March 28, 2024

There’s a story in the Canon of a man who’s lost his son, his very young son. He goes every day to the cemetery and cries out, “Where are you my only son? Where are you my only son?”

One of those days, on the way back to home, he stops off to pay respect to the Buddha. The Buddha asks him, “Where have you been? You look like someone out of your mind.”

The man explains, and the Buddha says, “Yes, sorrow and lamentation come from those who are dear, from those we love.”

The man says, “What do you mean? Those we love give us nothing but joy.”

So he leaves. He runs into a group of gamblers, tells them what the Buddha said, and they agree with him that the Buddha’s wrong. It’s interesting: It’s gamblers who believe that nothing but joy comes from those we love. After all, love is a gamble. Every time you have a child, you have no idea what that child’s background is, where it’s coming from, what your karmic connection is with that child. When you get married, you have no idea how your partner will change. And of course, no matter how good the relationship is, it’s going to end.

At any rate, word of the conversation between the man and the gamblers gets to King Pasenadi, who at that point is not yet a follower of the Buddha. He calls in Mallikā, his queen, who is a follower of the Buddha, and he says, “This Buddha of yours: Listen to what he said.”

And she says, “Well, if he says that, it must be true.”

He chases her out of the room. “Everything your teacher says, you say it must be true! What kind of attitude is that?”

So she sends a messenger to the Buddha to ask him what he meant. The Buddha explains how people go out of their minds out of grief when losing their loved ones: He tells the story of a husband who has lost his wife and goes wandering from street to street, saying, “Have you seen my wife? Have you seen my wife?”

He tells of a wife who’s lost her husband and does the same thing. He tells of one case where a young woman and a young man have been married, but her relatives are not happy with the marriage even though the two of them are happy. So the relatives lure her away and try to marry her off to somebody else. She sends word to her husband, who then kills her and kills himself, with the idea that they’ll be together after death. But who knows where they’re going after death? The point is that people do extreme things under the force of love, and the grief that comes when they’ve lost love or a loved one.

The messenger comes back to the queen and tells her what the Buddha said. In this case, she doesn’t simply repeat the Buddha’s words to the king. Instead, she goes to him and takes another tack. She asks him, “Do you love your other queens?”

“Yes, I do.”

“If they were to die, what would that do to you?”

He said, “That would change my very life.”

“Do you love your son? Do you love your daughter?”

“Yes. Yes.”

“Do you love me?”


“If something were to happen to me, how would that affect you?”

“It would change my very life.”

Then she says—“That’s what the Buddha meant when he said that sorrow and lamentation come from those we love.”

This is the first time Pasenadi listens to the Dhamma and decides that it’s actually good, and that the Buddha is worthy of homage.

We think that interconnectedness is a good thing, but think of all the sorrow that the Buddha saw as he reflected on his many past lives in that first watch of the night: Birth, aging, death. Pleasure, pain, death. Eating this, eating that, death. Over and over and over again. When you think about all the different relationships you’ve had through the vast span of time you’ve been wandering around, everybody you know has in the past been your father, and your mother, and your brother, and your sister, and your son, and your daughter. We’ve been through this so many times and yet we tend to think that love has meaning. But when there are so many different people and there’s so much loss, after a while it becomes meaningless. Yet we keep going back for more, largely because we don’t know how to find happiness inside.

It’s because of our sense of lack that we go looking for others to fill up the lack. And then when they can’t fill it up, we look for somebody else, somebody else, somebody else. That’s because inter-being comes down to inter-eating. The Buddha says we’re defined as beings by the fact that we eat, physically and mentally. This is what we all have in common. Our mental feeding is what makes us beings to begin with. Wherever there’s a being, there has to be a world in which you look for food. And often you’re in conflict with others, looking for the same food. There are even cases where we take those others as our food, and they want to take us as theirs.

This kind of reflection is what gave rise to saṁvega in the Buddha’s mind. The world would be so much better , and we would be so much happier, if we didn’t have to feed, especially off one another.

Think about that world that Kurt Vonnegut imagines in The Sirens of Titan. Two of the characters go to the planet Mercury and discover that it’s a honeycombed crystal: one side facing the sun where it’s very hot, the other side facing outer space where it’s very cold. As a result, the crystal sings. Little beings called Harmoniums live off the vibrations of the crystal. They’re shaped like little kites, with little suction cups on each corner. They crawl around inside the crystal until they find a spot where their vibrations are really good and then they move in. Because they can feed off the vibrations, they don’t have to feed off of one another. They don’t need one another. Instead, they send two telepathic messages to one another. The first message is, “Here I am, here I am, here I am.” The second message is, “So glad you are, so glad you are, so glad you are.” Pure empathetic joy, both for themselves and for others, again, because there’s no need to feed off of one another.

This makes you think of the Brahmas. They’ve become Brahmas from developing the brahmavihāras. They don’t need one another. They’re able to generate happiness inside—independently. That means that their goodwill, compassion, and equanimity are total and pure. Of course, even their lives aren’t totally perfect. They can stay there for a while and then they fall back down.

But it makes you think about nibbāna, where the Buddha says there’s no need to feed at all. There’s no hunger, no nostalgia, no regret. Because that’s the other part of having relationships: No matter how much you love one another, there’s always regret in one way or another: over things you said, things you did, things you didn’t say and didn’t do—and sometimes that sears into your heart because you were feeding off the other person. But when you can finally reach a state where there’s no need to feed, there’s no need to depend on anything—then your compassion can be pure, as can your empathetic joy.

So this is the way out. When we see the suffering that comes from interconnectedness, we realize that the best way would be to pull ourselves out of that, so that we don’t have to be part of that interconnected network.

Now, you can’t just rip yourself out and leave a gaping hole. The Buddha says that the path requires generosity. If you don’t have a generous mind, you can’t get into right concentration—and forget about genuine discernment. So generosity is something that you can do well. This is how you create good interconnections. Instead of feeding and taking in, you’re giving, distributing out. It’s the opposite.

The same with the precepts: There are some grubby ways you can feed, but you decide, “No, that’s beneath me.” In cases where other people are going to take advantage of yo, if you hold to the precepts, well, you’re willing to give it to them. Let them feed; you can abstain. That’s your gift.

And with the meditation, you’re looking directly inside for your sources of well-being. An important part of the meditation is developing the brahmavihāras: having goodwill for all, compassion, empathetic joy, equanimity for all. You’re giving, giving, giving, and you’re creating good connections—but not for the sake of connections. They’re for the sake of repaying whatever old debts you’ve got. That’s how you free yourself.

We can get very sentimental about the idea of interconnectedness, but you have to remember: Inter-being is inter-eating. It’s all very unstable, very precarious, and can be very hurtful and harmful. When the Buddha taught dependent co-arising, it wasn’t to emphasize the fact that we’re all independently helping one another. It was to point out that we’re dependent on things that can change unreliably. We’re dependent on relationships that feed. When the Buddha taught causality to young novices and female novices, he started out with the image of feeding. Then you look at dependent co-arising: It’s all “dependent on this, dependent on that.” It’s all very precarious, and when it’s done in ignorance, it leads to suffering. When it’s done with knowledge, it becomes part of the path, and when the path arrives at the goal, the whole thing just falls apart.

So the Buddha doesn’t celebrate interdependence. He does celebrate the fact that you can choose to be interdependent in a skillful way through your actions, through your thoughts, your words and deeds. But there’s also that danger: You can act in skillful ways and then get waylaid, get distracted, get born in a comfortable place, and then forget about the practice.

One of the sad things about saṁsāra is that it’s almost a sick joke. You work really hard to develop good qualities in the mind, and then you can get reborn in a good place. Sometimes it’s so good that you get very lazy, very complacent, very used to having all your wishes met. You can imagine what kind of habits that develops—and then you fall.

Ajaan Fuang had a couple of students who were extremely difficult people to please. And one time he mentioned to me, “Well, they were devas in their previous lifetimes. They’re used to having things their way. Now they come back down to earth and discover they have to work for a living again and put up with all kinds of things, and they don’t have the strength of character to deal with that.”

So interdependence is not necessarily good. You can make it relatively good by creating connections of good karma. But again, think of that as the repayment of a debt, so that you can become more and more independent inside. After all, getting out is something we do individually. It’s not the case that when the Buddha gained awakening, he pulled a lot of beings with him. There were other beings who wanted to go there, and that’s why he was able to teach them. But they independently had to come to that desire. There has to be something inside you that’s independent of others and says, “I want out!”

This may sound selfish, but think of saṁsāra as an addiction. If you’re addicted to cocaine and you want to help other people who are also addicted, the best thing to do is get over your addiction first, and then you’re in a position to help: You know the difficulties involved, you know how you overcame those difficulties, and you can show other people how good it is to be off cocaine and that they can do it, too. If you’re still addicted, you can’t inspire anyone with your advice on how to get not addicted. You can’t do the job for them but if you can get over your addiction, you can be a good example to show that it is possible. That’s the best we can do for one another.

We interconnect through our choices, so make good choices, realizing that the best choices are the ones where you work on developing your own independent sources of happiness inside so that you don’t need to depend on others. You don’t need to lean on them. You don’t need to feed off of them, and you don’t need to suffer and cause the suffering that comes when you make your happiness depend on others. When you’re dependent, you’re creating suffering not only for yourself but also for the people around you.

When you learn how to be independent, you’re not creating any suffering and you’re not leaning on others. That’s when your goodwill can be pure. Your compassion, your empathetic joy, your equanimity can all be pure. They can be all-around and universal—because you yourself are free.