Twenty-five years ago, one of my teachers, Ajaan Suwat, led a meditation retreat in Massachusetts for which I served as translator. During a group interview session one afternoon, a retreatant new to Buddhism quipped, “You guys would have a good religion here if only you had a God. That way people would have some sense of support in their practice when things aren’t going well.”

Ajaan Suwat’s gentle reply has stayed with me ever since: “If there were a god who could arrange that by my taking a mouthful of food all the beings in the world would become full, I’d bow down to that god. But I haven’t found anyone like that yet.”

There are two main reasons these words have continued to resonate with me. One is that they’re such an elegant argument against the existence of an all-powerful, all-merciful Creator. Look at the way life survives: by feeding on other life. The need to eat entails unavoidable suffering not only for those who are eaten but also for those who feed, because we are never free of the need to feed. Wouldn’t an all-powerful, all-merciful Creator have come up with a better design for life than this?

The other reason is that Ajaan Suwat indirectly addressed an idea often, but wrongly, attributed to the Buddha: that we are all One, and that our organic Oneness is something to celebrate. If we really were One, wouldn’t our stomachs interconnect so that the nourishment of one person nourished everyone else? As it is, my act of feeding can often deprive someone else of food. My need to keep feeding requires that other living beings keep working hard to produce food. In many cases, when one being feeds, others die in the process. Oneness, for most beings, means not sharing a stomach but winding up in someone else’s stomach and being absorbed into that someone else’s bloodstream. Hardly cause for celebration.

illustration of birds flying into a snake's mouth for story on dependent arising in buddhism
Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery. Walton Ford, Boca Grande, 2003. Watercolor, gouache, ink and pencil on paper. 59 5/8 x 40 in.

The Buddha himself never taught that we are all One. A brahman once asked him, “Is everything a Oneness? Is everything a Plurality?” The Buddha replied that both views are extremes to be avoided (Samyutta Nikaya 12.48). He didn’t explain to the brahman why we should avoid the extreme view that all is Oneness. But three other passages in the Pali canon suggest the reasons for his position.

In Anguttara Nikaya 10.29, the Buddha says that the highest nondual state a meditator can master is to experience consciousness as an unlimited, nondual totality. Everything seems One with your awareness in that experience, yet even in that state there is still change and inconstancy. In other words, that experience doesn’t end suffering. Like everything else conditioned and fabricated, it has to be viewed with dispassion and, ultimately, abandoned.

In Samyutta Nikaya 35.80, he states that in order to relinquish ignorance and give rise to clear knowing, one has to see all things—all the senses and their objects—as something other or separate; as not-self. To see all things as One would thus block the knowledge leading to awakening.

We’re related not by what we inherently are but by what we choose to do.

And in Majjhima Nikaya 22, he singles out the view that the self is identical with the cosmos as particularly foolish. If the cosmos is your true self, he reasoned, then the workings of the cosmos would be yours to control. But how much control do you have over your immediate surroundings, let alone the whole cosmos? As Ajaan Lee [1907–1961] once said, “Try cutting down your neighbor’s tree and see whether there’s going to be trouble.”

Taken together, these three passages suggest that the 
Buddha wanted to avoid the view that everything is a Oneness because it doesn’t put an end to suffering, because seeing 
all things as One gets in the way of awakening, and because the idea of Oneness simply doesn’t square with the way things actually are.

While the Buddha didn’t tell the brahman why he avoided the extreme of Oneness, he did tell him how to avoid it: by adopting the teaching on dependent co-arising, his explanation of the causal interactions that lead to suffering.

Ironically, dependent co-arising is often interpreted in modern Buddhist circles as the Buddha’s affirmation of Oneness and the interconnectedness of all beings. But this interpretation doesn’t take into account the Buddha’s own dismissal of Oneness, and it blurs two important distinctions.

The first distinction is between the notions of Oneness and interconnectedness. That we live in an interconnected system, dependent on one another, doesn’t mean that we’re One. To be One, in a positive sense, the whole system would have to be working toward the good of every member in the system. But in nature’s grand ecosystem, one member survives only by feeding—physically and mentally—on other members. It’s hard, even heartless, to say that nature works for the common good of all.

The Buddha pointed to this fact in a short series of questions aimed at introducing dharma to newcomers (Khuddaka-
patha 4). The questions follow the pattern “What is one? What is two?” all the way to “What is ten?” Most of the answers are unsurprising: four, for example, is the four noble truths; eight, the noble eightfold path. The surprise lies in the answer to “What is one?”—“All beings subsist on food.” The Buddha does not say that all beings are One. Instead, this answer focuses on something that all beings have in common yet which underscores our lack of Oneness: We all need to feed—and we feed on one another. In fact, this is the Buddha’s basic image for introducing the topic of interdependent causality. Causal relationships are feeding relationships. To be interdependent is to “inter-eat.”

Related: The Buddha’s Original Teachings on Mindfulness

illustration of a pile of animals in a body of water for story on dependent arising in buddhism
Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery. Walton Ford, The Island, 2009. Watercolor, gouache, ink and pencil on paper. Panel 1: 95 1/2 x 36 in. Panel 2: 95 1/2 x 60 in. Panel 3: 95 1/2 x 36 in.

This is not cause for celebration, in the Buddha’s view. On the contrary, as he states in the Anguttara Nikaya 10.27, the proper response to all this inter-eating is one of disenchantment and dispassion, leading the mind to gain release from the need to feed.

The second distinction that gets blurred when dependent co-arising is portrayed as the Buddha’s affirmation of Oneness is the distinction between what might be called outer connections and inner ones: the connections among living beings on the one hand, and those among the events within each being’s awareness on the other. When you look at the series of events actually listed in dependent co-arising, you see that it deals with the interior causes of interconnection. None of the causal connections are concerned with how beings are dependent on one another. Instead, every connection describes the interrelationship among events immediately present to your inner awareness—your sense of your body and mind “from the inside,” the intimate part of your awareness that you can’t share with anyone else. These connections include such things as the dependence of consciousness on mental fabrication, of feelings on sensory contact, and of clinging on craving.

The interdependence here is not between you and other beings. It’s between all the experiences exclusively inside you. Just as I can’t enter your visual awareness to see if your sense of “blue” looks like my sense of “blue,” I can’t directly experience your experience of any of the factors of dependent co-arising. Likewise, you can’t directly experience mine. Even when I’m feeling a sense of Oneness with all beings, you—despite the fact that you’re one of those beings—can’t directly feel how that feeling feels to me.

In other words, instead of describing a shared area of experience, dependent co-arising deals precisely with what none of us holds in common. Even when the Buddha describes dependent co-arising as an explanation of the “origination of the world” (SN 12.44), we have to remember that “world” for him means the world of your experience at the six senses (SN 35.82). The factors of dependent co-arising all have to do with your experience as sensed from within.

The main message here is that suffering, which is something you experience directly from within, is caused by other factors that you experience from within—as long as you approach them unskillfully. But that same suffering can also be cured if you learn how to approach those factors with skill. Indeed, suffering can only be resolved from within. My lack of skill is something that only I can overcome through practice. This is why each of us has to find awakening for ourselves and experience it for ourselves—the Buddha’s term for this is paccattam. This is also why no one, even with the most compassionate intentions, can gain awakening for anyone else. The best any buddha can do is to point the way, in hopes that we’ll be willing to listen to his advice and act on it.

This is not to say, however, that the Buddha didn’t recognize our connections with one another. But he described them in another context: his teaching on karma.

Karma isn’t radically separate from dependent co-arising—the Buddha defined karma as intention, and intention is one of the subfactors in the causal chain. But karma does have two sides. When you give rise to an intention, no one else can experience how that intention feels to you: That’s the inner side of the intention, the side in the context of dependent co-arising. But when your intention leads you to act in word and deed, that’s its outer side, the side that ripples out into the world. This outer side of intention is what the Buddha was referring to when he said that we are kamma-bandhu: related through our actions (AN 5.57). My relation to you is determined by the things that I have done to you and that you have done to me. We’re related not by what we inherently are but by what we choose to do.

No one has ever fracked his way to nirvana.

Of course, given the wide range of things that people choose to do to and for one another, from very loving to very cruel, this picture of interconnectedness is not very reassuring. Because we’re always hungry, the need to feed can often trump the desire to relate to one another well. At the same time, interconnectedness through action places more demands on individual people. It requires us to be very careful, at the very least, not to create bad interconnections through breaking the precepts under any conditions. The vision of interconnectedness through Oneness, in contrast, is much less specific in the duties it places on people, and often implies that as long as you believe in Oneness, your feelings can be trusted as to what is right or wrong, and that ultimately the vastness of Oneness will set aright any mistakes we make.

Because interconnectedness through karma is not very reassuring on the one hand, and very demanding on the other, it’s easy to see the appeal of a notion of a Oneness that takes care of us all in spite of our actions. Interconnectedness through Oneness is often viewed as a more compassionate teaching than interconnectedness through action in that it provides a more comforting vision of the world and is more forgiving around the precepts. But the principle of interconnectedness through our actions demonstrates profound compassion to the people to whom it’s taught and gives them better reasons to act toward others in compassionate ways.

To begin with, interconnectedness through karma allows for freedom of choice, whereas Oneness does not. If we were really all parts of a larger organic Oneness, how could any of us determine what role we would play within that Oneness? It would be like a stomach suddenly deciding to switch jobs with the liver or to go on strike: The organism would die. At most, the stomach is free simply to act in line with its inner drives as a stomach. But even then, given the constant back and forth among all parts of an organic Oneness, no part of a larger whole can lay independent claim even to its drives. When a stomach starts secreting digestive juices, the signal comes from somewhere else. So it’s not really free.

For the Buddha, any teaching that denies the possibility of freedom of choice contradicts itself and negates the possibility of an end to suffering. If people aren’t free to choose their actions, to develop skillful actions and abandon unskillful ones, then why teach them? (AN 2.19) How could they choose to follow a path to the end of suffering?

Related: The Buddha’s Baggage

At the same time, if you tell people that what they experience in the present is independent of what they choose to do in the present, you leave them defenseless in the face of their own desires and the desires of others (AN 3.62). Karma, however, despite the common misperception that it teaches fatalism, actually teaches freedom of choice—in particular, our freedom to choose our actions right here and now. It’s because of this freedom that the Buddha found the path to awakening and saw benefits in teaching that path to others.

The notion of Oneness precludes not only everyday freedom of choice but also the larger freedom to gain total release from the system of inter-eating. This is why some teachings on Oneness aim at making you feel more comfortable about staying within the system and banishing any thought of leaving it. If what you are is defined in terms of your role in the system, there’s no way you could ever leave it. It may require that you sleep in the middle of a road clogged with the traffic of aging, illness, and death. But with a few pillows and blankets and friendly companions, you won’t feel so lonely.

But the Buddha didn’t start with a definition of what people are. He began by exploring what we can do. And he found, through his own efforts, that human effort can lead to true happiness outside of the system by following a course of action, the noble eightfold path, that leads to the end of action—in other words, to release from the need to feed and be fed on.

Because each of us is trapped in the system of interconnectedness by our own actions, only we, as individuals, can break out by acting in increasingly skillful ways. The Buddha and members of the noble sangha can show us the way, but actual skillfulness is something we have to develop on our own. If they find us trying to sleep in the middle of the road, they won’t persuade us to stay there. And they won’t try to make us feel ashamed for wanting to get out of the road to find a happiness that’s harmless and safe. They’ll kindly point the way out.

illustration of birds eating frogs for story on dependent arising in buddhism
Courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery. Walton Ford, Rhyndacus, 2014. Watercolor, gouache, and ink on paper. 119 1/4 x 60 1/4 in.

To teach people interconnectedness through karma is an act of compassion. And it gives them better reasons to be compassionate themselves. On the surface, Oneness would seem to offer good incentives for compassion: You should be kind to others because they’re no less you than your lungs or your legs. But when you realize the implications of Oneness—that it doesn’t plumb the facts of how interconnectedness works and offers no room for freedom of choice—you see that it gives you poor guidance as to which acts would have a compassionate effect on the system, and denies your ability to choose whether to act compassionately in the first place.

The teaching on karma, though, makes compassion very specific. It gives a realistic picture of how interconnectedness works; it affirms both your freedom to choose your actions and your ability to influence the world through your intentions; and it gives clear guidelines as to which actions are compassionate and which are not.

Its primary message is that the most compassionate course of action is to practice for your own awakening. Some writers worry that this message devalues the world, making people more likely to mistreat the environment. But no one has ever fracked his way to nirvana. The path to awakening involves generosity, virtue, and the skills of meditation, which include developing attitudes of unlimited goodwill and compassion. You can’t leave the system of inter-eating by abusing it. In fact, the more you abuse it, the more it sucks you in. To free yourself, you have to treat it well, and part of treating it well means learning how to develop your own inner sources of food: concentration and discernment. When these have been developed to the full, the mind will gain access to a further dimension, outside of the food chain. In that way, you remove your mouth from the feeding frenzy, and show others that they can, too.

From the Buddha’s perspective, the path to awakening will involve many lifetimes—another reason to treat the world well. If we’re in this for the long term, we have to eat with good manners, so that we’ll be able to eat well for however long it takes. If we mistreat others, we’ll be reborn into a world where we’re mistreated. If we’re wasteful of the world’s resources, we’ll be reborn into a wasted world. Because we’ll be returning to the world we leave behind, we should leave it in good shape.

In the meantime, by following the path, we’re taking care of business inside—and this, too, is an act of compassion to others. One of the most heartrending things in the world to witness is a person deeply in pain who can’t be reached: a young baby, crying inconsolably; an ill person on her deathbed, 
delirious and distraught. You want to reach into their hearts and take out a share of the pain so as to lessen it, but you can’t. Their pain is precisely at the level of their experience defined by dependent co-arising—the area of awareness that they can’t share with anyone else, and that no one else can enter to change. This is why seeing their pain hurts us so: we’re helpless in the face of the chasm between us—glaring proof that we are not One.

Someday, of course, we’ll be in their position. If we can take responsibility now for ourselves on the inner level—learning how not to be overcome by pleasure or pain, and not deceived by our cravings and perceptions—we won’t suffer then, even during the pain leading up to death. As a result, we won’t tear unnecessarily at the feelings of the people around us. This means that even though we can’t transfer the food in our mouths to fill their stomachs, we’ll at least not burden their hearts.

And in mastering that skill, we give a gift both to others and to ourselves.

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