What is Interbeing?

Interbeing: wisdom, prajna

Interbeing means that you are part of the whole web of life. You are not isolated and alone. When you become peaceful, happy and solid the world benefits.

Interbeing is a relatively new term coined by Thich Nhat Hanh to describe the essential interconnectedness of the universe. It challenges us to look beyond the world of concepts and opposites. If we look deeply into the nature of our universe we can see all things as profoundly interdependent.  At the heart of this understanding is the realisation that we have no separate self, that everything is empty of a separate self in a universe which is in a constant state of flux and change. The interdependent nature of all phenomena is central to many Buddhist teachings.

The cloud and the piece of paper

“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this piece of paper. Without a cloud there will be no water; without water, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, you cannot make paper. So the cloud is in here. The existence of this page is dependent on the existence of a cloud. Paper and cloud are so close……”  Thich Nhat Hanh

The path to a happier life has three components.  Traditionally, in Sanskrit, they are Prajna or wisdom, Samadhi or mindfulness and Sila or conduct.  If we use wisdom as a translation for prajna, it does not mean the same as the everyday idea of wisdom as in wise person. Wisdom here means something like ‘not having separate existence’. In the West this has sometimes been translated as ‘emptiness’, but Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that this emptiness is always emptiness of something, it is empty of a separate self. His insight is to turn this around from a negative to a positive, so instead of no separate self, he uses the term interbeing, meaning connected to everything.

The flowers and the compost

A powerful image which Thich Nhat Hanh uses is that of flowers and compost.

If we plant a seed in a pot of compost, so long as we keep the pot watered and, when the shoot emerges, it has warmth and light, eventually a flower will bloom. When we look at this flower with unawakened eyes, we may believe that this flower has a separate existence, that it has a separate self. But if we look deeply, and look at the flower with the eyes of wisdom, we see that it is not separate from the compost, the sunlight, the water and the air. Take away any one of these components and the flower could never have existed. The flower, and the compost, and everything else ‘inter-are’.  Wait a few weeks and the flower withers and returns to compost. And so the cycle continues. There is no end and no beginning. No birth, no death.

Our liberation is dependent simply on realising our interbeing-nature. If we continue to see ourselves as separate, we are not awake. Peace will elude us. Once we perceive the interconnected nature of our existence we rest in the heart of understanding.

Experiencing interbeing

If the above sounds theoretical and abstract, just look out of the window and gaze at the view. Breathe, and bring yourself wholly into the present moment. It is possible that you may experience yourself as part of a continuum, part of the natural world.  You may lose your usual sense of any separate self. It is this experience which is wisdom. This is not philosophy and you do not need a degree to understand it!  It is a wisdom grounded in everyday experience.

These insights are not limited to Buddhism.  See  quotes opposite.


Excerpt from ‘Awakening of the Heart’ by Thich Nhat Hanh. Going deeper into Interbeing and emptiness

No man is an island, Entire of itself,

Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main.

John Donne

To see a World in a grain of sand
and Heaven in a wildflower,
hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
and Eternity in an hour.

William Blake