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Dependent Co-Arising

When the Buddha taught, he was said to turn the Wheel of the Dharma. Indeed, his central doctrine is like a wheel, for through it he taught the dependent co-arising of all things, how they continually change and condition each other in interconnections as real as the spokes in a wheel.

I have been deeply inspired by the Buddha's teaching of dependent co-arising. It fills me with a sense of connection and mutual responsibility with all beings. Helping me understand the non-hierarchical and self-organizing nature of life, it is the philosophic grounding of all my work.

The recognition of our essential nonseparateness from the world, beyond the shaky walls erected of our fear and greed, is a Dharma gift occurring in every generation, in countless individual lives. Yet there are historical moments when this perspective arises in a more collective fashion and when, within Buddhism as a whole (if we can even talk of "Buddhism as a whole"!), there is a fresh reappropriation of the Buddha's central teaching. This seems to be occurring today. Along with the destructive, even suicidal nature of many of our public policies, social and intellectual developments are converging now to bring into bold relief the Buddha's teaching of dependent co-arising--and the wheel of the Dharma turns again.

This is happening in many ways. I see it in the return to the social teachings of the Buddha, in the revitalization of the bodhisattva ideal, in the rapid spread of "engaged Buddhism," be it among Sarvodayans in Sri Lanka, Ambedkarite Buddhists in India, or Dharma activists in Tibet, Thailand, or Southeast Asia. Western Buddhists, too, are taking Dharma practice out into the world, developing skillful means for embodying compassion as they take action to serve the homeless, restore creekbeds, or block weapons shipments. The vitality of Buddhism today is most clearly reflected in the way it is being brought to bear on social, economic, political, and environmental issues, leading people to become effective agents of change. The gate of the Dharma does not close behind us to secure us in a cloistered existence aloof from the turbulence and suffering of samsara, so much as it leads us out into a life of risk for the sake of all beings. As many Dharma brothers and sisters discover today, the world is our cloister.

Here new hands and minds, aware of the suffering caused by outmoded ways of thinking and dysfunctional power structures, help turn the wheel. Strong convergences are at play here, as Buddhist thought and practice interact with the organizing values of the Green movement, with Gandhian nonviolence, and humanistic psychology, with ecofeminism, and sustainable economics, with systems theory, deep ecology, and new paradigm science.

In his teaching of Interbeing, Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh captures the flavor of this turning. Not only does he model the many bodhisattva roles one life can play--scholar, activist, teacher, poet, meditator, and mediator; he opens as well through the concept and practice of Interbeing a wide gate into the Buddha's doctrine of dependent co-arising.

Now we see that everything we do impinges on all beings. The way you are with your child is a political act, and the products you buy and your efforts to recycle are part of it too. So is meditation--just trying to stay aware is a task of tremendous importance. We are trying to be present to ourselves and each other) in a way that can save our planet. Saving life on this planet includes developing a strong, caring connection with future generations; for, in the Dharma of co-arising, we are here to sustain one another over great distances of space and time.

The Dharma wheel, as it turns now, also tells us this: that we don't have to invent or construct our connections. They already exist. We already and indissolubly belong to each other, for this is the nature of life. So, even in our haste and hurry and occasional discouragement, we belong to each other. We can rest in that knowing, and stop and breathe, and let that breath connect us with the still center of the turning wheel.