Independent vs. interdependent

From an article titled ” We Walk the Path Together” by Larry Yang in the Summer 2017 issue of Buddhadharma (

…The current consensus is that nearly every social-psychological phenomenon is culturally dependent.

From this has emerged a description of what might be called two broad cultural archetypes: one that emphasizes, implicitly and/or explicitly, the individual experience, and one that emphasizes, implicitly and/or explicitly, the collective experience. The former has been described as an “independent” cultural modality, and the latter as an “interdependent” cultural modality. It is very interesting that, for the past fifty-plus years, the wisdom teachings of the Buddha have been transmitted from their Asian cultures of origin – “interdependent” cultures – to the largely “independent” cultures of Europe and the United States.

Hearing these modalities described so clearly brings our situation into focus. For people who have adjusted to living in dispersed and sometimes fractured nuclear families, the idea of living contentedly among dozens of relatives may seem unattractive or confusing. Some cultures thrive because of the strength of extended family relationships, though this way of organizing society is not without its problems. If we depend on each other, then we also take responsibility for each other.

We have to live in the culture that we live in. As adults we can choose to live in other cultures (sometimes), but we ignore the cultural norms around us at our peril. If we grew up immersed in a world where individualism was the standard measure of health and success, it’s a big challenge to re-orient ourselves to an interdependent model of family or community. Likewise for people from cultures where family obligations set the expectations, breaking out of that structure can have painful consequences.

Part of the reason Buddhist philosophy seems so foreign to some people is that it comes from a place and time, and is based on a world view, where individualism was inconceivable. Interdependence was so normative as not to be questioned. Within this context, when the Buddha left his extended family, it was a traumatic break. Only after his awakening did he form a community in which others could also practice for awakening in a dedicated way. The community of monks and nuns and laymen and laywomen became a new kind of family. The widely dispersed group of people who are committed practitioners of the Dharma, on any path, form a type of community. We support and depend on each other; we look to each other for inspiration and care for each other.

How important is it to our growth on the path to live in close relationship to others? Only by opening to others, as they are today, does our own understanding deepen. While meditation is mostly a solitary experience, increasing wisdom requires interacting with others.

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
This entry was posted in Causes and results, Friendships, General, Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.

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