you think of as mine? There is the clothing you wear. It was made by others and acquired from others. Before it was yours, you either had to purchase it from somewhere, or someone had to give it to you as a gift. None of us was born wearing clothing. Cotton comes 18from plants, wool comes from the body of sheep who had to be forcibly parted from it in order for it to become yours, and synthetic fabrics are produced in factories. Many other human beings and even some animals have a hand in the clothes you now think of as yours. Every time you put on clothes, or enjoy a cup of tea or a plate of food, you are witnessing this display of your interdependence, for these are all prepared and served to you by others, directly or indirectly.

All of these things that we think of as me and mine — our bodies, our clothes, our food, and all our material possessions — come from others. So where is this I that is exclusively me? We seem to be left with nothing that is uniquely our own. Yet we still continue to say “I” when it should be evident that 99 percent of what we call I is not really I. It is what we usually consider “other.”

The 1 percent you might quibble about is your consciousness. Yet you would have a very hard time arguing that your thoughts are wholly unconnected to others, unless all your thoughts are absolutely original and you think in a language that is unique to you. Not only our ideas, but a great deal of our emotional life and our psychological makeup is very clearly influenced by others and impacted by what goes on around us.

Even were it the case that our basic awareness or consciousness were truly and exclusively ours while perhaps the other 99 percent is not, it is not that 1 percent that we are thinking of primarily when we say “I.” When we say “I,” we mean the entire complex of body and mind. We are referring to the whole package, as it were, and we have seen that 99 percent of that package is what we normally consider to be other — coming from plants and animals, and deeply marked by the presence of many other human beings. After thinking about it in this way — from the viewpoint of interdependence — ask yourself whether there is such a thing as an entirely independent you.

What you think of and hold onto as yourself is actually a product of others; many causes and conditions contributed to the creation 19of who you are. But it is not sufficient to simply acknowledge this. Understanding the fact of your interdependence intellectually will not transform your experience. But reflecting in this way deeply is a starting point for cultivating the feelings of our connections to others.

The aim is to be able to feel the extent to which others are extremely important and integral to you and also to gain an emotional awareness that you are never, ever really separate from them. Others are part of you, just as you are part of them. You exist in connection with others. When you see this, you can also see that your happiness and suffering depend upon others. If you think solely in terms of yourself and your own happiness, it simply does not work. There is no happiness without relying upon others.

Once we deeply understand that self and others are not two entirely distinct things — that we are not really separate — many things can change. We will feel a sense of profound connection to other beings, and we will experience their contributions to who we are with gratitude and goodwill. We will see and feel that we simply must consider others’ well-­being.


We can also extend these feelings of intimate connectedness to our natural environment. Turning our attention to the most basic condition for our life on this planet — the air we breathe — we see that we cannot be separated from our physical environment. Even if we could manage for some time without food or clothing, we cannot survive more than a few minutes without oxygen. A vast number of conditions need to come together to yield the uninterrupted supply of oxygen that is indispensable to keep us alive, yet we ourselves make no conscious effort to bring those conditions about. Contemplating this basic fact can spark a sense of wonder and gratitude toward the planet itself.

What’s more, we ourselves form part of this vast system of ­20symbiotic exchanges. As the trees and plants take in sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce the oxygen that we so vitally require, we are continually reciprocating with carbon dioxide, which plants use as they produce more oxygen. Once we inhale, that oxygen is carried by our blood to cells throughout our body. Thus we can say that trees and plants and the sun itself are present in our every cell, just as our breath may be present in the plants’ cells.

Viewing our place in the world in this way, we see more fully that everything required for us to come into being, all that we turn to in order to define who we are, and everything we need to survive in life is connected to other people and to resources outside of ourselves. Likewise, we are resources that others depend upon for their existence. Who and what we are is inextricably and reciprocally linked to others.

Maintaining this awareness as we live our lives can help us move beyond a merely intellectual understanding of interdependence. As we increasingly apply this lens to our experiences, the awareness moves from our head to our heart, and we can begin to actually experience ourselves as interconnected. Our observations become the basis for new understanding and new feelings. This in turn can spark a fundamental reorientation toward others and our place in an interdependent world.


Buddhist texts use an analogy to describe the relationship between us living beings and the natural environment. This analogy can also help us see a deeper implication of interdependence. The natural world is described as a container, and all the beings that live in it are described as its contents. This analogy emphasizes the inextricable connection of humans, animals, and their natural environment. The planet holds and sustains us. Without it, we would literally fall apart.


When we think of containers, we often overlook the ways in which the contents can affect the container itself — warming or cooling it, staining or bleaching it, stretching or strengthening it and even breaking it. The word used in Tibetan for “contents” in this analogy also literally means “nutrients,” such that we ourselves are like the nourishment for the world that contains us. Indeed, as I have mentioned, the carbon dioxide we exhale nourishes the trees and plants, and our bodies also return to the earth and nourish it after we have died. The natural environment, in turn, nourishes us and provides us with the conditions we need for life. What this signals is that the connections of interdependence between us and the world we live in are far closer and more reciprocal than we normally envision.

This analogy can render the fact of interdependence very vivid for us — to help take it beyond a mere idea and make it something we can actually feel, live, and breathe. This is important, because interdependence is not a theoretical possibility — it’s a practical reality.


Human beings’ relationship of dependence with the planet does not go in only one direction, though for most of history we seem to have overlooked that fact. When we think of earthquakes, blizzards, or floods, we readily recognize that natural phenomena have an impact on us. What is less obvious is that we too impact the planet and that our actions can either harm or benefit it.

Not only are we are affecting the world; we appear to be in the process of making it uninhabitable. Some may find it difficult to see how we could nurture the earth, but the fact that we are damaging it has become hard to deny. When contents are corrosive, they damage the container. If we keep in mind the analogy of container and contents, it might help us see that interdependence always works both ways. Although many people now do acknowledge this, that ­admission has 22not yet led to the next crucial step — sufficient changes in our behavior to stop the harm and create the conditions for the earth to start healing.

Of course, we are not entirely blind to the fact of our basic interconnectedness to the planet. It is more a matter of having too limited a range of view. The earth is so immense, it is hard to see the impact we have. But our individual acts participate in far-­reaching processes of causality all the time. We just need to cultivate different lenses so we can gain awareness of our interdependence on both vast and intimate scales.

All parties are changed by being in relationship. Just being connected to someone or something means we are each forming part of the other. This is true in all forms of interdependence, from those that form planetary systems to our most intimate and personal relationships. For example, in the case of parents and children, although in the more obvious sense parents produce children, yet it is only by having children that people become parents. We could even say that parents are born in the moment that their first child comes into their life. Before they had children, a woman and man were not a mother or father. In that sense, children also make their parents parents. Interdependence connects us on many levels and always works both ways.


Recognizing our intimate dependence on the natural environment allows us to see its true value and treasure it. One reason that people living in cities nowadays need to be told so much about the importance of caring for the earth is because they did not grow up feeling direct, unmediated connections to it. For them, nature is something that one visits in city parks or on excursions out into the countryside. When we are raised in urban environments, our sense for the natural 23environment is more remote because we rarely witness our fundamental reliance upon it. Nature seems like a pretty backdrop to our lives, something that adds to the scenery but is basically optional. We are obstructed from seeing how the natural environment is the very stage on which our lives play out. Without the conditions that arise from our environment, nothing whatsoever can take place.

In my own case, I was born and spent the early part of my life in a pristine environment in the highlands of the Tibetan plateau. My family were nomads, and we adjusted our lives to the rhythm of the seasons. We lived in tents, in constant direct touch with the earth. When I first left my homeland, I remember that for a long time I experienced a physical longing to return and reconnect, to plant my feet on that earth once again and inhale the freshness of the high-­altitude breezes. Moreover, the sky in eastern Tibet is wide open and the land is spacious. Nowadays when I’m in an urban setting with streets like narrow canyons, it can feel a bit like the buildings are closing in on me. Added to that, the experience of the city’s cement sidewalks is far removed from that of touching the living earth.

Of course even if we aren’t born in rural environments, we can cultivate a closer appreciation for the natural world. We can seek out opportunities to come into direct sensory contact with nature, smelling the soil, listening to running water, or touching the bark of a tree. There is much to be said for sensory experiences as a way to feel our personal interconnectedness in a vivid and unmediated way. As our senses open, our heart is moved. This direct experience evokes affection and closeness, and that leads naturally to wanting to nurture and protect our planet.

I have been inspired to dedicate effort to environmental issues, and I definitely credit this to my childhood immersion in nature. My involvement with environmental preservation also mitigates my sense of distance from the natural environment in which I was born. This 24experience makes me believe that we can alleviate our alienation from nature by becoming courageous in our efforts to care for the environment as a whole.


Interdependence involves causality — the way things happen due to the coming together of certain causes and conditions. The more nuanced our appreciation of causality, the more effectively we can achieve the results we want — be it a healthier planet, a more just society, or a happier life.

While some of what we experience in life is the direct result of our efforts, other conditions that affect us are not of our choosing at all. It’s much easier to recognize our role in the immediate results of our intentional actions. What is harder is seeing our role in the indirect results of those actions. Marriage, choice of profession — these are conditions that shape a person’s life and that she or he directly and knowingly creates. But our actions also have many consequences that we may not have anticipated.

Our actions impact others, directly and indirectly, but they also create conditions that later we must experience ourselves, like it or not. Finding ourselves in situations that we did not choose but that have come about through our previous actions is simply another facet of living within webs of causality that we ignore at our own risk.

As we move through the world, we initiate long series of events, each helping cause the next. A single act impacts a much wider sphere than we generally recognize. Our actions have ripple effects beyond the direct results that we readily perceive and recognize as consequences of our actions. In Buddhism, we often use the language of karma to describe the relationship between intentional actions and their full range of results. However, it is not necessary to apply such terms to understand that due to interdependence, everything we do 25has an impact not only on us and on our immediate surroundings but far beyond that.

Widening our scope of vision is essential if we are to understand and fully appreciate the more subtle workings of causality. Our initial focus may be on our immediate surroundings and the way in which interdependence affects us personally, as an individual. But to fully appreciate the role of interdependence in shaping our world and our experience of it, we need to develop an awareness of causes and effects, actions and reactions, in a greatly expanded context.


Living with a sense of this wider horizon is necessary for us to thrive both as a global society and as individuals. Many problems arise when we limit our view to a narrow, self-­centered focus. Selfishness acts as a kind of close frame, limiting and distorting our view of reality.

Our grasping at what is me and mine puts up walls that can make our world close in on us. We end up peering out through narrow windows and seeing what goes on around us through a myopic lens. No wonder there is such a sense of alienation and loneliness in the world. Opening up to the view of interconnectedness helps us to break down the barriers erected by our own egocentrism and to emerge from the narrow and dark cell in which we tend to shut ourselves away.

The wisdom that arises when we fully comprehend our interdependence is a force that can dismantle the walls that separate us from others. Compassion, or an altruistic outlook, can have the same effect. Wisdom and compassion can grow from the awareness that we are all absolutely equal in our wish for happiness and in our longing to be free of pain and suffering. Any being that has the capacity to feel pain merits our respect and our concern. Our recognition of this shared yearning can itself awaken a concern for the well-­being of 26another. When we feel it fully as part our very being, then we will naturally act to alleviate the pain of others and add to their happiness. As such, our vivid awareness that all living beings are perfectly equal in terms of their shared yearning for happiness can be fundamental in reorienting us as we live our interdependence.

In this way, we first need to broaden our awareness. A central aim of this book is to help awaken that awareness and translate it into feelings that lead to action. To truly feel our interdependence, we need a genuine change of heart. Just gathering information about our personal problems or the social ills facing us is of limited benefit. We can see this in the case of the warnings that are printed on cigarette packages. The package clearly informs us that smoking kills, yet it is equally clear that this knowledge has not deterred the billion people around the world who still smoke. This is what happens when our knowledge remains as bare information, without deeply felt insight or concern.

People used to argue that smoking is a matter of personal choice, since smokers only harm themselves. But when researchers looked more closely at effects, they discovered that smokers also harm those around them, through secondhand smoke. The narrow lens makes self and others seem wholly disconnected, but when we widen it we see that our actions affect others and others’ actions affect us.


Interdependence reveals that the pursuit of our aims can either benefit or harm others, directly or indirectly. Because of interdependence, our actions affect others inevitably and can either contribute to their well-­being or impact them adversely. As we pursue our own happiness, we have a responsibility to consider the impact of our actions on others’ welfare.

You may recall the terrible disaster that occurred in Bangladesh 27in 2013 when a factory building collapsed. Similar tragedies have happened all over the world, but this took place during the meetings that led to this book and served as a vivid illustration. Day by day, we watched the death toll climb painfully as people searched desperately through the rubble. In the end more than 1,100 people lost their lives. The people in this building had been producing clothing for large international companies. Most who died were women, and some had their children with them while they worked. The structure appears to have been poorly built in the first place and was not properly maintained subsequently, to save costs and increase profit margins.

International companies have their clothes assembled in Bangladesh, China, and other places where they can avoid offering the salaries and healthy working conditions that people with a higher standard of living can demand. This is in turn because enough people in the United States, Europe, and other affluent communities are willing to purchase their clothes at a cheap price no matter what labor conditions they were produced under. The choice of which clothing you buy may seem to be a personal choice, but in this case it entails importing your own comfort by exporting disaster and suffering to others elsewhere.

To fulfill our responsibilities as members of a global society, it is crucial we look beyond immediate consequences and consider the indirect implications of our conduct. For with our individual actions, we impact the lives of others and shape the world that is our common home.


We not only share the world; many of us also share similar attitudes and behaviors. When enough people think and act in similar ways, the effect of those actions is amplified. We can refer to this dynamic as cumulative action or collective action. In Buddhist terms we call this collective karma, 28which in this case simply refers to the fact that many people engaging in the same intentional action has a cumulative effect that impacts us all.

We do not generally spend much time thinking about the wider impact of our collective actions and attitudes. When we can see the immediate results of our personal actions, we take more care. But the connection between collective actions or shared attitudes and their longer-­term or indirect impact is more obscure, and for this reason we fail to concern ourselves with these wider consequences.

The world has always been interdependent. But in the twenty-­first century, communications technologies help make that fact more readily visible to us. Globalization promotes — and global society seems to be embracing wholeheartedly — a consumer culture that is spread instantly through communications technologies. This lends an added force to shared attitudes and actions. Our individual lifestyle choices are greatly amplified as consumer trends and values are expressed online and carried rapidly to all corners of the globe. More and more people seek to embrace the global consumer culture they see articulated online, believing such a lifestyle will bring them personal happiness and social success.

We urgently need to recognize that we are not making choices for ourselves alone. When we choose for ourselves, we are also choosing for many others. Therefore we need to take much greater care what we decide and how we behave. Many individuals acting out of personal wants and desires have far-­reaching collective effects on the world as a whole.


As just one example, look at the use of motor vehicles in our cities. When I first arrived in India fourteen years ago, there were cars on the road in Delhi, of course, but traffic by and large flowed. Today, 29however, the city is notorious for its traffic jams, and you can spend a great deal of time in the car without moving. Some reports put the current number of registered vehicles in Delhi at five million.

How did there come to be so many cars on the road? It is often as simple as one person buying a new car and their neighbor feeling that they, too, ought to have one. But the choice to purchase a car is not a purely personal matter, however much it may appear so to the individual consumer. When we are buying a car, we behave and think as if we were acting in a vacuum. We consider what kind of car we want and can afford, weigh our own preferences for color and style, and then just go ahead and buy it without widening our perspective.

But when it comes time to put the car on the road, we have a rude awakening. We discover that our personal car did not come with its own personal streets to drive on. Once we find ourselves stuck in a traffic jam because everyone else is also trying to drive down the same road, the thought may occur to us that we are not acting alone.

Imagine if everyone in your city bought a car, and a flood of cars sat stagnant in the streets. They would have to stack the cars one on top of another! There would be piles of people sitting in their cars waiting for the government to better regulate and fund other options for transportation. As we grumble about the inconvenience, it is important to see that our own failure to consider the cumulative impact of our actions is actually a major part of the problem.


Such visible signs of our interdependence can be observed all around us. But as I have been urging, we must not limit our awareness of interdependence to such external displays. We can see the causality of interdependence very much at work internally as well. Our interdependent lives are shaped not only by material conditions but also by our emotional states, by the strength of inner qualities like patience, 30love, or wisdom, and by the beliefs and perceptions that influence our decisions — in short the whole suite of cognitive and affective forces at work within us.

When I speak of the inner world, I do not have in mind an inner world that is totally distinct from the outer world. However, between our outer and inner conditions, I would argue that these inner conditions have more influence in shaping our world than the outer. This is because our inner world is constantly shaping the way we perceive and respond to the circumstances we find ourselves in. How do external situations appear in your mind? Is your mind disturbed? Do you feel happy? Your inner world has a powerful role in determining how you experience your external conditions and respond to them. There are people whose external conditions appear to be fine or even great, yet they may be holding sadness and experiencing a great deal of darkness within. Conversely, some who live in seemingly abject circumstances may experience contentment and joy.

We have within us already the most important resources we need for living interdependence well. We have tremendous mental flexibility that allows us to adopt new positions in relation to changing circumstances. As I will explore in the following chapters, I believe that we have the basic ability to open our hearts to others, to take their perspectives into consideration, and to share experiences and feelings. Our natural capacity for empathy is a clear sign that we are emotionally connected. If one child cries, another will cry. When people are wholeheartedly laughing, we often cannot help but join in, even if we do not know what is funny. These are all small signs that we are connected inwardly and not just outwardly.

Focusing on our inner interdependence allows us see that we are all moved by the same inner drive to seek happiness and avoid suffering. This universal wish motivates life on this planet. The happiness we all seek only comes when we are working not just on external conditions but on inner ones as well.



Far from existing in isolation from one another, in fact, the outer material world and our inner world actively impact one another. Our inner conditions have an enormous impact on the outer world. Our attitudes and feelings, for instance, affect those around us emotionally. More broadly, our emotions incline us to behave in certain ways. Our attitudes also shape our actions, and with our actions we are creating the world we all share.

Conversely, our external conditions also shape us inwardly. Sometimes it looks to me as if modern society has come to be like a machine, one that we are all part of and move through like automatons. There can seem to be little warmth. Due to this lack of love, we come to feel isolated and lonely. This is a sign that the outside world is affecting us

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