Brahma Net Sutra

commentary by Elder Master Wei Siong

translated by Bhikshuni Heng Tao
reviewed by Bhikshuni Heng Chih

edited by Bhikshuni Heng Hsien and
Upasika Kuo Ts'an Nicholson




      Today we begin the lecture series on The Buddha Speak the Brahma Net Sutra. This Sutra discusses the Bodhisattva precepts, the precepts that Bodhisattvas hold. Whoever holds these precepts is a Bodhisattva--it's just that simple. The reason being, as it says in the Sutra itself:

      "If people receive the Buddhas'
      precepts, they will immediately
      enter all Buddhas' position."

Just by taking the Buddhist precepts, you enter into Buddhahood. So this is quite a simple thing. How does it work? You should think:

      The Buddha is one who has already accomplished Buddhahood.
      People are those who have not yet become Buddhas.
      If you constantly maintain this kind of faith,
      The accomplishment is already complete.

A Buddha has already accomplished Buddhahood. As a person, you are someone who has not yet accomplished Buddhahood. But if you can maintain the faith that in the future you will become a Buddha, then you are already replete with the precepts of a Bodhisattva.
      In the Sung Dynasty, there was a Ch'an Master named Yung Ming Shou who wrote the
Yung Ming Treatise on Consciousness Only, which talks about the fact that everything comes from the mind. This piece of literature is very long, but I have taken a few lines of verse from it for you to read:

      Contemplate the realms as many
      as grains of sand before your eyes;
      Gather the multitudes of living beings
      in the palm of your hand;
      Change plain earth into jeweled kshetras;
      Transport pure lands to defiled nations,
      This is within the capacity of all
      And is the same as the heritage of all sages.
      It does not rely on the power of transformation or spiritual penetration,
      And it is not dependent on cultivation and certification.
      The scope of virtue is such that all are replete with it.

"Contemplate the realms as many as grains of sand before your eyes." Lands as many as the grains of sand in the Ganges unfold before you without the least effort on your part. When that happens, then you have the power to "gather the multitudes of living beings in the palm of your hand," and to "change plain earth into jeweled kshetras." Our Saha world is made of tiles, rocks, dirt, and rubble, but can turn into a Buddhaland--a land of ultimate bliss.

      "Transport pure lands to defiled nations." This means that you can move the Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss right into our defiled land and move the defiled land away. "This is within the capacity of all sentients." Buddhas can do this kind of thing, but does this ability only belong to the Buddhas? It is shared equally by all living beings. What the Buddhas can do, all living beings can do as well. All living beings are originally endowed with an equal share in this inheritance, and this "is the same as the heritage of all sages. It does not reply on the power of transformation or spiritual penetration." That means you don't have to rely on spiritual penetrations to obtain this share. "And it is not dependent on cultivation and certification." You don't have to cultivate the Way and certify to the fruition to get this share; you are endowed with it from the start. "The scope of virtue is such that all are replete with it." If originally you have this share, then why don't you have it now? Why do living beings constantly revolve on the wheel of rebirth and have to undergo so much suffering? Why aren't they in control? It is due to just three things which deprive living beings of self-mastery: greed, anger, and stupidity.

      According to worldly dharmas, it might be admirable to have greed, hatred, and stupidity. For example, if a child were to go out and, by dishonorable means, acquire something for the sake of its family, then those in the family might approve. But actually, that would just be greed. Moreover, according to worldly dharmas, if you don't have any anger, you aren't a hero. But according to the Buddhadharma, if isn't that way at all. According to the Dharma, greed, anger, and stupidity are the illnesses of the Dharma body. Within Buddhism, stupidity does not refer simply to being dumb. It refers to ignorance. It means that you are lacking in the power of wisdom. If you have wisdom, then you won't give rise to anger or greed. Therefore, both anger and greed are caused by stupidity. From precepts you will give rise to samadhi, and from samadhi you give rise to wisdom. Precepts, samadhi, and wisdom are the Three Practices of Non-outflows.

      Just take this as an example. If in a country the government lacks power, then guerilla factions will take over and the country will become unstable. It is the same way with people. If you are weak in precepts, samadhi, and wisdom, then the guerillas of greed, anger, and stupidity will take over and precepts, samadhi, and wisdom will eventually fail. But if precepts, samadhi, and wisdom can rule, then greed, anger, and stupidity will be unable to rise up. In this case, the states described in the previous verses will manifest naturally. That is, you will be able to "contemplate the realms as many as grains of sand before your eyes; gather the multitudes of living beings in the palm of your hand; change plain earth into jeweled kshetras; and transport pure lands to defiled nations." Another verse says:

      The views of living beings are just
      the Buddhas1 knowledge and vision.
      Like water that freezes into ice
      and ice that melts back into water.
      The power of precepts is like spring winds; the Buddha-sun is dazzling.

      Ice melts the Yellow River with a
      deafening crash that shakes both shores.
      Don't seek outside and be deluded and crazy.
      When complete enlightened, you are
      still a regular old soul.

This verse is talking about greed, hatred, and stupidity also. "The views of living beings are just the Buddhas' knowledge and vision." "But," you say, "if they are the same, how is it that living beings don't have the wonderful functioning of spiritual penetrations?" There's an analogy to explain why. It's "like water that freezes into ice and ice that melts back into water." Water is completely fluid--if you put it in a round container, its shape is round; if you put it in a square container, its shape is square; if you put it in a rectangular container, its shape is rectangular. It accords with conditions, is unobstructed, and at ease. But you cannot do that with ice. If ice is in the shape of a square, you can't fit it into a round container. If the shape of the ice is round, you can't fit it into a square container, and so on. Living beings who have given rise to greed, hatred, and stupidity are like blocks of ice. All that is necessary is to let the ice melt back into water. When ice changes back into water, it becomes fluid and unobstructed. By using the skill of precepts, samadhi, and wisdom, we can transform ourselves from blocks of ice into the fluid of water which is natural and has wonderful functioning. "The power of precepts is like spring winds; the Buddha-sun is dazzling. Ice melts the Yellow River with a deafening crash that shakes both shores." The winds of spring are very warm, and even if the ice is very thick, it will gradual1y melt in the warm breezes. The radiance of the Buddha's sun is an analogy for wisdom. When the Yellow River freezes in the winter, it gets so thick that even huge trucks weighing several tons can safely cross it. But when the spring winds come and the Buddha-sun shines, the ice of the Yellow River melts, and huge chunks break apart making crashing sounds so loud that they shake up both shores of the river. What are the shores? "This shore" refers to living beings, and "the other shore" refers to the Buddha. This means that when people really cultivate the Way and have the power of precepts, and the power of the Way is achieved, it influences both living beings and Buddhas. Living beings are moved, and the Buddhas are happy. Therefore, it says, "The ice melts the Yellow River with a deafening crash that shakes both shores."

      "Don't seek outside and be deluded and crazy." Don't ever seek outside. Work on your mind-ground. If you go outside running after form and name, you won't have an easy time of it. It is on the mind-ground that you can attain the Way. "When completely enlightened, you are still a regular old soul." This means that when you get enlightened, you still look like everybody else. You don't look like the Buddha with his thirty-two hallmarks and eighty subtle characteristics. The difference lies within your mind. You become a person who has cut off greed, hatred, and stupidity. You are not like other living beings who are full of those three poisons.


      There are different methods for explaining Sutras. When I entered the Buddhist Sutra Academy in China, I learned to explain the Sutras according to the T'ien T'ai school. The T'ien T'ai school uses the Five-fold Esoteric Meanings. If you speak the Sutras according to the Hsien Shou school, then there are the Distinctions of the Ten Doors. So, each school has its own way of explaining the Sutras. I will explain this Sutra according to the T'ien T'ai method, which means that before explaining the Sutra text proper, one explains the Five-fold Esoteric Meanings. "Five-fold" means that there are five levels. "Esoteric" means very subtle, profound, and difficult to perceive. "Meanings" indicates that you deeply enter into the Buddhas' meaning. With this five-fold process you delve Into the very subtle and profound principles of the Buddhas. The Five-fold Esoteric Meanings are:

1. Explaining the Title.
2. Illustrating the Substance.
3. Clarifying the Doctrine.
4. Discussing the Function.
5. Determining the Teaching.

      The title is The Buddha Speaks the Brahma Net Sutra. The Chapter is called "The Bodhisattvas' Mind-Ground." After the title is explained, then 2) the substance should be illustrated. It's as in describing a person--after you give the person's name, then you describe the person's characteristics: big or small, male or female. Only after you illustrate the substance can you realty know what the person is like. After that, you want to know what he adheres to, That is like 3) clarifying the doctrine. Then you want to know what the person does. 4) Discussing the function, then is to talk about the effect the Sutra has. The last is 5) determining the teaching. You determine which category of teaching the Sutra falls under.

      It's easy to listen to Sutras, but it's very difficult to get an explanation of the teachings, because it's only in Buddhist studies academies and schools which investigate Buddhism that people really study the teachings. Only in places where they exclusively lecture Sutras do they get into such detailed explanations. "Teachings" and "Sutras" are different. The Buddha's Sutras were divided into different teachings spanning the length of his life. There are "great" teachings and "small" teachings, there are "Sound-hearer" teachings and "Bodhisattva" teachings. To distinguish them very carefully is called "Determining the Teaching."

1. Explaining the Title.

      The Buddha Speaks the Brahma Net Sutra is the title of the Sutra we are explaining. "The Buddha Speaks" means that the Great Sage, The Compassionate Honored One, proclaims this with the Four Unobstructed Eloquences. The Great Sage is the Buddha. The Four Unobstructed Eloquences are:

      1. Unobstructed Eloquence of Dharmas,
      2. Unobstructed Eloquence of Meanings,
      3. Unobstructed Eloquence of Phrasing,
      4. Unobstructed Eloquence of Delight in Speaking.

      "Buddha" is a Sanskrit word often pronounced "Buddhaya." Translated into English it means
"The Enlightened One." There are different type of enlightenment.

     (1) False knowledge and enlightenment.
This is the enlightenment of common mortals.
All the things that they claim to be enlightenment are false.

     (2) Deviant knowledge and enlightenment. Those of externalist ways also have an enlightenment, but it is deviant.

     (3) Prejudiced knowledge and enlightenment,
This is the enlightenment of the Two Vehicles:
the Sound-hearers and Those Enlightened to Conditions. They have enlightened to the principle of emptiness, but they haven't reached the Middle Way. They know that everything which has shape and form is empty, and they understand the principle of emptiness,
but then they become one-sided and fall into emptiness. Therefore they don't find the Middle May.

     (4} Proper knowledge and enlightenment.
Bodhisattvas' enlightenment is not perfect.
They have not reached the highest summit. Only the Buddha has completed his enlightenment. His enlightenment consists of the Enlightenment of Self, the Enlightenment of Others, and the Perfection of Enlightenment and Practice. So although Bodhisattvas and Buddhas both have proper knowledge and enlightenment, it is more perfect on the part of a Buddha.

      Common mortals cannot enlighten themselves. Those of the Two Vehicles can enlighten 
themselves, but cannot enlighten others. Bodhisattvas enlighten themselves and others, but they have not perfected their enlightenment and practice. Only a Buddha is replete with the three kinds of enlightenment.


For a more detailed explanation of "Buddha"
we can look at these six identities.

      (1) Identity with the Buddha in Principle.
      (2) Identity with the Buddha in Name,
      (3) Identity with the Buddha in Contemplation and Conduct,
      (4) Identity with the Buddha in Similarity of Appearance,
      (5) Identity with the Buddha in Partial Certification,
      (6) Ultimate Identity with the Buddha.

The first means that all living beings are endowed with the Buddhanature. That means that there's an identity on the ground of principle. In substance and in principle, living beings are also Buddhas.

      The second means that after we have heard this principle, then we open an initial
understanding of perfection. If you realize that the principle is uniquely perfect and full,
then you can achieve identity with the Buddha in name. On the basis of name, a person is a Buddha.

      The third means that relying on the Buddha's Perfect Teaching, in thought after thought, you single-mindedly apply effort and contemplate. You then subdue the Delusions of the Five Dwellings, which are:

      a. dwelling in the views for all places,
      b. dwelling in craving desire,
      c. dwelling in craving form,
      d. dwelling in craving formlessness,
      e. dwelling in ignorance 1ike dust and sand.

Living beings bring forth delusions from these five dwellings. The first dwelling means that whatever ordinary people see, they think is great. This is the delusion of view--grasping onto whatever one sees and thinking it is fantastic. The second, third, and fourth dwellings refer to the delusions of the Triple Realm. Cultivators must first see through this realm; they see that there is nothing so good about it and move on to the realm of the desire heavens. Cultivators may then think that the heavens are great and decide to stay there. They get stuck and don't want to move on--stuck in the craving of desire. However, if they continue on to the form heavens, to the states that are the Dhyana samadhis, it's very comfortable there and so they may get stuck in that place and refuse to move on. They may even go beyond the form heavens and enter the formless realms where there is no shape or form. They don't have a body or an appearance, but there is still consciousness in that realm. One may think, "Well, this isn't such a bad state," and get stuck in the dwelling of formlessness. If one can go beyond all those rea1ms,then the final one is called dwelling in ignorance like dust and sand. These are the fundamental afflictions. This refers to bringing forth affliction when faced with the problems of crossing over living beings. One thinks, "Living beings are so difficult to cross over. They all have different temperaments and it's tike crossing over motes of dust and grains of sand!" Because of that, one may lose heart and retreat. But if one can get past these five dwellings, one can reach to the Identity with the Buddha in Contemplation and Conduct, which is the third.