Seeing Through the Web's Translucent Strands

Dependent Co-Arising and Emptiness in the Buddhist View of Reality

by Laura Strudwick 

Statue of Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, c. 900 CE, Brooklyn Museum

            What was the nature of Gautama Buddha’s cosmic vision during his meditation under the bodhi tree? Scholars and practitioners from all Buddhist schools have explored this mystery in depth and detail. Huston Smith summarizes the aspect of Buddha’s awakening that many agree became the central tenet of Buddhism, “During the third watch, Gautama saw what made the whole thing go:  the universal law of causal interdependence. He called it dependent arising, and later identified it as the very heart of his message” (10). Francis Cook describes the Buddha’s samādhi state of mind in which “the newly enlightened Buddha beheld the entire universe as one living organism of identical and interdependent parts. He beheld the ‘universal eye’ of the cosmos [. . .]. While he was still in this state of mind, he taught the truth of identity and interdependence” (73). In the deepest meditation, the Buddha reached a state of non-duality and, perhaps, omniscience; his vision and subsequent teaching of dependent co-arising and emptiness express the Buddhist view of the cosmos and reality, the concepts that comprise the wisdom of Buddhism. Just as there are myriad kinds of human minds, it is helpful to explore this concept in myriad ways:  in terms of practical applications; in a philosophical manner with respect to definitions of the concepts and their metaphysical implications; and with an imagistic eye, discovering visual symbols that illustrate the ideas.

            Ever practical, Buddhist traditions emphasize the coupling of wisdom with compassion (karuna), “the deep heartfelt wish that all sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes that give rise to suffering” (Mahaffey). The bodhisattva’s life goal is bodhichitta, loving and serving others in the world by helping to increase both wisdom and compassion. Often, this task involves the bodhisattva’s instruction of dependent arising and emptiness. Both Thich Nhat Hahn and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, arguably the most influential bodhisattvas in the world today, teach volumes about these concepts, but always return to a practical application to increase compassion. Wisdom leads to the “four loving abodes,” which are compassion, loving-kindness, empathetic joy, and empathy, in that a deep understanding of the interconnected reality helps one to release attachments and treat others well. “Wisdom, that is, the capacity to see things rightly, leads to compassion. Metaphysics leads to morality” (Foersthoel 49). Compassion is the practical application of the changed mindset that wisdom offers.

            In addition to human compassion, there are other practical applications of increasing one’s wisdom by studying dependent arising and emptiness, particularly in conjunction with the image of a web or net. I believe that the web is a relevant and poignant symbol for our time, particularly with the rise in awareness of our endangered environment. If humanity can absorb the interconnected and interdependent nature of reality, then we can treat both ourselves and the natural world as part of one web, rather than acting as if we are spiders spinning it. The recent film Avatar graphically expresses this world view. At the same time, quantum physics reveals a view of reality that is increasingly holographic and fractal, in contrast to the Newtonian deterministic perspective. As science and religion dance with each other, sometimes in parallel lines and sometimes perpendicularly, facing off, the similarities between Buddhist metaphysics and quantum mechanics imply a potential convergence that may help to heal what has become a painful Cartesian split between soul and mind. Further, the interconnected nature of global economics, the Internet, the space program, and social consciousness support the symbol of the web as a central image for the twenty-first century.

Image depicting interconnectivity of all life from 2009 film Avatar

            When I envision dependent arising and emptiness, I see the image of an infinite web in my mind, one similar to Indra’s Net, discussed below. In this web, translucent strands cross over and connect in a field of empty space. The translucence is real, but also illusory, shimmering in the air. Light shines through the strands, like the emptiness that pervades and connects all. The web is “full” of emptiness. One can focus on the strands, seeing the particular, physical plane, and one can also see the universal emptiness behind the strands, in effect, holding them up. One can also see how the strands and the space need each other to make the web; it is made up of both material and the spaces among the material. Finally, one can perceive how each strand needs the other strands that connect to the whole. One part alone does not make a web; each part is needed to make the whole. In this way, the web is dependent on both its parts and the emptiness undergirding it. This image corresponds to the Indian Mahayana and Chinese Hua-yen Buddhist views of the four-fold universe, the dharmadhatu.

            Emptiness (śūnyatā) and dependent co-arising (pratītyasamutpāda) are connected; the ideas coexist and cannot be separated. Nagarjuna, a second century monk, had a great influence on the early development of Mahayana Buddhism, the Great Vehicle; his philosophy is called Madhyamaka (Middle Way). He was the first to thoroughly develop this view of reality. He wrote, “Through what is emptiness known?/ It is known through seeing dependent-arising./ Buddha, the supreme knower of reality, said/ What is dependently produced is not inherently produced” (Dalai Lama, How to See 50). The Dalai Lama, who is highly influenced by Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka and also the Prajnaparamita Sutra on wisdom, clarifies the inter-reliance of the two concepts:  “For if something is fundamentally dependent, by logical necessity it must be devoid of having a nature that is independent of other phenomena, of existing independently. Thus it is said that anything that is dependently originated must also be, in actual fact, empty” (Ess. Writings 61). In the four-fold universe, there are two realms, the universal and the particular. The universal, or noumena, is found by looking within, while the particular is evident as the external world of phenomena. It is the universal realm and its interconnectedness with the particular realm that the Buddha envisioned under the bodhi tree. In my web image, the empty space represents the universal realm, while the web’s strands are the particular phenomena, what appears concrete in everyday life, such as people, objects, animals, and nature.

            Taigen Dan Leighton describes the third of the four aspects of reality as the nonobstructing interpenetration of the universal and particular realms, such that “[. . .] universal truth can only exist in the context of some particular situation. [. . .] Also, every particular context, when fully examined, completely expresses the total universal truth” (2). The two realms completely interact, without hindering the other. This is the codependency of emptiness and phenomena. Lastly, the fourth fold consists of the interdependence of particulars upon each other, that is, the way that each strand needs the other strands for support and functionality. This aspect is perhaps the most easily digested for laypeople, as it closely resembles today’s ecological model of an interdependent phenomenal world. Yeshe Tsogyal, the 8th century female Tibetan bodhisattva, sings a song to seven thieves. Her song includes instructions to them about how to live in this world of dependently arising things and emptiness:  “Do not cling to things as they appear,/ But let emptiness arise. [. . .] Do not cling to voidness,/ Let phenomena arise” (Changchub and Nyingpo 46- 47). She paints an image of a cosmic dance of interchanging opposites that are actually reconciled and non-dualistic, summarizing the philosophical teaching in poetry.

            This metaphysical system is at the heart of Buddhism in that its effects are far-reaching; this teaching is like a stone thrown into a still pond, causing ripples upon ripples. Three major implications of dependent co-arising and emptiness are the concept of anatta or no-self; the theme of the one and the many; and the idea of tathata or “suchness,” in contrast to  the concept of one source or creator deity.

            The doctrine of anatta is the negation of the Hindu atman, the spiritual self that retains its identity forever. “[The Buddha’s] denial of spiritual substance—the soul as homunculus, a ghostly wraith within the body that animates the body and outlasts it—appears to have been the chief point that distinguished his concept of transmigration from prevailing Hindu interpretations” (Smith and Novak 54-55). Buddhism is the only major religion, aside from Taoism, that denies a personal soul, a concept that most people in the Western world take for granted. In Old Path White Clouds, Thich Nhat Hahn’s retelling of the historical Buddha’s life, the Buddha uses an empty bowl to represent emptiness and no-self:  “Bhikkus, look deeply at this bowl, and you can see the entire universe. This bowl contains the entire universe. There is only one thing the bowl is empty of and that is a separate, individual self” (441). Because nothing can exist on its own, because everything depends on everything else, there is no separate self. “Empty means empty of self,” he reiterates (441). When Buddha teaches about dependent co-arising, he also refutes eternalism:  “[. . .] [A]ll things exist because of interdependence and all things cease to be because of interdependence. This is because that is. This is not because that is not. This is born because that is born. This dies because that dies. This is the wonderful law of dependent co-arising [. . .]. In truth, there is nothing which is separate and eternal” (Hahn, Old Path 172).

            Anatta demands the ultimate in non-attachment; it asks one to step out of the safe cocoon of individuality and the eternal life of one’s unique personality into what seems like a void. But the void is not nihilistic because it is filled with a constantly flowing dance of energy. One will not be alone because all is dependent on all; in fact, it might be quite crowded! Yeshe Tsogyal expresses the human need to search for oneself, “The truth is this:  that when you turn to look upon yourself,/ And see yourself,/ There’s nothing to be seen” (Changchub and Nyingpo 178). This concept is truly difficult to grasp; it is the opposite of one of our favorite Western aphorisms, “Know thyself.” Perhaps the Buddhist version might be, “Know the web.”

            The theme of the one and many is one of the oldest, most provocative philosophical subjects. Buddhist philosophy places this theme within the context of dependent co-arising. For example, the Buddha says, “The one contains the many and the many contains the one. Without the one, there cannot be the many. Without the many, there cannot be the one. This is the marvelous truth of the teaching of dependent co-arising” (Hahn, Old Path 409). This cosmic vision is like a fractal in that the parts contain the whole, ad infinitum. The Vimalakirti Sutra of the Mahayana tradition presents an image of the one and the many:  “The Buddha with his supernatural powers then caused all the jeweled parasols to come together and form one single parasol that spread over the entire thousand-millionfold world. All the vast features of that world were visible there in its midst” (Watson 20). Like Achilles’ shield, the one parasol carries a vision of the entire cosmos.

            Yet Thich Nhat Hahn cautions against clinging to these categories and brings the topic back around to dependent co-arising. He seeks to dissolve both the one and the many:  “The cosmos is neither one nor many. When you touch one, you touch many, and when you touch many, you touch one. [. . .] In fact, just a clap of your hands is enough to touch myriad galaxies. The effect of one sound cannot be measured. Your every look, smile, and word reaches faraway universes and influences every living and non-living being in the cosmos” (Ess. Writings 129). Hahn’s view of “interbeing,” his term for the interconnected nature of reality, is mind-boggling. It is reminiscent of the butterfly effect in chaos theory, a metaphor that illustrates the concept of sensitive dependence on initial conditions:  the flapping of one butterfly’s wings may instigate a ripple effect that delays, stops, or even causes a tornado elsewhere in the world. This discussion leaves one with many questions:  What is the one? Is it emptiness? And the many are the phenomena of this plane? We certainly cannot discuss this theme with the ethical approach of Western philosophy because the concept of no-self prevents such comparisons.             Buddhism is non-theistic in that it does not posit a creator deity or eternal, transcendent source. Dependent co-arising and emptiness take the place of intelligent design and creationism. In Moggallana’s moment of enlightenment, “Suddenly he saw the universe as an interconnected net. [. . .] The belief in a creator of all things vanished in this understanding of dependent co-arising” (Hahn, Old Path 188). When Buddhist practitioners receive a cosmic vision, they do not “meet God.” Perhaps they see a psychedelic vision of infinite reflections, as described below in the section on imagery. The Buddha uses simple comparisons to teach this idea, like the fact that a leaf needs sunlight, water, earth, air, a seed, etc. in order to come into existence. He concludes his metaphor with this teaching, “All beings, organic and inorganic, rely on the law of dependent co-arising. The source of one thing is all things” (Hahn, Old Path 169). Nothing is eternal and unchanging, hence there is no “one source.” Everything is equal and dependent, so the ever-changing flux of energy constantly churns, always bringing forth new forms. Perhaps it is analogous to the “primordial stew” of evolutionary theory.

            Even though Buddhism emphasizes undifferentiated equality over transcendent deities, it is not devoid of holiness. Enlightened beings are revered, the Buddha most of all, but also, so is the nature of reality in the present moment, described as “suchness” or tathata. The Buddha describes suchness in reverential terms, “Anuradha, the nature of all dharmas is unconditioned and can be called suchness, tathata. Suchness is the wondrous nature of all dharmas. From suchness the lotus arises” (Hahn, Old Path 467). The lotus is perhaps the most holy symbol in Buddhism, another image of the nature of unfolding reality, with its manifold petals and gorgeous wholeness. Hahn uses Western terminology, “Kingdom of God,” to emphasize that being in tune with suchness is the source of the sacred, found here, now, not after death in a heavenly paradise:  “You do not have to die to enter the Kingdom of God. In fact, you have to be alive to do so. What makes you alive? Mindfulness. Everything around you and in you can be the door to enter Dharmadhatu” (Ess. Writings 43). Lastly, Buddha’s nickname, Tathagata, relates to the interdependence of both phenomena and time, all and nothing together, like the web image. “The Buddha called himself Tathagata, ‘coming from suchness (reality as it is),’ ‘going to suchness,’ or ‘one who comes from nowhere and goes nowhere,’ because suchness cannot be confined to coming and going” (Hahn, Essential Writings 128). All is one; that is suchness. Nagarjuna’s classic assertion best summarizes the unity of reality and absence of need to ascend or transcend to another plane:  “‘There is no difference whatsoever between nirvana and samsara; there is no difference whatsoever between samsara and nirvana’ (Mulamadhyamakakarika, chap. 25, v. 19)” (Smith and Novak 209n.4).

            Turning from philosophy to images requires a mental flex, an entry into another dimension that is more illusory and dream-like. In “The Ten Acceptances,” Book 29 of the Avatamsaka Sutra (Flower Ornament Scripture), the sutra describes how the world can be perceived as a dream, while still holding to one’s philosophical constructs:  “The world is like a mirage,/ Differentiated because of conceptions;/ Knowing the world is an ideation,/ One is freed from delusion of thought, view, and mind” (Cleary 881). The sutras of Mahayana Buddhism are filled with fantastic images:  Indra’s net and the Tower of Maitreya from the Avatamsaka Sutra; the hall of mirrors from Fa-tsang, the Chinese Hua-yen Buddhist; and Burton Watson’s round paper fan from his introduction to the Vimalakirti Sutra. Each of these images, like my web image, represents the cosmic vision of dependent co-arising and emptiness.

Dewy spider web, image representative of Indra's Net

            Indra’s Net is an image that has recently captured the collective consciousness. It is the name of one of the first Internet service providers, a fractal is named after it, a recent book by Robin Robertson is entitled Indra’s Net:  Alchemy and Chaos Theory as Models for Transformation, and it seems to be all over the Internet in general, particularly with respect to chaos theory, fractal geometry, and quantum mechanics. The Avatamsaka Sutra is filled with images of gems, flowers, light, jeweled trees, and nets. On the sutra’s first page, the Buddha is in the land of Magadha, in a state of purity where “Nets of myriad gems and garlands of exquisitely scented flowers hung all around. The finest jewels appeared spontaneously, raining inexhaustible quantities of gems and beautiful flowers all over the earth. [. . .] By the Buddha’s spiritual power, he caused all the adornments of this enlightenment site to be reflected therein” (Cleary 55). This type of imagery, with images of infinity, reflections, and abundance of forms, permeate the sutra. The Dalai Lama describes Indra’s Net:

 [. . .] [T]he text compares the intricate and profoundly interconnected reality of the world to an infinite net of gems called “Indra’s jeweled net,” which reaches out to infinite space. At each knot on the net is a crystal gem, which is connected to all the other gems and reflects in itself all the others. On such a net, no jewel is in the center or at the edge. Each and every jewel is at the center in that it reflects in itself all the others. At the same time, it is at the edge in that it is itself reflected in all the other jewels. Given the profound interconnectedness of everything in the universe, it is not possible to have total knowledge of even a single atom unless one is omniscient. To know even one atom fully would imply knowledge of its relations to all other phenomena in the infinite universe. (The Universe in a Single Atom 89)

            Hua-yen Buddhism understands this image as a symbol of an interrelated cosmos, one that shows the relationship of “simultaneous mutual identity and mutual intercausality,” that is, dependent co-arising and emptiness (Cook 2). Indra’s net and all of the adornment imagery in the Avatamsaka Sutra serve as strange attractors:  the images attract the mind toward them, and then repel the mind away, as the mind struggles to comprehend the meaning. It is push and pull as the mind enters the image, then perhaps feels overwhelmed and irritated, pulling away, but irresistibly returns again. In chaos theory, mathematical strange attractors can form images that self-reflect, just as Indra’s net reflects itself infinitely.

            The final book of the Avatamsaka Sutra is often published separately as the Gandavyuha Sutra, like the Bhagavad Gita, with its cosmic vision, is published as a text separate from the Hindu epic The Mahabharata. In this book, the student-pilgrim Sudhana enters the tower of the enlightening being Maitreya and experiences a timeless, space-less cosmic vision:

He saw the tower immensely vast and wide, hundreds of thousands of leagues wide, as measureless as the sky, as vast as all of space, adorned with countless attributes [. . .]. [. . .] Also, inside the great tower he saw hundreds of thousands of other towers similarly arrayed;  he saw those towers as infinitely vast as space, evenly arrayed in all directions, yet these towers were not mixed up with one another, being each mutually distinct, while appearing reflected in each and every object of all the other towers. [. . .] He also saw measureless arrays of reflections in the mirrors, reflections of assemblies of buddhas, circles of enlightening beings, [. . .]. He saw webs of jewel lights coming from the pillars, some sapphire, some topaz, some ruby, some white, some crystal, some golden, some emerald, some diamond, some rainbow, some the colors of all lights, delightful to the body and mind, supremely pleasant to the eye. (Cleary 1489, 1490, 1494)

Maitreya, who had caused these visions for Sudhana, enters and says, “Arise. This is the nature of things; characterized by nonfixity, all things are stabilized by the knowledge of enlightening beings, thus they are inherently unreal, and are like illusions, dreams, reflections” (Cleary 1498). The tower image is very similar to Indra’s net, but with a greater abundance of variety in its forms.  The image contains both particulars (individually spaced towers) and universals (vastness, reflections, rainbow lights containing all colors) in interpenetration. 

            Fa-tsang (643-712) was the third of five patriarchs of the Chinese Hua-yen school, and he tutored the Tang Dynasty’s Empress Wu. He used the image of a hall of mirrors to illustrate the nature of reality to the Empress. He placed a statue of the Buddha and a lamp in the center of a room covered in mirrors, including the floor and ceiling, so that the mirrors surrounding it reflected the Buddha in every mirror, and the mirrors also reflected each other infinitely. This visual metaphor clarified the unobstructed interpenetration of universal with particular and particular with particular (Leighton 3).

            Burton Watson describes his own teaching metaphor, a round paper fan, in his introduction to the Vimalakirti Sutra. One face is covered in “an infinite number of tiny dots representing all the multiple objects and ideas that make up our ordinary world,” that is, the phenomenal world. The second face, on the other side, is a complete blank. “This is the world of emptiness, of nondualism, the transcendent realm as opposed to the imminent. The two worlds are one [. . .]” (10-11). As the Heart Sutra says, “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.” The fan is another example of an image that has two parts that seem dualistic, but are really unified, like my web with its strands and spaces.

            As mentioned before, the Buddhist metaphysical universe corresponds to recent physical evidence that the nature of matter may in fact be empty and interdependent on its parts. It is one thing to contemplate metaphysics and meditate on images with a sense of faith in their truths; it is another thing entirely to be confronted with what seems to be proof that the philosophy is physically valid. Mu Seong, in his commentary on the Heart Sutra, emphasizes the dance of energy in the empty spaces in matter. “The experiments of quantum physics showed that the atoms, the presumed fundamental building blocks of the universe, were, at their core, essentially empty” (43). Seong ventures into the ever-deepening layers of a human hand as seen through an electron microscope, past the tissue and bone down to the atom and into the nucleus, where “the tightly confined energy vibrate[s] at 1022 times a second:  a dance” (44). Even down to the quarks, all matter is in an “oscillating field, waves of rhythm” (44). “Of what is the body made? It is made of emptiness and rhythm. At the ultimate heart of the body, at the heart of the world, there is no solidity. Once again, there is only the dance” (44). My image of the web is missing something:  animation. The translucent strands must be made of quivering, vital, enlivening energy, and the empty space is like a magnetic field, exerting its own force. Now the image can dance.  

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Works Cited

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---. Old Path White Clouds:  Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha. Berkeley: Parallax P, 1991. Print.

Leighton, Taigen Dan. “The Phenomenal Universe of the Flower Ornament Sutra.” BuddhaDharma:  The Practitioner’s Quarterly. Sep. 2006. Web. 3 Apr. 2010.

Mahaffey, Patrick. “2nd Class Session:   Mahayana Buddhism.” Lecture notes. Pacifica Graduate Institute, Carpinteria, CA. 16 Feb.  2010. Print.

Smith, Huston, and Philip Novak. Buddhism:  A Concise Introduction. New York:  Harper San Francisco, 2003. Print.

Soeng, Mu. The Diamond Sutra:  Transforming the Way We Perceive the World. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000. Print.

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