This twenty-first century world is an extremely complex place, riddled with contradictions.
A small proportion of people are very rich, and yet many people are struggling to eat or find adequate shelter. Science is finding ways to tackle a greater array of illnesses so more people are living longer, yet the quality of life for many around the globe has not changed. Technology continues to develop smaller and more powerful devices to make things easier for some, yet clean drinking water is not enjoyed everywhere on our planet. Power seems to be in the hands of an elite; yet the ordinary people who have given power to their leaders are mostly ignored. Discrimination, inequality and disrespect have been in the spotlight of our civilisation for generations and yet they remain a problem in many areas, including Europe.
It is not surprising that many people look at the global situation and assume that, as an individual, there is nothing much that can be done about it. Certainly, many think, one person alone would have no impact. It would be a futile waste of breath to complain; it is far better to muddle along and do the best one can to survive. Even a group of people working in solidarity with a shared aim would only make a small noise in the face of large institutions or hostile countries with different agendas. It is not unusual therefore that many people feel that things that affect their lives are decided at a level far too remote for their opinion to be relevant, and that the decision-makers are ultimately looking after their own interests. How did things get to this state?
Buddhism acknowledges this common way of thinking and gives us an explanation as to how this state of being has developed. The theory known as 'dependent origination'1 (but `web of interconnectedness` is also a good description) explains that everything is connected and interdependent. It tells us that nothing exists in isolation and that everything in the world comes into existence when the causes and surrounding environmental conditions are right. This theory is one of the earliest principles formulated in the history of Buddhism. In its simplest form it is expressed as: 'this is, because that is'. Shakyamuni Buddha was enlightened to the truth that the whole universe is a living, interconnected, entity and that nothing exists separate from the law of life. This principle was taught for his disciples to develop the lesser self, which has a tendency towards egoism and separation, into a greater self, which is fused with the life of the universe.
Let's look at a few simple examples of dependent origination at work and then apply this to the wider world that we live in.
My wife and I recently moved home and have started taking care of a garden which was a wilderness when we moved in. We have dug out piles of roots, rubbish and stones, and have started to feed the soil in the flowerbeds. We have bought compost and seeds and have started to turn sad patches of earth into what we hope will be vibrant patches of colour that will attract bees and butterflies. Each seed in the packet is a wonderful unit of latent potential, of colour, of fragrance and of life. That potential is there, waiting to develop, but needs the right conditions. Each seed that we plant needs various elements to support it as it starts the process of growing into a beautiful flower. There is the earth, the nutrients in the soil, water and the light of the sun. Different parts of the garden might have more nutrients in the soil than other places. To a certain extent there is also the care that we take of these new plants, providing regular attention and remembering to water them. Some plants will get more sun than others; some more water than others. We will also marshal the slugs and snails and hope that the birds won't eat the seeds before they have sprouted. All of these elements are necessary and that is just to make a flower bed. We then need the right amount of sun, rain and wind and with our care we will hopefully have a pleasant garden to enjoy in the summer. Each fragrant flower that grows will be the result of all these various causes and conditions.
As I write this, I am sitting on a chair which someone fashioned out of various materials: mostly it is made of wood and there is a cushioned seat to make it more comfortable. Each of the materials had a journey of its own before it was made into this useful tool to make my life a little easier. The wood came from a tree that needed the same ingredients of sun, water and other conditions as the flower bed. Then someone assessed it, decided it was ready to be used to make furniture from, and arranged for it to be cut down. Someone else, I imagine, then transported the pieces of wood to a factory or workshop, where they were turned into a chair by someone with an idea and the ability to turn it into a reality. Then it went to a shop where it was sold. Here I am sitting on what might seem like a simple item of furniture, although there are years of hidden history. Again this chair is the result of many different causes and conditions.
A human being requires even more sophisticated causes and conditions: including the right nourishment, appropriate shelter, education and development. We are told that no individual is an island, and this is patently true. We were dependent on our parents for our birth, on our families and friends for our nurturing, on society for providing us with food, water, warmth, stimulation, electricity, protection, entertainment and so on. So three examples in brief: a flowerbed, a chair and, well, a human. Each of those three things 'arose' when the causes and conditions were right. Dependent origination is the principle that explains the underlying relationships between all things.
On an even greater scale, Buddhism might suggest that the Big Bang occurred when the causes and conditions were appropriate. The chemical elements that make up our world were forged through a lengthy process which took the birth and extinction of stars before ingredients such as oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium and phosphorus were created. We have all those in our human bodies, and we even have metals like iron, copper and zinc inside us, all created when stars collapsed. It is true that we are all made up of the materials created through the birth, growth and decline of the stars in the sky.
The principle of dependent origination therefore explains how all things are mutually related and dependent on each other, and while each thing maintains its own uniqueness and individual features, they all combine to create a dynamic and harmonious whole.
The global situation too is the result of causes and conditions. Whether the issue is the economic situation with its complicated web of financial relationships and mutual obligations, the current crisis in Crimea, the state of the health" service or the medal table at a sporting event, there is an explanation based on dependent origination (if one wishes to spend the necessary time examining it) for why things have got to be how they are.
Just viewing the world that we live in through the lens of this principle might simply reinforce the feeling of powerlessness. Everything is connected and here I am; what have I done to find myself in this complicated and difficult situation? This passive response is a common one. The examples above concern how things, events or situations have come about. So far we have looked at the phenomena in life, and now we should also consider other aspects, such as our life-condition: why do I feel as I do, and what can be done about it? Buddhism is concerned with the concrete resolution of the problems in life in order to eliminate suffering, so fortunately there is a way to explain how we can use our own latent inner potential to take control of and change the situation we find ourselves in. If we activate our own potential which is uniquely dynamic and holistic then we become empowered to make positive changes to the world around us.
Having seen how the world is and observing the connections between phenomena, our role is to seek to create harmony on a deeper level. This deeper level has as its source the compassion which is able to transcend distinctions between 'me' and 'others'. This is not a denial of me as an individual, but a fusion of my life with the greater, universal life. Our lives become meaningful when we plumb the depths of our lives to bring out our greater qualities and interact with others to encourage them to draw out their own potential. Our actions for the happiness of ourselves and others will then affect the entire world. Nichiren Daishonin wrote: 'If you light a lantern for another, it will also brighten your own way.'1 It is for this reason that Nichiren Buddhism talks of 'practice for oneself and others'; one cannot be truly happy when others around us are unhappy. Nothing is more joyful than helping someone else discover a new way of living.
Buddhist practice is intended to enable us to reveal our greatest potential. When we do this, there is a new, positive cause that affects everything around us. The deliberate intention to change the cycle of negative and deluded causes sets the whole of life on a new course. Dependent origination explains how things got to be as they are in the present. When we add the causes of the fresh energy of enlightened wisdom, courage and compassion, together with dynamism, creativity and life-force, the same principle explains how things must change for the better. When we deeply understand how connected we are with other people and the place where we are, it becomes clear that if we hurt others, then we are hurting ourselves. The awareness of how awful things have become is the cause for a great vow to put an end to the sufferings we experience and which others in the world around us also suffer. This approach shows how 'soft power’, based on dialogue, will replace the historically prevalent 'hard power' of previous ages and which resulted in conflict, suffering and war. New, positive and enlightened causes will change the world.
1 Skt pratitya-samutpada, Jp. engi, also sometimes called 'dependent co-arising' and 'interdependent origination'. For simplicity, in explaining this profound view of life, we also use the phrase `web of inter-connectedness`.
2 Translation from: Nichiren Daishonin, Gosho Zenshu, p. 1598.