Oh, why you look so sad, the tears are in your eyes,
Come on and come to me now, and don’t be ashamed to cry,
Let me see you through, ’cause I’ve seen the dark side too.
When the night falls on you, you don’t know what to do,
Nothing you confess could make me love you less,
I’ll stand by you,
I’ll stand by you,
won’t let nobody hurt you,
I’ll stand by you
—Chrissie Hynde, “I’ll Stand by You”
People wonder at times, “Why am I here? What is my purpose? What am I destined to do before I die?”
A masterful explanation for existence lies in understanding the concept of interbeing. The word comes from Thich Nhat Hahn, the brilliant philosopher from Vietnam, who uses it to describe the connectedness of all that is (“tiep hien” in Vietnamese).
Thich Nhat Hahn is known as Thay, a word used in Vietnamese to address a Buddhist monk (some translate it as “teacher”).
Master Thay explains interbeing in his book Peace is Every Step, to describe the page one is reading. He informs us that the page being read contains everything in the universe. He asks if the reader can see the sun in the page. Certainly the page could not exist without the sun to aid photosynthesis and feed the tree from which the page was made, so he asks that the reader look closely, that one might see the sun. And can the reader see the rain, without which the tree would also not exist? And can the reader see the lumberjack who brought down the tree, for with no lumberjack there could be no page. Look closely, he advises, and you can see the lumberjack’s mother, without whom there would be no lumberjack.
And so Master Thay patiently alerts the reader, step by step, that everything in the universe is in the page being read—there could be no page without everything else in the universe. And so it is that we are in the page, together with our thoughts and everything we have experienced. And so it is that everything in the universe is connected to everything else. Anywhere our thoughts may wander, everything is in each thought.
When one understands interbeing, one sees that when we hurt another, we must hurt ourselves, as we are connected to the one we hurt, just as our kindness encourages kindness in return.
A gentle man, Master Thay says that when we walk upon the earth, we must feel as though we are kissing the soil with our footsteps, because the earth is a part of us, and we are a part of the earth.
My old friend Carl Sagan used to assert that we are made of star stuff— the chemicals in our bodies were created by exploding stars, another way to glimpse a bit of this concept of interbeing. The Pointer Sisters performed a song whose words are “Everybody is a star, I can feel it when you shine on me.” The connections weave through artistic rendering as well as scientific fact.
We have no enemies when we understand interbeing. National leaders might say we should hate Russians, Chinese, Venezuelans, Iranians, North Koreans and so forth, but we cannot hate them without hating ourselves when we understand how we are connected to them.
Interbeing tells us that we are Chinese, Venezuelan, Iranian, Russian, and North Korean. To bring grief on any of these is to bring grief on ourselves.
We are taught in Western civilization that there is separateness everywhere in the universe, but interbeing shows us that we are both blue whale and amoeba, male and female, ocean and rill, redwood tree and algae, star and firefly.
This concept of interbeing tugs at us from the East, where the historical Buddha laughed when asked if he were a god or prophet sent from heaven, admitting only that “I am awake.”
The Buddha thought it was funny that anyone should think of him as something outside of interbeing, and told his followers that anyone can be a buddha, by meditating deeply enough to blend with all that is.
The Buddha said you already know what your purpose is, it is embedded in your mind. To get in touch with it you must meditate deeply, perhaps on several occasions, until it pops into your awareness. It will be something that makes a better world by easing suffering.
Although I don’t believe in the supernatural, many of my meditation students over the years have been religious people, so I use their belief to teach them about interbeing. I may say, “Your religion tells you that there is a god, and before god created the universe, there was only god. So what is it from which the universe is made?—it can only be god. And so you are made of god, and so is each grain of sand and drop of water. If your religion is right, everything must be god.”
Several of my meditation students have come to me from NASA, and as scientists do not care to be told they are a piece of god, but they do understand the physical connection of everything to everything else. I point out that the Buddha explained this connectedness long before quantum theory.
There is a joke told about Buddhist monks on a mountain in Tibet being approached by an outsider who explains quantum theory to them. One surprised monk says to the others, “Western scientists are getting closer to the truth.”
Interbeing is a difficult concept for capitalists to embrace, since their goal is to amass as much material wealth as they can at any cost to the interests of others. Socialists make better students of this concept because they are makers of community in which individuals aim for the good of the whole rather than that of the self.
Master Thay describes everything there is to know about economics in a simple statement: “Wealth creates poverty, and poverty creates wealth.” For one person to acquire billions of dollars, others must be homeless and hungry.
Interbeing explains that the universe will stand by you, when you stand by the universe, because you are a part of the universe, and the universe is part of you.
“One cannot simply be,” says Master Thay, “One must inter-be.” If you meditate deeply on this, you may become the ultimate progressive— a Buddha, loving every one and every thing in the universe, all tucked inside this page you are reading.
Jack Balkwill has been published from the little read Rectangle, magazine of the English Honor Society, to the (then) millions of readers USA Today and many progressive publications/web sites such as Z Magazine, In These Times, Counterpunch, This Can’t Be Happening, Intrepid Report, and Dissident Voice. He is author of “An Attack on the National Security State,” about peace activists in prison.