Insight into interbeing is often elusive for me. Perhaps this is due to many years of training that has formed my concept of self as separate from everything else. It seems that my default state of mind is that I am a separate entity in the world competing with others to obtain the things that I need to survive day to day. Practicing mindfulness has opened my mind and heart to the insight of interbeing, but I still have a long way to go to fully realize this important insight.
Our teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has a beautiful way of explaining interbeing in The Heart of Understanding:
If you look deeply, you will see that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-“with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, inter-be.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when you look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here – time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.
This passage is a good reminder to slow down and mindfully observe ourselves and the world in which we live to realize that we are connected with everything: time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. When I am able to realize and experience interbeing, reverence for life comes easily and naturally.
This Thursday evening, we will recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings, which are the precepts developed during the time of the Buddha to be the foundation of practice for the lay practice community. Afterwards, we will focus our dharma discussion on the first training, Reverence for Life, and cultivating the insdight of interbeing. We will use these three questions to guide our discussion:
What obstacles have you encountered that prevent you from realizing interbeing?
How does your practice help develop the insight of interbeing?
What experiences of interbeing have been meaningful for you?
Below is another excerpt from The Heart of Understanding where Thay describes an experience he had when observing a leaf, which is a beautiful demonstration of realizing the insight of interbeing.
I hope you will be able to join us.
In this excerpt from The Heart of Understanding Thich Nhat Hahn wrote:
One autumn day, I was in a park, absorbed in the contemplation of a very small but beautiful leaf, in the shape of a heart. Its color was almost red, and it was barely hanging on the branch, nearly ready to fall down. I spent a long time with it, and I asked the leaf a lot of questions. I found out the leaf had been a mother to the tree. Usually we think that the tree is the mother and the leaves are just children, but as I looked at the leaf I saw that the leaf is also a mother to the tree. The sap that the roots take up is only water and minerals, not good enough to nourish the tree, so the tree distributes that sap to the leaves. And the leaves take the responsibility of transforming that rough sap into elaborated sap and, with the help of the sun and gas, sending it back in order to nourish the tree. Therefore, the leaves are also the mother to the tree. And since the leaf is linked to the tree by a stem, the communication between them is easy to see.
We do not have a stem linking us to our mother any more, but when we were in her womb we had a very long stem, an umbilical cord. The oxygen and the nourishment we needed came to us through that stem. Unfortunately, on the day that we call our birthday, it was cut off and we received the illusion that we are independent. That is a mistake. We continue to rely on our mother for a very long time, and we have several other mothers as well. The earth is our mother. We have a great many stems linking us to our mother earth. There is a stem linking us with the cloud. If there is no cloud, there is no water for us to drink. We are made of at least seventy percent water, and the stem between the cloud and us is really there. This is also the case for the river, the forest, the logger, and the farmer. There are hundreds of thousands of stems linking us to everything in the cosmos, and therefore we can be. Do you see the link between you and me? If you are not there, I am not here. That is certain.
I asked the leaf whether it was scared because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and summer I was very alive. I worked hard and helped nourish the tree, and much of me is in the tree. Please do not say that I am just this form, because the form of leaf is only a tiny part of me. I am the whole tree. I know that I am already inside the tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. That’s why I do not worry. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, “I will see you again very soon.”