In class, I tell the students that we are going to discuss pairs of objects that have nothing in common. Can they think of any?
They stare at me. The room is silent. As they think, I sit politely on a chair in the center of the room. I smile a bit so they know I am eagerly awaiting their responses, but my expression is less cheerful than usual. I want them to take this question seriously. In my mind, this is the most important discussion of the semester.
“A hammer and a pillow,” one student says.
I nod. “Let’s talk about those two,” I say. “Can anyone think of anything a hammer and a pillow have in common?”
They continue to stare at me. Some students look at their shoes. One young woman holds the end of her braid, picking apart the split ends.
“A hammer and a pillow can both in be your house,” says another student.
I nod again. “That’s right. So, that pair doesn’t work. Let’s try to come up with some more pairs of objects that don’t seem to have anything in common.”
Suggestions begin flying around the room. A paintbrush and a cat. Wait, interrupts one student. They are both soft. Cotton and lava? No, argues another student. They both rise up out of the earth.
The debate continues, and the students seem engaged and thoughtful. In this learning environment, a prominent design college in New York City, we as faculty challenge students to be bold and clever, but also informed and calculated. As emerging artists and designers, they are tasked not only with creating but also with combining. They are learning how to decide what elements can come together to create a cohesive whole. These students, you could say, are in the craft and the business of connectivity.
After a few minutes, I distribute blank sheets of white paper. I tell the students to write down what the piece of paper and a cloud have in common.
As they jot down their ideas, I organize copies of a short text we’ll be reading together as a class. It is a section from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Awakening of the Heart: Essential Buddhist Sutras and Commentaries. In this excerpt, the venerable Zen master describes a clear example of what he refers to as interbeing:
If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. We can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, “inter-be.”
I ask one student to stand up and write the word “interbeing” on the whiteboard. After she writes it and sits back down, we all study it quietly. I ask them what they think it means. They respond knowingly. “Inter” means “between,” they say, and “being,” well, has several definitions. “Being” can refer to a state of existence, or it can represent a person (or a plant or an animal) who breathes. So, interbeing it is a state of shared beingness between everything around us.
We read the text together. At first, they giggle; how can a cloud float in a sheet of paper? I admire their lightheartedness. Then, the teaching in the text becomes clearer. Everything is interrelated; everything is, in some way, connected to something else. Nothing has an isolated and separate existence.
Their reactions vary. Some embrace this idea, evident by their nods and enthusiasm. Others students are quiet and seem hesitant. I wonder if there is a benefit to what I perceive as their doubt. I have a strong desire to launch into a lecture about sustainability. I want to decry our society’s knee-jerk consumption habits and careless efforts to dispose of waste. I want to tell them how our actions have impacts way beyond what we can fathom precisely because of this profound state of interconnectivity.
Instead of doing this, I take a deep breath. I ask them one last question.
“What does the term ‘interbeing’ mean to you as designers and artists?”
Conversations ensue. Fashion design students condemn fast fashion—the mass-production of cheap garments that causes and contributes to a reckless engine of sweatshop labor and clothing overconsumption. Fine arts students discuss toxic art materials—paint, dyes, and plastic—that enter the ecosystem and harm living things. They seem to understand and embrace the responsibility they take on as creators: they must make their best efforts to predict the effects of each and every design choice.
I expect them to be intimidated. After all, when one contemplates the interconnectivity of everything in the world, it becomes clear that even the smallest error can have disastrous consequences. The students, however, don’t seem afraid. Instead, they appear energized and inspired.
We segue into a discussion about their latest design work and research, and it seems that interbeing is a concept that will motivate them to make more responsible choices. They wonder how they can use biodegradable materials for the garments they are designing. They discuss banning fabrics that come from animals, such as leather and fur. The fine arts students discuss how they can expose sustainability problems through their illustrations and paintings, rather than contributing to them by using materials are cannot be recycled or reused.
I recall the words of Robert Frost, who said: “I am not a teacher. I am an awakener.” As a teacher, I try to engage with the students before me as people on a path of awakening—not to what I am trying to teach them, per se, but to their own innate ingenuity. By working with design students, I’ve discovered that the potential for awakening increases most not when students become aware of interconnectivity, but rather when they create from that very understanding. The works that honor artists’ individual gifts and interbeing might just be the most sustainable.
May we all be so fortunate to coexist in a world made better by inspired and awakened artists.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.