Interdependence is Existential Karuṇā-Muditā

The modern concept of interdependence, through which we practice in order to see how illusory the individual self is, diverges from the Buddha’s teaching in the Pāli texts not because it’s not true, but because it’s not pragmatic. Interdependence is primarily an existential teaching, telling us how things really are so that we may see that our ideas about them are inaccurate and unskillful.

The Buddha refused many times to give existential teachings. Telling people about reality just doesn’t interrupt the force of craving and attachment the way we might want it to. And because existential teachings are more based in abstract thought than other kinds of spiritual pointers, they tend to lodge only in the narrative part of the thinking mind and not integrate very much into the body or heart. Maybe this is the same as how in politics arguing from facts and correcting other people’s logic never really changes anyone’s mind.

Emotional states are notoriously insusceptible to facts. Even worse, emotional states co-opt any data they encounter in service of their own agenda. So when we are thick in craving and clinging, narratives like interdependence can just reify that clinging. Interdependence tells us it’s deluded to reject anything we experience, since everything is participating in the infinite dance. When I’m lost in deluded states, particularly grasping, I’m going to hear this as permission to reject renunciation and the difficult work of training attention.

One way we might work with this challenge is to reframe interdependence not so much as an existential teaching but as the fruit of successful brahmavihāra practice, particularly compassion (karuṇā) and appreciation (muditā). Especially for greed types, muditā is central. Instead of letting the idea of everything being connected wash out our discernment, we can uplift the beautiful twin states of compassion and appreciation, which require us to discern between suffering and well-being. Even if everything is infinitely connected, some things still cause harm and some things help. It’s not just ok but essential on the path that we recognize the difference between them. And having recognized, that we train the mind to move closer to that which serves well-being, and move away from that which harms. This is called yoniso-manasikāra, appropriate attention, the heart of the Buddha’s pragmatic teaching that doesn’t emphasize what’s real as much as emphasize what works to free the heart.

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