Fullness & Interdependence are Modernist Mashups—Is That Ok?

We’ll continue this week with our exploration of the interrelated concepts of fullness and interdependence, and add to the Mahāyāna framework we opened up last week. In addition to drawing on Huayen and later Zen nondual frameworks, these contemporary (the way we use them) concepts are also descendants of 19th century Romantic and Transcendentalist ideas about the purity and divinity of “Nature,” which heals and enlightens neurotic humans when we come into intimate connection with it. 

These ideas, in both their European and North American versions, depended on the romantic othering of Indigenous folks who were the primary human casualties of the global colonial assault, as well as the romantic othering of the animal and plant beings who were the non-human casualties of the same project. In North America, the ancestors of the interdependence teachings include Emerson, Thoreau and Muir: 

Standing on the bare ground—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

Emerson, Nature

lf you are traveling for health … hide in the hills of the Hollow, lave in its waters, tan in its golds, bask in its flower-shine, and your baptisms will make you a new creature indeed …. Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence: you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of Nature.

Muir, Twenty Hill Hollow

Emerson, famously, was inspired by the Bhagavad Gītā, and a few early translations of Buddhist texts were available to the Transcendentalists, but the overlay of Transcendentalist and Mahāyāna Buddhist theology starts to really take hold in the 20th century, when the first Buddhists to make a substantial cultural impact in North America arrived in Chinese communities. As Ch’an and Zen started to be more visible in the West, thinkers like Arne Naess and James Lovelock drew on them (without actually practicing in their lineages) to create Deep Ecology and the Gaia Hypothesis respectively. The lineage leads to our beloved Joanna Macy, and is widespread in Insight Meditation now, even though we are ostensibly a Theravāda-descended sect and source our practice in texts that have a core view that is quite at odds with this. Much of how we think about interdependence and fullness as a valuable spiritual lens to observe the world through is as much indebted to these western thinkers as it is to any Asian Buddhist source tradition. 

Ok, so having done the standard deconstruction maneuver here, are we left to assume that because this concept we love and that helps give our lives meaning is new, that it necessarily is false or unskillful? If we have that reaction, I hope we take that as a sign to study more. The Buddha did not say that all later developments of his work were false, but he gave a specific framework for assessing whether a teaching is in accordance with the Dhamma or not. 

Gotamī, you might know that certain things lead to passion, not dispassion; to yoking, not to unyoking; to accumulation, not dispersal; to more desires, not fewer; to lack of contentment, not contentment; to crowding, not seclusion; to laziness, not energy; to being burdensome, not being unburdensome. You should definitely bear in mind that these things are not the teaching, not the training, and not the Teacher’s instructions.

You might know that certain things lead to dispassion, not passion; to unyoking, not to yoking; to dispersal, not accumulation; to fewer desires, not more; to contentment, not lack of contentment; to seclusion, not crowding; to energy, not laziness; to being unburdensome, not being burdensome. You should definitely bear in mind that these things are the teaching, the training, and the Teacher’s instructions.

AN 8.53

Both the nondual Mahāyāna teaching on the radical interconnectedness of everything and the Romantic-Transcendentalist teaching on the divinity of Nature (which are different) might be profitably assessed in light of the advice to Gotamī. If we can use these existential teachings as supports for dispassion, unyoking, fewer desires, contentment, etc., then they are skillful supports for liberation. If they lead to further binding and anxiety, they are not. 

How might the view of interdependence support unyoking? I think it depends on taking the perception to its natural conclusion—taking it all the way, not stopping at limited ideas of Union or Deep Ecological healing. As the teachings on spiritual bypass emphasize, a nondual viewpoint that doesn’t skillfully engage with difference is not just useless but harmful. Interdependence reveals suffering and craving when we see the entire web of things as governed by karma, determined by actions, sensitive to intention. There’s no way to become free unless we can discern skillful from unskillful, and endlessly repeating our favorite beautiful habits is the very definition of saṃsāra—endless wandering, never finding our way home. If we look at the world through the lens of interdependence, we can see that the actions of every entity affect the world. If we look through the lens of fullness, we can see that the infinite array of difference expresses both beauty and ugliness, sukha and dukkha. 

Tantric traditions rightly call the fullness approach dangerous—walking on a knife edge—because appreciation of beauty while remaining lucid to the force of craving is really, really difficult. Just inches away from ecstatic-devotional compassion, which I think is the predominate emotional state cultivated by this approach, is a very ordinary state beloved by Humanists: life-affirming hedonistic indulgence. Now on a spectrum of ways to live that are not liberating, I think life-affirming Hedonism is one of the best! It certainly trumps hateful warmongering, xenophobic bitterness, soulless greed, or pious hypocrisy. But it is very difficult to keep craving and fixated identity in check when we continually emphasize how lovely it is to be in contact with things. 

Being in contact with things is no problem, fundamentally (this is the nondual truth that underlies the system), but the heart and the nervous system still need training if you want to not suffer. This is why all the traditional nondual systems start trainees with many years of boring, repetitive disciplines: 100,000 mantras, prostrations, memorization, and waiting, waiting, waiting. Just as my 7 year old set free in the toy store with an unlimited credit card would be absolutely incapable of mature discernment around the conditions for their actual happiness, wealthy, privileged people at the top of the colonial hierarchy mostly have no capacity for skillful hedonism or ethical nondual play. How could we? Most of us are still enacting a post-Puritan backlash.

Of course it’s not necessarily the case that people who appreciate theologies of interdependence and fullness are also unrestrained hedonists. Many of us are doing our best to live ethical, compassionate, helpful lives in service of the greater good. Respect to that attempt, for sure. But I think it’s important to look at how we enroll disparate theologies in service of idiosyncratic ideas around liberation, and the implications any particular theology has on how we live our lives and structure our training. Because one of the deepest symptoms of the modern condition is that in the righteous overthrow of the kings, priests, and cruel fathers, we have also overthrown the wisdom teachers and elders who once we would have trusted for life advice. 

Interdependence as we teach it now is a modernist collage—a new development drawing on very disparate lineages, including Christian and New Age ones that fundamentally disagree with the Dhamma about the nature of existence and what we should do about suffering. Like many of us, I have an intuition about how to practice with ideologies of fullness in a way that supports the training in unbinding that is central to the Buddha’s path, but because this is a contemporary development, we just don’t have that many examples of how it goes. And until we have a few hundred examples of liberated people who have come through this doorway, I think it’s appropriate to hold it with some skepticism.

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