410. Indra’s Net

We can think of interdependence in terms of time, and we can think of it in terms of being. 

The Zen approach primarily takes the latter position.Very often we talk about zenki, full dynamic functioning.

In other words we are part of this Network of all beings, functioning together, like a body would. The Chinese tradition talks about the Buddha’s Dharma body.  Another frequent metaphor is Indra’s Net— the image of a network of infinitely faceted jewels of infinite number, all reflecting all.

In our experience of meditation it’s often possible for us to see this interconnection. There’s thought, and we can feel the emotion underneath that thought, and the body sensation prior to the emotion (obviously all happening very, very quickly) and the connection between the body and the surrounding world. Sometimes that’s sufficient for us to break the mirror of the self, the belief that we’re separate. 

That focus on interdependence as the interdependence of being is sometimes helpful for us to understand mental phenomena. It’s helpful for us to understand the often constant chatter of the self, like a fictional character constantly trying to talk itself into existence. 

It helps with the kind of everyday noise and nonsense that we seem to get in meditation,  which are like the echoes and shadows of experience. 

But where the emphasis on the interconnectedness of being isn’t so helpful is when practitioners feel oppressed by other things—classically those persistent negative emotions like anxiety, dread, depression, that kind of thing.

For that, an emphasis on the other way of looking at interdependence, focusing on time, is often helpful.  In other Buddhist traditions there’s much more of an emphasis on Karma. What we’re experiencing now is the product of past actions. This is helpful in giving us a broader and more spacious understanding of what we’re experiencing now, but the problem with it  (and you get this problem very frequently in the casual and careless way that non Buddhists talk about karma), is that we are liable to think of karma as being something which happens to a persisting self over time.  The problem with that is that it reimposes the familiar problem which Buddhism tries to overcome — this dichotomy of self and world (or of mind and body, as a subsidiary dichotomy).

But we can get over that if we think of time, not as a medium within which people and objects persist and change, but rather of time in the sense of a series of moments. Each moment contains all of existence and all moments are interconnected—Dogen’s perspective of time. 

If we think then of interdependence as being both interdependence in terms of being and interdependence in terms of moments I think that is a helpful way for us to proceed.  

The origin  – we imagine – of Indra’s Net is people in classical times looking up at the night sky and seeing this extraordinary network of stars. It’s not much of an imaginative leap to think of all these stars as being a network of jewels. What we now know, which people then didn’t, is that when we’re looking at the stars we’re also looking at time. Because light takes so long to travel to us when we’re looking up at the sky we’re sometimes seeing light from stars which no longer exist and we’re not seeing light from stars that do exist but whose light hasn’t yet reached us

All the light we do not see