24 Jun 2020

In 17th century London, John Donne fell deathly ill. The field of pathophysiology wasn’t much of a thing back then and sickness was considered a manifestation of sin that warranted a visit from God. Rather than rest through the anguish, Donne decided to chronicle his reflections during this period. Fortunately, he survived and eventually published these reflections in a volume, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions. The most famous of these meditations is perhaps familiar to many.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. […] Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

In a stroke of terminal lucidity, Donne sensed something deep. He felt connected, not just to his singular self, but to all of humanity. Leading him to question the notion that man was distinct from mankind and view every man’s death as his own.

The self is often treated like an independent entity, distinct from — and sometimes even diametrically opposed to — the rest of the world. But, you can’t conceive of the self without the entirety of its context. It only truly exists as a part of the whole, and the distinction between the two isn’t as clean as we’d like to think.

Far from being a revolutionary new insight, the idea that we are connected to the world around us, lies in the realm of mundane facts that we tend to overlook. But, the deeper you contemplate this fact, the more profound it begins to seem, and the greater its impact appears to be on our daily lives.

Let’s zoom out for a second and consider a more general case. Conventional thinking is centered around abstract notions like entities and objects. On the surface, each entity feels like an hermetic thing in our head— solid, concrete and independent. But is it really so?

The concept of pratītyasamutpāda (dependent co-origination) is central to Buddhist philosophy. It states that all conventional objects arise dependent on other objects as conditions, like the existence of fire depends on the presence of fuel. This principle reflexively applies to the causes themselves, which are dependently originated from other causes and so on.

An important nuance on the nature of the dependence described here, is that it isn’t a one-way street, but a kind of mutual interrelation. A cause isn’t said to have any primacy over the effect, since it only derives the property of being a cause only through the effect that it produces.

The Madhyamika philosopher Nāgārjuna employs this flavor of reasoning in his critique of svābhava (intrinsic essence) as a metaphysical concept. His work, the Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, centers on refuting the absolute, independent natures of a variety of concepts like cause and effect, actor and action, by showing their shared interdependence.

pratītya kārakaḥ karma taṃ pratītya ca kārakam
karma pravartate nānyat paśyāmaḥ siddhikāraṇam

An actor depends on acts and acts too occur in dependence on an actor. Apart from this, one does not see a cause which is established. (MMK 8.12)

Interpreted in a certain way, the doctrine of pratītyasamutpāda is taken to mean that nothing exists in isolation, since each individual thing is simply a link in an infinitely long chain of mutually interdependent relations. This interpretation is expounded on in the Avataṃsakasūtra, using the visual metaphor of Indrajāla (Indra’s net).

Indra, the chief of gods, lives on top of Mount Sumeru. One of the artifacts he is said to possess, is a net of infinite dimension, with a glittering jewel at each of its infinite vertices. Upon examining the polished surface of one of these jewels, you see the infinite reflections of the other jewels, each of which contain the reflections of all the other, ad infinitum.

The jewels in this illustration are taken to signify the elementary dharmas (phenomenon) which are dependent on countless other dharmas for their existence. The Huyan school describes this as the “perfect interfusion” of all phenomena, where exhaustively describing any particular phenomena requires instantiating the entire infinite universe.

The Huyan patriarch, Fazang, is said to have built an actual hall of mirrors as a pedagogical tool to demonstrate this concept to Empress Wu Zetian. Ten mirrors were placed facing one another, in the eight cardinal and ordinal directions, and two on the top and bottom. At the center of this arrangement, a statue of the Buddha was installed, along with a candle to illuminate it. This setting produced an infinite number of Buddha reflections in the mirrors, illustrating the infinitely interdependent nature of all phenomenon.

In Hinduism, the ideas of interconnectedness and non-difference is at the core of Advaitic doctrine — the very word advaita means non-dual. Building on the idea that no single part is separable from the whole, it equates the brahman (absolute) with the ātman (self).

A common illustration in Advaitic circles is that of the wave and the ocean. Superficially, one certainly perceives the wave as a distinct thing. But looking closer, one realizes that it isn’t an entity separate from the ocean, but simply a mental projection. This transient manifestation of form, is inextricably linked to the underlying substance, and cannot exist without it.

Another interesting idea in Advaitic philosophy, is their claim that particulars derive from universals, but also that universals rely on particulars for meaning and interpretation, and don’t have any independent existence. The Advaitin monk, Swami Vivekananda explores this idea, by examining notions that we consider to be fundamental aspects of the universe — like time, space and causation. Quoting from his work, Jnana Yoga.

The one peculiar attribute we find in time, space, and causation is that they cannot exist separate from other things. Try to think of space without colour, or limits, or any connection with the things around — just abstract space. You cannot; you have to think of it as the space between two limits or between three objects. It has to be connected with some object to have any existence. So with time; you cannot have any idea of abstract time, but you have to take two events, one preceding and the other succeeding, and join the two events by the idea of succession. Time depends on two events, just as space has to be related to outside objects. And the idea of causation is inseparable from time and space. This is the peculiar thing about them that they have no independent existence. […] They are as shadows around everything which you cannot catch. They have no real existence; yet they are not non-existent, seeing that through them all things are manifesting as this universe.

This timeless idea of interconnectedness is also very relevant to our modern lives. A lot of our society’s ills stem from the illusion of separateness. Greed and avarice from the notion of an individual self; tribalism and xenophobia from the idea of a distinct social group. By intensely focusing on a singular aspect, we tend to forget its relation to the whole.

Rather than view the other as something to be abused and exploited in service of what is ours, we must recognize their mutual interdependence and seek to find harmony instead. To transcend as human beings, we must learn to look beyond superficial distinctions and realize how deeply connected we truly are to one another and the world around us.