As Above, So Below: The Net of Indra

Modern cosmology and physics have given birth to some peculiar notions regarding space-time.

One is Simulation theory, the idea that that everything we perceive is actually a projection, a data construct. Think the Matrix.

Think Virtual Reality, only in a game so realistic that nobody remembers it’s a game.

(To get deeper, using this analogy, Anatta is the state of a Non-Player Character who believes they’re real, but that’s a different story altogether).

If you’re a Buddhist, think Maya.


Another is multi-verse theory, which holds that every choice creates a splinter universe, which may or may not re-merge with the original timeline once all of the difference has been ‘worked out’, giving rise to the notion of fate (i.e., the impulse of the split universes to rejoin forcing certain events to happen) while reconciling some deeply explored quantum paradoxes:

Is light a wave or particle? Depends which branch-verse you’re measuring from.

Is Schrodinger’s cat dead or alive? You only have to clean litter in one branch-verse, my friends.

If you’re a Buddhist, consider this another facet of Interdependent Origination.


Another idea is that of the Holographic Universe. This presumes a universe where every facet of the universe is contained – mirrored, in a sense – in every other facet of creation.

Can you reconstruct the universe from a single atom?

Proponents of the holographic model believe so.

And what about Buddhists?

They have a term for this concept as well…

The Net of Indra.


“Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.”

–Alan Watt



To go to the source, so to speak, we have the Flower Ornament Sutra, the Avatamsaka. Chapter 30, the Incalculable, elaborates:

If untold buddha-lands are reduced to atoms,
In one atom are untold lands,
And as in one,
So in each.
The atoms to which these buddha-lands are reduced in an instant are unspeakable,
And so are the atoms of continuous reduction moment to moment
Going on for untold eons;
These atoms contain lands unspeakably many,
And the atoms in these lands are even harder to tell of


The Sutra continues:

They [Buddhas] know all phenomena come from interdependent origination.
They know all world systems exhaustively. They know all the
different phenomena in all worlds, interrelated in Indra’s net.


The metaphor of Indra’s Net of Jewels plays a central role in the Chinese Huayan school, where it is used to describe the interpenetration of microcosm and macrocosm, the Western Alchemical concept of ‘As above, so below’ (with the possible addendum, ‘As without, so within’).

The Huayan text entitled “Calming and Contemplation in the Five Teachings of Huayan” gives a detailed description of this concept:

The manner in which all dharmas interpenetrate is like an imperial net of celestial jewels extending in all directions infinitely, without limit. … As for the imperial net of heavenly jewels, it is known as Indra’s Net, a net which is made entirely of jewels. Because of the clarity of the jewels, they are all reflected in and enter into each other, ad infinitum. Within each jewel, simultaneously, is reflected the whole net. Ultimately, nothing comes or goes. If we now turn to the southwest, we can pick one particular jewel and examine it closely. This individual jewel can immediately reflect the image of every other jewel.


As is the case with this jewel, this is furthermore the case with all the rest of the jewels–each and every jewel simultaneously and immediately reflects each and every other jewel, ad infinitum. The image of each of these limitless jewels is within one jewel, appearing brilliantly. None of the other jewels interfere with this. When one sits within one jewel, one is simultaneously sitting in all the infinite jewels in all ten directions. How is this so? Because within each jewel are present all jewels. If all jewels are present within each jewel, it is also the case that if you sit in one jewel you sit in all jewels at the same time. The inverse is also understood in the same way. Just as one goes into one jewel and thus enters every other jewel while never leaving this one jewel, so too one enters any jewel while never leaving this particular jewel.


The Huayan Patriarch Fazang used the golden statue of a lion to demonstrate the Huayan vision of interpenetration to the Empress Wu:

In each of the lion’s eyes, in its ears, limbs, and so forth, down to each and every single hair, there is a golden lion. All the lions embraced by each and every hair simultaneously and instantaneously enter into one single hair. Thus, in each and every hair there are an infinite number of lions… The progression is infinite, like the jewels of Celestial Lord Indra’s Net: a realm-embracing-realm ad infinitum is thus established, and is called the realm of Indra’s Net.


The take-away?

Sometimes, when we look up at the night sky, it’s possible to feel overwhelmingly small, to the point of vanishing.

Sometimes, when we look inside the hidden realm of subatomic particle, it’s possible to feel overwhelmingly empty, to the point of vanishing.

But maybe that’s the place where the magic happens, where the incalculably small and the overwhelmingly large melt into emptiness, and subsequently, fullness.

Interpenetration makes of us each as vast as the Universe, connected intimately with every event in space-time, past, present and future.

The Nexus where all certainties are multiplied by all possibilities, resulting in the Story of Everything…

Reflect on that any time you feel insignificant – we are expressions of the Verse, and the Verse is an expression of us.

And that is rapturous reflection of Indra’s net…

Hand with Reflecting Sphere, 1935, lithograph, M.C. Escher. Rosenwald Collection, National Gallery of Art (USA)

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