‘Monadology’ and the ‘Net of Indra’

gif art by Dave Whyte 

Striking and thought-provoking similarities in Leibniz’s writing and ‘Indra’s net’, in the Avatamsaka Sutra.

Since the publication of this post, Steven Emmanuel’s new (2017) publication “Buddhist Philosophy: A Comparative Approach” has offered some considerations on the similarities and relations, so the relevant passage has been added here, at the end. Emmanuel’s work is excellent, in this and other publications. If you are interested in Buddhist philosophy and epistemology, his work is available for purchase.

The Avatamsaka Sutra:

“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. There hang the jewels, glittering “like” stars in the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now arbitrarily select one of these jewels for inspection and look closely at it, we will discover that in its polished surface there are reflected all the 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 the other jewels, so that there is an infinite reflecting process occurring.”

extracts from ‘The Monadology’, by G. W. Leibniz – originally published in 1714
English translation by Robert Latta (1898)


56. Now this connexion or adaptation of all created things to each and of each to all, means that each simple substance has relations which express all the others, and, consequently, that it is a perpetual living mirror of the universe.

57. And as the same town, looked at from various sides, appears quite different and becomes as it were numerous in aspects [perspectivement]; even so, as a result of the infinite number of simple substances, it is as if there were so many different universes, which, nevertheless are nothing but aspects [perspectives] of a single universe, according to the special point of view of each Monad.

58. And by this means there is obtained as great variety as possible, along with the greatest possible order; that is to say, it is the way to get as much perfection as possible.

59. Besides, no hypothesis but this (which I venture to call proved) fittingly exalts the greatness of God; and this Monsieur Bayle recognized when, in his Dictionary (article Rorarius), he raised objections to it, in which indeed he was inclined to think that I was attributing too much to God- more than it is possible to attribute. But he was unable to give any reason which could show the impossibility of this universal harmony, according to which every substance exactly expresses all others through the relations it has with them.

60. Further, in what I have just said there may be seen the reasons a priori why things could not be otherwise than they are. For God in regulating the whole has had regard to each part, and in particular to each Monad, whose nature being to represent, nothing can confine it to the representing of only one part of things; though it is true that this representation is merely confused as regards the variety of particular things [le detail] in the whole universe, and can be distinct only as regards a small part of things, namely, those which are either nearest or greatest in relation to each of the Monads; otherwise each Monad would be a deity. It is not as regards their object, but as regards the different ways in which they have knowledge of their object, that the Monads are limited. In a confused way they all strive after [vont a] the infinite, the whole; but they are limited and differentiated through the degrees of their distinct perceptions.

61. And compounds are in this respect analogous with [symbolisent avec] simple substances. For all is a plenum (and thus all matter is connected together) and in the plenum every motion has an effect upon distant bodies in proportion to their distance, so that each body not only is affected by those which are in contact with it and in some way feels the effect of everything that happens to them, but also is mediately affected by bodies adjoining those with which it itself is in immediate contact. Wherefore it follows that this inter-communication of things extends to any distance, however great. And consequently every body feels the effect of all that takes place in the universe, so that he who sees all might read in each what is happening everywhere, and even what has happened or shall happen, observing in the present that which is far off as well in time as in place: σύµπνοια πάντα, as Hippocrates said. But a soul can read in itself only that which is there represented distinctly; it cannot all at once unroll everything that is enfolded in it, for its complexity is infinite.

62. Thus, although each created Monad represents the whole universe, it represents more distinctly the body which specially pertains to it, and of which it is the entelechy; and as this body expresses the whole universe through the connexion of all matter in the plenum, the soul also represents the whole universe in representing this body, which belongs to it in a special way.

63. The body belonging to a Monad (which is its entelechy or its soul) constitutes along with the entelechy what may be called a living being, and along with the soul what is called an animal. Now this body of living being or of an animal is always organic; for, as every Monad is, in its own way, a mirror of the universe, and as the universe is ruled according to a perfect order, there must also be order in that which represents it, i.e. in the perceptions of the soul, and consequently there must be order in the body, through which the universe is represented in the soul.


65. And the Author of nature has been able to employ this divine and infinitely wonderful power of art, because each portion of matter is not only infinitely divisible, as the ancients observed, but is also actually subdivided without end, each part into further parts, of which each has some motion of its own; otherwise it would be impossible for each portion of matter to express the whole universe.

66. Whence it appears that in the smallest particle of matter there is a world of creatures, living beings, animals, entelechies, souls.

67. Each portion of matter may be conceived as like a garden full of plants and like a pond full of fishes. But each branch of every plant, each member of every animal, each drop of its liquid parts is also some such garden or pond.

68. And though the earth and the air which are between the plants of the garden, or the water which is between the fish of the pond, be neither plant nor fish; yet they also contain plants and fishes, but mostly so minute as to be imperceptible to us.

69. Thus there is nothing fallow, nothing sterile, nothing dead in the universe, no chaos, no confusion save in appearance, somewhat as it might appear to be in a pond at a distance, in which one would see a confused movement and, as it were, a swarming of fish in the pond, without separately distinguishing the fish themselves.

70. Hence it appears that each living body has a dominant entelechy, which in an animal is the soul; but the members of this living body are full of other living beings, plants, animals, each of which has also its dominant entelechy or soul.

71. But it must not be imagined, as has been done by some who have misunderstood my thought, that each soul has a quantity or portion of matter belonging exclusively to itself or attached to it for ever, and that it consequently owns other inferior living beings, which are devoted for ever to its service. For all bodies are in a perpetual flux like rivers, and parts are entering into them and passing out of them continually.


73. It also follows from this that there never is absolute birth [generation] nor complete death, in the strict sense, consisting in the separation of the soul from the body. What we call births [generations] are developments and growths, while what we call deaths are envelopments and diminutions.

From Emmanuel, S. (2017) Buddhist Philosophy: A Comparative Approach. Wiley Blackwell

“Huayan’s Jewel Net of Indra and Leibniz’s Monadology”

One of the most famous teachings from the Avataṃsaka Sūtra that is developed into a central teaching of the Huayan school, is the Jewel Net of Indra. The universe is envisioned as a huge net, each knot of which contains a jewel that reflects, and is reflected in, all the others. The first patriarch of Huayan, Dushun (557–640), writes: “This imperial net is made all of jewels: because the jewels are clear, they reflect each other’s images, appearing in each other’s reflections upon reflections, ad infinitum.”
This may remind one of Leibniz’s Monadology, in which he writes that “each simple substance has relations which express all the others, and that, consequently, is a perpetual living mirror of the universe.” Yet, there is a basic ontological difference between Huayan’s and Leibniz’s conceptions in that the latter thinks of monads as independent substances that cannot affect one another. In paragraph 7 of the Monadology, Leibniz claims: “There is…no way of explaining how a monad can be altered or changed in its inner being by any other creature, for nothing can be transposed within it… The monads have no windows through which anything can enter or depart.” He goes on to say in paragraph 51 that it is only through the “intervention of God” that one monad could affect another; one monad only seems to cause changes in another due to the divine providence of the “pre‐established harmony between all substances” (paragraph 78).
The need for divine intervention to orchestrate merely apparent interactions between independent substances (monads) is unnecessary in the case of the Huayan Buddhist teaching. Indeed the image of the Jewel Net of Indra, like other images such as the Tower of Maitreya, is meant to symbolize that “all beings, being interdependent, therefore imply in their individual being the simultaneous being of all other things.” In other words, such images are meant to portray the universe, or multiverse, as it is constituted by processes of “interdependent origination” (Skt pratītya‐samutpāda; Ch. yuanqi; Jp. engi 縁起), the basic ontological tenet of Buddhism, which rejects precisely an ontology of independent substances such as that of Leibniz. In fact, in the end Dushun admits that the simile of the Jewel Net of Indra is merely an imperfect analogy; it is imperfect precisely insofar as it may be mistaken to suggest that beings are independent substances: “These jewels only have their reflected images containing and entering each other – their substances are [misleadingly portrayed as] separate. Things are not like this, because their whole substance merges completely.” What would be a merit of the image for Leibniz – the independent substantiality of the jewels – is a crucial demerit for Dushun.
Despite this fundamental ontological disagreement, Dushun nevertheless might have appreciated Leibniz’s epistemological perspectivism. Leibniz writes: As the same city looked at from different sides appears entirely different, and is as if multiplied perspectively; so it also happens that, as a result of the infinite multitude of simple substances, there are as it were so many different universes, which are nevertheless only the perspectives of a single one, according to the different points of view of each monad.
This helps us draw out an important implication of the Jewel Net of Indra, namely that each jewel reflects the whole from its own unique perspective. This is why the Huayan thinkers stress that the One harmoniously co‐exists with the Many; the “oneness” of all things does not cancel out their “manyness,” for the universe is at the same time a multiverse. The Avataṃsaka Sūtra says of Sudhana’s experience of the Tower of Maitreya that “inside the great tower he saw hundreds 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.” Each tower houses all the others, each jewel reflects all the others, from its own unique perspective.”

‘Monadology’ and the ‘Net of Indra’

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