A couple of days ago I got briefly interested in Thich Nhat Hanh after being surprised to learn that the Order of Interbeing is not a weird new-age cult but a respected Zen Buddhist order led by a pretty decent-seeming guy. Here’s his explanation of the concept of interbeing:

“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.”

Is this necessary? Helpful? Maybe not. At least, I don’t quite get how it is either. Again,

One day, I suddenly realized that the tree standing in front of me allowed my movement to be possible. I saw very clearly that I was able to breathe in because of its presence in front of me. It was standing there for me, and I was breathing in and out for the tree. I saw this connection very profoundly. In my tradition we speak of ‘interbeing.’ We cannot ‘be’ by ourself alone; we must be with everything else. So, for example, we ‘inter-are’ with a tree: if it is not there, we are not there either….If we observe things mindfully and profoundly, we find out that self is made up only of non-self elements. If we look deeply into a flower, what do we see? We also see sunshine, a cloud, the earth, minerals, the gardener, the complete cosmos. Why? Because the flower is composed of these non-flower elements: that’s what we find out. And, like this flower, our body too is made up of everything else—except for one element: a separate self or existence. This is the teaching of ‘non-self’ in Buddhism.

And then a hint as to why it matters:

In order to just be ourself, we must also take care of the non-self elements. We all know this, that we cannot be without other people, other species, but very often we forget that being is really inter-being; that living beings are made only of non-living elements. This is why we have to practice meditation—to keep alive this vision. The shamatha practice in my tradition is to nourish and keep alive this kind of insight twenty-four hours a day with the whole of our being.

I find myself wishing with almost a kind of nostalgia that this moved me in any way, that I could grasp why it matters. It doesn’t seem to be live to me in William James’s sense. But maybe this helps a little:

To me, mindfulness is very much like the Holy Spirit,” he explained to the assembly of the powerful. “All of us have the seed of the Holy Spirit in us; the capacity of healing, transforming and loving. Where there is suffering, mindfulness responds with the energy of compassion and understanding. Compassion is where the rivers of Christianity and Buddhism meet. In the Christian and Jewish traditions, we learn to live in the presence of God,” he affirmed. “Our Buddhist equivalent is the practice of cultivating mindfulness, of living deeply every moment with the energy of the Holy Spirit. If we change our daily lives—the way we think, speak and act—we begin to change the world. This is what I discussed with Dr. Martin Luther King many years ago; that the practice of mindfulness is not just for hours of silent meditation, but for every moment of the day. Other teachers, like St. Basil, have said it is possible to pray as we work, and in Vietnam, we invented ‘Engaged Buddhism’ so we could continue our contemplative life in the midst of helping the victims of war. We worked to relieve the suffering while trying to maintain our own mindfulness. So to conclude, the practice of looking deeply does not mean being inactive. We become very active with our understanding. Non-violence does not mean non-action. It means we act with love and compassion, living in such a way that a future will be possible for our children and their children.

A little closer. But then I start to wonder why I have no strong impulse in me to change the world. Another discussion, that.

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