Indra’s Net: The Grand Unifier of All Faiths

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Mitakuye Oyasin

The Lakota Indians has a phrase, Mitákuye Oyás’iŋ. According to Thomas Constantine Maroukis, the phrase reflects a worldview which recognizes the interrelatedness and harmony of all forms of life — other people, animals, birds, insects, trees and plants, and even rocks, rivers, mountains and valleys, etc. Thus, despite the apparent separateness of all things, there is also a subtle order and hidden wholeness.

Such an idea can be found in virtually all cultures and religions. But it is more prominent in the religions, philosophies and spirituality of the East, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism. Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh, coined a special term — interbeing — to express the same idea. He has a talent in expressing very complicated ideas in simple, poetic form. In a short piece called Paper and Clouds, he wrote:

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.

Yes, if we look deep enough, we can see the cloud, the rain, the forest and the entire cosmos in a simple piece of paper. This is possible because all things in the universe are necessarily related. In just a short paragraph, Thich Naht Hanh manages to spell out the intricate Hua Yen philosophy of “Aii in one and one in all” — in a piece of paper we can see the cosmos, and the cosmos cannot exist without the piece of paper. The individual is a reflection of the whole and the whole is a reflection of the individuals. In our daily lives, we tend to think of the myriad objects and phenomena as separate and not connected. Yet, on a deep level, all things have subtle connections. Spirituality has much to do with developing this deeper vision, so that we can see the unity in all things.

Interconnectedness is a universal truth. This truth can be seen in nature, in the sciences and in the economy. In my book, The Zen Teachings of Jesus, I have a chapter on love. I wrote that compassion is not a matter of charity, pity or sympathy. Rather, compassion is a result of “seeing the interconnectedness in all things and recognizing that this is a participatory universe in which we are all one.” Thich Naht Hanh also wrote beautifully on interconnectedness by taking a look at the reality of prostitution in Manila and other big cities. Typically, there are many young women who are forced into the skin trade due to poverty. There are actually documentaries made to shed light on how many young women become prostitutes because their families are too poor. They are despised by society and they feel ashamed of themselves. Thich Naht Hanh wrote:

But if (the young prostitute) could look deeply at herself and at the whole situation, she would see that she is the way she is because other people are the way they are. How can a “good girl,” belonging to a “good family” be proud? Because of the “good family’s” way of life is the way it is, the prostitute has to live as a prostitute. No one among us has clean hands. No one of us can claim that it is not our responsibility. The girl in Manila is that way because of the way we are. Looking into the life of that young prostitute, we see the lives of all the “non-prostitutes.” And looking at the non-prostitutes and the way we live, we see the prostitutes. Each thing helps to create the other.

Again, the individual reflects the whole and the whole reflects the individual. This is Hua Yen vision. But this is also related to the central Buddhist philosophy of Pratītyasamutpāda, commonly translated into “Dependent Origination.” In original Buddhism, such principle is summarized succinctly as follows:

When this is, that is.
This arising, that arising.
When this is not, that is not.
This ceasing, that ceases.
(Majjhima-Nikaya)

Thus, this is a world of interdependence and interconnectedness. Without one, there cannot be the other, and vice versa. There are prostitutes because there are non-prostitutes. A prostitute cannot manage to make a living without customers. Similarly, there are poor people because there are rich people. Wealth and poverty arise together; without one, there cannot be the other. They are really two sides of the same coin, the same reality.

It is the same in the natural world. It is the same in the economic world. It is the same in the ecological world. We live in systems where each part of the system affects the whole and is responsible for making the whole possible. Based on this systems understanding, we can understand that each one of us is responsible for everything that is happening in the system, whether we are aware of it or not. Thus, each one of us is somewhat responsible for everything that is happening in our economic system and everything that is happening in our ecological system because each one of us is an integral part of the system. Based on the truth of interconnectedness, a holistic ethics can be created. In this light, we can clearly see that karma is necessarily joined and collective, because this is a participatory universe.

While the principle of Pratītyasamutpāda is often thought of as uniquely Buddhist, it is actually not. We have to remember that Buddhism grew out of a much wider context of Vedic wisdom. According to Rajiv Malhotra, author of the book Indra’s Net, Indra’s Net is a metaphor for the profound cosmology and outlook that permeates Hinduism. Mr. Malhotra summarizes its philosophical and cultural significance as follows:

Indra’s Net symbolizes the universe as a web of connections and interdependencies among all its members, wherein every member is both a manifestation of the whole and inseparable from the whole. This concept is the foundation for Vedic cosmology and it later went on to become the central principle of Buddhism, and from there spread into mainstream Western discourse across several disciplines.

Rajiv Malhotra traced the origin of the idea of Indra’s Net back to the Vedas. For example, The Brhadaranyaka Upanishad says:

Brahman is responsible for the interconnectedness of things and has become the living and the non-living; the visible and the invisible; the creatures which are two-footed and those that are four-footed. He became the subtle body and then the gross body by means of a subtle instrument known as the subtle body. This very Being became the vital consciousness of all. This is known as the Madhu¬Vidya, the sense of the ‘honey’ of all beings, the knowledge of the inter-dependence of things and the vital connection of everything, under every condition, at every time, everywhere.

Similarly, the Chinese Buddhism Encyclopedia gives credit to Vedic thoughts:

The earliest materials from which this metaphor were drawn can be found throughout the oldest of India’s works, the Vedic Saṃhitās, Brāhmaṇas, Upaniṣads, and Sūtras, so that “Indra’s net” has its philosophical roots in early “proto-forms” of Samkhya, one of the six Hindudarshanas. Indeed, some scholars have speculated that Buddhism is itself a branch of these early forms of Sāṃkhya.

There is no question that Dependent Origination is the foundational principle of Buddhist philosophy. Dependent Origination implies the Buddhist philosophy of no-self (anatta). Because everything derives its existence to all the other things in the world, there is nothing which exists by itself and not dependent on other things. Thus, there cannot be an independent self. Of course, in the conventional sense, we conveniently assume that you and I and everybody else have individual “selves.” But that is an illusion. Just as Thich Naht Hanh pointed out, the piece of paper cannot have existed without the rain, the sunshine and the trees. The prostitute cannot have exist without customers and a wide disparity between the rich and poor in our society. Everything depends on everything else. Thus, the Buddha’s teachings of Dependent Origination and anatta can be traced back to the Vedic metaphor of Indra’s Net. It is in this way that the Indra’s Net unifies both Hinduism and Buddhism, and in a very real sense, Buddhism is an offshoot of Vedic teachings.

The teaching of oneness and unity in diversity can also be found in other cultures. For example, Native American religions teach that humankind and other animals are relatives. Thus, the Indra’s Net has the potential of becoming the grand unifier of different religions and spiritualities. Rajiv Malhotra thinks, however, that the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are a little different, because God is considered as a separate entity in these other religions. I disagree with Mr. Malhotra on this point. The notion of foundational oneness is also present in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As a matter of fact, Judaism considers “God is one” is one of the most important, if not the most important teaching. In Deuteronomy, for example, it is said, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” In Islam, there is also the teaching of Tawhid, another expression for the oneness of God.

But what about Christianity? Our Christian friends may think that there is nothing close to the teaching of cosmic oneness in the teachings of Jesus. But let us not draw any hasty conclusion. In the Gospel of Matthew, there is a story about the cosmic, ubiquitous Christ who takes the form of the poor, the hungry and the downtrodden. He appears in the form of the needy in order to test the righteousness of people:

Then the King will tell them on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you took me in; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’ The King will answer them, ‘Most assuredly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matt 25: 34–40)

The teaching of oneness can be found in all major religions. Because of this fundamental oneness, we ought to practice universal love. It seems, therefore, that the Indra’s Net can serve as the grand unifier of all faiths.

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