The truth of interdependence is as central to the dharma as the Four Noble Truths, emptiness, and impermanence. We can contemplate interdependence on the cushion and say, “Yes, of course!” to ourselves, but how often do we pause and reflect when relative examples of it appear right before our eyes in daily life?
I’ve been honored to have served five terms in the New Hampshire legislature, four of them on the Science, Technology, and Energy Committee. Looking back over the years, there have been several experiences in this political environment that served as metaphors for interdependence.
Most strikingly were the visits my committee made each biennium to the high-security compound of ISO New England, the independent system operator of the electric grid for six New England states. At each visit, the big reveal would happen in a long conference room with one wall fully curtained. At some point our host would draw the curtain, exposing a full-width, tall window looking out at a giant electronic version of the grid on a wall across from us, with operators at computer stations visible on the floor below minding the system. The “wow” factor got me every time. (To appreciate a metaphor for our daily interdependence, watch ISO’s five-minute film, “Staying a Step Ahead.”) Grid operators are the conductors, orchestrating a finely tuned system that allows you to turn on your lights, your heat, and charge your gadgets at will. This is a system of interdependent factors, ultimately including various types of energy generation, transmission, local distribution (by your utility), and careful planning and monitoring to provide reliable electricity 24/7.
It may not be a stretch to intellectually agree with the Buddha’s teaching that we’re all connected. It may be harder for someone to realize the truth that all phenomena depend on the existence of everything else, i.e., causes and conditions. In other words, if this, then that. The screen you are reading this on requires the whole electrical grid, the whole society, and even the whole of the physical world to exist. While it’s one thing to observe this truth, it’s another to remain mindful of it. The various components of the electric grid working together seamlessly is a powerful illustration and a constant reminder of how interdependence operates in the world.
This is also true in any political endeavor, whether a local effort to keep a town library funded or at the national level to pass a federal bill—or even at work, when you need team support for a new idea. Interdependence is always at the forefront. In these situations, the larger metaphysical truth becomes apparent in some very pragmatic ways. There are opportunities for building coalitions and fostering cooperation.
Each year as a legislator, I could file or co-sponsor bills. Among the most gratifying was a 2007 environmental initiative, the Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS), which demands an increasing percentage of New Hampshire’s energy come from qualified renewable sources. As the bill’s prime sponsor, I helped build a coalition of stakeholders to participate in multiple meetings. The goal was to reach enough of an agreement on the bill’s language to get it passed with minimal opposition and sent to the governor for signature.
Similar to the broader environmental movement in America, with so many niche interests, we had to corral lobbyists, corporate and environmental organization representatives, all the utilities in the state, economists, and our Department of Environmental Services to discuss the mechanics of the program and its benefits for New Hampshire. Not all these players even wanted an RPS bill—and some would lose something because of it—but the majority of folks in the legislature and the governor did. So there had to be some kind of win for everyone. We all had to depend on each other not only to get the bill passed but also to make it work afterwards. So far, despite annual legislative attacks, the law is still helping to grow clean-energy industries in our state and lessen our dependence on fossil fuels.
Coalitions in politics are a prime example of how interdependence works on the practical level. Advocating against the death penalty, for example, needs multiple voices, such as clergy, physicians, lawyers, law enforcement, and families. Advocating for medical marijuana needs patients, physicians, hospice workers, families, and even entrepreneurs.
When it comes to my state’s budgeting process, the array of stakeholders who testify at finance meetings is always diverse and often compelling. With the legislature holding the purse strings, the dollars assigned to social safety net issues depend on how legislators read the desires of their constituents. Are testimonies and emails from the public sounding more tight-fisted or generous with the finite bucket of dollars? And how loud are the various lobbyists? Every parent of an autistic child, every teacher working with special-needs kids, every jobless head of household, every person struggling to avoid homelessness, and every family saving tuition money for our state university is dependent on how the treasury pie is sliced in the budget.
The system (government taking money in and apportioning money out) is rarely acknowledged as interdependent. For people who operate on an “I, Me, Mine” mindset and not a “We” mindset, it’s difficult to perceive the interdependence that pervades everything. But when, for instance, more people have access to health care and make a livable wage, society at large is better off. As commitment to my practice has deepened, the phrase “for the benefit of all” has become my moral compass, inspiring me to dig in and rededicate my practice (on and off the cushion) daily.
Perhaps the metaphor for interdependence most crucial to humans today is our environment. Without getting too wonky, there are climate feedback systems that loop on themselves, interdependently causing the planet to warm and our ecosystems to be dramatically altered. We humans are not blameless.
Each generation is affected by the actions of previous ones. We can choose to be good ancestors for future generations or not. Given the climate data we now have, non-action is no longer a choice. Recently Tricycle published an article by Bhikkhu Bodhi, “A Call to Conscience,” in which he urged Buddhists, “It’s crucial for us to enter the sphere of action.” It has been a great privilege for me to have entered this sphere, serve at the state level, and to have had the opportunity to make a difference in a few issues, especially in the growth of clean energy.
One question Buddhists might include in contemplation on interdependence is, “On this now fragile, interdependent system called Mother Earth, whose health status affects all of us, what should I be doing? How can I be of benefit?”
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