Awakening Our Connections: A Dialogue On Interdependence

By Mitch Bogen

"Let us suppose that there are two bundles of reeds," Shariputra said. "As long as the two are leaning against each other, they can stand up. In the same way, because there is a ‘this’, there can be a ‘that’, and because there is a ‘that’, there can be a ‘this’. But, if we take away one of the bundles of reeds, the other will fall over. In the same way, if we take away ‘this’, ‘that’ cannot continue to exist; and if we take away ‘that’, ‘this’ cannot exist."

- Shariputra’s Parable of the Two Reeds, as told by Daisaku Ikeda

View a photo gallery of the event here.

The ninth annual Ikeda Forum for Intercultural Dialogue, held in Cambridge on Saturday, October 13, celebrated and explored the Buddhist concept of interdependence, known more formally as dependent origination. Center founder Daisaku Ikeda’s writings and lectures on Buddhist humanism and global ethics contain many passages on interdependence. Among those that inspired this event, was this from Mr. Ikeda’s 1991 lecture at Harvard University called “The Age of Soft Power”:

All things are linked in an intricate web of causation and connection, and nothing, whether in the realm of human affairs or natural phenomena, can exist or occur solely of its own accord. . . . More than objective awareness, we must achieve a state of compassion transcending distinctions between self and other. We need to feel the compassionate energy that beats within the depths of all people’s subjective lives where the individual and the universal are merged.

The day’s speakers considered ways that the Forum’s theme plays out in their diverse yet complementary fields of endeavor. On hand to talk about their respective ideas and experiences were Stephen Gould of Lesley University’s department of educational leadership; human rights attorney Tanya Henderson, who is Public Policy Director at Women’s Action for New Directions; Ceasar McDowell, Professor of the Practice of Community Development at M.I.T; and Ved Nanda, Evans University Professor and Thompson G. Marsh Professor of Law at the University of Denver. Julia Upton, a special education teacher at Melmark New England, a school for children with severe disabilities, offered some opening reflections and moderated the proceedings.

Julia Upton: Indispensible Lives

Julia UptonInterdependence means two main things in Julia Upton’s classroom. First, as she told the more than 100 Boston-area attendees on hand for the day, she is interested in the interconnected growth of student and teacher alike. “Not only are the students dependent on me to teach them how to do math, read, write, and engage in their social environment, but I also have to rely on my students to grow as an educator and as a human being.”

Upton also considers it her responsibility to teach them how interdependence operates in the world. “My hope,” she said, “is that … my students see their lives as indispensible to the world, and vice versa.” To illustrate, Upton told an anecdote of a student who shared with her his dream of becoming an airplane mechanic. To encourage him, Upton explained how important airplane safety is and that he would be helping many people if he pursued his dream. “I think that the concept of interconnectedness is at the very core of a peaceful and harmonious society,” she concluded, “and if my students can use it to effect change in every sphere of their lives, then the future is more secure.”

Stephen Gould: To Be Free Is To Be Bound Together

Called “Ecology, Democracy, and the Role of Education,” Dr. Gould’s presentation made connections across these fields, which represent the disciplines of science, political thought and action, and pedagogy. Ecology, Gould said, is the branch of biology concerned with interconnection and interrelationship. “Biologists have found that almost everything is the result of symbiotic interdependencies and that life seeks symbiosis so that more life may flourish.” Despite knowing this truth intuitively and scientifically, Gould said we persist with the myth of the self-made man. “To some extent,” he said, “we are like the man who wishes to believe he was born in a log cabin that he built all by himself.”

“We are like the man who wishes to believe he was born in a log cabin that he built all by himself.”Gould expanded the idea, recalling Ikeda’s words. “All life is involved in cause and effect relationships.” Furthermore, said Gould, “Buddhists believe that if one causes happiness they will experience it and if one causes suffering they will experience it.” Linking this notion to Martin Luther King Jr.’s assertion that “a threat to justice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere,” Gould moved to a consideration of our social relations, especially as manifested in our quest for democracy’s “more perfect union.”

Interdependence is core to America’s democratic experiment, argued Professor Gould, citing Thomas Jefferson, who said, “to be free is to be bound together. To look out for oneself means attending to others.” For Gould, humanistic values such as kindness, compassion, interconnectedness, trust, and fairness are “foundational” for society, and not merely good but optional ideas. And while it is true humans are motivated by self-interest, said Gould, we need to carefully consider the idea. He cited Liu and Hanauer’s Gardens of Democracy, in which the authors say, “we’re all better off when we’re all better off.”

Steve Gould at 2012 Ikeda Forum

Jefferson famously argued that an informed citizenry is critical to liberty and democracy. Schools therefore have a crucial role to play, said Gould. However, the Deweyan, democratic vision of education as being aimed at lifelong learning, continuous self-transformation, and learning how to work with others in compassionate and just ways is being overwhelmed by the consumerist vision in which students prepare for nothing more and nothing less than a better job.

Ultimately said Gould, “School communities are ecological. In school communities, educators, students, and parents are bound together. In the most effective schools, students learn from students, teachers learn from teachers, and students, teachers, parents, and school leaders learn from each other.”

Dr. Gould concluded with another quote that showed that notions of interdependence are not foreign to the tradition of American political thought. In his “Day of Affirmation Address” at the University of Cape Town in 1966, Robert F. Kennedy said:

Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Tanya Henderson: Women Are Key To Sustainable Peace

Tanya Henderson followed with a look at the importance of global efforts to include women in all considerations of the cost of war as well as in post-conflict efforts to create sustainable peace. Henderson, who is Director of Public Policy for Women’s Actions for New Directions (WAND), said she shares Ikeda’s view that achieving “a state of compassion transcending distinctions between self and the other” is the most expedient path to long term and sustainable peace. WAND’s efforts have a political dimension, she suggested, but are not limited to politics.

Any global consideration of women, peace, and conflict takes as its starting point UN1325, which passed in the UN Security Council in October 2000. Henderson described 1325 as ‘a landmark international legal framework that addresses not only the inordinate impact of war on women, but also the pivotal role women should and do play in conflict management, conflict resolution, and sustainable peace.”

Henderson also introduced the work of the United States Action Plan on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS), whose goal, she said, is as simple as it is profound: “To empower half the world’s population as equal partners in preventing conflict and building peace in countries threatened and affected by war, violence and insecurity. Achieving this goal is critical to our national and global security.”

"There is a correlation between a return to violence and a lack of healthcare and education opportunities for women." To show why 1325 and WPS matter, Henderson cited a disturbing statistic: in the 1990s, fifty percent of negotiated post-conflict agreements didn’t make it to their fifth anniversary. Henderson was unequivocal—we’ll never create sustainable peace without the significant participation of those closest to the fabric of everyday life. “The voices and concerns of women who endured violence and supported communities during conflict, and who will carry much of the burden of healing and rebuilding communities in peacetime, are routinely overlooked at the negotiating table. This exclusion often carries over to post-conflict efforts to rebuild.”

For example, there is a correlation between a return to violence and a lack of healthcare and education opportunities for women, said Henderson. Building sustainable peace depends on attention to other factors as well: providing security and basic services; building trust among opposing parties; fostering institutions that can uphold the rule of law; and promoting legitimately-elected leadership. All of these dimensions are important and in fact are interdependent, said Henderson.

Tanya Henderson at 2012 Ikeda Forum

Henderson then clarified that including women is not just a matter of advancing women and their interests. For instance, said Henderson. “in the 1990s, Guatemalan women involved in negotiations to end a 36-year civil war secured important protections for labor and indigenous rights as well as guarantees of a balance in civilian and military power.”

Drawing on her own recent experience, Henderson shared a story that illustrated the challenge and promise of women’s participation in social and political progress. In July of 2012 Ms. Henderson was in Lebanon to provide “gender trainings for their political parties with a goal to increase women’s participation in the 2013 elections.” When Henderson asked who in the group were prepared to run in 2013, the results flew in the face of Islam’s reputation as very patriarchal in structure. “The Sunni, Hezbollah, and Shiite women’s hands shot right up,” recalled Henderson. The words of one Sunni woman really stuck with Henderson. “I am running not only for my daughters,” she said, “but also for my sons. I want them to see what their mother and women are capable of.”

Gould and Henderson Q&A

The Q and A session with Gould and Henderson provided a space to dig deeper into the morning’s main themes. In response to a question about the challenge and importance of integrating systems thinking into our endeavors, Professor Gould conceded that working with complex systems is tricky. They’re like jars of marbles, he said. You move one and they all shift. Nevertheless, it’s crucial to try, Gould emphasized, since unintended negative consequences can accrue from trying to improve a system by considering pieces in isolation, as is too often the case in U.S. schools.

To a young woman’s question about the United States’ apparent reluctance to surrender “top dog status” and act more as facilitators in the world, Henderson said that it’s essential we “redefine what constitutes security” and move beyond the idea of “military power as the only power.” She added that we should conceive of security as an interdependent web of food security, health security, human rights security, and so on. Steve Gould added that we must shift from a vision of leadership as exerting power over others to one in which “we lead with powerful ideas.”

Ceasar McDowell: Disruptive Ideas We Need

As is Ikeda Forum custom, the afternoon sessions opened with a live musical performance. This year’s performance featured harpsichordist Hajime Yamada and oboist Sachiko Murata performing Johan Sebastian Bach’s “Sonata in G Minor BMV 1020”—an apt choice given Bach’s mastery of interlocking, interdependent lines.

Ceasar McDowell at 2012 Ikeda Forum

Ceasar McDowell, who, in addition to teaching at M.I.T., is President of Interaction Institute for Social Change, opened his talk with a question: What is the belief system that keeps us from understanding the reality of interdependence? He offered one possible answer in the form of a video performance of Billie Holiday’s lament, “God Bless the Child,” sung here by Gladys Knight. “Them that's got shall get/Them that's not shall lose” go the lyrics. “So the Bible said/and it still is news.” After these opening lines, the song proceeds to offer a sad and ironic portrait of America’s every-man-for-himself ethos.

“There’s this view,” said McDowell, “that if each of us has our own, then we’re OK. But that’s not what we really want.” Still, our individualist myths are so powerful that they “blind us to our interdependence,” he added. What then are we to do? McDowell advocates embracing a set of ideas that have the power to disrupt some of the current frameworks that deny or obscure the truth of interdependence. He discussed five such disruptive ideas.

There but for the grace of god. When we dismiss others who are struggling, we obscure the truth that, in fact, “it could be any of us.” Depending on conditions, things can “shift on a dime” and any of us can enter a downward spiral. Everyone needs “stability, security, and sense of belonging,” not just the fortunate among us.

Let nature guide. When we judge the worth of any policy or proposed action we should look to certain “universal principles of nature.” Some of these include: nothing can live alone; nature has patience; and nothing is wasted in nature.

Acknowledgment, not ownership. It’s critical to move away from the concept of “owning” knowledge. This tendency to want to own or hold back our best or most creative ideas and insights is potentially dangerous when solutions are urgently needed globally and in many domains.

Design for the margins. McDowell used a metaphor to show the mistake of only designing “for the middle.” If you picture society or organizations as tents, he said, we can see that propping up the high point in the middle is pointless during a storm if the edges aren’t staked securely. All of our marginalized people must be included in our visions of social well being.

Unleash the power of questions. Every effort to change the world begins with someone asking “why is this so,” and “raising up their experience to the world.” For the changes we need to happen, we need to find ways to help amplify the voices of those without access to mainstream avenues of communication.

Dr. McDowell then talked about his organization Engage the Power, which aims to improve health and well being in Cambridge by soliciting questions around a chosen issue from a broad spectrum of community members. This fall the questions are addressing the problem of domestic violence. If we learn to live more with questions instead of answers, said McDowell, “we’ll find ourselves much more connected.” Thus connected, we become more able to find the solutions we need, be they within our existing practices and institutions or through new systems that might “sometimes run parallel” to the status quo, or in some cases actually disrupt it in ways as fruitful as they are as yet unimagined.

Ved Nanda: All Issues Are Global Issues Now

“Let me say, as we talk about interdependence, we are not naïve,” said Ved Nanda early in his remarks. “We know the challenges are enormous.” What is more, he said, “All issues are global issues now” — adding that “interdependence has become the defining issue” of global society, characterized as it is by ever-intensifying connections among our transportation, finance, technology, and information revolutions.

“Interdependence has become the defining issue of global society."Professor Nanda proceeded to look at global interdependence through the lenses of international law and human rights, his main areas of expertise. If it is true that no nation, no matter how strong, can succeed alone in the world today, which Nanda contends is the case, then the creation of effective international institutions and agreements is essential. With the European Union receiving the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize on October 12, just one day before the Forum, Nanda reflected on what the EU represents for our international aspirations. “What is the EU but an interdependent body?” he asked.

Nanda explained that the EU started as a cooperative body to promote and regulate steel and coal trade between France and Germany. It soon became apparent, though, that much beyond trade transcends a single nation’s concerns, and eventually most European nations joined, confirming the primacy of interdependence in the twenty-first century. Yes, there are problems with the EU, said Nanda. And it is easy to mock or be cynical about the award. But if you consider this achievement in the wake of two world wars and centuries of conflict between the nations, he argued, then the worth of the EU becomes harder to dismiss.

Ved Nanda at 2012 Ikeda Forum

Among international agreements, said Nanda, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948, is foundational, providing as it does clear standards for judging injustice and well-articulated aspirations for what our global community could become. Critically, it is essential to treat these rights as interdependent and reinforcing of one another, said Nanda, ranging as they do from protections against slavery, torture, arbitrary detention, and the like to rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and access to education and health care.

Dr. Nanda, who, in addition to teaching at the University of Denver, is Past President of the World Jurist Association and a member of the advisory council of the United States Institute of Human Rights, also argued strongly for the worth and necessity of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which was established in 2002. The ICC is intended as a permanent international tribunal going to try individuals for war crimes and crimes against humanity.*

We must understand, emphasized Nanda, that the ICC was only realized, after nearly 100 years of effort to create such a body, because of the determination of a coalition of some 700 to 800 civil society organizations, or Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs). Now some 2,000 NGOs and 121 states are members of the ICC’s international coalition. Another great success of international civil society, said Nanda, is the creation of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). The ICBL was founded in 1992 by Jody Williams who worked in collaboration at that time with just two NGOs. Today the campaign includes more than 1,300 NGOs working in 95 countries.**

Dr. Nanda concluded with philosophical reflections based on his own Hindu tradition of Advaita Vedanta, a non-dual philosophy holding the essential unity of all life. The Advaita view on interdependence, said Nanda, was nicely stated by Mahatma Gandhi. “Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency,” said Gandhi. “Man is a social being. Without interrelation with society he cannot realize his oneness with the universe or suppress his egotism. His social interdependence enables him to test his faith and to prove himself on the touchstone of reality.”

McDowell and Nanda Q&A

The questions during this portion mostly addressed the seeming inability of the United States and other nations to effectively confront problems such as human rights violations and climate change. Following up on his remarks about the ICC and the ICBL, Nanda reemphasized that it would be a mistake “to rely on Washington or any government” to make acceptable progress. Each us must do what we can: “There is no substitute for being active and impressing upon decision makers that these issues are to be taken seriously.” For Nanda, the keys to progress “are, quite simply, education and civil society.”

McDowell added a couple of observations. First, “Don’t believe the hype!” In other words, the evidence of progress “close to the ground” quite often contradicts portrayals in our sensationalistic popular media. Secondly, he advocated for a humble stance on the part of the U.S. and various Western NGOs when trying to help with the severe problems in various parts of the world. In particular, said McDowell, “we need to be open to learning about democracy [and democratic practices] from developing countries.” Nanda agreed that even when our critique of practices in certain cultures or nations is correct, we must “encourage and assist, but not dominate them” as progress is sought.

Whole Group Q&A

The final Q-and-A session featured all four of the day’s speakers in dialogue with attendees. As with the earlier Q-and-A sessions the questions were thoughtful, and in this case allowed the speakers a chance to sum up some of their core ideals and convictions. Here are some highlights.

Are there connections between self-awareness and self-reliance and the larger context of interdependence?

Tanya Henderson said that her preparations for the Ikeda Forum enabled her to see that “I become a stronger individual by realizing my dependence on and interdependence with others.” McDowell built on her thought, saying “I don’t understand myself outside of relationship and interdependence.” Adding nuance, he said, “We’re both interdependent and individual, and one informs the other. I try to hold both at the same time, intertwined.”

Are there certain characteristics or skills that are best suited to bringing about progress in an interdependent world?

Steve Gould observed that the mark of true leadership is the “capacity to engage others in identifying problems that affect that group and to develop solutions together.” Sounding a similar note, Ved Nanda said that the key to working well together is mutual trust based on the capacity to be a good listener. Tanya Henderson cited a quote from Daisaku Ikeda that inspires all her work, whether it be working with a woman in crisis or a State Department official: engaging in true dialogue for peace, says Ikeda, means “the desire to know another’s heart and the courage to have your own heart be known.”

How are we doing with the “noble experiment of democracy” and the ideal of creating a living, learning community?

Dr. McDowell offered a cautionary note, saying that “having democracy” doesn’t necessarily mean that the state of a nation is good. We do have models of successful democratic practice but often they occur in limited or isolated settings. What would democracy look like, he wondered, in contexts that fully represent global diversity and interdependence? Ved Nanda said that we need human rights education at all levels, and in multiple contexts, whose goal is “not simply to tolerate the one who looks different than you, who speaks in a different accent than you,” but rather to “respect and celebrate” our differences.

NOTES

* In the 50 years since Nuremberg no head of state had been tried for war crimes in front of an international tribunal until Charles Taylor’s conviction this last April in front of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in The Hague, a collaboration between the UN and the government of Sierra Leone. Before that, atrocities in places such as Cambodia and Rwanda were tried by what Nanda called “ad hoc tribunals.” The International Criminal Court can only rule on crimes committed after 2002. Charles Taylor’s conviction was for war crimes committed in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, which is why he was not tried in front of the ICC.

** Ms. Williams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. (http://www.icbl.org/)

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