Episode 9: Indra's net and wicked problems. Quote: "...there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper."

Episode 9: Indra’s Net and wicked problems

Ryan D Thompson Ancient, Buddhism, Complexity, Skills

Key ideas

Nothing exists in a vacuum as an isolated, permanent thing. All aspects of the universe arise from interdependent causes and conditions. Pull any thread and the effects are felt in many places.

  • The concept of interdependence is fundamental to Buddhism, sometimes explained using the story of Indra’s Net. This net consisted of an infinite number of gems connected by an infinite number of cords. In the facets of each gem, one could see a reflection of every other gem. In this way, the net represented everything in the universe.
  • Interdependence from the perspective of Buddhism teaches that all things are multiple, dependent, and impermanent
  • Everything can be broken into parts. Those parts exist in relation to and arise due to other things. And everything is in a constant state of change, however subtle. Nothing lasts forever.
  • Recognizing this interdependence at the heart of our existence can improve our capacity to address complex problems. Zooming in to see the details and then zooming out to see the big picture can help us to understand the connections underlying the problems we seek to address.


This episode is the second in a series looking at complexity: how it influences our daily lives and creates problems that resist easy solutions. These kinds of problems are often called wicked problems.

In many ways, the mix of complexity and wicked problems led me to start this podcast as part of a larger project I launched a couple of years ago called Project Indra. The name Indra relates directly to this theme of complexity, coming from an ancient Buddhist myth about Indra’s Net.

Indra was a Vedic god, predating the Buddha by perhaps a thousand years. In the ancient Vedic beliefs, Indra was king of the gods, wielding a thunderbolt much like the European deities Zeus and Thor. When Indra became integrated into the rising Buddhist faith, Indra fell from his throne. He became somewhat of a lesser god — and one that tended to get in a lot of trouble from his hedonistic ways. One of the most profound aspects of Indra’s story, though, was his net that hung over his throne room. For Buddhists, Indra’s Net came to symbolize interdependence: the deep connections between all phenomena in the universe. The net consisted of an immeasurable number of jewels linked together by cords. The facets of the jewels in the net reflected every other jewel, thus reflecting a series of infinite connections. Pull one strand in the net, and the reverberations are felt at countless other points. In this way, we can’t look at any single jewel as an isolated thing; but rather, we see it as intricately bound up with every other jewel in the net.

Interdependence is a fundamental concept in Buddhism. And I think it’s also a critical concept for understanding the kinds of problems that plague human society.

The Buddhist view of interdependence flips much of our typical thinking on its head. We often see things as singular, permanent, and independent. To use our favorite subject as an example—me, myself, and I—we typically will look at ourselves as a single, separate “me.” This is my body, my mind, my experiences. And I’m more or less the same “me” that I’ve always been, just a bit older. In other words, we tend to see a permanent, enduring “me-ness” that was here when I was born and will be with me until I die. Finally, however much we might appreciate our relationships with others, both direct and indirect, we still tend to see ourselves as independent beings. I can operate just fine on my own, thanks very much.

When we scrutinize these perceptions, though, they soon break down. 

First, my human body is not a single thing but rather is composed of parts: organs, bones, muscles, and systems. Those parts are further comprised of cells, which themselves are made of molecules, then atoms, and down the line. And likewise, we’re constantly changing every moment. We can’t easily find any enduring “me-ness” that remains the same. The very cells in our bodies are dying one moment, only to be replaced the next. We have some characteristics that persist through our lives but are never exactly the same: never the same body, never the same thoughts, values, or beliefs. Finally, no person or object in the universe exists as an independent entity. The air we breathe comes to our lungs through the work of plants and natural processes. The water we drink, the food we eat, every aspect of our existence likewise are available to us through systems, processes, and actions outside of “me.” Even the content of our thoughts arises from the cultural systems we’re born into. Our beliefs, values, personal identities, and perceptions are shaped by forces outside of “me.” We are our environment.

So, that’s a basic survey of interdependence from the Buddhist perspective. We and all things are multiple, impermanent, and dependent on causes and conditions. Now, how does this concept relate to wicked problems?

Let’s look at an example through this lens of interdependence. Poverty seems a good place to start, as it’s one of the most prevalent and persistent issues worldwide. What is poverty? Is it a singular thing? Clearly, it is not just one thing. It is composed of a tangled knot of difficulties related to economics, nutrition, education, political inequities, and access to resources, at the least. It has multiple interrelated parts that all intersect and influence one another. On that note, neither is it independent. Poverty depends on and arises due to many causes and conditions that strengthen or reduce it. Girls’ access to education can reduce poverty, while lack of access to education can increase poverty. Environmental degradation combined with inequitable political representation likewise exacerbates poverty. Finally, and perhaps the most reassuring of all these factors of interdependence, poverty is not a permanent condition. There is no unchanging, unyielding aspect of poverty that persists forever. As stubborn as it might be, poverty can be eliminated for individuals, communities, and, theoretically, entire societies.

Why does it matter if we look at an issue like poverty as interdependent or not? Often this plays out in sustainable development with stratification of different sectors, each setting out to address a specific thing. Often these sectors don’t interact. For example, one program sets out to improve agricultural yields in an impoverished region but might not consider the effects of increased agricultural production on the surrounding ecosystems. With the expansion of fields comes the razing of forests. With the razing of forests comes increased erosion or decreased protection from winds, which then ruins agricultural production.

However, looking at the interconnections between complex issues is really hard. It isn’t always apparent what the connections are. It requires bringing together many different people with different skill sets and knowledge. This is expensive, time-consuming, and, well, difficult to do on many levels. On the one hand, we need deep, PhD-level expertise on specific issues to understand the nuances of problems like poverty. But on the other hand, we need to see the big picture to understand the linkages between issues like poverty and the countless other factors linked to it. This zooming in from the deepest levels and zooming out to see interdependence is a tall order.

I believe this ability to do just that, to zoom in and out, is at the heart of tackling our most complex problems. No doubt it takes more time to do this kind of comprehensive, multilevel analysis. Yes, there is an urgency to dive in and start fighting with all our might to fix and save and overcome these issues. But often, with haste comes inefficiency and ineffectiveness. Taking the time to cultivate this skill of zooming out just as much as we zoom in could make a significant difference in our ability to affect change.

The rest of this series will explore other perspectives on complexity that hopefully contribute to our ability to see in this multidimensional way. The next episode will look at another ancient tradition, exploring some insights from Taoism.

That’s all for now, be sure to subscribe for more episodes. And please share this with a friend if you think it will be helpful to someone. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License