Thich Nhat Hanh was nominated for the 1968 Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He did not win the Nobel, but it was a great honor nonetheless. He was banished from his home country Vietnam during the Vietnam War. He led a group of Buddhist monks who were actively seeking peace in their country which invited the disdain of both sides.
“Thay” (teacher), as he is known by his followers, founded a retreat called Plum Village in France. Vietnam’s loss has been the West’s gain. For the past 45 years, Thich Nhat Hanh has taught, written, and spoken on his brand of “Engaged Buddhism” in Europe, the U.S., and around the world.
I first became aware of his work about 30 years ago when I picked up a book titled “Peace is Every Step”. Since I have read many of his other books. One of my favorite passages from any of his books – in fact one my favorite things I’ve ever read – is his brief essay on Inter-being.
Today I’d like to share this beautiful and powerful insight with all of you. I hope it transforms the way you think about the interconnectedness of the people and things around you.
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If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. “Interbeing” is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix “inter-” with the verb “to be,” we ha vea new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And wesee the wheat. We now the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here-time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. “To be” is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.
Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of “non-paper elements.” And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without “non-paper elements,” like mind, logger, sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.