In recent years there’s been a modern Western interpretation of dependent co-arising that’s derived from an explanation of the interdependence in the world, with the people in it being interconnected in a vast web of cause-and-effect relationships and experience—“It’s all connected,” as people like to say. There’s a belief that there’s no type of action or activity in the world that doesn’t have some sort of effect on the whole of existence, all action and interaction.
This isn’t a very accurate representation of what the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination is all about. It’s actually pretty far from what the Buddha taught. Dependent origination is a teaching about how ignorance conditions the arising of suffering and all the various factors involved, as well as the cessation of that entire process.
Nevertheless, the idea of interdependence is something that can be helpful to contemplate because, even though it may not be valid in terms of dependent origination, it has a truth to it. We’re very much affected by each other, dependent on each other, and influence each other, and we’re inexplicably woven together through the various forces of kamma in our cyclical existence in saṃsāra. With this, there are all the various ways that kamma works itself out that we don’t really understand and can’t possibly comprehend because it’s so complicated. We find ourselves weaving through many, many lifetimes, receiving the results of our past actions, being involved with each other over and over again, and bound together in our commonality as beings coursing through saṃsāra.
We don’t know exactly how that process works, but it is possible to understand that each of our rebirths in saṃsāra depends on our relationships with other people and, for better or for worse, how we respond to situations and the qualities we develop in relationship to each other. Due to causes and conditions, skillful actions and intentions that have been put in place by us in our past lives, by some fortunate set of incredible circumstances—some might call it a miracle—we find ourselves existing in the same space and time, right here and now, practicing with each other in this vast web of existence. So we need to ask ourselves, “How well am I spending my time?”
I think it’s important to reflect on that because it points out how much we need to rise up to this circumstance we find ourselves in and take responsibility for what we are doing right now, acknowledging what it’s taken for us to get here and not wasting this precious opportunity. It’s so unusual for us to all be here together with a strong interest in practicing the Dhamma—it’s not a widespread inclination that’s happening in the world. Perhaps there are small pockets of it here or there, but by and large it’s an incredibly rare opportunity.
We can do our best to take full advantage of this situation because this life is short, and we don’t know exactly where we’re going to end up the next time around. We keep the momentum going by cultivating the wholesome and skillful qualities we want to bring with us. These qualities carry on into the future in case we don’t finish our work in this lifetime.
All of the wholesome intentions we cultivate now will condition what happens for us the next time around and, most importantly, will condition the quality of our lives right here and right now. We are working on letting go of unskillful tendencies: aversion, greed, self-interest, and selfishness, and we are cultivating qualities of virtue and generosity, to make a commitment to ending the cycle of suffering. That’s how we can increase the potential of being in association with like-minded people in lifetimes to come.
This is the meaning of true interdependence.
This reflection by Ajahn Karuṇadhammo is from the book, Beginning Our Day, Volume 1, (pdf) pp.112-114.