Shambhala Sun | May 2013
It Starts from Zero
Emptiness and interdependence—they’re more than concepts;
they’re key to realizing real-world benefits in our lives. HIS HOLINESS THE KARMAPA helps us put our wisdom into practice.
How do you relate to this infinite ground of possibility that your life is built on?
How can you create a meaningful life within whatever shifting circumstances you
devotes a great deal of attention to these questions. The view that life holds
infinite possibility is explored using the concepts of “interdependence” and
“emptiness.” When you first hear the term “emptiness,” you might think this
suggests nothingness or a void, but actually “emptiness” here should remind us
that nothing exists in a vacuum. Everything is embedded within a context—a
complex set of circumstances. Those contexts themselves are endlessly shifting.
When we say that things are “empty,” we mean they lack any independent existence
outside of those changing contexts. Because everything and everyone is “empty”
in this sense, they are capable of endless adaptation. We ourselves have the
basic flexibility to adapt to anything, and to become anything.
Because of this, we
should not mistake emptiness for nothingness. On the contrary, emptiness is
full of potency. Understood correctly, emptiness inspires optimism, rather than
pessimism, because it reminds us of the boundless range of possibilities of who
we can become and how we can live.
emptiness show us that there are no fixed starting points. We can start from
nothing. Whatever we have, wherever we are—that is the place we can start from.
Many people have the idea that they lack what they need in order to start working
toward their dreams. They feel they do not have enough power, or they do not
have enough money. But they should know that any point is the right starting
point. This is the perspective that emptiness opens up. We can start from zero.
In fact, emptiness
can be compared to the concept and function of zero. Zero may seem like
nothing, but as we all know, everything starts from it. Without zero, our
computers would collapse. Without zero, we could not start counting from one up
to infinity. In the same way, from emptiness, anything and every- thing can
Anything can come
into being because there is no fixed way for things to be. It all depends on
the conditions that come together. But this fact that anything is possible does
not imply that life is random or haphazard. We can make anything happen, but we
can only do so by bringing together the necessary conditions. This is where the
concepts of “emptiness” and “interdependence” come together.
Every person, place,
and thing is entirely dependent on others—other people and other things—as a
necessary condition for its existence. For example, we are alive right now
because we are enjoying the right conditions for our survival. We are alive
because of the countless meals we have eaten during our life. Because the sun
shines on the earth and the clouds bring rain, crops can grow. Someone tends to
the crops and harvests them, someone else brings them to market, and yet
another person makes a meal from them that we can eat. Each time this process is
repeated, the interdependence of our lives links us with more and more people,
and with more and more rays of sun and drops of rain.
Ultimately, there is
nothing and no one with whom we are not connected. The Buddha coined the term
“interdependence” to describe this state of profound connectedness.
Interdependence is the nature of reality. It is the nature of human life, of
all things and of all situations. We are all linked, and we all serve as conditions
affecting each other.
Amid all the conditions that affect us, in fact, the choices
we ourselves make and the steps we take are among the most important conditions
that affect what arises from our actions. If we act constructively, what comes
into being is constructive. If we act destructively, what results is
destructive and harmful. Everything is possible, but also everything we do
matters, because the effects of our actions reach far beyond ourselves. For
that reason, living in a world of interdependence has very specific
implications for us. It means our actions affect others. It makes us all
responsible for one another.
Living this Reality
I realize this
presentation might initially seem abstract, but emptiness and interdependence
are not abstract principles. They are very practical, and have direct relevance
when you are thinking about how to create a meaningful life.
You can see interdependence at work by looking at how your
own life is sustained. Is it only through your own exertions? Do you
manufacture all your own resources? Or do they come from others? When you
contemplate these questions, you will see very quickly that you are able to
exist only because of others. The clothes you wear and the food you eat all
come from somewhere else. Consider the books you read, the cars you ride in,
the movies you watch, and the tools you use. Not one of us single-handedly
makes any of these things for ourselves. We all rely on outside conditions,
including the air we breathe. Our continued presence here in the world is an
opportunity made possible entirely by others.
we are continually interacting with the world around us. This interaction works
both ways—it is a mutual exchange. We are receiving, but also giving. Just as
our presence on this planet is made possible by many factors, our presence here
affects others in turn—other individuals, other communities, and the planet
Over the past
century, we humans have developed very dangerous capabilities. We have created
machines endowed with tremendous power. With the technology available now, we
could cut down all the trees on the planet. But if we did so, we could not
expect life to go on as before, except without trees. Because of our
fundamental interdependence, we would all experience the consequences of such
actions very quickly. Without any trees, there would not be enough oxygen in
our atmosphere to sustain human life.
You may wonder what
this has to do with the choices we make and how we live our life. That is
simple: We all need to take interdependence into account because it
influences our life directly and profoundly. In order to have a happy life, we
must take an active interest in the sources of our happiness.
Our environment and
the people we share it with are the main sources of our sustenance and
well-being. In order to ensure our own happiness, we have to respect and care
about the happiness of others. We can see this in something as simple as the
way we treat the people who prepare our food. When we treat them well and look
after their needs, only then can we reasonably expect them to take pains to
prepare something healthy and tasty for us to eat.
When we have respect for others and take an interest in
their flourishing, we ourselves flourish. This can be seen in business as well.
When customers have more money to spend, businesses do better. If we wish to
flourish individually and together as a society, it is not enough for us to
simply acknowledge the obvious interdependence of the world we live in. We must
consider its implications, and reflect on the conditions for our own welfare.
Where do our oxygen and food and material goods come from, and how are they
produced? Are these sources sustainable?
Relating to Reality
Looking at your
experience from the perspectives of emptiness and interdependence might entail
a significant shift in how you understand your life. My hope is that this shift
can benefit you in practical terms. Gaining a new understanding of the forces
at work in your life can be a first step toward relating positively to them.
My purpose in raising
these issues is certainly not to terrify you by confronting you with harsh
reality. For example, I have noticed that some people are uncomfortable when
they are told that change is a fundamental part of life, or that nothing lasts
forever. Yet impermanence is just a basic fact of our existence—it is neither
good nor bad in itself. There is certainly nothing to gain by denying it. In
fact, when we face impermanence wisely, we have an opportunity to cultivate a
more constructive way of relating to that reality. If we do so, we can actually
learn to feel at ease in the face of unexpected change, and work comfort- ably
with whatever new situations might occur. We can become more skillful in how we
relate to the reality of change.
The same is true of
interdependence. Seeing life from this perspective can help us develop skills
to relate more constructively to reality—but just knowing that we are
interdependent does not guarantee that we will feel good about being so. Some
people may initially find it uncomfortable to reflect that they depend on
They might think this
means they are helpless or trapped, as if they were boxed in by those
dependencies. Yet when we think about being interdependent, we do not need to
feel it is like being stuck in a job working for a boss that we did not choose
but have to deal with, like it or not. That is not helpful. We should not feel
reluctant or pressured by the reality of our interdependence. Such an attitude
prevents us from having a sense of contentment and well-being within our own
life. It does not give us a basis for positive relationships.
Interdependence is our reality, whether we accept it or not.
In order to live productively within such a reality, it is better to
acknowledge and work with interdependence, wholeheartedly and without
resistance. This is where love and compassion come in. It is love that leads us
to embrace our connectedness to others, and to participate willingly in the
relations created by our interdependence. Love can melt away our defenses and our
painful sense of separation. The warmth of friendship and love makes it easy
for us to accept that our happiness is intimately linked to that of others. The
more widely we are able to love others, the happier and more content we can
feel within the relations of interdependence that are a natural part of our
From The Heart is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside
Out, by the Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, © 2013 by Ogyen Trinley Dorje.
Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc.
In 1999, at the age of
fourteen, the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, made a dramatic escape from
Tibet. As leader of the
Kagyu school of Vajrayana Buddhism, he is
unafraid to talk about
the environment, vegetarianism, and the role
of women—and how
can align themselves
more with the modern
world on these issues.
Since his escape, the
Karmapa has made two
trips to the West. Gyuto
Tantric University in
Dharamsala, India, is
his home base.