The story of Indra's net first appears in the Athara Veda circa 1000 B.C.E. The Athara Veda is one of four Vedic texts that form an ancient foundation for the Hindu religion, which is believed to date back 6,000 to 8,000 years.
Because Gautama Buddha was a Hindu, many Hindu teachings also live on in Buddhist doctrine.
The Story of Indra's Net
Indra, the early leader of the Hindu pantheon of gods, lived on Mount Meru and was charged with the protection and guidance of mankind. He was also the god of thunder, lightning, and war.
In this story, Indra casts a vast net from the top of Mt. Meru that extends in all directions, infinitely. Each node of the net is set with a jewel. Each jewel reflects all the other jewels in the net within its many facets. The net is infinite, and each jewel in the net reflects every aspect of infinity.
The Jeweled Net as a Metaphor for the Buddhist Nature of Reality
Meditating on the story of Indra's Net has been credited with sparking awakening in many followers of the Buddha.
In Buddhism, Indra's Net is meant to illustrate the three related principles of emptiness, the dependent origin of all things, and the interrelated nature of all things. Each jewel contains and reflects the whole, and the whole reflects and contains each jewel.
In the story, nothing arises of its own accord. Rather the nature of a thing is a reflection of all other things, just as each jewel reflects all the other jewels, infinitely.
The jewels in Indra's Net are all interconnected. They should not be understood to be physical realities, but rather an illustration of reality as complex web of reflections.
The mind itself is seen as a reflection of this seeming reality, which is itself essentially empty because it is only composed of a web of reflections, which are inherently illusory. Therefore, the Universe is empty; and the mind itself is empty.
There is no Universe "out there," only a reflection of a complexity of mirrors.
Other Buddhist Teachings Embodied in the Story of Indra's Net
The story of Indra's Net was further developed in Mahayana Buddhism in the 3rd century, and again in Chinese Huayuan Buddhism between the 6th and 8th centuries. In Buddhist texts, Indra's Net is sometimes referred to as a net of pearls, or a palace of mirrors.
In Buddhism, each jewel or pearl in the net is seen as a sentient being. Seeing the world in this way places responsibility on the individual practitioner to regard each separate manifestation as contained within his or her own heart, and each manifestation as reflecting one's own self in turn.
The apparent contraction between the profound respect for life required of Buddhist practitioners and the clearly illusory nature of reality is only a construct of the mind.
The story of Indra's Net points beyond dualism. Although this is difficult to grasp intellectually, that very difficulty is how the core teaching points the practitioner toward Enlightenment and Liberation.