Interconnected - Introduction

Embracing Life in Our Global Society

Plucked from a humble nomad family to become the leader of one of Tibet’s oldest Buddhist lineages, the young Seventeenth Karmapa draws on timeless values to create an urgent ethic for today’s global community.

 

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Editors’ Introduction

What would it take for people to stop treating happiness as a zero-sum game and start living with confidence that mutual flourishing was not only possible but realistic? To pose such a question may strike some readers as either naive or daunting, but given the challenges facing our world today, this is the kind of shift we need to explore with an open mind and a sincere willingness to act within the possible. In this book, His Holiness the Karmapa shows how much we could change in the world by approaching our lives as profoundly interconnected rather than seeing ourselves as discrete and ultimately separate individuals.

Over the course of the book, the Karmapa offers a sustained reflection on what it would mean to undertake such a paradigm shift particularly in the context of our electronic connectivity. To begin with, he argues, communications technologies are already making our interconnectedness more apparent to us. Acknowledgment of this radically different paradigm is already gaining traction in popular perception, in activist circles, and in intellectual discourse. From a world of siloed societies and independent individuals, many people have begun to recognize that we are interconnected communities and interdependent individuals. Thinkers and activists in fields as far flung as economics, earth sciences, and social justice are collectively creating a multidisciplinary account of the diverse ways that our world functions interdependently. Empirical research provides ample evidence indicating that interconnections operate in every social and natural arena. While the use of the paradigm of interdependence is still relatively new in scientific, academic, activist, and other discussions, the idea that all phenomena are interconnected has formed the basis of Buddhist thought and ethics since its outset.

This book aims to add the voice of His Holiness the Karmapa to present-day conversations that explore global issues through the lens of interdependence. He joins important discussions already urging greater awareness of the instances and effects of interdependence in the world. The Karmapa is particularly concerned with ensuring that our heightened awareness leads to changes in individual and collective behavior, to help build a global society that works in concert with rather than resistant to the realities of interdependence. At the age of thirty-one, he is already a major thinker deeply engaged in environmental and social justice issues, as well as the head of a 900-year- old Tibetan Buddhist lineage and one of Buddhism’s most important spiritual leaders. Although the Karmapa is steeped in Buddhist philosophical traditions in which interdependence is a central tenet, he makes very little use of Buddhist terminology to discuss interconnection and claims no particular authority for himself in speaking on these issues. His concern in this book is not primarily to define a Buddhist position on interdependence for those exploring it as a theory, but in exploring the possibilities for social and ethical transformation that interdependence opens up. As a result, this is neither a book about Buddhism nor a particularly Buddhist book. Rather, it is an open process of thinking collaboratively on the basis of our shared human condition and shared concerns for the world.

One unique contribution the Karmapa makes is in extending the discussion to include the working of interconnectedness within us— what he calls inner interdependence. The discourse thus far has tended to focus primarily on the principle of interdependence at work in our external conditions—in the natural world and in social and economic phenomena. The Karmapa demonstrates that our inner domain is also a site where interdependence takes place, and he makes a strong case that an analysis of conditions that combine to shape our world interdependently must also include our inner conditions if it is to lead to social and environmental change.

As empirical investigation has made clear, our external reality is shaped through the interplay of myriad conditions. Among those conditions, some of the most influential are human attitudes and actions. Our perceptions, ideas, interpretations, and emotions interact, shaping how we experience our connections, how we respond, and what we contribute to those connections. As such, our inner conditions have a real impact on the external world, and therefore investigation of the dynamics of interdependence at work in the world around us is incomplete without a consideration of the world within us.

The role of emotional awareness is a second major theme running through the book. For the Karmapa, emotions serve as a force that is essential for translating intellectual understanding into positive action. The Karmapa argues that it is not sufficient to know we are interconnected. We must learn to feel connected, as the necessary basis for acting in ways that reflect our interconnectedness. Gathering and analyzing data that demonstrates our interdependence has been an important first step. Cultivating emotional experience and awareness of interconnection is the crucial next step if we are to transform patterns of individual and collective action so that they are coherent with interdependence. Empathy has already received attention in other works as an important ethical quality for an interdependent world; here the Karmapa greatly expands the category to include such virtues as courage, contentment, patience, responsibility, mental agility, and imagination. In his presentation, just as empathy gains meaning when it moves us to compassionate action, so too does responsibility when it is embraced as opportunity. As such, human virtues are radically reoriented as values for living and acting wisely in an interconnected world.

The title of this book—Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society—makes use of the term “interconnected,” rather than “interdependent,” precisely to draw attention to the human, affective dimension of our interdependence, in contrast to the external phenomena more often referenced by the term “interdependence.” The Karmapa uses “interdependence” and “interconnectedness” almost interchangeably, and the Tibetan term itself (rten cing ’brel bar ’byung ba) is a compound that includes the terms that denote dependence and connection. The book is divided in three sections, corresponding to the three phases that move us from intellectual to emotional awareness and from there to action—understanding that we are interconnected, feeling our connectedness, and acting in ways consistent with it.

An ethics of interdependence emerges through these three sections of the book. The Karmapa proceeds by first laying an ontological foundation—that is, by describing the interdependent nature of who we are and the world we live in—and goes on to identify innate emotional qualities and ethical virtues we can cultivate that are suited to such a foundation. Some of the inner qualities and social values explored in this book—such as empathy, contentment, and freedom— shape how we experience our connections to others, while others—such as responsibility, courage, and compassion—mobilize our ethical actions in relation to them. In this way, the Karmapa’s vision of an ethics of interdependence moves well beyond descriptive theory, offering a generative model for social and ethical change.

Although the fact that there is a link between understanding and behavioral change hardly requires stating, it is clear that the advances in our intellectual recognition of interconnection have not created sufficient conditions for motivating effective action, as countless examples demonstrate. The availability of data detailing the connections between world hunger and the high level of environmental resources required to feed cattle has yet to change our dietary practices; investigative reporting on substandard working conditions of factory workers in the Global South producing goods for luxury markets in the North has yet to lead to widespread or significant changes in consumption or corporate labor practices. Intellectual understanding is necessary but not sufficient for sustainable connection of awareness to effective action. In this book, the Karmapa points to emotional engagement as the element that must be cultivated in order to transform patterns of individual and collective actions so that they are coherent with interdependence.

The discussion in this book builds upon work begun in his earlier book, The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out, in which the Karmapa explored a series of personal, social, and environmental issues where individuals can contribute to creating a sustainable, compassionate world. In Interconnected: Embracing Life in Our Global Society, he offers us a focused and sustained exploration of interdependence itself. The aim of his argument is to illuminate its ethical and social implications for global society in this age of connectivity. The Karmapa’s pragmatic approach keeps us oriented toward the goal of positive change and keeps visible the basic questions: What are the conditions necessary for happiness? How can we create them, individually and collectively? What are the conditions that cause suffering? How can we end them?

The Karmapa is a vocal critic of the global conditions human beings have created that have led to human, animal, and environmental harm. His sustained critique of global consumerist culture alerts us to our vulnerability to manipulation when we do not live our interdependence wisely. He similarly cautions that we must be much more conscious in our use of technology, as too often our current modes of engaging online leave us more disconnected than ever. Yet the Karmapa also sees great potential in technology as a means to connect to others, as he himself does through his frequent webcasts of his teachings, and suggests methods to avoid reproducing harmful ways of relating to others online.

In Interconnected, the Karmapa makes clear just how radically different the model of interdependence is from dominant models of discrete individuals, communities, and things. Taken to its logical conclusion, the fact that we are thoroughly interconnected means that self and other are not ultimately separable on individual or societal levels. This fundamental insight has far-reaching ramifications for all our relationships—to other beings, to things, to the planet, and to our own ideas and experiences. It can profoundly reshape the emotional and social landscape in which we live out our lives and thoroughly reorient us within that landscape. In the process, we are challenged to rethink who we are as individuals and how we engage with and are shaped by the world. The goal throughout is to open up new possibilities for living interdependently with and for others.

 

The way in which this book came about is an example of the vision of living interdependence that His Holiness presents within it. The book’s content originated in a series of teachings His Holiness offered to a group of undergraduate students from the University of Redlands, a liberal-arts university in California. The students had traveled to Dharamsala, India, with Professor Karen Derris for three weeks of study with the Karmapa facilitated by Venerable Damchö Diana Finnegan. The Karmapa met with the students in his library for sessions that began with student presentations of their concerns and questions, to which His Holiness responded with extensive reflections. Under the guidance of the Karmapa, Damchö and Karen subsequently edited these teachings into the present book. This was the second time the Karmapa had received a class from the University of Redlands in his residence, and Interconnected is the second book such exchanges have yielded.

That His Holiness chooses to articulate his thoughts through exchanging views with others of diverse culture, religion, and life experience—rather than penning his thoughts alone in his study as so many thinkers do—demonstrates his profound commitment to processes that reflect our basic interconnectedness. Through this process, the Karmapa showed himself to be a remarkably responsive thinker, even as his responses often challenged us to rethink the very premises of the students’ questions. As the Karmapa addressed them, he suggested possibilities for other beginning points, created space for reflection upon previously unexamined assumptions, and built into other questions.

As a thinker, His Holiness is both challenging and dynamic, capable of holding multiple perspectives without the expectation that his conversation partners will approach the topic from any single orientation. Even as he invited us to view our lives through new vantage points that his teachings opened up, he displayed a consistent willingness to consider other people’s vantage points as well. The Karmapa’s mode of engaging with us provided the example of what he was describing—allowing others to form part of one’s own self while committing to forming a condition for others’ flourishing.

 

In 2013, when the teachings in this book were first given, His Holiness frequently reflected on the events of the day—including the collapse of a textile factory in Bangladesh and the Boston Marathon bombing. In the intervening years, the escalating number of terrorist attacks and the ongoing plight of refugees worldwide have offered further visceral proof that our response to our interconnectedness can produce either human suffering or flourishing. As this book is being finalized, voters in any number of nations are being asked to choose between working with interdependence on the one hand, or pulling up drawbridges and withdrawing behind walls. By the time readers are taking up this book, surely many more examples will have mounted to indicate that we are living in a historical period in which choices are being made between divergent models for relating to each other, with some people greatly inspired by the possibilities that interdependence offers and others resistant to the changes in behavior and lifestyle it would entail.

As the reader will see, the Karmapa frequently shared not only current events but also his own experiences and feelings. Indeed, he drew on his own life to provide the empirical material for reflection upon interdependence as part of our embodied, direct experience. As such, he was modeling a way that readers can explore the ideas he proposes by applying them as a means of reflection upon our own life experiences.

Although the Karmapa often draws on experience as a resource from which to elicit theories, experience is not merely a means to reach a theoretical end. Instead, theoretical positions are offered and shifted as part of a dynamic process in which the aim is to find the angle of vision that is most productive for cultivating emotional awareness and effective action. As His Holiness encourages us to shift lenses, he is offering a model for reading his book. We are invited to adopt various perspectives in examining our own experiences and relating to the world around us. As the Karmapa both describes and displays in this book, personal cultivation is a process that we engage in by trying out different options. This book offers readers the opportunity to bring their own experiences and contexts into their encounter with the vision the Karmapa outlines, and to bring them into conversation with the reflections in this book.

Because the interactions with the students in Dharamsala in 2013 were intended from the outset to be published as a book, the presence of its readers was continually anticipated and imagined in the process. The conversations were understood to be initiating an ongoing process in which the readers of this book would be active participants, through questioning assumptions, examining experiences, and rethinking ways of being and acting.

The Karmapa is, above all, interested in bringing about positive collective change in the world and understands that that requires collective action. He is optimistic about the basic human capacity for goodness, and about the possibilities that open up when we begin to embrace our interconnectedness. At the same time, he is highly realistic about the adverse conditions already in effect, and about the amount of work that is yet to be accomplished before we respond fully to the needs of a world that is crying out for social and environmental justice. Given the challenges ahead, and all that is at stake, there is a great need for voices like that of the Karmapa to guide us in cultivating the inner conditions to do so.

As he offers his own reflections as a condition for such change, he welcomes us to join him in the open, ongoing process of effecting positive change for our global society. This book itself is our open invitation to do so.