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The Interdependent Nature of Reality

interdependent nature of reality

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The Buddhist understanding of how things exist breaks objects down into parts, causes, and a mind that bundles them into the illusion of a solid, singular, unchanging entity. When we apply this analysis to an iPhone, we see that it is made up of almost all the elements in the periodic table, and is connected to thousands of hours of hard labor and the entire history of our civilization, planet, and the universe.

I’m Scott Snibbe, and this is A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment. Today we’re continuing our exploration of the Buddhist view of ultimate reality in all its complexity and interdependence.

This analysis into the nature of reality begins with noticing the illusion of our senses, and the delusions that our ego imposes on those senses, making it seem as if the objects around us are singular entities with the capacity wholly from their side to bring us happiness or pain.

When we fail to see through the illusion of our senses and our ego, people and things appear as if they are partless, unchanging, and without causes; as if they just popped into existence for our own pleasure or annoyance.

Our last two episodes focused on the first step of a three-part analysis into how things exist, where we break down an object into its component parts.

For now, we’re only focusing on objects, and not people or other living things, which we’ll get to a couple weeks from now. There’s a special analysis for beings with minds, where you spend extra time on the mental cause and effect that drives our emotional reactions to the world around us and to the people we love and despise and ignore. But the most important person to analyze is ourselves: to point our mind back at itself and break down the self-centered illusion that blocks us from everyday happiness and intimate connection.

This Buddhist view of dependent origination can be rooted in science and psychology, and traditionally goes by the term emptiness. The Dalai Lama himself says that he now spends half of his meditation on emptiness each day on the view of quantum physics, which has shown with incredible precision how things don’t appear to us as they truly are; and that the mind plays a critical role in shaping reality at the subatomic level.

The Dalai Lama’s incorporation of science into meditation shows that even though the reflection on emptiness can feel profound, it’s not mystical or metaphysical, but is something that can be understood through reason and critical thinking, supported by scientific data: things can be broken down into parts, they change, and they are interconnected, coming about due to previous causes and conditions. That’s the understanding of reality that we are probing step-by-step, and one that science wholly supports.

Empty of what?

Why do we use this term “empty”? It’s a slightly disturbing word to apply to the nature of reality, because in English it has the suggestion of meaninglessness or pointlessness. When we say empty, then, it’s important to be precise about what objects are empty of. They are empty of existing independent of other phenomena, empty of existing without depending upon parts, and empty of existing without prior causes and conditions.

These concepts aren’t hard to understand. But when they are phrased in the traditional Buddhist language, it can sometimes be confusing. So for people new to this term, and even for myself, I prefer to take a more positive, constructive approach to explaining this topic, and even joke sometimes that “fullness” would be a better translation for the Sanskrit term for emptiness, sunyata, because emptiness really means that all things are made of parts, that all things change, and that all things come about from prior causes and conditions. Things didn’t pop out of nowhere like a genie’s wish, for our enjoyment or annoyance. But that’s the illusion of how things appear when we only see the gloss of conventional reality.

Why contemplate emptiness, the ultimate nature of reality?

It’s also good to remind ourselves of why we contemplate and meditate on emptiness. Obviously, all sorts of people are interested in where things come from and how they’re put together. But it’s not as if every single person who works in manufacturing or chemistry or materials science becomes a better, more enlightened human being through understanding reality at the molecular or atomic level.

From the Buddhist perspective, what distinguishes a mere intellectual exploration of reality with one that benefits our mind is our motivation. The purpose of meditation—the reason it was invented—was to better our minds by bringing out our best human qualities like kindness, compassion, generosity, and patience. Often the last quality we speak of when we make a list like that is wisdom.

In previous episodes we’ve tiptoed around what wisdom means in that list. And there are many different ways of explaining wisdom from different Buddhist schools and teachings.

But an elevated understanding of wisdom is this analysis of the conventional and ultimate natures of reality, analyses that we do in order to align our minds better with the way people and things truly exist.

With a motivation of benefitting others, contemplating on the nature of reality like this is said to greatly harm our disturbing emotions of anger and craving and restlessness and jealousy. It’s not immediately obvious why this would happen. But the theory is that it’s only the strong illusion we hold to of objects being independent of causes, partless, and permanent that lets our strong emotions of attachment and anger arise. When we see things as they are—as truly interdependent, made of parts, and impermanent—it’s harder to build up these strong emotions.

The theory may or may not make sense to you, so it’s important to note that emptiness is a process. It’s something you meditate on every day on the cushion. And it’s a view you try and apply in your daily life as you encounter objects and people that stir up disturbing emotions, trying to break down the exaggerated distinction between self and others and between me and the things that I want or don’t want.

Emptiness isn’t a topic that you simply learn, memorize, take the test, and move on. It’s more like learning to cook or exercise or to do some sort of work in the world. The knowledge of emptiness itself is useless without applying it in your everyday life. And the meditation on emptiness won’t help us if we pursue it with a motivation personal gain. But rather, we need to color our meditation on emptiness with a motivation to bring out our best human qualities and make us better able to benefit others.

The other important note is that emptiness in no way negates the world or the people around us, our own existence, or the moral impact that even our tiniest decisions have on others. Emptiness doesn’t say conventional reality is an illusion, but rather that it is illusory. That through our senses and prior conditioning things appear independent, partless, and unchanging. But when we examine further, we see that these things, that do exist, exist in a much richer and interconnected and non-egocentric way than they habitually appear.

Seen correctly, emptiness only emphasizes the power of the choices we make, the love we give, and the things we accomplish in the world to have rippling effects on everyone and everything around us for better or worse.

Parts: what things are made of

In the last two episodes we dove deeply into the first part of the three-part analysis on dependent origination into how objects are comprised of parts. We used the object of the iPhone as our example, going deep into materials science and particle physics to see how, if we separated this object into its parts, they would literally sift through our fingers like some sci-fi movie: granules of aluminum, gold, and silicon; bubbles of oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen; and little piles and bubbles of another 65 other elements—almost every element in the periodic table that’s present in our phone.

That was the analysis of how objects can be broken into parts. And with most people’s education today, you can look at any object around you like your bike or house or car or your dinner, and have a pretty good sense of where everything there came from. Even if you don’t, a quick web search will give you many articles and videos that break down where tomatoes or consumer electronics or lithium or wood comes from on the planet, sometimes making us feel a bit guilty for all the resources that we use.

But that’s not the point of the meditation today. The point is to simply to feel a sense of awe and gratitude for the web of interconnection in everything we use each day. And to use that view of the parts of objects to see through the selfish illusion that things exist only for our own pleasure or annoyance.

Causes: Where did your phone come from and how did it get here?

The next part of the analysis or meditation on dependent origination is to contemplate cause and effect. And we’ll continue our analysis with your smartphone. Where did your phone come from and how did it get here?

First came the idea. Someone had to have the idea to make a smartphone in the first place. And for the sake of convenience, let’s say that was Steve Jobs. He would have liked it that way. Someone thought, How wonderful it would be to have this device that not only makes phone calls, but connects you to the world’s information, lets you send messages, take pictures, watch videos, work and play and create from anywhere at anytime.

People worked for years with prototypes of the smartphone: writing software, working with manufacturers, eventually settling on all the specific parts of the phone, and where each would come from. They decided how many of each part they needed and wrote contracts with all the manufacturers.

People had to specify every step of the long process: from elements dug up from the earth; to the electronics, metals, glass and glues that make up an iPhone. Apple Computer in Cupertino, California of course designed the whole thing, relying upon literally the entire history of Western Civilization’s knowledge and expertise.

I once heard in a talk at the Long Now Foundation that if the earth were suddenly wiped back to a pre-agricultural era, it would take us 5000 years to return to the state of our infrastructure and supply chain where we could again manufacture an iPhone—even with the pre-existing knowledge of how to do so. Our global supply chain infrastructure is literally built atop the entirety of human civilization.

The designers and engineers at Apple combine bespoke parts with off-the-shelf ones like memory chips and cables that are manufactured all over the world.

The parts of an iPhone come from 43 countries on 6 continents. Just the A12 chip in the phone was fabricated in Taiwan, packaged and tested in the Philippines, assembled into the iPhone by Foxconn in China or Pegatron in Taiwan, then shipped to the store in whatever country you bought it.

Think of the hundreds of workers who made each of these parts, some of them working 12-hour days, many not able to afford the parts and products that their own factories produce; all their work just to survive, to support their families, and to deliver to people more fortunate—people like us—this magical device.

Not everything in the iPhone is manufactured overseas. The Guerrilla Glass for the display, Corning Glass’s bestselling product, is made in Harrodsburg, Kentucky, USA under specifications created at Corning’s research labs in upstate New York.

All the elements comprising these diverse components come from mines in many different countries, where ore is stripped out of the earth with giant machines; or sometimes, like in Brazilian goldmines, pulled up sack by sack by men with their bare hands.

When I was 18 years old I saw a powerful movie called Powaqqatsi whose opening scene shows the thousands of Brazilian men whose daily work is hauling dirt filled with specks of gold up and down vast strip mine pits. It was the first time I vividly saw the vast suffering that our civilization is stacked upon. On the website for this episode you can watch a video of that clip from Powaqqatsi, which includes an incredible Philip Glass soundtrack.

Considering the origin of the gold in our phone brings us even closer to the greater realization of the thousands of people who together worked years of effort so that we can enjoy this magical device in our hand; workers who dedicate most of their waking hours so that we can enjoy the technological miracle of our phones.

We can think of the Chinese workers who mined the phosphate, antimony, arsenic, indium, and gallium; as well as the rare earth metals that mostly comes from China too, though some of these also mined in Russia and Australia; Mexican workers extract and refine the silver in our phone; Rwandans mine the tantalum that comes mostly from their country.

Tin, tungsten, gold, tantalum, and cobalt are known as Conflict Minerals. The mining and trade of these elements finances armed groups in The Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding regions, and is now regulated in the United States and other countries.

Only four of the elements in our iPhone— four of the elements in the periodic table—were present at the Big Bang: hydrogen, helium and a little bit of beryllium and lithium. That means that some of the lithium in your phone’s battery is 13.8 billion years old: as old as our entire universe.

The other elements in our phones are younger, fused together in stars that released at them at their death by supernova, spreading all the heavier elements from carbon and oxygen to nickel and iron throughout the universe after the star’s multibillion-year life had ended.

The majority of elements in an iPhone add up to $1.03 of raw material costs
(source: The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone, Brian Merchant).

An important point when we look at these elements is to realize that though they are ancient, they aren’t static, but are constantly changing and interacting with the greater universe. At a basic level, all particles exert and are moved by the gravitation of every single other particle in the universe. There is no limit to gravitation’s reach, only diminished force with distance.

So when we examine the elements in our iPhone at the molecular scale, we see that the phone at its boundaries is not static but alive and changing. The phone’s materials are bonding with objects it comes into contact with, attracting and exchanging electrons with the oxygen and nitrogen and hydrogen in the air; and the dead skin and DNA and bacteria and viruses coming off our fingertips.

So we can trace most of our phone’s elements back billions of years to massive stellar explosions. We can break the phone down into thousands of individual parts comprised of nearly every one of the elements in the periodic table. And we can find the phone’s creation emerging from the hard labor and suffering of thousands of people all over the globe. This is what it means to more fully see an object through the lens of the interdependent nature of reality, examining both its parts and causes as far back as we can.

Of course we can keep going with this analysis. For example, we can think how each person who worked on the phone, each of them has a mother and father, a unique life history, ancestors going back a thousand generations to the dawn of humanity. And then, following further back we can trace the course of evolution back through apes and mammals and fish and simpler organisms, eventually to the onset of life on earth, where physics intersect with chemistry to create the origin of living creatures here 4 billion years ago.

Back to the human era, we can think about the phases of human social and technical evolution over a hundred thousand years, through tribal to agricultural to the first urban civilizations like the Sumerians and Mesopotamians; then to the first empires like the Chinese Empire or the Roman Empire; to the Age of Discovery when ships first circled the earth; to the Age of Reason when analytic thought and experimental data began to augment religious belief; to the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the age of the railways, the automobile, the airplane, the space age, the advent of the computer, and now the information age and the age of genetic manipulation; the age where we also take into account the parallel evolution of other cultures and civilizations that were marginalized along the way.

Then, perhaps with a sigh of relief, we might take a pause from this analysis of the iPhone that ends up encompassing all elements throughout all time and all history and return to the calmer example of the cup that Buddhist lamas typically discuss. Held gently in their hand, you can think of the person that designed the cup, the riverbeds and mines where the clay and the glazes came from, the factory where the cup was manufactured, and the people and trucks that brought it to your home. It’s also interconnected with all the history of life on earth and the evolution of the universe. But let that sit more vaguely and lightly in your consciousness for now as we move into the role of the mind and how it interrelates with an object’s parts and causes to form our reality.

The mind’s role in dependent origination

The third of the three analyses in the dependent origination of objects is, in addition to parts and causes, the mind: analyzing the mind’s role in how things exist. You may start to feel some skepticism here, thinking that positing a role for the mind in how objects exist begins to color outside the lines of science. But the explanation of the mind’s role in dependent origination involves nothing supernatural or metaphysical, and rests solidly on the psychology of perception and language.

To understand the role of the mind in an object’s existence, think of a different type of mind beholding your iPhone, like an ant walking across its screen. The ant does not perceive the iPhone the way you do. The ant sees no phone at all, no communication or information, but just a smooth plaza that it looks down into to see a clear reflection of itself, with rectangles below this glass floor in red, green, and blue that light up below its feet. There is no phone to an ant, only a piece of luminescent landscape.

What the mind does from the Buddhist perceptual framework is first to discriminate between different types of materials and parts. And then place a boundary around those various bundles of parts, labeling each bundle of parts with a name: in this case, iPhone.

There are more elaborate ways of conceptualizing the interaction between mind and matter from a Buddhist point of view. But this one is a commonly taught and understood framework that can form the basis for a lifetime of productive meditation that chips away at the delusional way we conventionally see objects as independent, partless, and permanent. Your mind observes the naturally undifferentiated, colorless, soundless continuity of reality. It imparts to them the illusory psychological qualities of color, and form, and sound. And it bundles various parts of reality into perceptual units, then labels those bundles with concepts and words that misleadingly define them as singular objects.

The habits of our mind and culture cause us to see objects in this conventional shorthand: to refer to the iPhone as a single object; or the cup, the car, the bicycle. But we can train ourselves to see things otherwise. And training ourselves in this way serves as an antidote to the strong emotional delusions that arise on the basis of misknowing the things around us.

When does the phone stop being a phone?

A useful thought experiment to chip away at this illusion of the singular object is to imagine replacing its parts one-by-one. If we replace the battery of our phone, is it still be the same phone? If we replaced the display? If we unsoldered the processor and memory and soldered on identical replacements, would it still be the same phone? Another way to think about this is to consider how many parts of the phone you need to take away before it’s no longer a phone? If you take away one small part is it no longer a phone? Or do you have to take away many of them?

You can do this thought experiment with other objects. If you take a wheel off your car is it still your car? If you remove the engine, the exhaust, the doors, the entire body? How much do you have to take away before it’s no longer a car? And when we replace parts of it, when we replace the tires on our car or the bumper, is it still the same car? We keep calling it our car.

What you start to see when you do these thought experiments, is what a central role the mind plays in defining the objects around us. We are willing to exchange out any parts of an object and continue to accept it as the same object. So it can’t be just the parts, or the causes that brought the parts together that makes it an object. It’s our mind that applies a label to the parts, and keeps applying the same label even when some of those parts are removed or are replaced.

This thought experiment starts to point to the more subtle, energetic, changing way that things exist. Buddhism sometimes talks about a river as a good object to analyze in this way. A river’s constantly changing nature is more obvious intellectually since the water rushing by means that its contents are technically replaced every few minutes. However, as we stand in front of the river for many minutes, it continues to appear to us as the same river. And when we return to a river we visited before, it also appears to us as the same river that we remembered in our mind. Thus comes the Buddhist aphorism, you never see the same river twice, that remind us how the river actually exists, an understanding that extends to the objects around us and even ourselves.

The earlier meditation we did in our episode on impermanence is an essential precursor to meditating on dependent origination and emptiness, because it helps us build the habit of seeing things as constantly changing. Emptiness adds to this meditation on impermanence an analysis of an object’s parts and the mind labelling them. With this combination we arrive at the mind, parts, and causes analysis of objects that helps us understand and eventually realize the dependent or empty nature of reality.

Are concepts interdependent too?

I love doing this analysis because it points to a much more vibrantly alive and changing world around me than the one that appears without analysis. I saw the Dalai Lama speak in San Francisco on this topic in 2007, where he taught from Lama Tsongkhapa’s text In Praise of Dependent Origination.

It was here that I was introduced to the reasoning about the interdependence of not just objects, but immaterial things as well. And by immaterial, I don’t mean anything supernatural, like a soul. His Holiness talked about the dependent origination of concepts, which we each agree are real, but have no material presence in the world.

So how do concepts exist? The Dalai Lama explained how comparative extremes like hot and cold cannot exist independently. Concepts are dependent on their opposites for their definition. Hot depends on cold, as there is no absolute hot, but only a hot in relation to something that is cooler. Similarly, tall and short are dependently arisen, and not inherent qualities of an object, without a second to measure against the first. There is no such thing as a tall person, only a person who is tall in relation to others who are shorter than her.

Cheap and expensive are also good examples. Cheap compared to what? You should always ask this question when someone says a thing is expensive or cheap. Because there is no such thing as cheap or expensive inherently from its own side, but only as it compares to the cost and quality of the other things that we compare it to.

This analysis helps a lot in polarizing times like we live in today. Liberals and conservatives are entirely interdependent. We couldn’t have one without the other. And the definition of liberal and conservative is dependent upon where you live and who you’re talking to. The most conservative politician in my local government here in Berkeley, California would be considered an arch-liberal in Scottsdale, Arizona. Liberals need conservatives for their very definition, just as conservatives need us. We are interdependent.

If you’ve noticed, in this analysis, we haven’t had to resort to the fascinating interpretations of quantum physics that the mind may somehow directly affect matter by collapsing quantum waveforms when we observe subatomic phenomena. We don’t need any esoteric knowledge in order to do this analysis of parts, causes, and mind on any object.

Summary of the analysis of dependent origination.

To recap, there are really just two things to remember.

Parts, Causes, and mind

The first is this three parts analysis: parts, causes, and mind:

  1. Parts. We can probe how anything exists by analyzing its parts;
  2. Causes. By thinking through all the causes that brought it into being;
  3. Mind. And by recognizing the role of the mind in placing an imaginary boundary and label around these caused parts, perceiving the object as a singular entity.

Permanent, partless, and independent

The other point to remember are the three ways that we mistake objects’ existence; that objects conventionally appear to exist as:

  1. Permanent, meaning that an object appears not to change;
  2. Partless, meaning that the object appears to us as a singular entity rather than one made up of smaller and smaller components;
  3. Independent. And that the object appears independent, as if it appeared from nowhere, rather than dependent on the myriad causes and conditions that temporarily bring its parts together.

Permanent, partless, and independent are the three mistaken ways that we see objects. Things really exist as impermanent, made of parts and interdependent with the causes and conditions around them.

Why are we meditating on emptiness again?

During the week, see if you can’t recall this analysis of mind, parts, and causes as you go through your day. And apply it to the objects you encounter, particularly ones that cause you great desire or distress.

See if this reflection helps to curb the strong feelings you have to objects, giving you a richer, more interdependent, and less disturbing way of encountering the world that accepts change and interdependence and the central role our mind plays in the illusory nature of reality.

Don’t forget that our actions have consequences. The analysis of dependent origination doesn’t prove that things lack existence at all, but quite the opposite: it only enriches our understanding of how things truly exist: as changing and interdependent with everything else; and that our actions have immediate repercussions on everything and everyone around us.

If you enjoyed this episode, we’d love to hear what you thought about it on this episode’s web page at skepticspath.org, or our Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or LinkedIN pages. We also have a private meditation discussion group that you can join from a link at the bottom of our website.

Thanks to our teachers and the great books that we’ve learned from over the years. A great source of wisdom on this topic is a book called Emptiness by Geshe Tashi Tsering, who we interviewed earlier this year. You can find a link to it on our website, and we’ll continue to mention a few other great books on this topic as we continue this series.

Thanks as always to our producer, Stephen Butler, for mastering this episode and structuring the content for this very important topic.


Hosted by Scott Snibbe
Production by Stephen Butler
Theme music by Bradley Parsons of Train Sound Studio


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