Inventing Indra's Net:The Modern Construction of an Ancient Metaphor

Owens, Alex (2022) Inventing Indra's Net:The Modern Construction of an Ancient Metaphor. PhD thesis, UNSPECIFIED.

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Indra’s Net is now one of the central doctrines of Western Buddhism and a recognisable metaphor portrayed by many writers today across a wide range of topics. However, Indra’s Net has not always had this authority or scope. In this thesis I conduct a genealogy of Indra’s Net, demonstrating that the metaphor that has seen global success in the contemporary period is actually a 20th century invention, rather than a traditional account of the metaphor. In this thesis, I track Indra’s Net’s increasing significance by first exploring how it is depicted in traditional sources. I then examine how five key writers contributed to the metaphor’s invention in the 20th Century. Through exploring the characterisations of Indra’s Net by Sir Charles Eliot, D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, Fritjof Capra and Francis Cook, I demonstrate how both the metaphor’s description and function altered in the modern period. From here, I show how the invented metaphor was made popular in Green Buddhist movements before then being spread globally. The metaphor has had an impact on the development of Western Buddhism more generally as it promoted a positive, interconnected, worldview. This is a view which Alan Sponberg discusses more generally and suggests has defined the way in which traditional and Western Buddhism differ from one another. I will show Indra’s Net’s characterisations were not only an indicator of this shift, but also an influential force. This resulted in Indra’s Net transforming from a marginal metaphor in older characterisations to a central doctrine of Western Buddhism. I demonstrate how the orientalist invention of the metaphor now dominates preconceptions of Indra’s Net’s overall history and becomes authenticated by scholars and practitioners alike. In the process of exploring how and why the metaphor has become so popular, I present Indra’s Net as a case study for the orientalist tropes that are prevalent in the 20th and 21st centuries. In particular how the homogenisation of Buddhism, a focus on interconnectedness, and the relationship between Buddhism and science have impacted the metaphor’s portrayals, but similarly how Indra’s Net has been influential in constructing these trends within Western Buddhism more generally as well. Overall, this genealogy reveals how a relatively minor idea, from a niche Buddhist school, has gone on to become one of the most central doctrines of Western Buddhism today.

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Thesis (PhD)
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03 Oct 2022 14:55
Last Modified:
12 Sep 2023 00:53