Alex Owens | Lancaster University
"History is just one f**king thing after another."
Alan Bennet, The History Boys
This provocative quote from Alan Bennett portrays history as one event followed by another, operating in a linear fashion. But what happens if we view time as functioning in a different way and adopt a different method of thinking? What happens to our concept of history if we begin to understand time as cyclical, or perhaps, even, that everything happens in a single instant? If we can question the notion of time itself as an objective truth, and look at some examples that define time in a very different way, then this can open up a very interesting discussion about innate characteristics of the historical project. We all know that common trope that “history is written by the victors”, but I also think it is important to bear in mind that our very understanding of what we mean by the term “history” has also been shaped by those same “victors”. For example, in the 1800s, it was not Buddhists from traditional countries who formed European conceptions of Buddhism, but European scholars with a focus on Buddhist texts. The result of this was a warped perception in Europe of what Buddhism actually was. In the most extreme cases, these scholars saw Buddhists as living out some shadow of their former tradition! The very process by which Europe and other western countries continue to see Buddhism has been impacted by this phenomenon, and many scholars, in light of Edward Said’s Orientalism, are working hard to unpick certain conceptions of the tradition that contain orientalist undertones. However, I think one area that is overlooked is that time itself is a subjective term and perhaps we should reimagine how we study the history of non-western cultures - using their own understandings of time as a reference.
In order to open up a discussion about alternative notions of time, I am going to introduce you to the metaphor of Indra’s Net. Indra’s Net first appeared in India between 1200-900 BCE in part of a group of texts known as the Vedas. The first literary appearance was in the Atharva Veda and was characterised as a weapon wielded by Indra, king of the gods, against his enemies. Yet, with the emergence of Buddhism, Indra became portrayed as a trickster as well as king. With this development, his net became associated with the web of saṃsāra and was often depicted as a snare in which, we, as human beings, are trapped. However, as Buddhism began to develop into distinct schools of thought, particularly around the turn of the common era, Indra’s Net became associated with the interconnected world perceived by an enlightened being. This understanding of the metaphor then spread across Asia, through its inclusion in the Avataṃsaka Sūtra. During this transmission, the metaphor became incorporated into Chinese forms of Buddhism, such as the Huayan school, and Japanese traditions such as Shingon and Zen. Today, Indra’s Net is used predominantly by thinkers who seek to merge to metaphor with ideas of popular science and environmentalism. These writers often focus on portrayals of Indra’s Net as a metaphor for interconnectivity to do this.
In this article, I will first present a characterisation of how Indra’s Net is generally understood today, before looking at accounts of Indra’s Net, particularly from the Avataṃsaka Sūtra and the Huayan school. These portrayals, which view time very differently to how we perceive it today, open up some interesting lines of enquiry for our own historical research. While this article is more of a thought exercise than a complete methodology, my hope is that this example can be used as a way of reconsidering your own position, and begin to question some of the key assumptions of the academic field of history.
When delving into research about Indra’s Net, Francis Cook’s account from the 1970s crops up time and time again. He explains:
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. 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 dimension, the jewels are infinite in number… If we now arbitrarily select one of the jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there reflect all 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 other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.
In this extract we see that, for Cook, it is the reflections that occur between the jewels of Indra’s Net that are the most significant aspect of the metaphor. Many contemporary writers have been influenced by this image and characterised the jewels of Indra’s Net as either us humans or aspects of the world around us. The result of this is the metaphor being used in both scientific and environmentalist debates today. The reader might see many similarities here between this understanding of Indra’s Net and the “butterfly effect”. The butterfly effect being the idea that, because everything on our planet is intricately linked, if a butterfly were to flap its wings on one side of the world it would cause a tornado on the other side.
However, in examining the Avataṃsaka Sūtra, we see a different characterisation of the metaphor. The English translation of this Sūtra spans one-thousand-six-hundred pages and has gone on to influence many of the most prominent schools of Buddhism across East Asia. This text is believed to have been written as a way of unpacking the story of Sudhana, the protagonist of the final book, the Gaṇḍavyūha. This Sūtra begins with the bodhisattvas (buddhas-to-be) Mañjuśrī, Samantabhadra, and five thousand other enlightened beings, at a Jeta grove in the garden of Anathapindada near Sravasti (modern-day Uttar Pradesh). In this Jeta grove, sat Vairocana, the cosmic Buddha, who, using his meditative powers, presents his attendees with an infinite amount of immutable worlds in the form of a fantastic collective vision:
Then the Buddha, knowing what the enlightened beings were thinking, entered the concentration known as “the coming forth of the lion”… As soon as the Buddha had entered this concentration, the magnificent pavilion became boundlessly vast: the surface of the earth appeared to be made of indestructible diamond, the surface of the ground covered with a net of all the finest jewels, strewn with flowers of many jewels, … it was adorned with sapphire pillars… a dazzling array of turrets, arches, chambers, windows, and balconies, made of all kinds of precious stones.
This passage depicts the moment of enlightenment experienced by Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha as we know him today), as a manifestation of the cosmic Buddha, to alter reality itself around his enlightenment site in order to show the world as it truly is. The Sūtra then explains that, upon receiving the Vairocana’s teaching, Mañjuśrī left to visit the human realm. It is here that the bodhisattva meets a young merchant’s son Sudhana (translated as “good wealth”), who becomes the hero of the Gaṇḍavyūha quest narrative. His story is a journey exploring how one attains enlightenment.
In order to achieve this state, the Sudhana narrative follows the young hero on his quest to meet fifty-two kalyānamitras (good friends). Each of these kalyānamitras demonstrate a different perception of reality to Sudhana. He talks to young children, monks, royalty, and even courtesans. By understanding each of their perspectives, Sudhana eventually attains samanta, the ability to see from all sides. Having achieved samanta, the Gaṇḍavyūha explains that Sudhana meets the final kalyānamitra on his quest, the bodhisattva Samantabhadra. During this encounter:
Just as Samantabhadra lay his hand on Sudhana’s head here, so did each Samantabhadra before every Buddha in every atom of every world in the ten directions also lay his hand on Sudhana’s head, and Sudhana attained the same spiritual experience.
This experience, for Sudhana and the reader, is the full realisation of the Sūtra. From this perspective, Sudhana sees himself, in the present, as the culmination and stimulus for the entire universe, past, present and future. He now stands as both the beginning and the end of reality within his own Buddha-field.
It is this notion, that past, present and future can all collapse into a single instant, that allows us to question what preconceived notions we must have about time and critique Bennett’s statement at the beginning of this article. If we understand the world from an enlightened perspective, then it is not just our world and ecosystems that are represented by Indra’s Net, but the whole of reality. This means that we can begin to see how the events of the past have shaped our present, but perhaps more interestingly, that the future is also impacting us today.
The metaphor of Indra’s Net was later elaborated upon in the sixth to ninth centuries in China by a lineage of patriarchs from the Huayan school of Buddhism. They suggested that each jewel in the net informs the whole net through its reflective quality. Therefore, if we were to remove a specific jewel, the reflections in the entire net would alter. Each jewel is made up of the reflections it receives from the other jewels that surround it, whilst simultaneously impacting on those jewels with its own reflections. This leads to an understanding of the relationship between the “part” and the “total.”
In order to explain this, both Zhiyan (602-668 CE) and Fazang (643-712 CE) presented the metaphor of a barn and a rafter. Both explained that a rafter would cease to have the identity of a rafter if it was outside of the barn. It is its inclusion in the whole that causes its identity. Similarly, the barn, as the embodiment of the whole, is reliant on each individual aspect that constructs it, such as the rafter, in order for it to be that barn. Therefore, if one part of the barn was missing, the entire structure would cease to be the same. This metaphor demonstrates the importance of the links between the parts and the total. Without each other, each would cease to be.
There are many parallels between the barn and rafter metaphor and the Huayan characterisation of Indra’s Net. In the same way that the barn and the rafter lie in relation to one another, so to do the jewels of Indra’s Net. It is the jewels’ inclusion in the whole that characterises them, but simultaneously, those same jewels construct the very whole that is giving them their identity. Steve Odin states that this is a symmetrical system where each jewel receives causal influence not only from its predecessors, but from its contemporaries and successors as well, so that all events- past, present and future alike- interpenetrate harmoniously together into a single thought-instant without any obstruction or hindrance whatsoever.
The summation of past, present and future can be found in Fazang’s Treatise on the Golden Lion, when he writes:
The lion is a dharma produced from causes, coming into existence and going out of existence at every moment. Each of these instants is divided into three periods, that is, past, present, and future. Altogether there are three times three units thus forming nine ages, and these, grouped together, become the total gate [to truth]. Although there are nine ages, each separate from one another, yet, since they are formed because of one another, they are harmoniously merged and mutually penetrated without obstacle and together constitute one instant of time.
Fazang’s understanding of the nine aspects of time culminating in the tenth, the single instant, demonstrates that each jewel of Indra’s Net has an effect on each other aspect of reality. We can see the inspiration for this understanding of the part and the total in the Gaṇḍavyūha. For instance, when Sudhana visits the night goddess Prashantarutasagaravati, she explains that she has entered a state where: ‘all things are to be completely known by the nature of things as being one characteristic at all times, while yet manifest in a variety as all things.’ In this example, the relationship between the part and the total is not hindered by the classic distinction of time, as each individual event folds into a singular point of reality. However, this singular point of reality cannot exist without each event in order for it to be that reality.
The notion of time, once enlightenment is obtained, was further explored by Zhiyan. He wrote:
Past eons enter the future, the present eon enters the past, future eons enter the present… the past is the future, the future is the past, the present is the past- bodhisattvas comprehend all.
In order to explain how all of these time frames occur simultaneously, whilst also maintaining their distinct successive nature, Zhiyan used the example of a hand. He suggested that, although containing distinct fingers, a hand may be clenched together to form a fist without altering the nature of each individual digit. Each dharma jewel reflects each other jewel, and this relationship is not constrained by the classic linear model of time. When Indra’s Net was later adopted by Ch’an Buddhism, this process became understood as bidirectional flow.
To explain this more clearly, I will return to the barn and rafter metaphor briefly. The barn and the rafter contain one another. They influence one another because without the barn, the rafter cannot be a rafter. Similarly, without the rafter, the barn would cease to be that barn. Therefore, both the barn and the rafter simultaneously exist and do not exist. The fact that they construct one another means that they each require their own identity in order to be able to construct one another. Because all of the relationships in Indra’s Net occur in a single instant, it is impossible to distinguish a cause and effect, because everything arises simultaneously.
Examining Sudhana’s story in the Gaṇḍavyūha and Indra’s Net in the Huayan school may seem far removed from a present-day European conception of time, and therefore we may ask, to what extent does this really impact on our current understanding of history? However, I think it is a perfect example as it demonstrates how, if we alter our perception of a given situation, then we may come to vastly different understandings. Similarly, although this may be considered an “extreme” account of a different conception of time, when looking at other Asian traditions beyond the Avataṃsaka, we see that across Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain traditions that time is not seen as a straight line, but as cyclical. This reveals that the notion that time moves forward in a linear fashion is perhaps not as secure as we first thought. This means that a linear notion of time should not be taken for granted, particularly in our study of the history of other cultures outside of a European context. Our brief exploration of Indra’s Net problematises the foundations of our concept of time. I feel that being aware that different cultures, religions, and traditions operate with different understandings of time allows us to engage more sensitively with historical material from these traditions.
The notion of starting in the present, and working back through time, suggests an underlying assumption that time simply moves forward. Yet, by taking an example like Sudhana’s story, and the result of him seeing the universe as Indra’s Net, we can begin to break down the model of time we often set as default today and analyse what events in history have influenced the development of the notion of time itself. What were the continuities and discontinuities of time’s path on its way to our understanding today? Who were its victors? What ideas have been lost? I think before beginning a historical enquiry, particularly when dealing with subjects where orientalism is perhaps still prominent, being aware of the baggage the notion of history itself contains, in particular, its notion of time, is a worthwhile venture in order to be able to engage with the subject matter more sensitively.
Overall, I think at least considering alternative notions of time, such as those present in the Sudhana narrative and through the metaphor of Indra’s Net, allows us to at begin to destabilise taken for granted truths and be playful enough to reply to Bennett: “You’re wrong! History is not just one f***ing thing after another, but is everything happening at the same f***ing time!” Examples such as Indra’s Net demonstrate that we should be more sensitive when dealing with material from outside our own context as we conduct our own research. Taking ideas like this seriously aids in problematising our often-subconscious assumptions and opens up a line of enquiry into the very notion historical research is built upon: time.
Cleary, T., (trans.)The Flower Ornament Scripture: The Avataṃsaka Sūtra (Shambhala publications, Colorado, 1984)
Cook, F, H., Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (Pennsylvania State University Press, USA, 1977)
Fields, R., How the Swans came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America (Shambhala, Boston & London, 1992)
McMahan, D., The Making of Buddhist Modernism (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2008)
Alex Owens has recently submitted his PhD thesis in Religious Studies at Lancaster University. His work focused on a genealogy of Indra’s Net spanning from present day environmental characterisations of the metaphor to its first literary appearance in the Vedas. He is now pursuing a career in higher education outreach and widening participation. Alex is interested in the emergence of Green Buddhism, Huayan Buddhism, and Buddhism’s transmission to the West, particularly Beat Zen.