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Indra's Pearl Necklace

Indra's Pearl Necklace and Other Metaphors for Divinity


One of history's greatest metaphors, from Mahayana Buddhism, that represents the interconnectedness of all things.

Humans have always looked for a way to represent the divine—or that mysterious unity in all things in the universe. Not an easy task considering that linguistic signs are our main tools for representing something. How can a few words depict the immensurability of the cosmos? In “The Aleph”, Jorge Luis Borges confronted this dilemma. He confessed his incapacity to describe his vision of the universe fixed onto one holographic point (a one-inch sphere): “What my eyes saw was simultaneous: what I shall write is successive because language is successive.”

Mystics of all eras have faced this same problem while seeking to share a vision of eternity. Penetrating the ineffable they searched for a way of transmitting what they had learned in their spiritual exploration. Ordinary language has evidently never been up to the job. In any case, making use of poetic language is necessary, for it is capable of conjuring distant images and symbolizing complex concepts. Many metaphors have been used in an attempt to create analogies for the universe. Borges cites a few:

To signify divinity, a Persian speaks of a bird that in some way is every bird; Alain de Lille speaks of a sphere whose middle is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere; Ezequiel speaks of an angel with four faces that simultaneously looks East, West, North and South.

To this illustrious list we should add “Indras’ Pearl Necklace” (also known as Indra’s net). This Mahayana Buddhist metaphor was developed in the Avatamsaka Sutra in the third century to signify the interconnection between all the things in the universe. It is an extrapolation of the concept of Pratītyasamutpāda, which makes reference to all the phenomena that emerges together at the same time in an interdependent web of cause and effect.

Francis Harold Cook explains this miraculous metaphysical necklace in his book, Hua Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra:

Far away, in the celestial mansion of the great god Indra, there is a fabulous net which was woven and hung by a cunning craftsman in such away that it extends infinitely in every direction. To appease the extravagant tastes of the deity, the craftsman placed a shining jewel in every one of the net’s holes. Because the net is infinite, the jewels are infinite. The jewels hang in the net like shining stars: a fantastic image to behold. If one were to arbitrarily pick one of these jewels and closely inspect it, they would discover that upon its shining surface are reflected all of the other jewels hanging on the net, infinite in number. Each of the reflected jewels then reflecting each of the other jewels, and so there appears an infinite number of reflected reflections.

The British philosopher and Zen Buddhism scholar Alan Watts poetically imagines Indra’s net:

Imagine an early morning spiderweb covered in dew. In each dew-drop is the reflection of every other drop and in each reflected drop the reflection of every other reflected drop. And on and on, infinitely so. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in one image.

In his text, “Shards of Diamond Matrix”, Erik Davis uses this metaphor to describe the digital age. The Internet is Indra’s bejeweled net (as well as Pierre Theilhard de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere). Davis reimagines the net as an “interrelated monadology in which each singular unit reflects and embodies a boundless totality.”

Indra’s Pearl Necklace is not only an image of a mirror-universe of infinite, indivisible branches; it also encompasses the concept of karma in its concatenation of causes and effects (the jewel’s reflections). ––A vertiginous, stunning interconnection: each act affects every other act; each instant is tied to every other instant since the beginning of the universe. A metaphor –or an emblem– like the pearl necklace or Borges’ Aleph, not only simplifies a complicated metaphysical concept, but for a moment it suspends the limitation of successive language and conjures a vision of totality.

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