The Net of Indra (or What does the Big Oil Slick in the Gulf or Vanishing Polar Bears in the Arctic Have to do with Me?)
“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 ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.” – Alan Watts
As we go about our daily routine, 20,000 to 40,000 barrels of crude oil are spilling from a disabled oil platform into the once pristine waters of the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.
The oil slick is so enormous it can be seen from space. In other news we learn that polar bears, once numbering in the thousands in Canada’s arctic are rapidly disappearing and may be gone entirely within 30 years.
These seemingly unrelated incidents demonstrate not only the fragility of the world’s ecosystems, but the reach and depth we, as human beings, have upon the only home we own – this pale blue dot, somewhere out on the edge of the vast and unspoiled universe – the planet earth.
We live in a world of complex interdependencies, where the smallest movement can have enormous consequences. A butterfly flutters its tiny wings in an ancient rainforest in Tasmania and on the other side of the world the ocean currents give rise to the whorl of a tropical cyclone. A slight rise in ocean temperature caused global warming and by our dependence on fossil fuels can have disastrous consequences for wildlife in the Arctic. This rise in ocean temperatures cause the ice floes which support the seal population on which the polar bears depend for food to disappear and so too, the polar bears. Our thirst for fuel to drive our cars has resulted in the expansion of oil exploration into fragile ecosystems and to the development of massive offshore drilling platforms that we now realize conceal enormous risks. and consequences that have proven to be catastrophic. The damage to wildlife and the ocean habitat from this single oil spill is unimaginable and we will have to live with these negative impacts for many, many years to come.
In light of what we know about the irremediable damage we are causing to the environment (global warming, air and water pollution, destruction of ecosystems) we would be prudent to re- examine our relationship to the world in which we live. It should, by now, be clear, that our anthropocentric view of the environment (that the world is here only to serve human purposes) is dangerous, wrong-headed and ultimately self-destructive.
The Net of Indra is a Buddhist metaphor that seeks to communicate, in the wonderful image of an infinite net that encompasses the whole universe how everything effects and is affected by every other thing. Nothing is left untouched.
Arne Naess, the father of deep ecology (an ecological philosophy, influenced heavily by Buddhist and Taoist thinking), expresses the deep relationship between ourselves and our environment and asks us to consider the needs of the earth first — to see ourselves as an integral part of the greater whole.
“Care flows naturally if the ‘self’ is widened and deepened so that protection of free Nature is felt and conceived as protection of ourselves … Just as we need no morals to make us breathe … [so] if your ‘self’ in the wide sense embraces another being, you need no moral exhortation to show care … You care for yourself without feeling any moral pressure to do it …”
If reality is like it is experienced by the ecological self, our behaviour naturally and beautifully follows norms of strict environmental ethics.” According to Naess, we need to embrace the earth and to show it the same care and loving attention we want and expect for ourselves. Camped out in Death Valley, California, during 1984, George Sessions and Arne Naess draw up eight basic principles that describe deep ecology:
1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves. These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
2. Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
4. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life demands such a decrease.
5. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
6. Policies must therefore be changed. These policies affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.
7. The ideological change is mainly in appreciating life quality rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.
8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to try to implement the necessary change.
Deep ecology suggests that we can only improve our relationship with our environment by getting that relationship right – by understanding that we are not masters of nature, but co-existent with it, that our relationship is not one of hierarchy, but of interdependence.
What can we do to ensure that we are acting in a way that is consonant with our environment? Interestingly, according to the deep ecology model, adjusting our consciousness is as important as adjusting our behaviour. In addition to minimizing our environmental footprint and advocating for political changes necessary to create a sustainable world, we need to `listen’ to what the earth is telling us. In order to conserve energy, we need to both turn off the lights and listen to our natural rhythms and rise with the sun.
Clark Strand has written on the practice of what he has termed “Green Meditation”:
“Green Meditation tells us that all theology (interpreted broadly to include any religious teaching) is ecology. Where it isn’t, theology has gone astray. Nature is never wrong.”
In an article in Tricycle Magazine (Spring, 2010) he introduces a Green Meditation retreat in which he asks us to turn out our artificial lights and tune in to the rhythms of natural darkness and light. The retreat is an exercise in listening to nature rather than trying to impose our will and artificial structure upon it.
“The time has come to rethink our relationship to darkness and all that it portends – myths, dreams, fantasies, doubts, uncertainties, and especially the bottomless well of sleep. That is what Green Meditation is for. Green Meditation recovers the balance that humanity has lost in its relationship to nature. Green Meditation is the recovery of the dark.”
The impressionist painter, Henri Matisse put it this way:
“When we speak of Nature it is wrong to forget that we are ourselves a part of Nature. We ought to view ourselves with the same curiosity and openness with which we study a tree, the sky or a thought, because we too are linked to the entire universe.”
The Net of Indra poses an alternative view to our human-centred model. It allows us to see our place in a universe in which we are an integral but not a dominant part. It allows us to understand how deeply interdependent we are and how each of our actions can have enormous positive and negative effects. Above all, it provides us with a model of consciousness that is larger than ourselves, wholistic in nature, complex and utterly beautiful. It is also the means to the survival of our planet and ultimately our own place in it.
Joanna Macy writes:
“I consider that this shift [to an emphasis on our “capacity to identify with the larger collective of all beings” ] is essential to our survival at this point in history precisely because it can serve in lieu of morality and because moralising is ineffective. Sermons seldom hinder us from pursuing our self-interest, so we need to be a little more enlightened about what our self-interest is. It would not occur to me, for example, to exhort you to refrain from cutting off your leg. That wouldn’t occur to me or to you, because your leg is part of you. Well, so are the trees in the Amazon Basin; they are our external lungs. We are just beginning to wake up to that. We are gradually discovering that we are our world.”
Miles Murphy works in the field of learning and professional development. An independent scholar, he has a wide range of interests including the humanities of East and West. He is a devotee of Buddhism and a t’ai chi ch’uan enthusiast. His poetry and other writings endeavour to poke about in the rich soil and empty sky of the human condition. Miles can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article cannot be re-published without permission.