It is quite common in Buddhist circles these days to hear the following assertions:
1. everything affects everything else, at least minimally, in one way or another
2. everything is interdependent
3. interdependent co-arising is the fundamental teaching of Buddhism
4. this is the meaning of the Buddhist teaching of nonself.
5. if one understands this one is enlightened
I am open to persuasion, but it appears to me that every one of these statements is false and the supposed logical links between them would not stand up even if some of them were true.
There is a muddle here between things that happen over time and things that occur simultaneously, and also between the notion of a 'smoothly functioning' idealised universe and actuality. When it is said that everything affects everything else, it presumably means ‘everything else that happens thereafter’. It is not possible for something that happens today to affect what happened yesterday. It might affect the way we perceive or think about what happened yesterday, but that just means that this whole structure of intertependence type ideas actually refers to our fantasies rather than to the real world. If the assertion were that ‘everything we imagine affects all our other acts of imagination’ one could find some support for the idea, though even then it would be an over-statement.
So, if we are saying everything that happens now affects everything that happens in the future, this could only be so if space and spacial distance did not exist and matter. My sneezing in central France does not affect the bear in Siberia who licks here cups five minutes later.
It might be said that my sneeze produces a miniscule change in the air pressure on the planet and that this is automatically transmitted through the atmosphere and so does affect the bear in some almost infinitessimal degree, but this idea rests upon the idea of the physical world operating in a perfectly smoothly proportional manner which defies the knowledge that we have of quantum effect. As a general rule things are only affected by some external pressure when that pressure arrives at a certain quantum mass. In other words, the universe does not react to things smoothly, it reacts in fits and jerks. In any case, I am rather confident that these fine points in the theory of physical science were far from the mind of Buddha when he gave his teachings.
So, moving on, even if it were the case that my sneeze was enough to start a storm on Jupiter, this would still not mean that everything is ‘interdependent’. Interdependent, surely, means A depends upon B at the same time as B depends upon A. Instances of interdependence do occur. The example given in the Buddhist texts is the position of the legs of a tripod. If any one falls the other two do so as well. This is a case of what we could call ’strong interdependence’ since the way that each leg depends upon the other two is similar in each case so there is a complete mutuality. We can also think about weak forms of interdependence in which what is at work is a kind of ‘trade’. B receives x from A and A receives y from B. If A in some sense needs - i.e. is dependent upon - y and B needs x then we have a case of interdependence, though not a totally symmetrical one. It could be the B needs x a great deal more than A needs y. It should be obvious, I think, that what we are talking about here is an occasional, not a universal circumstance. Most randomly selected pairs of things in the cosmos do not stand in such a relationship of interdependence to one another, either strong or weak.
The universe seems to work in quanta. Things stay the same until the forces of change have reached a certain threshold. Beyond that tipping point, things change. They then fall into a new equilibrium until the next tipping point is reached. This means that things, states and processes do have a temporary independence of one another. Temporary means 'because of time'. Assertions about universal interaction rely upon an attempt to eliminate time from the picture. However, without time there are no actions or changes anyway. Without time one has a completely parmenidean universe within which it is impossible for anything to happen. In such a state of affairs none of these assertions would have any meaning at all. Therefore, all of these statements except the first one rely upon an assumption by which they would themselves all be rendered meaningless and inappropriate.
Insofar as there is any implied ontology in Buddha’s teachings, time seems to be pretty much the fundamental dimension, not something to be easily eliminated. Buddha taught impermanence. His teaching is, as it happens, in line with the quantum idea. He taught in a manner that implies a universe of temporarily stable entities that are bound to give way sooner or latter to accumulating changes in conditions. Such changes are not smooth and continuous. They are abrupt punctuations. That is why they provoke suffering.
The notion of interdependent co-arising is an even more extreme assertion. It implies that the whole cosmos that occurs in a given moment is a single structure within which everything is as it is because everything else is as it is. This is an interesting idea, but it implicitly abolishes causation and any degree of independent agency and therefore abolishes morals and responsibility. I do not think that this is in line with the teachings of Buddha.
Enlightenment is not a matter of understanding how things are interdependently co-arising, nor even of understanding that everything interexists with everything else. It doesn’t. Many things cease without the universe disappearing. Actions do have consequences. Not all things are connected. The fact that Mother Teresa washed a leper in Calcutta in 1960 did not have any effect whatsoever upon Hitler establishing the Third Reich thirty years earlier nor does it make any sense to say that even had those actions occurred simultaneously in time that they would therefore have been dependent upon each other.
So it seems to me that this common line of thinking has little or nothing to do with the Buddha’s teaching of anatma. Anatma means nonself. What is nonself is other. Dharma is other than self. Dharma is not interdependent with, nor dependent upon, self. It is the encounter with what is not self that has the capacity to enlighten. In particular, one’s self is not Buddha and recognising this is an essential first step.