Post 13. Interdependence

This is, because that is. This is not, because that is not. This comes to be, because that comes to be. This ceases to be, because that ceases to be. The Buddha, Majjhima Nikaya[i]

As noted in our discussion of illusion, nothing is independent. All phenomena depend for their existence on causes and conditions. When causes and conditions come together in a certain way, a phenomenon arises. When causes and conditions are no longer conducive, it dissolves.

To illustrate interdependence Thich Nhat Hanh uses the example of a piece of paper. He says that in the paper we should see the rain clouds and the sunshine that provided the right conditions for the forest that supplied the wood that was used to make the paper. We should see the logger who cut the tree and the food that nourished the logger and the logger’s parents.[ii] We could also see the factory where the paper was made and all of the people who worked in the factory and the chemicals that were used. We could go on forever describing the causes and conditions that come together in just one sheet of paper.

Interdependence can easily be seen in the activities of human beings. Our very existence and everything that happens to us depend upon a multitude of causes and conditions, and everything that we do or do not do, down to the smallest action or inaction, will affect others and ourselves, often in unpredictable ways.

This is evident in the action of any of Shakespeare’s plays. Romeo and Juliet offers a particularly good example. The prologue to the play describes the lovers as “star-crossed,” but the causes and conditions that lead to their tragedy unfold right here on earth. In the following brief summary of the play I have placed a number in parentheses after every cause and condition that is critical to the outcome.

The play begins in the streets of Verona with a brawl between partisans of the feuding Capulet and Montague families. (1) This causes Verona’s prince to pronounce an edict threatening death to anyone involved in further disturbances. (2)

Soon after, an illiterate (3) serving man to the Capulet family encounters Romeo Montague in the street and asks for his help in reading a list of the guests to be invited to a festive supper at the Capulet household. (4) The serving man invites Romeo to “come and crush a cup of wine” if he “be not of the house of the Montagues.” Seeing that Rosaline, with whom he is infatuated, will be there (5) Romeo decides to attend the gathering in disguise. (6)

At the Capulet’s party Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt, recognizes Romeo’s voice and wants to strike him dead, (7) but Capulet forbids it. Tybalt reluctantly agrees to be patient but determines to make Romeo pay for his intrusion. (8)

Romeo and Juliet meet and fall deeply in love despite the ancient quarrel between their families. (9) Later that night Romeo climbs over an orchard wall to speak with Juliet at her balcony window, and they exchange vows. (10)

Wanting to marry as soon as possible, Romeo visits Friar Lawrence the next morning to arrange a secret wedding. (11) The Friar overcomes his misgivings and agrees to marry them in hopes that, “this alliance may so happy prove to turn your households’ rancor to pure love.” (12) Juliet meets Romeo at Friar Lawrence’s cell, and they are married. (13)

In the next scene Tybalt finds Romeo and tries to provoke a fight. (14) Romeo, knowing that Tybalt is Juliet’s cousin, responds with conciliatory words, but his friend, Mercutio, who happens to be present, (15) takes up the fight with Tybalt. (16) Romeo comes between them to stop the fight, (17) but Tybalt takes advantage of his interference to kill Mercutio. (18) Tybalt leaves but returns looking for Romeo, (19) and this time Romeo fights him to avenge Mercutio. (20) Tybalt is killed. (21) The Prince arrives and sentences Romeo to banishment for having violated his edict against fighting. (22)

After one night of love, Romeo goes into exile in Mantua, and Juliet’s parents, not knowing of her secret marriage, (23) insist that she agree to an arranged marriage with Count Paris or else be disinherited. (24) Neither Juliet’s mother nor the Nurse have the compassion or strength of character to come to her defense, (25) so she turns to Friar Lawrence. (26) Rather than desert Romeo for a bigamous marriage with Paris, she says that she is willing to face death. (27)

The Friar is an herbalist, (28) and happens to have a potion that will make Juliet appear to be dead on the morning of her wedding. (29) The potion will wear off after 42 hours, by which time Juliet will have been interred in the family mausoleum. (30) Friar Lawrence dispatches Friar John to Mantua to inform Romeo of this plan so that Romeo can be at the mausoleum by the time Juliet awakens. (31) However, Friar John is quarantined by the authorities, who suspect that he has visited a house infected with pestilence. (32) The message is not delivered. (33)

Romeo, receiving word that Juliet has died (34), determines to go to the mausoleum and join her in death. (35) For this purpose he buys a fatal poison from a poor apothecary. (36) Romeo arrives at the cemetery and enters the tomb, sees Juliet’s apparently dead body, and takes the poison. (37)

As Juliet awakens and sees Romeo’s body, (38) Friar Lawrence arrives and tries to get her to leave with him. After the Friar is frightened away by approaching watchmen, (39) Juliet kisses Romeo, takes his dagger, and stabs herself. (40) The Capulets and Montagues meet with the Prince at the cemetery to learn from Friar Lawrence what has happened and to bury their old antagonisms together with their children.

In this brief summary we find forty clearly identifiable causes that had to come together in just the way that they did for the tragedy to reach its sad conclusion. If the Capulet’s serving man had not been illiterate, if he had not met Romeo in the street at that particular moment, if Romeo had not been infatuated with Rosaline, if Tybalt had not recognized Romeo’s voice, etc. We could go on listing the causes leading up to Juliet’s death, and behind each of the causes that we can easily identify are many others that we cannot see, and behind each of those are still others, ad infinitem. Whatever Shakespeare may have thought about the power of the stars to determine destiny, his plays illustrate the principle of interdependence, which is fundamental to Buddhism.

This is not to say that Shakespeare’s works fully illustrate the Buddhist understanding of interdependence. The Buddha goes beyond our ordinary ideas of interdependence with his teaching on interdependent co-arising or origination, which holds that cause and effect are not separate, but arise together. Each cause has an infinite number of effects and each effect has an infinite number of causes, and all causes and effects are related in a single whole, transcending concepts of space and time. The Buddha also taught on the twelve links of interdependent co-arising or origination, which determine the samsaric cycle of birth and death and the suffering that accompanies it.

Shakespeare did not have the benefit of teachings on interdependent co-arising or the twelve links of interdependent origination. While this is another instance in which Buddhism goes farther than Shakespeare can follow, Shakespeare’s plays do illustrate interdependence, as we commonly understand it.


[i] Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1998), 221.

[ii] Ibid, 3-5.


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