In his Monadology Leibniz writes:

each portion of matter can be conceived as like a garden full of plants, or like a pond full of fish. But each branch of a plant, each organ of an animal, each drop of its bodily fluids is also a similar garden or a similar pond

This can be described analogically, I think, as a fractal - where each part also describes the whole. It can also be described analogically by the set theory multiverse where every set theory contains the entire multiverse itself. Of course both fractals and set theory multiverses are contemporary developments in mathematical thought.

But there is also perhaps a more puzzling antecedent. Indras Net is a metaphor developed by the Mahayana school of Buddhism in 3rd century CE India, and in the 6th century CE Chinese Huayan school.

Francis Harold Cook in his book Hua-Yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra describes this metaphor thus:

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

Leibniz was notoriously well read - did his reading stretch to Buddhist Philosophy? Of course establishing priority claims is tricky and perhaps futile; it may simply be a case of similar ideas arising independently, and the interest lies in how these similar ideas have imbibed the quality of their own philosophical climate as well as how and in what quality they differ manifestly and subtlely from each other.

  • 1
    It is true that aside from knowing everything else, Leibniz was, in his spare time, one of the leading experts in Europe on Chinese culture. I have seen somewhere before this analogy, can't think where. There is also the book by Deleuze (I haven't read it) that unpack his "baroque" imagination. So he may just as well have been staring at reflections of reflections in chambered mirrors and chandeliers. – Nelson Alexander Oct 25 '15 at 16:37

While Leibniz's theory of Monads does share quite a few parallels with Buddhist thought, the two schools of thought have some very sharp contrasts. For instance the idea of us being in The best possible world.

What I found interesting is while looking into if he had any Buddhist influences I found this article. Which compares two paragraphs very similar to those quoted in your question. Though the author really doesn't comment much on relations of the ideologies, but rather uses the Indra example to help illustrate the idea of Monads.

Another article that compares and contrasts Leibniz's thought to a variety of Buddhist schools of thought is Time in Buddhism and Leibniz.

It does not dive into Monads or infinite at all, but does show some key areas where the two views diverge.

It is hard to say with 100% certainty that Leibniz did or did not come across Buddhist Ideologies in his lifetime, perhaps like Newton and Calculus and as you mentioned the ideas were springing up independently. I however in my studies of both have never encountered a source that stated explicitly that Leibniz was influenced by Buddhism directly.

  • As a side note if anyone has anything definitive citing the contrary I'd be happy to see it. – hellyale Jun 25 '15 at 7:13
  • 2
    +1: I think I recall reading that Lebniez was corresponding at some point with a group of Jesuits in China; I agree though, if he had been influenced by Buddhism, it's unlikely to be in any depth given the lack then of any real depth to what was known;. – Mozibur Ullah Jun 25 '15 at 11:55
  • There is this review that goes into his 'commerce of light', which offers a view that Chinese philosophy wasn't incidental to his. – Mozibur Ullah Jun 25 '15 at 11:59

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.