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"An Exposition Of The Brahmajala Sutta"


Senior M. A. Pali Student, University of Rangoon.

Vol. 1, No. 3, 1953

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          Being the first discourse of the first Nikaya, the Brahmajala (Great Net) is an important discourse. To us in Burma it is doubly important, because this very discourse was delivered at Suvannabhumi by Sona and Uttara, the first Buddhist missionaries who came to Burma in the 3rd century B.C.

          It is mentioned in the Sasanavamsa that Sona and Uttara after driving away an ogress recited the Brahmajala sutta which caused the conversion of sixty thousand people to the new faith, while 3,500 young men and 1,500 girls of noble family entered the Order.

          The Brahmajala sutta consists of two parts, the Sila (morality) section comprising the small, medium and great section, and the philosophical portions in which the various philosophical views held by individual philosophers or schools of philosophy are discussed.

          From the section on morality we come to know how the Buddha was head and shoulders above all the contemporary teachers as regards morality and discipline. And from the philosophical portions it becomes clear that the Buddha was the greatest of the philosophers. If we understand the Brahmajala sutta we shall correctly understand the Buddha's doctrines.

          The moral precepts are arranged according to the number—the concise section contains a small number of moral precepts and very important ones at the same time. The medium section contains a number of moral precepts in the form of certain practices and occupations followed by some schools of brahmins and monks. But the Blessed One and his monks avoided those practices and occupations. Similarly the elaborate section contains a large number of secondary professions by means of which the brahmins and monks of some schools earned their living, which the Blessed One and his disciples refrained from following. It is important to note that the Buddha's Teaching of morality was of a much higher order than that of some of the Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical sects, whose members did not consider it sinful to practise, for example, gambling, accepting gifts of maidens and women, and such things as land and cattle and to earn their livelihood by various questionable means, like foretelling the future, causing abortion, deafness and dumbness, etc. The study of the section on precepts on morality gives us also a glimpse into certain social customs and practices, occupations and professions, games and sports, certain arts and sciences such as astrology, physiognomy and medical science of ancient India.

          In the philosophical portion we find descriptions of various views under the heading of Pubbanta-kappa and Apparanta-kappa (Speculation relating to the past and speculation relating to the future). The discussions mainly centre round the soul and the world—two important subjects discussed in all philosophies—the world and the soul theories relating to the past are discussed under Pubbanta-kappa and those relating to the future are discussed under Aparanta-kappa. Besides the questions of the world and the soul other questions such as what is moral (Kusala), what is immoral (Akusala), whether the soul and the body are the same or different (tam jivam tam sariram) - one of the 10 Indeterminates—and whether there are beings opapatika satta * etc. are discussed. There are mentioned sixty-two views altogether.

          Strictly speaking, the number of views is eight, namely Eternalism, Semi-Eternalism, Extensionism, Eel-wriggling, Fortuitous- origination, Existence after death, Annihilationism and Hedonism, the doctrine of happiness in this life. (Sassata-vada, Ekacca-sassata ekacca-asassata, Antanantika, Amaravikkhepa, Adhiccasamuppada; Uddhamaghatanika, Uccheda and Dittha dhamma-nibbana vada). But each of these views is divided into several parts and these parts are regarded as separate views. Some of the views can be identified; for example Annihilationism No. 1 is the same as that held by Ajita of the hair blanket Eternalism No. 1 is the same as the view of Pakudha Kaccayana one of the heretical teachers. Rhys Davids in his American Lectures refuted the view of Garbe that the Eternalism was the Sankhya view. All the views could not be actually held, but they were logically formulated so that no view might be left out of this Great Net.

          The Blessed One divided speculation relating to the past under 18 grounds, for instance, under the heading of Eternalism there exist four views, that is 4 grounds on which Eternalist views were held. The Eternalists held the view that the soul and the world are eternal, giving birth to nothing new, is steadfast as a mountain peak and is as a pillar firmly fixed. They believed that the living creatures run on and pass away, fall from one state of existence and spring up in another yet they are for ever the same. Those who held the Eternalism No. 1 could remember by means of meditation a hundred thousand previous births; those who held No. 2 could remember past existences to the extent of ten world aeons, similarly No. 3 up to forty world aeons. As for the 4th group, they were the logicians who held the Eternalism by logical reasoning and not by practising concentration like the other three groups. These brahmins and monks who remembered their past came to the conclusion that the soul and the world which had persisted through those long periods must be permanent. But any such conclusion is wrong, for they moved within the domain of Nescience (Avijja), and Nescience is beginningless (anamatagga). One under the influence of Nescience cannot know the Truth.

          Under the same heading of Speculation relating to the past, Semi-eternalist view's are mentioned. Those who came from the Abhassara world of Radiance and were reborn in the world of Brahma gods thought that Brahma who was reborn in that world first, was permanent, eternal, and they themselves who had to pass away from that Brahma world and were reborn in the human world were impermanent. So they held the Semi-eternalist view. Similarly, those who were gods called the "Debauched by Pleasure (Khidda-padosika) and the "Debauched in mind" (Mano-padosika) were reborn in the human world and took the same view thinking they themselves were impermanent while those who were not spoiled by sport and were not envious were permanent. Fourthly those who were addicted to logical reasoning held that view by believing that the five senses namely the eye, the ear, (he nose, the tongue and the body are impermanence while the mind or consciousness is eternal. it may be mentioned here that whether it is a god or Mahahrahma or our mind or consciousness, everything is impermanent and therefore the semi-eternalist view is wrong. It may be noted that in the list of 10 indeterminates there is mention of the world as eternal and the world as not eternal but here we have world as well as soul; besides, the Semi-eternalist view is not mentioned in the 10 Indeterminates.

          The Extensionist views are mentioned in four groups, three of them holding their view as usual due to their knowledge born of concentration and the last one by logical reasoning. Some believed that the world is finite and others believed that it is infinite some believed that it is finite in the upwards and downwards directions and is infinite across. Another group held that it is neither finite nor infinite, by logical reasoning. Here they did not say anything about the soul. It may be added that in the list of 10 indeterminates we have only the world as finite and the world as infinite, and not the other two mentioned here. The theories regarding the nature of the world or universe which certain monks and brahmins formulated did not interest the Buddha who regarded such discussion as useless for it does not help us to attain the goal of life which is making an end of suffering.

          The Equivocators (Amaravikkhepikas) or the eel-wrigglers refused to answer definitely the question whether this is good or bad (idam kusalam, idam akusalam), because they were afraid of telling lies, which will hinder their spiritual progress. Some were afraid of being influenced by feeling (chanda), desire (raga), ill-will (dosa) and hatred (patigha), which might cause them attachment (upadana) and thus become a hindrance on their way to the goal. Some dared not discuss with other teachers as they would not be able to explain the reasons for their answers and so they avoided by saying "This is not my view (Evam pi me no), the other also is not my view (Tatnanti pi me no) different is not also my view (annatha ti pi me no), "is not" is also not my view (No ti pi me no), and "not not" is also not my view (No no ti pi me no)., Last of all some due to their stupidity gave the same answers in reply to the questions—whether there is another world or not, whether there are chance-born beings or not, whether there is result of good or bad deeds or not, whether any sentient being continues to exist or not after death, both exists and does not exist, neither exists nor does not exist after death. By reading these we find how those Equivocators were timid and stupid. The last four questions are the same as the last four Indeterminates—these questions the Blessed One also refused to answer not because of ignorance but because the posthumous state of an arahant defies description besides, it is unprofitable to discuss them.

          As regards the other questions which Sanjaya avoided, the Buddha's view was definite, namely whether there is the next world or not or whether there is result of good or bad deeds or not.

          Sanjaya Belatthiputta the heretical teacher was an eel-wriggler and he discussed the questions beginning with "Is there another world ?" (atthi paraloka) etc. The eel wrigglers were not interested in the theories of the soul and the world.

          Another class of teachers held the Fortuitous-originist views, and they said the world and the soul arise without reason. Those who came down from the world of Unconscious Beings (Asannasatta deva loka), by means of their exertion attained concentration which led them to think that the soul and the world are fortuitous in origin. They thought that they not having been, had come into being. Some held that view by a process of reasonings. This unscientific doctrine is the opposite of the Law of Causal genesis (Paticcasamuppada) formulated by the Buddha.

          Thus we get 18 views of those who reconstructed the ultimate beginnings of things. The Brahmajala sutta further mentions the Speculators on the future (Aparanta Kappikas) who arranged the future on forty-four grounds. Here we find under the heading of the views regarding conscious existence after death (Uddhama ghatanika sanni vada), sixteen views about a conscious existence of the soul after death. They said that the soul after death is conscious and not subject to decay. They differed from each other in deciding whether the soul has—1. form or, 2. not, 3. has and has not form, 4. neither has nor has form, 5. is finite or 6. infinite, 7. both finite and infinite, 8. neither finite nor infinite, 9. has one mode of consciousness, 10. has various modes of consciousness, 11. has limited consciousness, 12. has infinite consciousness, 13. is happy or, 14. miserable, 15. both happy and miserable, 16. neither happy nor miserable.

          Speculators about the unconscious existence after death (Uddham=aghatanika asanni vada) were those who held eight views on an unconscious existence after death. The details are the same as under conscious existence up to number 8 of the above list.

          And some held that the soul is neither conscious nor unconscious (Uddham aghatanika neva sanni na sanni) on the same eight grounds as under unconscious existence mentioned above. In brief the future conditions of the soul have been discussed under three heads namely—1. Conscious existence of the soul after death. (Uddham aghatanika sanni vada) 2. Unconscious existence of the soul after death. (Uddham aghatanika asanni vada) 3. Neither conscious nor unconscious existence of the soul after death. (Uddham aghatanika nevasanni sanni vada.

          These views are different ramifications of one question namely the condition of the soul after death. It may also be noted that these theorists were not interested in the question of the nature of the world. The Buddha showed the fallacy of belief in the existence of a soul surviving after death as believed by them. The so-called soul is nothing but successive states mistaken for an entity.

          Then we find the Ucchedavada which was held by Annihilationists who in seven ways maintained the cutting off, the destruction, the annihilation of a living being. The first variety of this doctrine was held by Ajita Kesakambali. The Annihilationists said that the soul after death is cut off, destroyed and is annihilated. They mentioned seven different kinds of souls namely:

          1. The soul which is a product of the four elements (mahabhutas) 2. which is divine, has form, belongs to the sensuous plane and feeds on solid food, 3. which is divine and has form and made of mind, 4. which has attained the sphere of infinity of space (akasanancayatana), 5. infinity of consciousness (vinna nanancayatana, 6. nothingness (akincannayatana), 7. sphere of neither consciousness nor unconsciousness (neva-sanna-nasannayatana). They all said that those various souls are annihilated after death and there is a complete end of a being. We find that the annihilationists are just the opposite of the Eternalists. From this we know that the Arupajjhanas were pre-Buddhistic, and this can also be proved from the Aruapariyesana sutta wherein Alarakalama and Uddaka Ramaputta who held the doctrines of Nothingness (Akincinnayatana) and neither consciousness nor unconsciousness (Neva sanna nasanna-yatana) respectively, are mentioned as the philosophers under whom the Bodhisatta practised meditation of the immaterial sphere (Arupajhana). The Annihilationists regarded the body or a subtle kind of body or even the stages of Arupajjhanas as souls. It may be remarked that these soul theorists are necessarily annihilationists. The Buddhists are neither soul theorists nor annihilationists. There is continuity after death till the attainment of Nibbana, but not the continuity of a soul. Thus in Buddhism the two views Annihilationism and Eternalism are avoided and reconciled.

          Ditthadhamma-nibbana vadas were held by those who believed in the doctrine of happiness in this life on five grounds, namely 1. one can get happiness (Nibbana) when one's soul is in full five pleasures of the senses, 2. when one attains first jhana, 3. second jhana, 4. third jhana, and 5. fourth jhana. Thus we find that they considered the fullest enjoyment of all the sense pleasures or the happiness derived from the attainment of the four stages of meditation (Rupajjhana) to be equivalent to Nibbana. But our Blessed One had mentioned in the Dhammapada that Nibbana is Paramasukha, which is far exceeding the happiness born of jhanas. According to this the four Rupajjhanas appear to have been practised by the monks and brahmins at the time of the Buddha and these, like the Formless Meditation (Arupajjhanas), were pre-Buddhistic practices.

          At the end of each of the views the Buddha declared that in contrast there are doctrines which are profound, difficult to perceive, difficult to understand, tranquil, excellent, beyond the reach of reasoning, understandable only by the wise. In the Ariyapariyesana sutta ( Majjhima Nikaya) the same adjectives are used in connection with the causal genesis (paticcasamuppada), the conditioned origination (idappaccayata), the cessation of all the predispositions (sabba samkhara-samatha), the abandonment of all the bases of life (sabba upadhi patinissagga), Nibbana etc. Therefore it is clear that the doctrine of Nibbana is the profound doctrine preached by the Buddha which is higher than the views preached by the monks and brahmins.

          The Buddha declared that these sixty-two views are based upon sensation (Vedana) which is caused by contact (phassa) and which leads to craving (tanha), and craving naturally leads to rebirth and suffering. So the Buddha advised his disciples not to follow those doctrines, as Nibbana cannot be attained by the contact of the mind with the 6 sense objects, which are impermanent. One must go beyond mind in order to attain Nibbana. The stage of neither consciousness nor unconsciousness which the Bodhisatta had attained under Uddaka Ramaputta was a very subtle state of mind and therefore the Bodhisatta instinctively felt that the highest goal was not yet reached. And so he left him, and by his own effort attained to the complete cessation of both perception and sensation (Sanna-Vedayita Nirodha) stage and then to Nibbana.

          The great significance of the sutta may be judged from the statement made at the end of the sutta that the ten thousand world systems shook when this discourse was being delivered by the Buddha. No such incident is reported to have happened when other important discourses like Samannaphala sutta were delivered.

          * Opapatika (Lit. "Accidental") satta—"Spontaneously born beings, i.e, born without the instrumentality of parents. This applies to all heavenly and infernal beings".

          "After the disappearing of the five lower fetters he appears (spontaneously) in a spiritual world," ®

(Majjhima Vol 1. ) Nivapasutta


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