Interdependent World



Our interdependent world

Today’s world requires us to accept the oneness of humanity. In the past, isolated communities could afford to think of one another as fundamentally separate. Some could even exist in total isolation. But nowadays, whatever happens in one region eventually affects many other areas. Within the context of our new interdependence, self-interest clearly lies in considering the interest of others. 

The world has changed, and with this change humans face new responsibilities vis-a-vis each other and the planet they share. In earlier times, families and communities lived more or less independently of one another. In the modern world of global communications and technology, societies are much more interconnected than in the past, on the material level at least. With this new reality comes the need for a new outlook.

The Dalai Lama emphasizes the reality of interdependence in human life, beginning from birth and early childhood dependence on our mother.

We can extend this logic of dependence from the family out to the community and society, to the national and international levels, and even to the economy and environment — then we can see how interconnected we are, how interdependent the world is. 

“Globalization” is a common theme today. Do you think that peoples around the world today are more economically interdependent than before?

“Our” interests are now so often interwoven with those of “others” that in serving others we benefit ourselves as well, regardless of whether this was our original intention.

The Dalai Lama gives the example of two families sharing a single water source — each family’s efforts to protect the water from pollution benefits both families. Consider how the technological developments and policies of one country can affect the environment of other countries.

With an understanding and appreciation of this highly complex and interdependent world, we cannot escape the necessity for care toward each other. Then, even from the point of view of one’s own personal survival and well-being, one can argue for an ethical system based on affection.

A young child’s affection does not come through faith; it is naturally very strong. I think the mistake we make is that when we’re grown up, we start to think we’re independent. We think that in order to be successful we don’t need others — except maybe to exploit them! This is the source of all sorts of problems, scandals, and corruption. But if we had more respect for other people’s lives — a greater sense of concern and awareness — it would be a very different world. We have to introduce the reality of interdependence. Then people would discover that, according to that reality, affection and compassion are essential if anything is ever going to change. 

Universal consciousness

It is critical, the Dalai Lama says, that we cultivate a sense of what he calls universal responsibility. In Tibetan the term the Dalai Lama uses means universal  consciousness, but the sense of responsibility is an important component.

Consider these two terms: universal consciousness and universal responsibility. What does universal mean to you? Can you imagine having universal consciousness? What about responsibility? Is the Dalai Lama suggesting that each of us is responsible for each war and famine throughout the world? Is he suggesting that you should feel responsible for the poverty of a single village on the other side of the globe?

Sensitive to all

By developing a sense of universal responsibility, recognizing the right of all others to happiness and not to suffer, we cultivate a mind-set that is sensitive to others. As you know from our presentation of great compassion, the Dalai Lama is urging us to be sensitive to the needs of all others — not just those close to us, those within our sphere of interest. And so we guard against focusing on superficial differences, which causes divisiveness and suffering.

When you think in terms of absolutes — in terms of religions, languages, customs, culture, and so on — do you find yourself making small, rigid discriminations?

How might this discrimination create suffering both for ourselves and others? Does this make any sense? As the Dalai Lama asks:

What is the point of creating still more unnecessary problems simply on the basis of different ways of thinking or different skin color?

We can emphasize how we all are essentially the same. When we understand that everyone wants to be loved, to be happy, and not to suffer, concern for well-being of others arises almost by itself.  Most people naturally understand this in relation to their own families and their friends.  It is important to extend this understanding to other communities and nations, for these no longer exist in isolation.

Do you find your concern for others diminishes as the others are more removed from your own family, your own community, your country?

Do you find yourself focused on the superficial differences between your community and others, your country and others, your faith and others. . . ?

If I were to look on each as one of my own kind — as a human being like myself with one nose, two eyes, and so forth, ignoring differences of shape and color — then automatically that sense of distance would fade. I would see that we have the same human flesh and that, moreover, just as I want to be happy and to avoid suffering, so do they. On the basis of this recognition, I would quite naturally feel well disposed toward them. And concern for their well-being would arise almost by itself.

The role of contentment

Why is cultivating contentment essential for maintaining peaceful coexistence? Imagine yourself in a situation where you are discontent; how would this affect your ability to generate compassion for others? Or for yourself?

Not being content spawns greed and sows envy.  It promotes aggressive competitiveness and excessive materialism.

Think of contentment in terms of satisfaction. If you are not satisfied with what you have, how does this affect how you are likely to act when faced with a decision regarding acting for your benefit or the benefit of others?

Reflect on this observation by the Dalai Lama:

In the case of the desire for wealth, even if a person were somehow able to take over the economy of an entire country, there is every chance they would begin to think in terms of acquiring that of other countries too. Desire for what is finite can never really be sated. On the other hand, when we develop contentment, we can never be disappointed or disillusioned.

Where contentment is absent we find greed, the source of our culture of material consumption.

How might our natural environment be affected by our lack of contentment? Our economy? Peace?


How does the culture of perpetual economic growth foster chronic discontent? How is inequality among nations a source of trouble for everyone?

In an interdependent world the effects of individual greed is felt by others around the world. The excesses of those who live in wealthier economies’ brings suffering to those who don’t, both today and for future generations.

Eventually we ourselves will suffer. How?

We have to live in the world we are helping to create. If we choose not to modify our behavior out of respect for others’ equal right to happiness and not to suffer, it will not be long before we begin to notice the negative consequences.

The role of honesty and justice

Universal responsibility leads to a commitment to honesty.

Why is honesty important in the quest for a compassionate interdependent world?

How do you know when you are being honest?

We are honest when our actions are what they seem to be. When we pretend to be one thing but in reality we are something else, suspicion develops in others, causing fear.

If we pretend to be one thing and our actions reveal something else, that causes suspicion and fear. when we commit ourselves to honesty, we help reduce the level of misunderstanding, doubt, and fear throughout society.

When our interactions with our neighbors are open and sincere in everything we say and think and do, people have no need to fear us.

Does this seem true? Important? Does this hold true for communities as well as individuals?

When we understand the value of honesty in all our undertakings, we recognize that there is no ultimate difference between the needs of the individual and the needs of whole communities. Their numbers vary, but their desire, and right, not to be deceived remains the same. Thus in a small but significant way, we create the conditions for a happy world.

Universal responsibility and honesty require us to act when we perceive injustice.  If we don’t speak, is it out of fear about what others will think?  Not speaking could be unethical if we are ignoring the wider implications of our silence.

What about the objection that honesty is not always possible, that circumstances may prevent us from always acting in accordance with our responsibilities? As an example, what if your own family might be harmed if you spoke out when you witnessed injustice?

Working together

As individuals, communities and nations, we need each other to solve our problems. We need to seek non-violent solutions to conflict and further the growing acceptance of human rights and diversity.  We must remind ourselves that order imposed by force has, historically, proven short—lived.  By contrast universal responsibility is based in the dynamics and functions of our inner world, of consciousness and spirit, of our hearts and minds.  Today, individually and as communities and nations, we must consider our needs in relation to the needs of others, and evaluate how our actions will affect others.  This is the foundation for genuine peace and harmony, and the path that will allow us to move beyond war and violence as the means we use to resolve differences.

Look back at your recent life — actions you’ve taken (or chosen not to take), decisions you’ve made. Consider their impact—subtle or direct—on others in the world. When you acted, were you acting from universal compassion ?