the net of indra
An edited version of the first talk in our online zazen sessions: the Net of Indra. Many thanks to Jen for the transcription.
In Mahayana Buddhism there is a teaching where you talk about the net of Indra, the Indra jala, and I would like to say a few words about that net as we are all connected here today through another net, the net of the web. From different parts of the world here we are all connected invisibly somehow in the space of this net. The Net of Indra is an old metaphor in Buddhism that talks about the unspoken reality of interdependence.
Indra is one of the gods of Indian mythology that has been integrated into Buddhism as one of the deities and guardians of the dharma. There is this legendary tale of the god Indra having this palace on the top of mont Sumero high in the heavens. Suspended from the roof of this palace was this net, the net of Indra. The net stretched out endlessly in the ten directions. So, it was a net that was infinite in its dimensions, in its reaching out as it covered the whole of space. As all nets, the net of Indra was built through an infinite number of nodes. At the intersection of all these nodes, there was a jewel, the mani jewel, that was multi-faceted, and the different threads of the nets would go through each one of these jewels connecting them to all other jewels.
Now, in that net, as all these jewels in infinite numbers are shining like myriad stars in the sky, you can see the reflection of all the different myriad jewels in every single jewel, and each jewel reflecting back the multifaceted radiance of all the other jewels across the net. This is an infinite process of mutually reflecting and being reflected back, simultaneously.
What each jewel does not necessarily see is the thread that connects one to another and I think that’s a very beautiful metaphor, that bright jewel of Indra, about our condition, the way we are all connected to one another and to all things. We can see that we are all a jewel, we have that capacity to mirror, we reflect back, but often we forget that there’s this invisible thread that runs through us, that connects us with the infinity of this net. This is a metaphor for the process we call life. When we get too absorbed in our own thinking process or issues, when we are too self-centered, centered around our own radiance or lack of, we feel like we are suspended alone as a single jewel in the infinity of this universe.
Now the whole point of practice is for us to feel the vibrancy of that invisible thread of the net of Indra that is running through each one of us. That’s what practice awakens us to. To find our place in the infinity of this existence, spatially, temporarily, seeing that we belong to something much vaster than ourselves yet that this tiny little jewel called us is not separated from the infinity of life but is an integral part of it.
That’s what awakening is about. It’s coming out of that single-jewelled-centeredness or mentality, if I could use these words, to the collective and vast presence of all other phenomena in the world, or cosmos. The Taoists called this the sense of cosmic complicity, which means we are complicit in a cosmic process that is unending and infinite yet inseparable from us. Inseparable from us means our deep-rooted sense of complicity, it is that thread running through all the jewels that comprise the net of Indra.
As we have evolved technologically we have mastered more and more sophisticated ways of dominating natural forces and resources. In our search for dominance, we have lost that sense of cosmic complicity or cosmic belonging which means we have forgotten our place within the net of Indra.
Now that sense of interdependence or interrelatedness is an essential part of Buddhist teachings which makes it also from a deeper perspective the understanding of what the bodhisattva vows mean.
In Buddhism, the bodhisattva is that figure who is striving to awaken but makes the vow of not entering into full realisation or enlightenment before everyone else has been enlightened, or saved if you will. The depth of that vow reflects the infinity of the net of Indra because you realise that you do not awaken separately from all those connections that hold you together in that net. It’s the realisation that if you awaken, it’s the whole universe that has awoken.
Or when we awaken we awaken to the realisation of the awakeness or the aliveness of the universe which is how we can understand the first utterance of the buddha as he had his enlightenment experience under the bodhi tree in Bodhgaya back in India. The first words that he is credited with having said are the following: ‘wonderous, oh how wondrous, I have awoken and with me have awoken the stars, the mountains, the rivers, and the grass." The Buddha awoke to the realisation of the interconnectedness of all phenomena, he realised that there is this infinite net of Indra stretching above his head.
We practice on an edge; at the same time connecting to a place where we are more in touch with the world and more in touch with others. This is not a practice to individually realise something, it’s the practice of realising that our individuality, if it is lived in the sense of separateness from others, is an illusion and I think the metaphor of the net of Indra beautifully allows us to capture that: no radiance in separation, what radiates is connectdness.
That radiance of connectedness is awakening.
The jewel that is radiant but radiant in a way that what it is reflecting is not just a self-reflection but a reflection of all that is.
We are all a jewel and there is a thread running through us all.
We are this jewel, we are this thread, we are this running through, we are the thread of Indra, we are this shimmering.