In my post: Principles Against Some Common Fallacies...

4. The idea of 'interbeing' was not taught by Buddha.

This item is close to that of yesterday. However, we can address the matter from a different angle. One often hears these days that the essence of Buddha's teaching is that we lack any separate existence. I think that this seriously misrepresents Buddha's teaching.

An important part of that teaching was expressed by the term ekagata, which loosely means 'coming and going as a single one'. As I said yesterday, it is about responsibility and growing up. The person who is ekagata is not oppressed inwardly by what, in analytical psychology, we call 'internalised others'. This, therefore, refers to a person who can make up his own mind, make decisions, not be run around by fantasies of pleasing an imaginary sudience, whether that 'audience' contain 'significant others' from the past, real persons in the present, or imaginary representatives of 'normality', 'authority' or whatever. We are, therefore, talking about a real psychological liberation. Only such a person can really stand against corrupt influence, whether we are talking about the gross corruptions of crime and political oppression or the little everyday ones that riddle ordinary social life.

The emphasis in the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha lean much more in the direction of cultivating the kind of person who can go and spend time alone in the forest and not be terrified, than toward some kind of merger with others.

The idea of interbeing has some scriptural basis in the 'Net of Indra' idea in the Avatamsaka. The Avatamsaka is a huge collection of texts. It is questionalbe whether they all or which go back to Shakyamuni himself in some form or other. However, even if we leave the question of authenticity aside, I still think it would be wrong to assume that the Indra teaching somehow over-rules all the other teachings. Assuming that it does so is really surely a projection of our modern humanism.

For sure, we long for a world in which there is peace and harmony, but I do not think that it is going to arrive through the interbeing type of philosophy and I do not think that Shakyamuni thought so either. What is required, rather, are people who are strong enough to make an imp[act in a positive direction within our world and that means ones who are capable of standing alone when necessary. That is far closer to the spirit of the 'noble life' that Shakyamuni preached.

The idea of 'interbeing' was introduced by Thich Nhat Hanh. His explanation of the term is as follows:

"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. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-“ with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be."

We can see that this definition relies upon a concertina-ing of time. Some things depend upon some other things that happened at a different time. If we take time out of the equation, then these things all exist together. However, as I understand it, time is a vital part of the Buddhadharma. In fact, time tends to come out as the most fundamental dimension. The whole drama of life exists because things do not all exist at once but emerge over time. The paper might depend upon a prior cloud, but that prior cloud does not depend upon the paper because at the time of the cloud that particular piece of paper did not exist. Evn if we were to take the Sarvastivada approach and say that past, present and future are all as real as each other, they are still not all at the same time. It is time that separates them. Buddha's teaching is time - impermanence. All attempts to make time illusory destroy the Dharma.

I can agree with Thich Nhat Hanh in what he says in this quote, namely that as a poet one loves this kind of imagery. However, the implications that people take from it very quickly take us outside of the Dharma teaching of Buddha. There is birth. There is disease, old age and death. There is gain and loss. From all these arise the karma-drama of life and there are noble and ignoble ways to live in such an existential situation. To choose the better way requires faith, courage and an ability to stand on one's own feet.

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Replies to This Discussion

I have heard of "interbeing" being used to refer to the doctrine of  “dependant co-arising” in the Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta. Is this helpful or just confusing?

Thanks, Dennis.

It is a different take on the matter. There is an important distinction philosophically between "co-arising" and "arising in dependence" - co-arising implies all arising together - there is then no causation over time - whereas the original idea of arising in dependence implies that what arises at one point in time depends upon what was there previously. Normally we think in this time sequence way, but "interbeing" and "co-arising" imply that everything happens at the same time, which is actually a completely different idea about the nature of the universe. Is time an illusion or is it the fundamental reality? I have, therefore, moved away from the interbeing idea. I find it more helpful and practical to think in terms of time sequences and causation.

Another aspect, also important, is that interbeing suggests that everything depends upon everything else. This makes everything necessary which means that the bad is as necessary as the good. This in turn undermines ethics. It suggests that there is nothing you can do to improve things (or make them worse). Hitler is as necessary as Mother Theresa, and so on. Again, I am not happy with this line of thought.

When I first came across the idea of interbeing it made a lot of sense to me, but the more i thought about it the more the whole idea seemed to fall apart and actually seem counter-productive.



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