Introducing the Brahma Net Sutra

The Brahma Net Sutra is a text in Mahayana Buddhism (from Tibet to China to Vietnam and Japan) that is pretty influential, but it’s not well known among us Westerners. However, you would be surprised to know how much influence it has on your Buddhist practice! 😉

The sutra is relatively short, but has two, or three important teachings in there. Let’s see what it teaches.

Vairocana Buddha

First, it introduces a being called Vairocana Buddha. In Japanese Shingon Buddhism, Vairocana is the central Buddha, but he is called “Maha” as in “great” Vairocana Buddha, though in Japanese this is called dainichi nyorai (大日如来). Now why is this Buddha important, if most people haven’t heard of him?

Allow me to quote from this sutra:

Now, I, Vairocana Buddha
Am sitting atop a lotus pedestal;
On a thousand flowers surrounding me
Are a thousand Sakyamuni Buddhas.
Each flower supports a hundred million worlds;
In each world a Sakyamuni Buddha appears.
All are seated beneath a Bodhi-tree,
All simultaneously attain Buddhahood.
All these innumerable Buddhas
Have Vairocana as their original body.

In later Buddhist literature from India, the descriptions can get very, very vivid and creative, but there’s something very cool and important in this line of verses. Vairocana Buddha is not a historical, physical being, but rather he embodies the Dharma itself, which is everywhere and everything. This is not a pantheistic teaching, as Buddhism explicitly denies that all phenomena are endowed with anything like a soul or spirit anyways, but rather that the truth can be found everywhere. You do not need to seek it in a special monastery, or from a particular teacher or text. It is everywhere.

Why all the Shakayamuni Buddhas? This is yet another important teaching in that not everything depends on one historical figure. Before the Buddha passed away, according to the Parinibbana Sutta of the Pali Canon (DN 16), his attendant, Ananda, was deeply worried about who would lead the community after the Buddha died, but the Buddha replied in the famous line:

“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.

“Those bhikkhus of mine, Ananda, who now or after I am gone, abide as an island unto themselves, as a refuge unto themselves, seeking no other refuge; having the Dhamma as their island and refuge, seeking no other refuge: it is they who will become the highest, if they have the desire to learn.”

So, the Buddha is deflecting Ananda’s concern for him toward a concern for putting the Dharma into practice, and reminding him the Dharma matters most. The Buddha came to this world, pointed the way, and shed light on these difficult to understand truths. In Indian texts, he was said to have “turned the wheel of the Dharma”, and so on. But the Buddha points to the Dharma, he is not the Dharma.

By contrast, Vairocana Buddha is the Dharma, represented in a way we can understand more easily. So, according to the sutra many such beings like Shakyamuni Buddha come into the world at some point or another, turn the wheel of the Dharma, and point the way out for our benefit, and Vairocana Buddha is behind it all.

This becomes important in Buddhism as a kind of unifying truth. There are many Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Dharma Protector Kings, lesser deities and so forth, across many sects of Buddhism, but the Brahma Net Sutra says that behind it all is the primordial Dharma, represented by Vairocana Buddha. So, in Shingon or Tendai Buddhism for example, students may devote themselves to themselves to one figure or another, but they all lead to the same path, because they represent the Dharma, and the Dharma can in turn be represented by Vairocana Buddha himself.

The Jeweled Net of Brahma

The second really cool teaching in this sutra is the Net of Brahma. Brahma is one of the major gods in Hinduism, the Lord of Creation and such. According to Indian myth,* Brahma had a huge jeweled net hung inside his palace. At each node, there was a jewel, and each jewel reflects the light of every other jewel. Stop and imagine what that looks like for a moment. Pretty interesting, huh? 🙂

Now why is that important?

The teaching behind the jeweled net is one of constant inter-dependence. Each jewel can shine because it reflects the light of all the other jewels in the net. In the same way, we can be what we are through the actions, thoughts and existence of others. Think about where you get your food for example. You get it from the soil, water and sun, but also through the efforts of countless other people (farmers, factory workers, office workers, grocery store employees, etc). But also consider how your actions have an impact on others. It’s all interdependent. Even the people you don’t like, or disagree with are dependent on you, and you are dependent on them. You cannot separate yourself from, nor exist without, others, no matter what you do. That is a very, very, very important teaching in Buddhism.

In the same way, Vairocana Buddha mentioned above isn’t remote and somewhere else, he embodies the Dharma, which embodies this teaching of interdependence. In other words, Vairocana is this interdependence. Vairocana Buddha isn’t someone to devote one’s self to, as one might other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but something to comprehend, and gain insight into.

Also as we’ll see below, when one chooses a path of wholesome living and kindness toward others, it does have a profound effect on other beings (like light reflecting off other jewels), so never doubt the power of kindness or tolerance! 🙂

The Bodhisattva Precepts

The main bulk of the text though is devoted to the Bodhisattva Precepts (菩薩戒; Chinese pinyin: púsà jiè, Japanese: bosatsukai). In the sutra itself, there are 10 Major Precepts, and 48 Minor Ones. The Bodhisattva Precepts are actually only the 10 major ones. The minor precepts are intended for monastics only, though one can obviously try and incorporate as many as they can. For example, the third and fourth minor precept proscribe consumption of any meat, or of pungent herbs, so in traditional Asian Buddhist cuisine, you see both omitted.

The Bodhisattva precepts are something above and beyond** the standard Buddhist moral precepts that people normally adhere to, such as the Five Moral Precepts of lay followers, or the monastic rules (the Pratimoksa). In East Asian Buddhism many sects follow them, even if the followers don’t know where they come from. For example, in Soto Zen and in Jodo Shu, priests vow to follow the Bodhisattva Precepts, as do many lay people. Jeannie, a long-time reader, excellent blogger, and all-round nice lady, recently recommended me the book Invoking Reality: Moral and Ethical Teachings of Zen which includes the moral precepts of Soto Zen. Guess what? They’re all taken from the Brahma Net Sutra! 😉

Of the Bodhisattva precepts (the 10 major precepts), the Buddha teaches in the sutra:

Disciples of the Buddha, listen attentively! Whoever can understand and accept a Dharma Master’s words of transmission can receive the Bodhisattva precepts and be called foremost in purity. This is true whether that person is a king, a prince, an official, a monk, a nun, or a god of the eighteen Brahma Heavens, a god of the six Desire Heavens, or a human, a eunuch, a libertine, a prostitute, a slave, or a member of the Eight Divisions of Divinities, a Vajra spirit, an animal, or even a transformation-being.

This is a very cool line in the sutra. Essentially it says anyone, and I mean anyone, who can accept and receive the Bodhisattva precepts is a praiseworthy person. As a certain priest I know online said, you don’t have to actually receive them in front of a preceptor (a senior monk), you can vow to follow the precepts before a Buddha image, or even just to yourself. It doesn’t matter. The point is the intention and effort!

No one expects perfection at first, it is a life-long challenge, but no effort is wasted, and John Daido Loori taught in the book above, it becomes a part of you. Ven. Yin-Shun, the Chinese Ch’an master, also taught that once one has cultivated the aspiration for Enlightenment, one can enter the path of the Bodhisattva through these precepts.

Namu Amida Butsu
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu

* – In other Indian myths, the net belongs to Indra instead, but the meaning is the same.

** – For you computer guys, think of it like precepts++; in C parlance. ;P


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

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