Ethics of Interdependence

Zen Master Robert Joshin AlthouseI am writing this on the occasion of my good friend and mentor, Jan Saether’s 70th birthday. I had the good fortune to study painting and sculpture with Jan in Venice, California, back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It was a time of creativity and much exploration. In 1986, when my wife June and I married at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, Jan was my best man. June and I then moved to Hawaii where I started the Zen Center of Hawaii in 1992. Once I began teaching Zen, I stopped painting. That was 20 years ago. Just over a year ago, I picked up a brush again, only this time, it was a digital brush in a virtual world, painting on a walcom tablet connected to an iMac computer. In twenty years, the world changed quit a bit.

I have spent much of my life trying to integrate my Zen spiritual path with my more protean creative nature, and how that connects to a larger social, economic and political world of which I am a part. So I’d like to articulate an ethics of interdependence, that dignifies difference by actualizing our capacity for creative, improvisational virtuosity and compassionate commitment to bettering our world, both personally, and publicly. I want to acknowledge my debt to Dr. Peter Hershock and his book, “Valuing Diversity” as a source of inspiration for this article.

The Middle Way

The Buddha taught a path of spiritual practice for liberating oneself from suffering that is known as the Middle Way because it avoided the extremes of eternalism and nihilism, sensual indulgence and self mortification. Central to the Buddha’s teaching is the discovery that everything arises interdependently. Another way of saying that is that relationality is more basic ontologically than the things that are related. Equally important was his teaching about karma. He discovered that through sustained attention, there was a meticulous relationship between values, intention and actions. So there is nothing we experience for which we are not responsible. If we are experiencing structural violence in our world, it is our world, and we are responsible for that too.

Critique of Social Structures and Institutions

Buddhism is commonly understood as an effective critique of self that liberates us from personal suffering. What may not be so easily appreciated is that it can also serve as a critique of the social and political structures by which our patterns of interdependence and relationship are shaped and formed. Chan (Zen) arose in China along with Confucian and Taoist practices. All three traditions sought to articulate a world where relationality (not things-related) and change (not the unchanging or eternal) were ontologically primordial. As such, they offer significant resources for challenging the assumption that the individual is the proper unit of ethical, social and political analysis.

We face a complex world where there is no way through. It’s not that we don’t have the technological means to solve global hunger, climate change or unclean drinking water. We do. But we lack the cultural and social resolve to agree on how to proceed in the first place. So our problem today is not technological. It’s ethical. And Zen can offer us a way forward by articulating an ethics of interdependence, informed by enriched relationships that arise from appreciating diversity and bringing forth a more just and equitable world for everyone.

Modernity and Its Roots

We commonly assume that values are just the way things are, but the values we live by today have arisen in historical contexts as responses to challenges we have faced. Our technology is not value-neutral. It expresses that which we value such as control, comfort, freedom, and autonomy.

The first half of the seventeenth century was filled with chaos and inter-religious wars that fractured the medieval structures of authority and meaning. During the Thirty Years War from 1618 to 1648, between Roman Catholics and Protestant Christians, six to eight million people died. It is against this background that the Enlightenment brought forth a new set of values that helped consolidate nation-states that were multiethnic, multicultural and religiously pluralistic. Their search for certainty emphasized values such as universalism, equality, progress and control. These values led to social structures that favored the written over the oral, the universal over the particular and the general over the local. These shifting values brought polarizing dichotomies between reason and emotion, mind and body, and spirit and matter.

Institutions of Learning

The Enlightenment established institutions of learning to which we can trace our contemporary scholarly institutions and practices. Values were practiced by individuals set against a background of universal and objective time and space. These values are still with us today, idealizing our dissociation from cultural specific forms of relationship and place, emphasizing analysis, choice and control. Our public school system was first formulated during the Industrial Revolution as a way to train people to work in factories of mass production.

The Indo-European root of the English word learn is “leis”, which expresses a very different value that recognizes the importance of transformational relationships. The word refers to furrowing, a purposeful opening in the earth, created for planting a seed that germinates, grows and matures. This premodern notion of learning and the values it espoused, led to embodied relationships, rooted in communities, and a sense of place.

We still remember the Renaissance as a time when humanism and skepticism inspired humility and tolerance for differences in culture. It was a time when the guild system of learning flourished. Much of this way of learning was lost after the Industrial Revolution.

The Guild System

When I studied painting with Jan, what was important was not what I learned from reading books, though I read many. What was important was our mutual passion for painting and the creative process. Jan taught me how to make mediums and grind paints as the Old Master had done. And I copied the Old Masters as a way of learning about the craft of painting. When I left paint pigments scattered about in the grinding room, Jan let me know in no uncertain terms how inconsiderate and inappropriate my behavior was. What was important was our relationship.

I’ve spent the rest of my life teaching Zen, which, not unlike the guild system is a system of learning between teacher and student and appreciates the importance of transformational relationships. It is a source of great personal satisfaction. Both teacher and student are transformed. In fact, you can’t have a teacher without a student. You can’t have a parent without a child. We arise together. Our world is characterized by interdependence through and through.

Problems or Predicaments

So now we find ourselves in the 21st century facing increasing fragmentation, dislocation of communities and the unraveling of social patterns of behavior that connect us meaningfully to each other. The values that brought us here are no longer adequate for addressing the challenges we face. Our post-modern world is highly pluralistic both ethnically, socially and religiously. In short, we live in a world where systems of meaning overlap, and compete with one another. Predicaments occur when we are forced to deal with conflicts among our shared values. These cannot be solved by simple technological fixes because the conflicts among our values make it impossible for us to even agree on what the solution would be. The very meaning of progress and success is in question. It’s not a question of technology. It’s a question of ethics and patterns of shared meaning. Predicaments can only be resolved in relationship to others. This means we need to be clear about how things have come to be as they are, and how we may more thoroughly coordinate collective commitments for resolving them.

New Values for an Informational, Networked World

As we have seen, the older values based on the idea that rational deliberation by autonomous individuals could establish a single hierarchy of values that were valid for all, is no longer adequate to meet the challenges of our complex, pluralistic, networked world.

Networks distribute power in very different ways than the older hierarchal structures. In the older structures, power and influence were based on how close you were to the person at the top of the hierarchy. In networked structures, you gain power and influence by the number of nodes in your network and the quality of the communication exchange taking place in the network itself. Networks made possible the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and the economic crash of 2008. Networks are both vital and volatile.

We need a new set of values that inform our skillful interactions with each other, so that, through our improvisational virtuosity, we may bring forth meaningful and just solutions to the predicaments we face. The values such as diversity, cooperation and collaboration that enhance and contribute to furthering our relational communication would seem to be helpful.These cannot be measured in a linear way. They are qualitative indexes about our interactions with each other.

Variety, for instance, is not the same as diversity. Variety can be measured. You can see it at a glance. If you look around a room full of people you can easily see variety. There are people of various ages and generations, people from different ethnic backgrounds, etc. But diversity cannot be measured in this way. Diversity is an emergent quality that arises when differences are activated as the basis for our sustained, mutual well-being.

A student asked a Zen teacher what was the essential teaching of Zen and he replied, “An appropriate response.” Attention or mindfulness, implies a quality of engagement and a readiness to respond.

An Ethics of Interdependence

Mindfulness has never been more popular. It is being taught and practiced everywhere, in classrooms, in schools, in prisons, in board rooms. Mindfulness and the values that arise from it are helping us to navigate our increasingly complex world. Like diversity, mindfulness is an emergent quality which is both embodied and relational. Other values, such as openness, empathy and clarity can help us begin to articulate an ethics of interdependence that is broad enough to be meaningful in our pluralistic world.

In his book, “Beyond Religion”, the Dalai Lama said, “as the peoples of the world become ever more closely interconnected in an age of globalization and in multicultural societies, ethics based on any one religion would only appeal to some of us; it would not be meaningful for all.” He goes on then to say, “What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics.”

What we need is an ethics that in non-dual; that sees no ontological gap between things. As Jan says when he teaches painting, it’s about “seeing without an object.” There is no metaphysical boundary between what “is” and what “is not”. When we divide the world in this dualistic way, we create karmic conditions for obstructions.

Nonduality is not about some bland sameness, an interfaith blending of all religions into one, nor is it a melting pot where everyone is assimilated into one kind of citizen. Nor is it about how much we differ from one another. It really is about how well we differ for each other. The value of diversity is a qualitative index about the degree to which differences are activated as the basis for our sustained and shared flourishing.

Defining goals and objectives to solve problems can be seductive. We need something more to see our way forward. No one plays jazz or creates a work of art in order to reach a goal. We create by entering into open-ended play; an improvisational virtuosity that points us forward in a meaningful direction together.

Fa-sang teaching at the end of the 7th and early 8th century in China said that nonduality doesn’t mean erasing our differences but the activation of our differences as a basis for generating patterns of mutual contribution for everyone to realize freedom from conflict, trouble and suffering. The way forward will not be easy, but neither will it be lonely. We will find new friends and companions along the way that strengthen our bonds of communal caring and respect, teaching us a new meaning for progress, success and wealth.

by Robert Joshin Althouse