Friday, June 17, 2005

We Are All Jewels in the Net of Indra

I have a love of theory. And rarely the time to indulge this love. Which makes me a pretty sloppy theorist. I’m reminded of a Saturday Night Live Christmas sketch in which John Belushi leads a dishevelled group of carollers in a comically pathetic attempt to sing the familiar and ubiquitous (every December) songs. Each carol is launched with gusto but none gets beyond a few lines of their first verse before devolving into embarrassed muttered “la-la-la’s”. So it is, often, with me and theory. I admire the elegant contours and crave the time to examine them more closely. For there are riches to be had that often leave me in awe. For instance, I find in post-structural and post-modern theory a wonderful wrestling with the complexity of human identity—how we understand ourselves, what we think that we are. And I’ve always found there to be a peculiar resonance between post-structuralism and Buddhism (and Buddhism has a couple of thousand year head start, to boot).

I am currently reading Robert Thurman’s new book The Jewel Tree of Tibet: The Enlightenment Engine of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a practical course in enlightenment, though I think I’m failing. I’m feeling kinda dim this week. Alas. Good reading though. I always feel, when reading books about Buddhism, that I can almost see (perhaps hear) that world of spiritual enlightenment of which they write. Thurman instructs that you are supposed to visualize this remarkable Jewel Tree, wonderfully crowded with mentor spirits all there to help you become enlightened. That’s an awful lot of help. It’s a lovely book that I recommend – written in lucid and plain language.

In my wanderings through Buddhist literature I came across another jewel image: a 2000-year-old description that strikes me as quintessentially modern when I think about each jewel representing a living being.

From the Avatamsaka Sutra

Far away in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net that has been hung by some cunning artificer in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions. In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the artificer has hung a single glittering jewel in each "eye" of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in all dimensions, the jewels are infinite in number. There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. 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.

(Francis H. Cook, Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra, University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977, p. 2.)

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