The Inter-existence of All Things

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Schooling bigeye jacks near Bali, Indonesia. © Dave Fleetham / Design Pics / Getty Images

Interbeing is a term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh that is catching on with many western Buddhists. But what does it mean? And does "interbeing" represent a new teaching in Buddhism?

To answer the last question first -- no, interbeing is not a new Buddhist teaching. But it's a useful way to talk about some very old teachings.

The English word interbeing is an approximation of the Vietnamese tiep hien. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book Interbeing: Fourteen Guidelines for Engaged Buddhism (Parallax Press, 1987) that tiep means "being in touch with" and "continuing." Hien means "realizing" and "making it here and now." Very briefly, tiep means to be in touch with the reality of the world while continuing on the Buddha's path of enlightenment. Hien means to realize the Buddha's teachings and manifest them in the here-and-now world.

As doctrine, interbeing is the Buddha's doctrine of Dependent Origination, particularly within a Mahayana Buddhist perspective.

Dependent Origination

All phenomena are interdependent. This is a basic Buddhist teaching called pratitya-samutpada, or Dependent Origination, and this teaching is found in all schools of Buddhism. As recorded in the Sutta-pitaka, the historical Buddha taught this doctrine on many different occasions.

Very basically, this doctrine teaches us that no phenomenon has independent existence. Whatever is, comes into existence because of factors and conditions created by other phenomena. When factors and conditions no longer support that existence, then that thing ceases to exist. The Buddha said,

When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn't, that isn't.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

(From the Assutava Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 12.2, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation.)

This doctrine applies to mental and psychological factors as well as to the existence of tangible things and beings. In his teachings on the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination, the Buddha explained how an unbroken chain of factors, each dependent on the last and giving rise to the next, keeps us locked into the cycle of samsara.

The point is that all of existence is a vast nexus of causes and conditions, constantly changing, and everything is interconnected to everything else. All phenomena inter-exist.

Thich Nhat Hanh explained this with a simile called Clouds in Each Paper.

"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."

Mahayana and Madhyamika

Madhyamika is a philosophy that is one of the foundations of Mahayana Buddhism. Madhyamika means "middle way," and it examines the nature of existence.

Madhyamika tells us that nothing has an intrinsic, permanent self-nature. Instead, all phenomena -- including beings, including people -- are temporary confluences of conditions that take identity as individual things from their relationship to other things.

Consider a wooden table. It's an assembly of parts. If we take it apart bit by bit, at what point does it cease to be a table? If you think about it, this is an entirely subjective perception. One person might assume there is no table once it is no longer usable as a table; another might look at the stack of wooden parts and project the table-identity onto them -- it's a disassembled table.

The point is that the assembly of parts has no intrinsic table-nature; it's a table because that's what we think it is. "Table" is in our heads. And another species might see the assembly of parts as food or shelter or something to pee on.

The "middle way" of Madhyamika is a middle way between affirmation and negation. The founder of Madhyamika, Nagarjuna (ca. 2nd century CE), said that it is incorrect to say that phenomena exist, and it is also incorrect to say that phenomena do not exist. Or, there is neither reality nor not-reality; only relativity.

The Avatamsaka Sutra

Another development of Mahayana is represented in the Avatamsaka or Flower Garland Sutra. The Flower Garland is a collection of smaller sutras that emphasize the interpenetration of all things. That is, all things and all beings not only reflect all other things and beings but also all existence in its totality. Put another way, we do not exist as discrete things; instead, as the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh says, we inter-are.

In his book The Miracle of Mindfulness (Beacon Press, 1975),  Thich Nhat Hanh wrote that because people cut reality into compartments, they are unable to see the interdependence of all phenomena. In other words, because we think of "reality" as a lot of discrete objects, we don't consider how they actually interconnect.

But when we perceive interbeing, we see that not only is everything interconnected; we see that all is one and one is all. We are ourselves, but at the same time we are all each other.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Interbeing." Learn Religions, Aug. 26, 2020, O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 26). Interbeing. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "Interbeing." Learn Religions. (accessed March 27, 2023).