Gesine and I recently returned from our annual NVC Community camp. Sitting outside in the evenings with clear skies and little light pollution, I had a chance to renew my acquaintance with the stars. They reminded of the image of Indra’s Net, a traditional Buddhist symbol of the truth of interconnectedness, of how things arise in dependence upon conditions.
The Avatamsaka Sutra refers to the image of Indra’s net to illustrate the infinite complexity of these conditions. In Indian mythology Indra was the king of the gods, rather like Zeus in the ancient Greek pantheon. He owned a magnificent net, so large that it stretched indefinitely in all directions. In accordance with Indra’s opulent tastes, the maker had tied a single glittering jewel into each one of the net’s infinite nodes. Since the net was infinite in dimension, the jewels were infinite in number. This would surely have been a marvellous sight to behold.
Sitting in front of our tent and looking up at the evening sky, first one, then another, then many other stars emerged from the inky blue. Finally, a whole panoply of stars emerged. As the stars shone down on me, I started to see them as the jewels in Indra’s net. I imagined how each of these infinite jewels emitted light, and in its polished surface I could see reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. And each of the jewels reflected in the facets of this jewel were reflecting all the other jewels, so that the process of reflection was itself infinite.
The image harks back to Buddhism’s origins in India, but it also looks forward to the World Wide Web, a distributed network in which no node or nodes can be said to be central. It symbolizes a cosmos in which there is an infinitely repeated relationship among all the constituents. The relationship is characterized as one of simultaneous mutual intercausality, or Dependent Arising.
We can apply this metaphor directly to our current climate and ecological emergency. If any of the jewels become cloudy, they reflect the other jewels less clearly. If any ecological niche in our environment becomes toxic or polluted, it affects all the other niches. A loss of species or habitat in one place affects the rest of the environment. Life on earth is dependent on the health of the biosphere, 20km thick, that wraps the earth. What we put into the atmosphere here in Bristol will soon find its way to Moscow, Beijing, Atlanta and Auckland.
Likewise, if rivers are cleaned and wetlands restored, life across the environment is enhanced. This net of conditions accounts not only for physical and biological factors, but also for human intentions. In fact, human intentions are critical in determining what happens to the net. As we are interconnected, our actions matter!
Adapted from chapter seven of Shantigarbha’s recent book The Burning House: A Buddhist response to the climate and ecological emergency. To learn more about how you can contribute in these times of climate and ecological emergency, buy the book or join the Triratna Earth Sangha.