Despite appearances, everything is the same. This is the major idea behind Hua-yen Buddhism, a form of Chinese Buddhism that focuses on metaphysics, namely, the nature of the universe and what exists within it. In the Hua-yen world-view, everything is part of an interrelated “jeweled net” (called Indra’s net) with each jewel in the net being identical. So too is everything said to be “empty,” which is what today’s quote focuses on:

From Francis Cook’s Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (1977):
“Things can only exist because they are empty…emptiness cannot exist apart from entities, since emptiness is a relationship between entities: they create each other, are thoroughly interfused, and in fact are one and the same things.”

Before we get into emptiness, let’s look at what Indra’s net is. A good description of Indra’s net comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra, an important text to Hua-yen philosophy that describes the universe and the various Buddhas and bodhisattvas within it:

“Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions…the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each ‘eye’ of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars…If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is also reflecting all the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.”

This is an analogy of the universe, with each jewel being an object in the universe, anything from an atom to a cat to a planet. Now, composite objects are made of many different jewels in the net, but the net can be seen as a fractal with each object as either a single jewel or a collection of jewels: the same results will apply. Each of these entities in the net is called a dharma (a Hindu term that has many meanings, but in Hua-yen it means a specific entity: a fancy way to say a “thing”), and so the universe is nothing but interrelated dharmas. One of the primary purposes of Hua-yen is to discover just what dharmas are and how they are related to each other, which is similar to the task of modern scientists who search for the ultimate constituents of reality in quantum mechanics and particle physics.

Indra’s net demonstrates the concept of emptiness: there is no source that creates the jewels, but all just reflect each other. Cook says, “Existence means that the object exists as a result of conditions; emptiness refers to the fact that what exists in dependence on conditions has no ultimate being in and of itself.” Nothing has a real essence: if it did, it would be unable to change. Existence, then, only derives from interdependence, those countless related dharmas forming Indra’s net, the “conditions” of its existence. This is called interdependent origination. It may sound like a contradiction, but as seen from the quote above, existence just is emptiness. Later on, Cook says, “What is called emptiness from one point of view is called existence from the other.” Indeed, the Buddhist concept of emptiness is not a “thing” or an absence of something, but is rather the interdependent relationship among entities. And since all things are defined by their relationships to all other things, they are necessarily empty.

An analogy used in Francis Cook’s book, which he quoted from Fa-tsang (Fa-tsang is one of Hua-yen’s primary founders from the seventh century), is that of a barn. Barns are made of rafters, shingles, nails, etc., and each part plays an important role in the formation of the whole. Yet outside its place in the barn, the concept of each part existing alone is meaningless: a rafter does not become a rafter unless it exists within the context of the barn: otherwise it is just a piece of wood. It becomes a rafter when it is seen in relation to all the other parts of the barn. Likewise with a shingle, a nail, and so on. Moreover, the barn will not exist if it were not for the parts that comprise it. The whole derives its existence from its parts, but so too do the parts derive their existence from the whole. Neither has an independent existence. If you were to change the parts, you may still make an object like a barn, but the point is that it will not be the same barn that you had before.

Thus, all parts of the barn derive their essence from the fact that they are parts of a whole, and the barn derives its existence from the relationships between its parts. If there were no tiles and shingles, the rafter wouldn’t be a rafter, because it wouldn’t be part of a barn, and likewise with every other part. Since a rafter is a condition for the building, if there is no rafter, there will be no building, but at the same time, if there was no building, it would not be a rafter. And the rafter totally causes the building, as Fa-tsang says: “If [the rafter] does not wholly create [the building], then when the one rafter is removed, the whole building should remain. However, since the total building is not formed then you should understand that the building is not formed by the partial power [of a condition such as the rafter] but by its total power.” So any individual dharma can be seen as possessing total power in creating the whole, a notion that certainly takes some thinking about, since it is quite far removed to how we normally think of parts and the whole that they create.

But Hua-yen goes further to say that each part is identical. The shingle and the rafter share the same power in creating the barn, and moreover, they each have total power in creating the barn: “the part exerts total power in the formation of a particular whole.” How could this be? Well, imagine that you intend to make that barn and have almost everything in place except for one plank of wood to function as a rafter. When you put that wood in, the barn is formed. Hence, the rafter can be seen as creating the barn, having complete power over its existence, as well as the existence of all other parts that form the barn (since if there was no barn, the shingles wouldn’t be shingles, etc.). Take away a rafter, and you no longer have the barn.

Now do the same thing with a nail: the last nail to form the barn has total power in creating it and the other parts of the barn. Take it away, and it is no longer the barn you began with. If you imagine performing this thought experiment with all other parts of the barn, you can see that they each have total power in creating the barn, and so without all these parts, you would not have the whole. This is the identical essence of every part: from the point of view of each being a cause, they each have total power. At the same time, they are different because they are each results of every other part when it is seen as a cause. It is just a shift in point of view: each dharma can be seen as being a case or an effect, and neither view is more correct than the other.

Of course, you could think that making small changes to the barn or replacing, for example, one rafter with another wouldn’t change the scheme of the barn. But it isn’t the same barn anymore. Yes, it is a barn, but not the one you had before. Though bear in mind that this makes more sense with respect to the universe as a whole and the dharmas that comprise it.

Indeed, the analogy of the barn can be applied to the entire universe of dharmas. The same relationships that hold between the parts of a barn also holds between, for example, the parts of a human being, the galaxy, or the universe as a whole. Each dharma has no independent existence and is empty. What we see as differences are only illusory differences of outer form, what Fa-tsang calls “quasi-existence,” because objects are actually identical and empty. All dharmas are identical because they are empty of independent existence. Each is also a cause of all the others, for, taking a single dharma, it can be seen as creating all other dharmas, and if you shift your point of view, the same is true for all other dharmas. If each dharma can create all of reality, then all dharmas must be identical.

Yet at the same time, they are also different because they have different functions in the grand scheme of things. Think of the rafter and the nail in the barn again: although each has no existence in and of itself, needing a host of supporting conditions to define it, they each play a particular role in the creation of the barn. As Cook says, “The whole which is included in the part is already a whole which includes the part, so that the interpenetration of dharma and dharma is repeated over and over, infinitely.” These are the infinitely reflecting jewels in Indra’s net that are both causes and effects: seen as causes, they are identical and contain the power to create all other dharmas, but seen as effects, they are different and interrelated with all the other causes that each have a different function in the creation of the whole.

This is all hard to grasp, and it’s no wonder there are so many books written about this. Another analogy that Cook uses might make the concept of interdependent origination clearer: the idea of a father and son. A father is only a father if he has his son, but a son is only a son if he has his father. These two terms come into existence simultaneously, and can be said to “create” each other. From one point of view, the father creates the son, and in doing so, becomes a father. But from another point of view, the son creates the father (not the human being who is his father, but the fact that he is a father), and in doing so, becomes a son.

Normally, we think of a cause in terms of time: an event x occurs at time 1, which causes an event y at time 2. But in the net of Indra, since each object can be seen as either a cause or effect, it doesn’t make sense to say that one comes before the other. Cause is rather an expression of the interdependent nature of the universe. There are thus two notions of time here: first is the regular “vertical” time that goes nice and orderly from past, to present, to future, and then there is a “horizontal” time that expresses the interrelationships between all dharmas that exist at any slice in vertical time. This is the idea that everything is both a cause and effect of everything else, something that only makes sense when looking at a single slice of vertical time: it’s as if you transcend the three-dimensional reality to four dimensions (with the fourth dimension being time) and are able to move in two directions of time rather than one, just as you can move back and forth in any of the three dimensions of space.

Although the true nature of things as interdependent and essencelessness seems devoid from the reality we live in, if are able to understand this, it helps us realize that the things we think of as ‘bad’ that cause us anxiety and fear such as death, sickness, and pain are just part of the whole and are really no different to what we think of as ‘good.’ Indeed, “It is this very picking and choosing which brings back upon ourselves anxiety, fear, and turmoil, for by dividing up the one unitary existence into two parts, the good and the bad, we distort the reality which is the one unitary existence…To see things in a totalistic perspective means to transcend a small, pathetic subjectivity and see all the pernicious, vexing contraries harmonized within the whole.” In essence, all dharmas are identical in being empty. The Buddhist and Taoist goal of enlightenment is to return to naturalness and transcend our perceptions of good and bad, existence and non-existence, real and unreal. Everything has its place within the net of Indra, and no matter how small any one dharma may appear, without it, the whole would be different. Think of what the Doctor said: In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”

This view can help bring more tranquility and acceptance into our lives, and is remarkably similar to views held by Stoic philosophers. It’s not about giving yourself up to “Fate,” but about not getting trodden down by it, because although we find ourselves in this vast net of inter-causality, that doesn’t mean that we are only controlled by countless other things, but that we too can control them. It goes both ways, for everything is equally important. There isn’t a single destiny that everything is heading toward, but the vast collection of dharmas are evolving together, constantly shifting and recreating themselves.

And lastly, the Buddhist principle of acting compassionately toward all beings follows from the Hua-yen vision of the universe. If all things are interconnected and essentially the same, there is no real distinction between you and others: not just other people and living things, but everything that exists. To help others, then, is to benefit the whole, which includes yourself. The work of the bodhisattva is to help all beings who are all linked in this shared destiny. To act merely out of “self-interest” is to be ignorant of the fact that there are no distinct selves. And so, as Cook says, “To act compassionately is to act in accordance with reality,” a view that naturally arises out of studying the universe of Hua-yen Buddhism, the net of Indra of all the jewels of objects in creation.

"A Soul Wanderer never knows. He wanders; he makes his own path through the
heights of the universe."

-Sio Larwick

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