Indra’s Net

Śūnyatā

Indra’s net (also called ‘Indra’s jewels’ or ‘Indra’s pearls’) is a metaphor used to illustrate the concepts of emptiness, dependent origination (all things arise in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions), and interpenetration (all phenomena are intimately connected — and mutually arising) in Buddhist philosophy. The metaphor of Indra’s net was developed by the Mahayana Buddhist school in the 3rd century scriptures of the ‘Avatamsaka Sutra,’ and later by the Chinese Huayan school between the 6th and 8th century.

For the Huayan school, Indra’s net symbolizes a universe where infinitely repeated mutual relations exist among all members of the universe. This idea is communicated in the image of the interconnectedness of the universe as seen in the net of the Vedic god Indra, which hangs over his palace on Mount Meru, the axis mundi of Vedic cosmology and Vedic mythology. Indra’s net has a multifaceted jewel at each vertex, and each jewel is reflected in all of the other jewels.

Francis Harold Cook describes the metaphor of Indra’s net from the perspective of the Huayan school in the book ‘Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra’: ‘Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each ‘eye’ of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.’

Douglas Hofstadter uses Indra’s net as a metaphor for the complex interconnected networks formed by relationships between objects in a system—including social networks, the interactions of particles, and the ‘symbols’ that stand for ideas in a brain or intelligent computer. In ‘Vermeer’s Hat,’ a history book written by Timothy Brook, the author uses the metaphor: ‘Buddhism uses a similar image to describe the interconnectedness of all phenomena. It is called Indra’s Net. When Indra fashioned the world, he made it as a web, and at every knot in the web is tied a pearl. Everything that exists, or has ever existed, every idea that can be thought about, every datum that is true—every dharma, in the language of Indian philosophy—is a pearl in Indra’s net. Not only is every pearl tied to every other pearl by virtue of the web on which they hang, but on the surface of every pearl is reflected every other jewel on the net. Everything that exists in Indra’s web implies all else that exists.’ Writing in ‘The Spectator,’ Sarah Burton explains that Brook uses the metaphor, and its interconnectedness, ‘[T]o help understand the multiplicity of causes and effects producing the way we are and the way we were […] In the same way, the journeys through Brook’s picture-portals intersect with each other, at the same time shedding light on each other.’

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