The following article is excerpted from the Tricycle online course Finding Freedom, by Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel. Find out more about this six-unit, self-paced exploration of dependent arising and how this central principle leads us to greater freedom and ease in our everyday lives at learn.tricycle.org.
The cosmologist and science communicator Carl Sagan said something in his 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Journey that really challenges the notion of anything being independent.
He said, “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the entire universe.”
Let’s look at what this could mean. In the olden days, everybody made things from scratch. There were no boxed pie crusts or any of that yet. Then, in the 1930s and 1940s, someone industrious came up with the idea of making a pie crust mix. And then in the 1950s, cultural icon Betty Crocker really made that all prevalent. (She was a fictional character, but she seems very real.) But the question is, looking at the nature of interdependent relationships, is it even possible to make anything from scratch? Do you need an entire universe to make an apple pie?
If you really want to make something from scratch—an apple pie—what would you have to do? You might buy a piece of land and get a piece of machinery—or at least a horse and a plow or something. And then you’ll have to get some seeds, fertilize the soil, and y set up an irrigation system.
Look at any one of these things, let’s say wheat. Where does the wheat come from? You’ll have to somehow acquire some seeds.
But you could take that even further. Where do these seeds come from? What is the origin of wheat? If you look it up, you might find that wheat originated, they think, in the Levant region of the Middle East, of the Near East, in about 7,500 BCE.
And if you wanted to really explore wheat, you’d have all kinds of adventures and interesting things to learn. Then, when you think of grinding the wheat, what kind of machinery would you need? And what would that machinery be made of? Would it be made out of metal? Perhaps you’d need to put fuel into that machine. Think about fuel and the politics of getting fuel for your tractor and your machinery.
Then it begins to spread out and connect to so many different causes and conditions—infinite, really, because you’ll also have to look into the lineage of the people who actually manufacture the wheat, plant it, and harvest it, and consider their sustenance and their connection to everything else. That’s just the wheat that we’re talking about. We haven’t even gotten to the apples yet!
When I first heard this quote, I thought, I’m going to make an apple pie. It was August and I actually had some apples on my tree, and my dad’s birthday was coming up. My friend Peggy Markel, who teaches cooking in many different places in the world, said she’d come over and teach me how to make one. But first, I was going to harvest my apples. The night before she came, however, a bear came and ravaged every single apple off my tree except for one little tiny apple that was dangling on the top.
So I thought the universe was conspiring against me. But I didn’t make such a big deal about it. I went to the store and bought some local apples. When Peggy got to my house, we made apple pies all day long. We made seven different kinds. When we were done, I thought, which one should I give to my dad? There was this really traditional one with these little leaves made out of dough on the top, and I felt so proud about it for a minute, until I realized, who am I to take the credit for this?
It doesn’t work that there’s one person with one idea, one recipe, one bag of apples, and one pie. Things don’t work in a linear way. In fact, my ability to make an apple pie was dependent on infinite causes and conditions. And so it made me think, wow, this is not really just about dessert. This is about who we are in the nature of dependent relationships. Who we are as citizens of the great nature of infinite contingency—the nature of pratityasamutpada. I think this whole contemplation really helps you understand who you are.
So I started to think, we can’t say we’re so all important because we’re part of this bigger system. So we can’t really get bloated about our accomplishments. At the same time, we can’t say we’re insignificant either because we are part of the nature of infinite contingencies, and everything we do has reverberating effects.
This is a very sensitive system, and we are citizens of this system of contingencies. So we’re not really big—we can’t be. We’re not so important. And yet we’re not insignificant.
Can you really say who you are, because things are multidimensional and it all depends? We are part of this bigger system. This gives us a lot of information about how to move about the world—and we’re not separate from it.
So think about interdependence in this context, and let it help you put things into perspective and really look at how amazing everything in your world is because an apple pie is not a singular, separate phenomena, but part of everything else.