Indra’s Jewel Net, or the Jewel Net of Indra, is a much-loved metaphor of Mahayana Buddhism. It illustrates the interpenetration, inter-causality, and interbeing of all things.
In the realm of the god Indra is a vast net that stretches infinitely in all directions. In each “eye” of the net is a single brilliant, perfect jewel. Each jewel also reflects every other jewel, infinite in number, and each of the reflected images of the jewels bears the image of all the other jewels — infinity to infinity. Whatever affects one jewel effects them all.
The metaphor illustrates the interpenetration of all phenomena. Everything contains everything else. At the same time, each individual thing is not hindered by or confused with all the other individual things.
Because all phenomena arise from the same ground of being, all things are within everything else. And yet the many things do not hinder each other.
In his book Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977), Francis Dojun Cook wrote,
“Thus each individual is at once the cause for the whole and is caused by the whole, and what is called existence is a vast body made up of an infinity of individuals all sustaining each other and defining each other. The cosmos is, in short, a self-creating, self-maintaining, and self-defining organism.”
This is a more sophisticated understanding of reality than to simply think everything is part of a greater whole. According to Huayan, it would be correct to say that everyone is the entire greater whole, but also is just himself, at the same time. This understanding of reality, in which each part contains the whole, is often compared to a hologram.
Indra’s Net is very much related to interbeing. Very basically, interbeing refers to a teaching that all of existence is a vast nexus of causes and conditions, constantly changing, in which everything is interconnected to everything else.
Thich Nhat Hanh illustrated interbeing with a simile called Clouds in Each Paper.
“If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow: and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are.”
This interbeing is sometimes called the integration of universal and particular. Each of us is a particular being, and each particular being is also the entire phenomenal universe.
There are several aspects of Indra’s Net that provide an allegory of reality:
1. The Holographic Nature of the Universe
Long before the existence of the hologram, the jeweled net is an excellent description of the special characteristic of holograms: that every point of the hologram contains information regarding all other points.
2. The Interconnectedness of All Things
When any jewel in the net is touched, all other jewels in the node are affected. This speaks to the hidden interconnectedness and interdependency of everything and everyone in the universe.
3. Lack of a substantive self
Each node, representing an individual, simply reflects the qualities of all other nodes, inferring the notion of ‘not-self’ or a lack of a solid and real inherent self, as seen in the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism and Buddhism in general.
Indra’s Net challenges the assumption of a solid and fixed universe ‘out there’. The capacity of one jewel to reflect the light of another jewel from the other edge of infinity is something that is difficult for the linear mind, rational mind to comprehend. The fact that all nodes are simply reflections indicates that there is no particular single source point from where it all arises.
5. Innate Wisdom
The ability to reflect the entirety of all light in the universe attests to the inherent transcendant wisdom that is at the core of all nodes, representing all sentient beings, and to the inherent Buddha Nature.
6. Illusion or Maya
The fact that all nodes are simply a reflection of all others implies the illusory nature of all appearances. Appearances are thus not reality but a reflection of reality.
7. The Mirror-like Nature of Mind
The capacity to reflect all things attests to the mind being a mirror of reality, not its basis.