To Be Is to Inter-Be

posted in: Dharma Topics | 0
June 17, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Silver Spring, Maryland, community online on Thursday evening
June 18, 2021, 7:00 to 8:45 pm
Open to all online on Friday evening

Dear Still Water Friends,

I find it remarkable how much of Thay’s (Thich Nhat Hanh’s) philosophy, mindfulness teachings, and engaged practices are informed by one word — interbeing.  It is a word that Thay created to point to the interdependent co-arising of all phenomena. As Thay often notes, the simple way the Buddha expressed this idea was: “This is because that is. This is not because that is not.”

Interbeing is not a theory. Rather it is a lens, an orientation — a way of seeing and understanding ourselves and the world around us. However, when we think or talk about interbeing, we often stumble. There is a strong tendency toward dualism implicit in English and most languages. Interbeing encourages us to question the existence of any “thing,” any separate self-entity that exists apart from its environment. Rather, what we see — with our eyes, our mind, or through devices such as telescopes, or microscopes — are what Thay calls manifestations. Like a rainbow, they are real phenomena. However, also like a rainbow, they are created by transient causes and conditions.

My experience is that our awareness of interbeing slowly grows in us as we diligently unpack the dualistic core concepts that we have always taken for granted, such as being and nonbeing, self and others, body and mind, and life and death. Glimpses of interbeing often arise unprompted, perhaps when

  • we are immersed in nature.
  • we have deeply settled into meditation.
  • we are working with the Three Touchings of the Earth and other mindfulness practices that highlight interbeing.
  • we are reflecting on a particularly wonderful or difficult relationship and realize the extent to which we continually co-creating the felt experiences of our lives.

This Thursday and Friday evenings we will explore interbeing together. We will start with this reading by Thay from Peace is Every Step.


If you are a poet, you will see clearly 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. Without sunshine, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow without sunshine. And so, we know that 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 wheat. We know that the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. The logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist. Looking even more deeply, we can see ourselves in this sheet of paper too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, it 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. We 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. We cannot just be by ourselves alone. We have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.

Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of “non-paper” elements. And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without non-paper elements, like mind, logger, sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.

In our Dharma sharing we will reflect on the reading and focus on ways our glimpses of interbeing have helped us in our lives and practice.

You are invited to join us.

The Still Water social media team created a supportive and engaging post for Pride Month. Check it out on Instagram or FaceBook.

Many blessings,

Mitchell Ratner

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