It’s become something of a cliché to say that Buddhism is about embracing our “interdependence.” The mechanistic Cartesian worldview, so the story goes, has led us to think of human beings as subjects independent of the world around them, in a way responsible for our current environmental catastrophes. (Depending on who you ask, this idea of independence might also be responsible for patriarchy, racism, homophobia, class exploitation and an inability to express our emotions.) But Buddhists know better: Buddhists know that everything arises dependent on everything else, so we should affirm and celebrate our mutual ties to each other and to the earth. In Thomas Kasulis’s terms, Buddhism on this interpretation offers us an intimacy worldview, distinct from the integrity worldview of the modern West. This idea is perhaps most clearly found in the thought of Joanna Macy, but its spread goes much wider among Western (Yavanayāna) converts to Buddhism, especially (but not only) in the baby-boom generation.
The problem: this view is almost the opposite of what the classical Indian Buddhists – including the Buddha of the Pali suttas – actually taught. To be sure, the autonomous, independent selves that we would like to believe in are an illusion. We must indeed recognize the dependent co-arising (paticca samuppāda or pratitya samutpāda) of all things, acknowledge that everything arises out of a circle of mutually dependent causes.
Here’s the thing: this circle of causes is bad. The first of the twelve links in the chain of causation is ignorance; and out of this chain comes suffering. All of the things conditioned by causation, the First Noble Truth says, are suffering, dukkha. The hope offered by the Buddha, in the Third Noble Truth, is to offer us a way out of this suffering interdependent world of saṃsāra – to get us to nirvana, something unconditioned, in some sense even independent. You usually won’t hear this part in Yavanayāna affirmations of interdependence. Early Buddhism offers us a worldview strikingly similar to the Jainism that preceded it and the Yoga Sūtras that followed it; and these are probably the strongest integrity traditions there are, more “Cartesian” than Descartes himself. We progressively reduce our dependence on the world around us until we transcend even dependence on life itself, entering the ideal state, the Jaina and Yoga version of nirvana, which is called kaivalya: aloneness.
Neither does this integrity orientation change where one might most expect it to change: the rise of other-oriented Mahāyāna, where one remains in the world to free others. In Indian Mahāyāna thinkers like Śāntideva, this freedom is itself understood as independence. Śāntideva teaches the importance of the kalyāṇa mitra, the good spiritual friend – but this friendship is understood in a necessarily unbalanced and hierarchical way. When I was a TA for Diana Eck, she gave me some wise advice about the proper boundaries for a teacher: “You can be your students’ friend, but they can’t be your friend.” And this is exactly the way the kalyāṇa mitra works. The kalyāṇa mitra is a guru, someone more liberated than you are; you can trust, rely on depend on this guru, but the guru can’t depend on you. Ultimately, the goal is to become a kalyāṇa mitra for others, to allow them to depend on you – but they can depend on you because you are advanced enough not to depend on anyone else.
Where all of this does change, as far as I can tell, is in East Asia – where the intimacy worldview was philosophically entrenched long before Buddhism arrived on the scene. I’m no expert on East Asian Buddhism, but as I understand it, schools like Huayan do indeed stress the world’s interdependence and see it as a good thing. This point, however, seems to have much more to do with East Asia than with Buddhism. It’s part of the reason I see Buddhism as the exception that proves the rule in Asian philosophy, the constant between South Asia and East Asia that does more to show their differences than their commonalities. Buddhism is an integrity philosophy like Jainism and Yoga when it’s in India alongside those philosophical systems; it’s an intimacy philosophy like Confucianism when it’s beside Confucianism in East Asia. Macy, however, tends to act as if the Theravāda Buddhism she has learned from is Confucian in this way, when it really isn’t, and she’s not alone in thinking that way.
Now why stress this point? I do think that acknowledging our dependence is a good thing in many ways, especially if we’re not going to try and go it alone in a monastic lifestyle. Yet at the same time, there’s something important to the idea of controlling our emotions and reducing our attachments. Feminists of the boomer generation, like Macy, fought against the stiff-upper-lip ideal of men who repressed their emotions, and there’s surely something to their critique; at the same time, there’s something to that ideal as well. It’s valuable to get our emotions under control so they don’t control us; that doesn’t mean we need to repress them. Similarly, as much as we do need to acknowledge our dependence on others, we also need to cultivate some amount of healthy independence, to be comfortable in our own skins independent of what others think of us, to be the “rock” that others can lean on. In my view, classical Buddhism as it was, and Macy’s distortion of it, both tend to be one-sided.