About the Brahma Net Sutra

After the passing of the historical Buddha more than 2500 years ago, His teachings were codified in theTripitaka, or three "baskets": sutras, commentaries and precepts. The Brahma Net Sutra is part of both the basket of sutras and the basket of precepts, and contains the Bodhisattva precepts, the highest moral code in Mahayana. The essence of this code, indeed, the very thread that links all the seemingly disparate precepts, is compassion -- compassion toward all sentient beings:

The first thing that strikes the alert reader is the love for all that have life and breathe, which speaks in almost every page. In fact, this love is the essence of the sutra and reappears throughout the text under various names: goodwill, selflessness, forgiveness, mercy, compassion ... (J.J.M. de Groot).

This love is the Great Compassion that motivates the Bodhisattvas to lead all sentient beings to Buddhahood. It is a compassion beyond all attachment and discrimination -- the supreme compassion of Buddhism. 

Transmission of the Sutra

According to tradition, around the time that Bodhidharma arrived in China, the Indian Yogacara Master Paramartha, who was residing in China, heard about the existence of a text that taught the moral code of the Bodhisattvas. He immediately returned to India and succeeded in acquiring the entire Brahma Net Sutra -- all 61 chapters, comprised of 120 fascicles. However, as Paramartha was sailing toward China with his treasure, a sudden storm arose and his ship began to sink. Piece by piece, all baggage was thrown overboard, but to no avail. Finally, Paramartha had no choice but to let go of theBrahma Net Sutra -- after which the ship miraculously righted itself. Paramartha then realized the sad truth: the people of the "Eastern Kingdom" were not yet ready for the Brahma Net Sutra. The current version of the sutra dates from the fifth century. It was one of the major works of Kumarajiva (the pre-eminent translator of Buddhist texts from Sanskrit into Chinese), who himself intoned the Bodhisattva precepts every day as part of his cultivation. He recited the sutra aloud and with the assistance of his translation bureau, rendered it into Chinese. The Brahma Net Sutra as presented in this book is the second part of the tenth chapter of the Sanskrit text.

Characteristics of the Sutra

The Brahma Net Sutra belongs to the same period as theAvatamsaka Sutra, the first teaching period of the Buddha, immediately following his Enlightenment. It is part of the Sudden Teaching preached to Bodhisattvas and other advanced beings while He was in samadhi. T'ien-t'ai Patriarch Chih-i called the Brahma Net "the capping text of the Avatamsaka Sutra" .

A. Mind / Mind-Ground

The Brahma Net Sutra represents the highest moral code of the Mahayana canon. It is the highest because keeping the Bodhisattva precepts liberates the practitioner from greed, anger and delusion and returns him to his Self-Nature or True Mind -- to Buddhahood.

That Mind, that Self-Nature is non-discriminating, all-accepting, all-sustaining -- just like the ground, which receives and accepts all kinds of abuse and sustains all living beings. The Bodhisattva precepts are therefore called the precepts of the Mind, or the precepts of theMind-Ground

B. Bodhisattva/Arhat

Who then are those disciples of the Buddha who take upon themselves the inconceivable task of rescuing and protecting all sentient beings? In the Mahayana tradition, they are called Bodhisattvas. The word immediately brings to mind the most exalted figures in Buddhism -- Manjusri, Samantabhadra, Avalokitesvara. On a more mundane level, the word Bodhisattva designates any being who has developed the Bodhi Mind -- the determination to achieve Buddhahood for the good of all sentient beings. The term thus applies to anyone who has taken the Bodhisattva precepts.

The essence of Bodhisattvahood is an unequivocal affirmation of the social, altruistic nature of humankind. Whatever enlightenment one gains, it must be shared by one's fellow-beings ... The Bodhisattva is a man of "inexhaustible vows". Without these he is not himself. To save the world, to bring all his fellow-beings up to the same level of thought and feeling where he himself is, and not to rest, not to enter into Nirvana until this is accomplished, however infinitely long and however inexpressively arduous the task may be -- This is the Bodhisattva (D.T.Suzuki,Lankavatara Sutra, xvi).

In the Brahma Net Sutra, the compassionate figure of the Bodhisattva is contrasted with the "followers of the Two Vehicles" (Sravakas and Pratyeka-Buddhas), whose goal is to achieve personal liberation and Enlightenment.

Iconographically the ... Arhats are depicted as elderly shaven-headed monks, clad in yellow robes, and holding a begging-bowl or a staff; they stand stiffly, with compressed lips, and their attitude seems not altogether free from strain. The Bodhisattvas, by way of contrast, are all beautiful young princes. Gem-studded tiaras sparkle on their brows, while their nobly proportioned limbs are clad in light garments of colored silk. They wear gold bracelets and strings of jewels, and round their necks hang garlands of fragrant flowers. Their expression is smiling, their poses graceful and easy. These splendors ... symbolize their status as heirs of the Buddha, the King of the Dharma, and the untold spiritual riches to which they will one day succeed." (Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism).

C. The Precepts

In Buddhism, all precepts (vows of moral conduct taken by lay and ordained Buddhists) can be grouped into two main categories: Sravaka precepts (of laymen, monks and nuns); and Bodhisattva precepts, the exalted code above the Sravaka precepts. All these precepts are derived from Three Root Precepts which form the basis of all Buddhist practice: Do not what is evil, do what is good and be of benefit to all sentient beings.

The Sravaka precepts center on the first root precept, "Do not what is evil". The Bodhisattva precepts, by contrast, cover all three root precepts, with the emphasis on the third, "be of benefit to all sentient beings". To take the Bodhisattva precepts, therefore, is to develop and nurture the Bodhi Mind -- the determination to attain Buddhahood for the good of all.

If the Brahma Net Sutra time and again passionately assails the teachings and practices of the Two Vehicles, it is because the vehicles of the Sravakas and the Pratyeka-Buddhas are conceived as self-centered, focussed on personal Enlightenment and not leading to Buddhahood. In the sutra such views are considered limited, biased and unwholesome -- unworthy of the Bodhisattvas. In disparaging their goal, the Buddha intended to wake them up and open their minds to the supreme goal of Buddhahood.

Legacy of the Sutra

Over a century ago, in his French translation and extensive commentary, the Dutch clergyman Rev. J.J.M. de Groot concluded that the Brahma Net Sutra had played a pivotal role in shaping every aspect of traditional monastic life as well as Buddhist lay practice throughout China. This is also true of Korea and Japan.

As Prof. Philipp Karl Eidman noted:

The teaching of the Sutra of the Brahma Net is the canon against which the keeping and commentaries of all the vinaya [i.e., code of precepts] have been measured since the 8th century ... The Tendai and many other schools insist that its full observance is necessary.

In Vietnam as well, the Brahma Net Sutra is widely disseminated and its profound teachings have suffused monastic and lay life to a degree unrivalled by any other moral code. No fewer than eight recent annotated translations and commentaries on this sutra are known to the editors alone.

Among the many legacies of the sutra, the most noteworthy are: 1) the practice of vegetarianism; 2) the compassionate duty to rescue sentient beings in danger and guide them to Enlightenment; and most of all, 3) the concept of cosmic filialityor compassion toward our parents throughout the eons of time -- toward all sentient beings.

A disciple of the Buddha should have a mind of compassion and cultivate the practice of liberating sentient beings. He must reflect thus: throughout the eons of time, all male sentient beings have been my father, all female sentient beings my mother. I was born of them. If I now slaughter them, I would be slaughtering my parents as well as eating flesh that was once my own. This is so because all elemental earth and water, fire and air -- the four constituents of all life -- have previously been part of my body, part of my substance. (Precept 20)

It is no wonder, then, that the Brahma Net Sutra has long been a favorite among Mahayana Buddhists in Asia, who see in the Bodhisattva precepts a natural complement to their ultimate goal -- attainment of Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Minh Thanh, MA,MBA
P.D. Leigh, MS 
Revised Jan. 2000