1. Brahmajala Sutta

Introduction

The Sutta begins with a reference to the dispute between a wandering ascetic and his disciple. The ascetic strongly condemns the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, while his young follower praises the Three Jewels in every possible way. The disciples of Buddha discuss this dispute in the Sangha. Buddha, after learning about the subject of their discussion, instructs: it is necessary to speak without anger and hatred about the virtues of the Three Jewels, because dislike of criticism and people who criticize can only damage the defenders of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.

The statement about the insignificance of praise, born by worldly consciousness

Then, the Buddha asserts that praise, coming from people with worldly thinking, is negligible.It is insignificant because it will describe only the superficial virtues of the Buddha’s external behavior, but not his subtle or profound wisdom which is difficult to understand.
The Buddha describes in detail the precepts of monastic behavior observed by him, and emphasizes that the purity and restraint of his actions are the only thing accessible to the understanding of the worldly man. What does the Buddha consider truly amazing in his own wisdom? That His wisdom goes beyond the sensory perceptions.
In the Brahmajala Sutta, the wisdom of the Buddha is represented by an understanding of how all judgments about the past and the future arise, and also what are the consequences of these judgments. First, the Buddha enumerates and explains all kinds of judgments, and only at the end of the sutta – explains them in accordance with his own wisdom.

Judgments about the past

Judgment: the world and the “I” are eternal.

The Buddha says that with the help of seriousness, concentration and other qualities of asceticism, venerable hermits and brahmans remember their past incarnations in this or that place, at one time or another, under this or that name. And therefore they come to the conclusion about the eternity of the world, lonely, standing like a pillar, and the eternity of the “I”, incarnating again and again. Otherwise, devotees come to this conclusion by reasoning and inferences.

Judgment: the world and the “I” are partially eternal, and partly non-eternal

The Buddha discusses faith in the partial eternity and non-eternity of the world and the “I”. In this section, three supernatural cases of the recollection of the past, relating to the world of Brahma and the worlds of the gods are discussed, as well as the process of coming to this faith by reasoning and inference.

The memory of the past birth in the Brahma world is as follows: There are periods when the whole world collapses and then there are beings that abide in radiance. They consist of mind, they feed on joy, radiating glow, moving in space, being in glory. All this goes on for a very long time.
Then appears the empty palace of Brahma. Those beings whose term has come are born into it. Born in this palace (which is, in fact, the original model of the sense of “I”), the being, albeit blissful, begins to worry, feel lonely and think “Oh, if other beings were also in this state”.
Then other beings are born in Brahma’s palace, and they perceive the previously born being as Brahma, because it was there before them. In addition, the creatures born earlier live longer, are more beautiful and strong. Therefore, they retain their position in the palace longer, while the beings born later are forced to incarnate in the earthly world. Reborn in the earthly world, these beings sometimes become venerable hermits and remember their past state and events in the Brahma’s palace. Thus they come to the conclusion about partial eternity (relating to the splendor of the world of Brahma) and partial non-eternity (relating to the sufferings of the earthly world).

The memory of the past birth in the assembly of the gods “Spoiled by Pleasure” is as follows: There are gods that are attached to pleasures, committed to them beyond measure. Because of this attachment, their ability for self-knowledge is weak, and they are forced to abandon the heavenly world and incarnate in the earthly. Some of them, through earnestness, concentration and renunciation, begin to see their past birth in the world of the gods. Because of this memory, they come to the conclusion about the existence of a partial eternity (the world of the gods) and partial non-eternity (the earthly world).

The memory of the past birth in the assembly of the gods “Spoiled by the Mind” is as follows: There are gods inclined to condemn each other (to argue with each other). They become entangled in their judgments and weaken their body and thoughts. They leave their host and are born in the earthly world. Then, those who stood on the path of concentration, can recall their past birth and come to the conviction of the eternity of the celestial state and the non-eternity of the earthly state.

 

The two following groups of judgments about the world and the “I” do not have a clear connection with memories about the past (it can be assumed that in the sutta there is a fusion of various instructions connected by the general theme of “judgments about the world and “I”).

Judgment: the world and the “I” are finite or infinite

Such views are built on the fact that by means of concentration, diligence, and asceticism, venerable hermits and brahmans gain a vision and conviction of the finiteness or infinity of the world and the “I”. The same methods of research often lead to opposite conclusions, because researchers get conviction in this or that observation, but not in anything beyond it.

Judgment: lack of certainty

These are the views of those who are afraid of expressing a certain judgment and thus behaving slippery like a fish. They are afraid to become victims of their own involvement in judgments, or fall into hate from judgments, or be confused by detailed questions about their judgments.

Judgment: the world and the “I” appear without reason (Here there is a return to the theme of recollection of past times)

The last group described in this part of the sutta represents another kind of view of the nature of the world and the “I”, based on thoughts about the past. This is the view of the world and the “I”, as occurring for no reason. The case considered here is when the contemplator remembers the emergence of his consciousness, but does not recall anything preceding it. Or the contemplator comes to the conviction of the causeless emergence of the world and consciousness by inference.

Judgments about the future

In this part of the Sutta the Buddha tells us about the different views on the after-death state. These views are detailed more than all the others mentioned in the sutta, but are reduced to the following beliefs: “I” is endowed with consciousness after death; there is no consciousness after death; after death there is neither consciousness nor lack of consciousness; the living being is destroyed after death; the living being is not completely destroyed after death. All these beliefs and ideas are based on conviction and dependence on sensory perceptions. Either way, they describe “I,” “consciousness,” “existence,” meaning only sensory perceptions, gross, subtle or subtlest.

Judgments about possible higher liberation in the visible (i.e. earthly) world are represented as a separate group: they only conditionally relate to judgments about the future. This group is represented as a polemic of various people among themselves. Each subsequent judgment is presented as a certain person, polemicizing with the previous one, setting out his concept after “but”:

The first interlocutor: “just as the” I “enjoys through the senses in the visible world, so through the senses it attains liberation.” The second interlocutor, referring to the first: “but this state will be crude, since feelings are subject to suffering. Therefore, liberation is achieved by rejecting the activity of the senses, and staying in the aspiration of the mind.” The third interlocutor, referring to the second: “but the striving activity of the mind and contemplation is crass (connected with tension), and therefore it must also be thrown off for enjoyment of composure in the heart.” The fourth, referring to the third: “but the pleasure of composure in the heart is rough (because it relies on joy and merriment in the heart, that is, depends on them), therefore it must be rejected for the sake of self-realization, staying in happiness”. The fifth, referring to the fourth: “but this awareness depends on happiness, so it is gross. A more subtle realization is achieved when both happiness and the non-happiness associated with variability of happiness are rejected. This is the ultimate liberation of the “I” in the visible world.”

Buddha, summing up this chain of judgments, as well as all previous ones, says that the Tathagata knows the basis of these judgments, their consequences, and also what goes beyond them.

Fundamentals of judgments about the world and the “I”, and their consequences

Explaining the foundations of the listed judgments about the world and the “I”, the Buddha explains that they are all based on dependence on sensory perceptions (of different subtlety). Buddha calls being captivated by thirst (desire) and anxiety as their common consequence.

The Buddha explains that when contemplating or exploring one state of consciousness, contemplators do not remember anything else (that is, they are fixed on a certain experiment).

Summarizing, the Buddha says that the creators of all the described theories try to escape from the net (samsara), jump out of it, but remain here, and become entangled again. This statement is justified by the fact that, following the listed judgments, assuming to find support in them, the contemplator again constructs ideas about the world and the “I”, based on the judgments that he creates.

Contrasting the state of the Tathagata with the state of preachers explaining the nature of the world and the “I” as existent, non-existent or indefinite, the Buddha says that after the death of the body, neither gods nor people will see the Tathagata. This means that in the state of the Tathagata there is no dependence on either the world (controlled by the gods), nor the incarnated body (controlled by the “I”).

The name of the sutta

In conclusion, Ananda asks the Buddha how to name the explanations contained in the sutta. The Buddha indicates that these explanations should be understood as the “Net of Essence”, “The Net of the Teaching “, “The Net of Perfection” (which became the name of the Brahmajala Sutta), “The Net of Views”, or “An Incomparable Victory in the Battle.”

These names allow us to say that the same net of categories of thinking and experiences that catches the mind constructing the views of the world and the “I”, serves as a net of perfection for the mind that uses it to clarify questions about the cessation of thirst (desires) and delusions.

By Vladimir Pyatsky & Smadar Pyatsky

Translation: Natalia Tsimbler & Dorey Glenn