Brahma Net Sutra

commentary by Elder Master Wei Sung
translated by Bhikshuni Heng Tao
reviewed by Bhikshuni Heng Chih
edited by Bhikshuni Heng Hsien and
Upasika Kuo Ts'an Nicholson

      The fourth Identity with the Buddha is that of Similarity in Appearance. When one's skill is deep, one gets rid of afflict1on--the filth drops away—and purifies the six organs: the defiling karma of the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind is gone. After the filth of these six organs has been purified, then one achieves Similarity in Appearance with the Buddha. This process is like that of forging iron. Although it is not yet fashioned into any thing, the rust is gone and it is ready to be formed into something. Similarity in Appearance is as when you make a Buddha image and the shape has been carved out, but its light has not yet been opened. Nonetheless, it is similar in appearance to the Buddha.

      The fifth Identity with the Buddha is that of Partial Certification. This is analogous to gilding the Buddha image, bit by bit. This means that as you progressively break through each layer of ignorance, you simultaneously see a proportionate amount of the Dharma nature.

      As each of the forty-two categories of delusions of ignorance, is smashed, a corresponding level of Dharma nature will be manifested for you. A person who has broken through one level of ignorance and seen one share of the Dharma nature, will attain the Eight Marks of Accomplishing Buddhahood in a hundred worlds. If he can break through two shares of ignorance he will accomplish Buddhahood in a thousand worlds. If he can break through three shares of ignorance, he will accomplish Buddhahood in ten thousand worlds. So imagine if he can break through all forty-two sections; he can become a Buddha in infinite worlds. This is the fifth Identity, that of Partial Certification.

      The sixth is Ultimate Identity with the Buddha. When you have completely broken through all forty-two categories of ignorance, then the principle and nature manifest. The principle of true suchness is totally apparent. This is Ultimate Identity with the Buddha.

      Some time ago, when I was in Manchuria, I developed a sore on my foot, and I went to a pharmacy to get some ointment. The owner was really courteous. He offered me a chair and poured me some tea. Why was he being so polite? It was because he was preparing to preach a new doctrine to me! He said, "Dharma Master, you are a Dharma Master of the Red Sun World, but actually this world of today is the White Sun World. When Shakyamuni Buddha was in the world, that was the Red Sun World, and the time of Maitreya Buddha is the White Sun World--and that time is now. At the time of the White Sun World, people cannot attain the Way by leaving home. The teaching has fallen into the hands of the laity. Only as a layperson can one accomplish the Way."

      This was obviously an outside way sect called "The White Sun Way." I explained the principle of the Six Identities with the Buddha for him. I said, "In principle, everyone can become a Buddha. It doesn't matter whether you have left home or are a layperson. After you have listened to the Sutras and understand, that is called 'Identity with the Buddha in name.' It is like taking a trip from Shen Yang to Bei Jing (Peking). Once you are on the train and have started on your way, that is 'Identity with the Buddha in Contemplation and Conduct.' When you reach Shan Hai Kuan, you reach the 'Identity in Similarity of Appearance," because you aren't very far from Peking. After passing through there, you arrive at 'Identity in Partial Certification.' At each successive stop, you are closer and closer to your goal. Once you have arrived at the Heavenly Gate and enter the city of Peking, that is like the 'Ultimate Identity with the Buddha', because you have arrived at your destination."

      At this point, his eyes were opened wide. He dared not ramble on with his theory. Then he asked, "Dharma Master, where do you live?" 
      I said, "Wan Hsiao Temple." 
      He asked, "Do you lecture the Sutras at that Temple ?"
      I replied, "Yes."
      "When do you lecture?"
      "From the fifteenth of the fourth lunar month to the fifteenth of the seventh lunar month."
      "What time?"
      "It will be announced in the papers."
      "I've got to listen to the Sutras! I've been following the wrong road, and now you have spoken true principle and I know that I've been wrong."

      So, you see, if I had not lectured this principle to him, he would have continued to go down the wrong road, and he would have ended his days thinking that Maitreya was now the ruling Buddha in the World. I used the Sixth Identity with the Buddha, to destroy his deviant views.

      The principles of the Six Identities with the Buddha can take care of certain problems that people have. They can get rid of their laziness, their ignorance, and their pride. They can help those who don't think that they can achieve the high level of the Buddha and so languish in inferior positions. For example, in Malaysia there was a Dharma Master from Hong Kong who told his disciples, "People don't have to cultivate, because eventually they will become Buddhas anyway. Cultivation is just working in vain." So these really lazy people said, "Oh, he's right! I've been working all these years and haven't accomplished a thing. Now he tells me that when the time comes, I will naturally become a Buddha. I can really get behind that." So after that, whenever there were Dharma Assemblies, these people would go and not even bow to the Buddha. They'd just stand around as if they were watching a show. If these people were doing the Great Compassion Repentance Ceremony or the Incense Praise, they would just stand around and say, "Pretty good; not bad." They were just standing around waiting to become Buddhas.

      If you use the principles of the Six Identities with the Buddha, you can break through such people's delusions. "Sure, one can be identified with the Buddha in principle, but what good is a Buddha who just stands around? You will never achieve Buddhahood that way. That's merely the substance of the principle, but it's not real achievement of Buddhahood. Take the example of a precious pearl. It emits a lot of light, but if it's buried in the mud and no one removes it and scrapes it off to reveal its luster, how can its light ever be seen?" This principle takes care of lazy people.

      When those who say "All those states are very high, but how can we common mortals accomplish Buddhahood?" hearing these Six Identities, they realize that everyone can cultivate and become a Buddha, and their theories fall apart.

      Then there are those who are arrogant. They say, "I don't respect the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the ten directions--what's so great about them?" If you present them with the principles of the Six Identities and say, "So you think you're so hot? What level of delusions have you cut off? What principles have you been certified to?" That smashes right through their arrogance.

      The principles of the Six Identities with the Buddha were drawn from the NIRVANA
SUTRA, by the Great Dharma Master Chi Chih of the T'ien T'ai School. They are not actually listed in it, but he derived them based upon the text of the NIRVANA SUTRA.

      Another way to explain "Buddha" is by using the principles of the Three Bodies of the Buddha:

1.) The Dharma Body;
2.) The Reward Body;
3.) The Response, or Transformation Body.

      The Dharma Body is the principle and nature of fundamental Enlightenment. The Reward Body is Perfect Wisdom, or Initial Enlightenment. The Transformation Body is compassionate appearance in response to living beings. The Buddha responds to the needs of living beings who are suffering by compassionately appearing in response to them.

      Another way to explain this is that the Dharma Body is Vairochana Buddha, which translates as "All-Pervasive Light". The Reward Body is Nishyanda Buddha, which means "Fulfillment of Purity." The Transformation Body is Shakyamuni Buddha, which translates as "Capable of Humaneness," and "Still and Silent." The three bodies are one and yet different. The bodies are not one because there are three bodies. But they are not different, because the three come from one Buddha. It is because the potential and conditions of living beings are different that beings see differently. Some see the Reward Body, others see the Response Body, and still others see the Dharma Body. Again, taking a pearl as an analogy, the Dharma Body 1s the substance of the pearl, which is round and perfect. The Reward Body is like pure light emitted by the pearl. The Response Bodies are like the inter-reflections of pearls--a pearl reflected within a pearl. Apart from the substance, there is no light. Apart from the light, there is no reflection. The three are one. Therefore it says, "With the Three Bodies purified, then Brahma's Net appears."

      In the title, after explaining "Buddha", one goes on to explain the word, "speaks." The Buddha joyously speaks this Sutra from the depths of his heart. When the time comes to speak, he speaks with great joy. The explanation is this: "Because all Buddhas have already certified to the one substance and three bodies, they realize that all living beings are also replete with these virtues." Buddhas realize that all living beings are endowed with the virtue to become Buddhas. Therefore, "With the great compassion which fills their hearts in every thought, they think to rescue living beings." In each and every thought, they think about how living beings have the total capacity to become Buddhas, too, and yet they renounce the benefits and do not cultivate. With this great compassion, they wish to rescue those living beings. So when the conditions have ripened, as they have now, it is the time to Speak THE BRAHMA NET SUTRA, SO that all living beings will return to the world of the original source so that they will cultivate from the ground of being a common mortal to the ground of becoming a Buddha. That means returning to the world of the original source, the Original Honored One, the Buddha of the Dharma Body, and respectfully receiving the Dharma-door of the Mind Ground.

      Living beings and Buddhas have identical wisdom--they have the same potential for spiritual penetrations and wonderful functions as the Buddhas. So why do only Buddhas have these? It is because living beings have greed, hatred, and stupidity. Greed is an affliction that arises slowly, but anger is an affliction that arises very quickly. In one moment of anger you can fall, whereas it might take a longer time for you to fall from greed. Let me illustrate this point.

      During the Buddha's time, there was a king who invited five hundred great Arhats to his palace to stay for the three-month summer retreat and receive offerings. In this way, the King accrued a great deal of merit and virtue. Later, when this king was about to die, some of his great officials were standing around his bed fanning him. One of them, probably because he wasn't paying attention, dropped the fan right on the face of the King. The King could no longer speak, but he got angry and thought, "Here I am lying on my death bed, unable to speak, and since I can no longer give you orders, you insult me like this!" With that one thought of anger, he died and was reborn as a snake.

      Fortunately, the Buddha, who was still living at that time, had disciples who were great Arhats with spiritual penetrations. When they saw the realm into which the King had fallen, they tried everything to help. They recited mantras and Sutras and finally got rid of his snake body for him so that he could resume his previous form and ascend into the heavens. Yet, if it had not been for the power of the Buddha and his great disciples, the King would have fallen into the snake realm. So you see how easy it is to slip from one realm to another in the six paths of rebirth. There is a verse the ancients used to describe the three poisons:

      The three poisons converging are like the poisonous bird.
      Wherever this bird goes, the grass dries up.
      Drop a few of its feathers into a little wine, and flames burst forth.
      Drink this wine, and your guts immediately turn blue.

The three poisons are like that poisonous bird. That bird is so poisonous that all it has to do is fly over a field of green grass, and the grass immediately burns parched and yellow. You can see from that how evil the poisonous energy of that bird really is. If you were to take a few of its feathers and put them into a little wine, the wine would immediately burst into flames. And then, if you were to douse the flames and give that wine to someone to drink, his guts would turn blue. It would be like dying his stomach with blue dye. So the three poisons of greed, anger, and stupidity are truly evil!

      Religions other than Buddhism don't emphasize cutting off these three afflictions. Even such a religion as Taoism, which has really lofty principles, talks about the three thousand merits and the eight hundred conducts, without saying that one must absolutely cut off greed, anger, and stupidity. Yet, if you don't rid yourself of these three poisons, you won't be able to get off the revolving wheel of birth and death. If you want to transcend the Triple Realm, you must eradicate greed, hatred, and stupidity. That's all there is to it.

      Returning to the Sutra proper, we have already explained the first part of the title THE BUDDHA SPEAKS. "Buddha" is Sanskrit and means "the perfection of the Three Enlightenments." That is, the Enlightenment of Self, the Enlightenment of Others, and the Perfection of Enlightened Practice. "The Buddha Speaks": He speaks from his heart with joy. Great Master Ngou Yi's commentary says, "When Nishyanda Buddha spoke this Sutra, it was for the purpose of receiving living beings to return to their original world, to personally behold their inherent Honored One, and to respectfully receive the Dharma-door of the Mind Ground. After that, he went beneath the Bodhi tree and manifested the accomplishment of enlightenment. Universally, for the sake of ordinary beings, he explained the ten major and forty-eight minor precepts. The purpose of these precepts is to cause the person receiving them to instantaneously enter into the Buddha's position"--to instantaneously go from the position of a common mortal all the way to that of a Buddha, "To become a true disciple of the Buddha." So it says, "The original intent was to cross over sentient beings, and for that reason, he proclaimed this Dharma with great Joy."

      Actually, THE BRAHMA NET SUTRA is divided into two parts, or two scrolls. Usually it is the second part that is explained. In Bodhimandas, when they recite the precepts, they also recite the Second Scroll. The first section was spoken by Nishyanda Buddha, and the second section was spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha. The First Scroll discusses sequential cultivation of the various Bodhisattva stages:

The Ten Dwellings
The Ten Conducts
The Ten Transferences

The Three Worthy Positions

The Ten Grounds

The Ten Sagely Positions

The Second Scroll is the Actual explanation of the names and characteristics of the Ten Major and Forty-eight Minor Precepts and is the section spoken by Shakyamuni Buddha.

      Having already explained THE BUDDHA Speaks, we now explain brahma net. The Sutra says, "AT THAT TIME, THE BUDDHA CONTEMPLATED ALL THE NETS AND CANOPIES OF THE HEAVENLY BRAHMA KING." That net is like a huge banner with many, many holes, and it is said that the limitless worlds are like the holes within the net. "AS EACH AND EVERY WORLD IS DIFFERENT AND THEIR VARIATIONS INFINITE, SO, TOO ARE THE BUDDHA'S TEACHINGS." They are like all these different holes in the net. Worlds are all different and their variety is infinite, and the Dharma-door taught by the Buddha are the same. There are great Dharma-doors and lesser Dharma-doors, all of which are different. This Sutra takes the analogy of "The Brahma Net as part of its title.

      One translation of "Sutra" is "tallying text." It tallies with the wonderful principle of all Buddhas above, and below it tallies with the potentials of all living beings. Another way to explain the word "tallying" is that "it acts as a guideline and a rule, and from ancient times until the present has remained a constant standard.

      The word "Sutra" is Sanskrit, and it has been transliterated into Chinese in many ways. These simply reflect the various dialects of India. If you consider the various dialects of Chinese or English, you will understand the principle underlying the various transliterations of the word "Sutra".

      A Sutra, then, "Tallies with the wonderful principles of the Buddhas above and with the potentials of living beings below." The potential of living beings are divided into Superior, Average, and Inferior. Principles are divided into Absolute (true), Mundane, and Average. Upon hearing about the Way, people of the Superior potential immediately know that it is wonderful. Upon hearing the Dharma, they think, "Oh, this is superb!" and immediately recognize it. Those who flow in mediocrity, on the other hand, when pondering on the doctrines with their minds in a pure state, know that this is something realty important. But these people don't think about these principles when caught up in their everyday affairs. It is only when they are in quiet surroundings and their minds are pure that they contemplate them.

      Stupid, obstinate, and dull people, upon hearing profound principle, will just snicker. Not only won't they accept it, but they'll also scoff and say, "What are all these people talking about? It's a11 superstitious rot." But, because of the very nature of the Great Vehicle treasure:

      If one hears, yet does not believe, One still prepares causes for planting the Buddha seed.
      If one studies, yet has no accomplishment 
      One can still receive the blessings of
humans and gods.

So, it's said that once it passes through your ears, it will act as an eternal seed of the Way. People may not believe it when they hear it, but even so, the seed that's planted will eventually mature, and they will reach Buddhahood. Although you may not immediately reach accomplishment, you will still receive the reward of blessings. Therefore, the merit and virtue of the Buddha's teachings are inconceivable.

      There are also the Five Meanings to the Sanskrit word SUTRA:

1. The foundation of all dharmas;
2. The revelation of the subtle;
3. A bubbling spring;
4. A carpenter's inked cord;
5. A flower garland/stringing together.

      The first is that it is the foundation of a11 dharmas. The Sutras include everything. When you look into the Sutras, you find that the Buddha even answers the questions of princes concerning how to run the country and deal with allies--everything. Therefore, it is called the foundation of a11 dharmas.

      The second is that it reveals a11 profound, subtle, and wonderful principles.

      The third meaning is "a bubbling spring." The principles of the Dharma flow forth like a bubbling spring--uninterrupted and unceasing.

      The fourth meaning is "a carpenter's inked cord." This is a method used by ancient craftsmen as a measuring device. They used it as a ruler, so as to know where to cut the board--which part to use and which part to discard. In this way, the Sutras distinguish between the defiled and the proper. Using the Sutras as a means of certification, you wi11 be able to te11 the proper from the defiled.

The fifth meaning is "a flower garland." Here we can use a verse to explain the meaning:

      Syllables explain the mysterious essence of heaven and earth.
      When put in sequence, they comprise the names of sages and worthies.
      Isolated, they are merely individual sounds.
      When put together, they are called "a Sutra."

"Syllables explain the mysterious essence of heaven and earth." A11 the secrets of the ancient past have been transmitted by words. Otherwise, how could we know what happened in the past? And "when put in sequence, they comprise the names of sages and worthies." For example, take the name, Shakyamuni Buddha. This combination of Sanskrit syllables form the name of the Buddha. But, if the words were broken up syllable by syllable, they wouldn't have much meaning. In the same way, when the words of a Sutra are taken separately, each individual word doesn't have much meaning. But assembled together, those same words make up a Sutra, such as "AT THAT TIME, NISHYANDA BUDDHA, FOR THE SAKE OF THIS GREAT ASSEMBLY, SPOKE IN GENERAL ON THE MIND GROUND..." And this is the analogy of the flower garland. You string together flowers and they make a garland. 

-to be continued-

THE SHURANGAMA MANTRA begins next issue A bi-lingual feature of Vajra Bodhi Sea, the Shurangama Mantra is a unique and inconceivably valuable on-going lecture series at the City of 10,000 Buddhas. Venerable Abbot Hua's own verse explanations and his clear and detailed commentary reveal the secrets of this, the longest and most powerful mantra in Buddhism.