“Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.”

I first came across this one on Twitter. The language is just too modern and the ideas expressed too neatly and philosophically for this to be from the Pali Canon. It doesn’t sound, in tone, like anything I’ve read in the Mahayana scriptures either.

It’s in fact from a book called The Teachings of Buddha, by Bukkyo Dendo Kyonkai, a Japanese organization. In a fuller version it’s:

As has been pointed out, all things appear and disappear because of causes and conditions. Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else. Wherever there is light, there is shadow; wherever there is length, there is shortness; wherever there is white, there is black. Just like these, as the self-nature of things cannot exist alone, they are called non-substantial.

The Teachings of Buddha may contain scriptural material, but this passage seems to be from a section that is “about Buddhism” rather than representing a primary source. The Buddha really didn’t talk in terms of everything existing in relation to everything else.

This passage in “The Teachings of Buddha” is probably a paraphrase of something in D. T. Suzuki’s “Studies on the Lankavatara Sutra,” in a chapter on the principle ideas found in the sutra, where he writes:

So long as dualism is adhered to, there is no Nirvana, no self-realisation. Light and shadow, long and short, black and white–they are mutually related; when they stand alone each by itself, they have no meaning. So with Nirvana.

Here we have the same three pairs (light/shadow, length/shortness, black/white) and the idea that these opposites can’t exist alone.

The Lankavatara Sutra is a Mahayana Sutra, probably composed at least 500 years after the Buddha’s death. In my humble opinion it contains at least some spiritual perspectives that the Buddha would have agreed with but that he didn’t explicitly teach. But it’s definitely not something the Buddha himself taught. And of course Suzuki’s commentary on the sutra is definitely not the word of the Buddha.

One correspondent told me that the entire quote beginning “As has been pointed out…” is found in the Lankavatara Sutra itself, but I haven’t been able to locate it there.

4 thoughts on ““Nothing ever exists entirely alone; everything is in relation to everything else.””

  1. Hello. In terms of buddha not talking of everything existing in relation to everything else, i would agree it would not be said in this language but isnt a key theme (some would say THE key theme) is dependent origination? This existing, that arises.

    1. Yes, the message is entirely in line with what the Buddha taught, and with how things are. It’s just not something he said.

    1. That’s an interesting quote, because it floats around, and has done for decades, being attributed to Nagarjuna. It’s kind of the think you might expect Nagarjuna to say, although his style is generally quite cryptic and dense, so it doesn’t really sound like him in terms of the way it’s expressed.

      As far as I can see this is first attributed to Nagarjuna by Fritjof Capra in his “Tao of Physics,” where we gives a reference to TRV Murti’s “The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.” But when you look at the relevant page in “The Central Philosophy of Buddhism” you see that the words are Murti’s himself. He doesn’t even mention Nagarjuna near that quote.

      It looks like Capra took the words “For things are mutually dependent in their nature (i.e. substance on attributes, self on the states, and vice versa) and are nothing in themselves” rewrote them, and attributed them to Nagarjuna, knowing that they weren’t Murti’s. Capra must have known that he wasn’t quoting Nagarjuna, and yet it seems he went ahead anyway. It’s a rather shocking form of dishonesty, even if it may seem minor.

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