Indra’s Web — a pearl of an idea about the alchemy of change

All too often when we think about working for social change, working for social justice and human rights, we are confronted with the disillusioning question, “what difference will this make?”

There are a number of relevant responses to the opening sentence. First, thinking too much can cause problems. The alchemy of social change for justice is in fact grounded in action.  There is a place for thought and analysis for sure, but thought and analysis need to be balanced with compassion (and care) and action.  Maybe one of the most poignant responses to the temptation to disillusionment fostered by the question “what difference will this make?” is the quote attributed to the Dalai Lama: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”  Size doesn’t matter at much as dedicated intention! And, of course there is the butterfly effect of chaos theory which posits that a small change at one place (in a non linear system) can result in large differences in a larger state. The butterfly effect is wonderfully consistent with alchemical transformation! And, then there is the story (you knew there had to be a story coming at some point!) of Indra’s web.

In Hindu mythology, Indra is a warrior god, the king of the gods, who is credited with saving the world from the cosmic serpent. Indra is also credited with weaving a web that extends throughout all of space and time. It is said that when Indra created the world he wove it as a web, and at each of the points where the lines of the web cross, Indra tied a knot and in each knot he placed a radiant jewel. Some say the jewel is a pearl, some say it is a perfect crystal, today we might say the jewel is a holograph.

Everything that has existed, that exists now and that ever will exist, each and every idea, each bit of creation, each sentient being, all are jewels in Indra’s web. Each jewel is tied to every other jewel in Indra’s web, each is reflected in every other jewel, each is implied in every other jewel. Each jewel reflects and contains every other jewel in this cosmic matrix, so that each jewel is intrinsically and intimately connected to every other jewel – a change in one is reflected in all the others, in every other. (you might want to pause here and think about the range of meanings of ‘reflected in’). 

Alan Watts tells the story this way: “Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so on, ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.”

Every jewel represents an individual life form, atom, cell or unit of consciousness. Each and every jewel highlights the interdependence of all beings, of all of creation. And, because everything is interdependent, nothing is small, trivial, or inconsequential. 

One moral to take from Indra’s web is that you cannot damage one strand of the web that is the universe without damaging the others or setting off a cascade effect of destruction. And by the same token the interdependence of all highlights that the compassionate and the constructive interventions a person makes or does can also produce a ripple effect of beneficial action.  Action, dedicated intention, the butter fly effect and Indra’s web – all reflecting the interdependence of all life, we are all inter-dependent on each other, it ALL matters. (so, I guess the hokey pokey is NOT what it’s all about, or is it?)

The metaphor of Indra’s Jeweled web is Attributed to an ancient Buddhist named Tu-Shun (557-640 A.D.). Fritjof Capra refers to it in Tao of physics: an exploration of the parallels between modern physics and Eastern mysticism, as does Douglas Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach; andTimothy Brook in Vermeer’s Hat.

Any thoughts about Indra’s web and our places in it? Your place in it? We are our brothers/sisters keepers … we are reflections of each other … whatever happens to anyone of us happens to all of us … in Bantu, ‘ubuntu’ — I am because you are … and the circle, which is a web, goes one …


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