Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds
So here’s the nutshell: the one concept that links everything together in Buddhism and is the ‘unified foundational theory of reality’ (which I never made explicit in the last article) is INTERDEPENDENCE. It links everything together from the smallest quarks to the largest objects in the Universe, and it connects the ‘inner world’ of personal experience with the mezo-level complexity of the social world and ecosystems, with ‘outer world’ of the cosmos. Interdependence is the impetus for our sense of responsibility and the measure of our ethical response. Interdependence, or dependent origination, is the pattern of existence, the pattern of reality at every scale. It is ‘non-self’, in that everything that exists is made up in its constituent parts of—and dependent for its existence on—things which are ‘not self’. This is also, as Nagarjuna said, the essential meaning of ’emptiness’ or shunyata.
But no more Emptiness for me. Emptiness is a useless concept. It does, literally, nothing, except act as an escape clause, a spiritual bypass for people who don’t want to feel responsible for anything. It requires too much arguing for or arguing against, too much explanation, too much haggling, and it yields, literally, nothing. It’s useless—and just because historically it’s been an important Buddhist concept, doesn’t mean that I have to use it or give it another thought. So what. Be gone, emptiness. Ditch that part of the raft for good.
If as Nagarjuna argues, ’emptiness’ is essentially interdependence, then just use interdependence. It does a lot more work as a concept and is highly productive, yielding many more concepts and connections.
With interdependence, I can link together all the scientific theories of ecology and systems theory, with sympoiesis and autopoiesis, with evolution and psychology and culture, with physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy and all the rest. Interdependence is a pattern-concept that connects everything. It connects the inner and outer worlds. It is the foundation for ethics, and it helps us understand why we suffer: because we are interdependent, dependent on others for survival and nurturing, for social bonding, and when those bonds are abusive or damaged, we are traumatized and we suffer. It explains suffering, and it also explains how to relieve suffering: heal the trauma and reactivity in meditation, and connect with other people—create a healthy, loving and compassionate interdependence.
The other so-called ‘marks of existence’ are also useful: impermanence is essential, because it explains that everything is changing. Non-self we have already explained as interdependence. And suffering, or dukkha, as I have written elsewhere, is best translated as ‘insecurity’. Because things are impermanent, we are insecure; we can’t rely on anything or anyone to ‘be there’ forever. We use things up, we run out of stuff. The people we depend on move away or die. Thus suffering, or ‘dukkha’ is our existential insecurity, that there is nothing we can truly rely on, our ‘groundlessness’ as Pema Chodron would say. But insecurity is just a result of impermanence. So the governing principle is impermanence because it’s an essential feature of reality at every scale.
Because everything is interdependent, everything I do affects everything and everyone else (karma). This is clear from the science of ecology and climate change. Thus, I have an ethical responsibility of ‘non-harming’, ahimsa. This is a core ethical principle that is derived from the foundational principle of interdependence. However, it’s a negative, i.e. non-harming. Its positive counterpart is compassion, or care. I care for the suffering and well-being of everyone because I’m part of them and they are part of me—again, interdependence.
I also don’t need rebirth, because at this point, it’s scientifically foolish to entertain the notion. Who cares if I’m ‘reborn’ as some other being? What difference does it make? Those are parts of the raft I can ditch for good.
So I have some useful Buddhist concepts: interdependence and impermanence, and their associated ethics: ahimsa and care. I don’t need rebirth or emptiness. The rest of the stuff is optional. All I really need is interdependence. It’s the one unifying and foundational concept for everything. Which is exactly what Buddha supposedly said when he awakened to dependent origination.
No Gods, No Masters.
If all I really need from Buddhism is interdependence, upon which I can hang and string together any number of dharmas, theories and practices, then I can let go of the rest. Just because I use one or two tools in the toolbox, doesn’t mean I’m compelled to use them all. I use what I need when I need it. With just interdependence and impermanence, suddenly the whole burden of dharma seems much lighter.
I most certainly don’t need a Buddhist institution of any kind. And I don’t need teachers or lamas or gurus. I can ditch those parts of the raft as well.
Interdependence. Succinct and elegant.