Several thinkers and writers have, either directly or indirectly, established the concept of Universal Interbeing—the position that we are all interconnected whether we are aware of it or not, and that the existence of one ultimately affects the existence of the other.
American Baptist minister and human right activist Martin Luther Jr. (1929 – 1968), in an address delivered days before his assassination to the congregation of National Cathedral Washington, invited us to remember that our world is a neighbourhood. He posited that:
…whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.
In Oath of Fealty, a sci-fic masterpiece written by American science fiction and fantasy writer Elizabeth Moon and which is “widely judged to be one of the great post-Tolkien fantasies” according to Goodreads, used an illustration of a tree to make a point in support of the concept:
A tree is alive, and thus it is always more than you can see. Roots to leaves, yes—those you can, in part, see. But it is more—it is the lichens and moss and ferns that grow on its bark, the life too small to see that lives among its roots, a community we know of, but do not think on. It is every fly and bee and beetle that uses it for shelter or food, every bird that nests in its branches. Everyone an individual, and yet every one part of the tree, and the tree part of every one.
Two decades before Moon penned this concise revelation, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh published Peace is Every Step, the volume that seeks to draw a path of mindfulness in everyday life. Thich Nhat Hanh presented expressly in 1990 the same position of interbeing that Moon echoed in 2010. Starting with the relationship between the allegedly pure rose and the allegedly dirty garbage:
Defiled or immaculate. Dirty or pure. These are concepts we form in our mind. A beautiful rose we have just cut and placed in our vase is pure. It smells so good, so fresh. A garbage can is the opposite. It smells horrible, and it is filled with rotten things. But that is only when we look on the surface. If we look more deeply we will see that in just five or six days, the rose will become part of the garbage. We do not need to wait five days to see it. If we just look at the rose, and we look deeply, we can see it now. And if we look into the garbage can, we see that in a few months its contents can be transformed into lovely vegetables, and even a rose. If you are a good organic gardener, looking at a rose you can see the garbage, and looking at the garbage you can see a rose. Roses and garbage inter-are. Without a rose, we cannot have garbage; and without garbage, we cannot have a rose. They need each other very much. The rose and the garbage are equal. The garbage is just as precious as the rose.
Then Hanh moved on to the relationship between living things and the sun, which he described as the universal heart, the enabler of the long chain of the connective survival of all living things, without which all life would be impossible:
We know that if our heart stops beating, the flow of our life will stop, and so we cherish our heart very much. Yet we do not often take the time to notice that other things, outside of our bodies, are also essential for our survival. Look at the immense light we call the sun. If it were to stop shining, the flow of our life would also stop, so the sun is our second heart, a heart outside of our body. This immense “heart” gives all life on Earth the warmth necessary for existence. Plants live thanks to the sun. Their leaves absorb the sun’s energy, along with carbon dioxide from the air, to produce food for the tree, the flower, the plankton. And thanks to plants, we and other animals can live. All of us—people, animals, and plants—consume the sun, directly and indirectly. We cannot begin to describe all the effects of the sun, that great heart outside of our body. Our body is not limited to what is inside the boundary of our skin. It is much more immense. It includes even the layer of air around our Earth; for if the atmosphere were to disappear for even an instant, our life would end. There is no phenomenon in the universe that does not intimately concern us, from a pebble resting at the bottom of the ocean, to the movement of a galaxy millions of light-years away.
To pre-validate Nhat Hanh’s words, in his 1855 poem entitled Songs of Myself, American poet, essayist, and journalist Walt Whitman wrote, “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” A statement that expresses beautifully the position that the stars are in some way the plants’ essence and without them, although this is not obvious, the plants won’t be.
Furthermore, in How to Love, a book which the widely knowledgeable Maria Popova of Brain Pickings had described as a “slim, simply worded collection of his immeasurably wise insights on the most complex and most rewarding human potentiality”, Nhat Hanh had written against the mentality of independence in the continuous existence of an individual:
We think we have a self. But there is no such thing as an individual separate self. A flower is made only of non-flower elements, such as chlorophyll, sunlight, and water. If we were to remove all the non-flower elements from the flower, there would be no flower left. A flower cannot be by herself alone. A flower can only inter-be with all of us… Humans are like this too. We can’t exist by ourselves alone. We can only inter-be. I am made only of non-me elements, such as the Earth, the sun, parents, and ancestors. In a relationship, if you can see the nature of interbeing between you and the other person, you can see that his suffering is your own suffering, and your happiness is his own happiness. With this way of seeing, you speak and act differently. This in itself can relieve so much suffering.
Meanwhile, back in Peace is Every Step, Nhat Hanh shifts our focus to the tree. For the tree to be, every part of it, even the seemingly insignificant bit, must contribute to the being. This is ultimately presented in an alleged dialogue between the Zen Buddhist and a leaf:
One autumn day, I was in a park, absorbed in the contemplation of a very small, beautiful leaf, shaped like a heart. Its colour was almost red, and it was barely hanging on the branch, nearly ready to fall down. I spent a long time with it, and I asked the leaf a number of questions. I found out the leaf had been a mother to the tree. Usually we think that the tree is the mother and the leaves are just children, but as I looked at the leaf I saw that the leaf is also a mother to the tree. The sap that the roots take up is only water and minerals, not sufficient to nourish the tree. So the tree distributes that sap to the leaves, and the leaves transform the rough sap into elaborated sap and, with the help of the sun and gas, send it back to the tree for nourishment. Therefore, the leaves are also the mother to the tree. Since the leaf is linked to the tree by a stem, the communication between them is easy to see.
In the same vein, the focus of the wise man’s philosophical lens is directed at human beings. Starting with the illustration of the connection between a mother and the child through the umbilical cord, Hanh pronounces the earth as the mother of us all connected to us and connecting us through several stems that keeps the chain of existence going:
We do not have a stem linking us to our mother anymore, but when we were in her womb, we had a very long stem, an umbilical cord. The oxygen and the nourishment we needed came to us through that stem. But on the day we were born, it was cut off, and we received the illusion that we became independent. That is not true. We continue to rely on our mother for a very long time, and we have many other mothers as well. The Earth is our mother. We have a great many stems linking us to our Mother Earth. There are stems linking us with the clouds. If there are no clouds, there will be no water for us to drink. We are made of at least seventy percent water, and the stem between the cloud and us is really there. This is also the case with the river, the forest, the logger, and the farmer. There are hundreds of thousands of stems linking us to everything in the cosmos, supporting us and making it possible for us to be.
Finally, in this age of diversity and segregation, the mindfulness master once again relied on the leaf’s wisdom to make suggestions on what our behaviour to one another and to the Universe at large should be like:
Do you see the link between you and me? If you are not there, I am not here. This is certain. If you do not see it yet, please look more deeply and I am sure you will. I asked the leaf whether it was frightened because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, “No. During the whole spring and summer I was completely alive. I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not limited by this form. I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. So I don’t worry at all. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.’” That day there was a wind blowing and, after a while, I saw the leaf leave the branch and float down to the soil, dancing joyfully, because as it floated it saw itself already there in the tree. It was so happy. I bowed my head, knowing that I have a lot to learn from that leaf.