Brahmajala Sutta (DN 1)

Presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, November 1, 2014.

The Great Entanglement

Digha Nikaya 1

The kind of tolerance that is needed is one that respects the authenticity of Early Buddhism so far as we can determine its nature from the oldest historical records, yet can also recognize the capacity of Buddhism to undergo genuine historical transformations that bring to manifestation hidden potentials of the ancient teaching, transformations not necessarily preordained to arise from the early teaching but which nevertheless enrich the tradition springing from the Buddha as its fountainhead.

Bhikku Bodhi (2010)

When you go into the deepest part of Buddhism you’re finding absolutely no difference whatsoever, not an iota of difference, and the only difference is superficial, on the outside, even the bodhisattva.

Ajahn Brahm (2007)


AnandaWelcome to the first talk in a new series based on the suttas of the Pali Canon. Over the next 34 weeks, I will be committing each weekly session to a sutta of the Pali Canon in order, beginning with the Digha Nikaya, the first nikaya of the second section of the Pali Canon, called the Sutta Pitaka. The word nikaya means “collection.” “Sutta Pitaka” may be translated as “container of discourses.” Before we start talking about the sutta specifically, however, I want to discuss the Pali Canon itself, since there are Buddhists who study the secondary literature exclusively or Mahayana Buddhists who only study the later sutras and are not familiar with pre-sectarian Buddhism.

According to tradition, Ananda, the personal attendant of the Buddha for the final 25 years of his life, when the Buddha was between the ages of 55 and 80, would memorize the Buddha’s teachings as he gave them. By this time, the sangha was more or less established and there were already questions arising as to how to preserve the authenticity of the teachings. Several months after the Buddha’s death, during the rainy season, which most sources say begins in July in northeast India, the sangha met to discuss this question. The Buddha’s barber, Upali, recited the Vinaya, which finalized the pratimoksha, the rules of the order, as they had developed over the course of the Buddha’s life. Ananda recited the discourses of the Buddha as he had heard them. Others must have been involved as well, because not all of the suttas are attributed to Ananda. These became the nuclei of the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas respectively, the Abhidhamma being a later production (third century BCE). This occurred about the year 400 BCE, give or take 20 years or so, according to an increasing number of modern scholars, a significantly more recent date than the traditional date of 544 BCE. Since the Buddha died at about 80 years of age, his dates may be given as circa 480–400 BCE. Bhikku Bodhi, Maurice Walshe, and many others accept this chronology. From the perspective of authenticity, the later date is a good thing, though this is not the reason for the revision.

Over the course of the next three hundred years, the sangha recited the pratimoksha monthly, and the full Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas at unknown intervals including the first four Buddhist councils, which were held about 400 BCE, 295 BCE, 251 BCE, and in the first century BCE. It is clear that during this time the core material that was received directly from the Buddha’s first disciples was codified, clarified, copied, and passed down through a rigorous process of memorization, but this was not something unfamiliar to Indians, who had passed down the Vedas in this way for nearly two thousand years. Although there are no physical books from that time, the suttas themselves show the evidence of this process of preservation, including the use of repetition, stock phrases, and versification. Consequently, it is very tedious to read, albeit fascinating in its details. Additional works were also added to the Canon based on earlier traditions.

The Pali language in which the canon is preserved is a prakrit, a vernacular Indic language, related to the Ardhamagadha (“half Magadhi”) language in which the Jain scriptures were written. The earliest use of prakrit is attributed to Ashoka (third century BCE). Originally identified with Magadhi, after the northeast Indian republic of Magadha, where the Buddha spent much of his time, Pali is now regarded as a partly Sanskritized mixture of several prakrit languages dating from about the third century BCE. It is believed that Pali is a hybrid artificial language that was developed by the Buddhists of the time as a lingua franca in order to preserve the scriptures and to communicate with each other. The fact that this needed to be done shows that Buddhism was already beginning to diversify both linguistically and doctrinally. First written down in Sri Lanka in the first century BCE, it appears to have gone through a phase of development in western India, whereas the Buddha died in northeast India, so the tradition that was ultimately codified in the Pali Canon clearly went through successive phases of development from eastern to western India and then south and in Sri Lanka before being written down in the first century BCE. From the foregoing, it seems likely that what we know as the Pali Canon achieved something close to its final form prior to the time of Ashoka, who is never mentioned or alluded to in the Pali Canon, perhaps in the early third century BCE. Since Ashoka converted to Buddhism in about 263 BCE, this is only about 137 years after the death of the Buddha based on the new date. For comparison, therefore, the Pali Canon would correspond to the state of development of Christianity in the second century CE, which was the time of the Apostolic Fathers, the early Christian theologians who codified the faith.

palm leaf ms.During the first century BCE, Sri Lanka experienced a famine during which many monastics died. Up to that time, the oral transmission of the dharma had been rigorously maintained, but it was now feared that the dharma might be lost, so the Pali Canon was committed to writing, on smoked and dried palm leaves. Since palm leaf manuscripts are known to have existed as early as the fifth century BCE, and the Brahmi alphabet in which the edicts of Ashoka were written was invented during the third century BCE, one wonders if some of the Pali Canon might not have been written down before this time. The curvy alphabets peculiar to southern Indian and southeast Asian alphabets were specifically adapted to writing on palm leaves, since angular letters tend to split the leaves. Palm leaf books were bound and sent to Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines. The suttas were also translated into Chinese, Tibetan, and other languages. Each sect had its own canon, and scholars have recently found an extensive Sarvastivadin canon in Afghanistan, which has as yet been little studied. Written on birch bark and dated as early as the first century BCE, it is the oldest surviving Buddhist text. However, scholars have been able to compare many versions of the texts and most scholars now believe that the core set of suttas, the Nikayas, were very consistent between the different schools, with doctrinal differences coming out more in the third section of the Pali Canon, the Abhidhamma. Even though the specific origin of the Pali Canon that we have today is Theravadin, a sect that itself originated in the first century BCE and thus cannot be considered to have been original, Peter Harvey opines that “the Theravādins, then, may have added texts to the Canon for some time, but they do not appear to have tampered with what they already had from an earlier period.”

Although we can’t say that the Pali texts, not even the Nikaya suttas, preserve the Buddha’s actual words, Bhikku Bodhi and others have noted that they do faithfully preserve a fairly self-consistent philosophy, and we can and should study what they do say as a basis for further study. This seems to be an essential first step, yet very often, as Peter Masefield has ruefully pointed out, the accepted construction of Buddhist philosophy has all too often been based on a superficial and partial reading of the suttas based on a few selected passages rather than an extensive and rigorous comparative analysis of the whole oeuvre. This interpretation has now hardened into dogma, sometimes called “mainstream” or “academic” Buddhism. Richard Gombrich suggests that the alternative approach, whereby Pali linguists try to ferret out the original words of the Buddha based on linguistic or historical criteria, has been discredited, such scholars tending to find what they want to find. Moreover, just because a text is more recent does not mean that it does not incorporate older material. Texts that are more recent may also incorporate legitimate implications not explicit in the earlier texts, may systematize older doctrines gathered from multiple sources, or may incorporate authentic realizations of successor practitioners based on the original methods. The more deeply one studies the Pali Canon, the more clear it is that, as Rupert Gethin, the current President of the Pali Text Society, has stated, the whole of Buddhist history may be regarded as a working out of the implications of the early scriptures. For all of these reasons, these talks will be based on all of the suttas of the Pali Canon, from a hermeneutical and critical perspective that excludes nothing, without regard to the biases of any historical, culturally contingent school. Although this approach may infuriate ideologues, hopefully it will also yield new insights into the dharma.

Today we’ll be looking at the first sutta of the Pali Canon in the translation of Maurice Walshe, published by Wisdom Publications, Boston, originally in 1987 and reprinted in 1995. These will also be published as a book late next year, the first of a series of non-sectarian commentaries on the Pali Canon that I hope to write over the next few years.

The Brahmajala Sutta is the first sutta in the Digha Nikaya because it is the longest, not because it has any special significance, unlike Genesis in the Bible for example. As in the Quran, the suttas are arranged in non-chronological order from longest to shortest. Thus, the title of the Digha Nikaya is “the long collection.”

Walshe mentions that there is no satisfactory translation of the word sutta, from Sanskrit sutra, “string” or “thread,” hence, “strings of rules hanging together like threads” or “that which like a thread runs through and holds together everything.” The PED says it comes from SIV, “to sew.” Hence, that which is sewn together.

Maurice Walshe translates the title of the first sutta of the Digha Nikaya, “the Supreme Net.” In Pali, jala means “net” or “entanglement.” Brahma refers to Brahma, the Creator in the Vedic, or Brahman, religion, but of course, Buddhism rejects the concept of a supreme deity, all deities or devas in Buddhism being limited and relative. It is interesting therefore that this sutta is largely about what the teaching is not, to use the subtitle assigned to the work by Walshe. However, let’s look more closely into the meaning of this word.

Brahmas do exist in Buddhism. They occupy the twelfth through fourteenth levels of samsara, called the Retinue of Brahma (brahma-parisajja deva), Ministers of Brahma (brahma-purohita deva), and the Great Brahmas (Maha brahma). The beings that inhabit these realms enjoy the first jhana, or meditative accomplishment, characterized by thinking, pondering, detachment, delight, and happiness. The most famous inhabitant of this realm is “God,” who is the first deva (the word literally means “shining one”) to be born into a new universe. He perceives that he is alone, so jumps to the conclusion that he is the creator and lord of the universe – a great delusion, of course. The description suggests the demiurge of the Gnostic religion, which makes one wonder if there is a Buddhist influence on Gnosticism. Edward Conze and Elaine Pagels have suggested that there is, but the view has not gained widespread acceptance in academe.

That said, the Buddha was often asked how one could achieve union with Brahma, and, in a remarkable anticipation of Christianity, he recommended the metta meditation on compassion to this end. Those who succeed in this practice will be reborn in the Brahma realm, which is the lowest level of the worlds of form (rupa loka), characterized by individuality and form but without sensual desire. The Brahma world is very similar to the Semitic concept of “heaven.” Sahampati, the Great Brahma, appeared to the Buddha when he hesitated to teach, and entreated him to teach for the salvation of the world. None of these meanings seems very close to the content of the sutta, however, which is primarily concerned with moral practices and wrong views, so let’s look deeper into the meaning of this word.

According to the PED, the word ‘brahma’ comes from the root BRH, the root of brahant, which means ‘to increase, to be great or strong.’ Rhys Davids relates it to the power or greatness of prayer or the ecstatic mind. In Buddhism, it refers to the supreme good, or a mystic formula, prayer, or mantra. Hence, the Brahmans were the chanters of the Vedic hymns, prayers, or mantras. In this context, ‘brahma’ appears to mean simply ‘great’ or ‘ultimate,’ combined with ‘net,” meaning ‘entanglement’ or delusion. This sutta, therefore, seems to be about the great entanglement, “what the teaching is not” in Walshe’s words and, by implication, therefore, what the teaching is. Bodhi’s translation, “the All-Embracing Net of Views,” is somewhat odd in the context, although not impossible.

You will notice that most suttas begin with the expression, “Thus have I heard.” These words are traditionally assigned to Ananda, who is reputed to have recited the entire text of the Sutta Pitaka from memory. However, in his article, “Thus Have I Heard,” Maurice Walshe suggests that “’Thus have I heard’ (Evam me sutam) was a standard way of opening a narrative the speaker knew by hearsay, not from personal experience. It also, I think, disposes of the commentarial idea that the phrase was Ananda’s in introducing the various suttas.” In other words, these words simply identify the sutta as a traditional teaching that has been handed down from the past.

The location of the sutta is the main road between Rajagaha (modern Rajgir in the Nalanda district of the Indian state of Bihar), the ancient capital of Magadha, and Nalanda, about 12 kms (seven miles) north. This was a major trade route. Magadha was one of the sixteen “great countries” (mahajanapadas) and had within it nascent republican or democratic administrations at what we might call the municipal level. It corresponds to southern Bihar and parts of east Bengal today. Maghadha was an influential cultural centre that influenced both Jain and Buddhist beliefs. It was ruled by the Haryanka dynasty from 684 to 413 BCE, and consisted of about eighty thousand villages. Nalanda was of course the site of the famous Buddhist university named after the city, which flourished from the fifth to the twelfth centuries before it was destroyed by the Muslim invaders. It is said that its library burned for three months. At the time of the Buddha, it was a prosperous village.

The Buddha was travelling along this road with his entourage, followed by Suppiya and his younger disciple, Brahmadatta. Suppiya and Brahmadatta were paribbajakas, wandering religious mendicants. Some of these were Brahmans, who went about clothed, unlike some other ascetics, and they were philosophers who delighted in intellectual debate and argument. Suppiya was a follower of Sanjaya Belatthaputta. The Buddha’s two chief disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, were former disciples of Sanjaya. Hence, some “bad blood” appears to have been involved on Suppiya’s part. Sanjaya appears to have been a sceptical agnostic, Walshe calls him a positivist, neither affirming nor denying such things as other worlds, the fruits of karma, and life after death. We will be hearing more about the agnostics later on. Sanjaya and Brahmadatta were engaging in a vigorous discussion of the merits and demerits of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, in which Sanjaya was denigrating and Brahmadatta defending them, in voices loud enough to be heard by all apparently.

At the day’s end, the Buddha, his entourage (to which the sutta assigns the unlikely number of five hundred monastics – inflating numbers is a common conceit of the Pali Canon), Suppiya, and Brahmadatta all stopped together at the royal park of Ambalatthika, literally “the mango sapling.” This appears to have been a kind of rest house erected in the Bamboo Grove.  Buddhaghosa says, “Here Ambalatthika is the king’s park. At the entrance stood a young mango tree called Ambalatthika by the people. Consequently, the park itself came to be known as Ambalatthika. It was well watered, shady, surrounded by a rampart, and securely fastened with gates. Within the park was a house ornamented with magnificent paintings, for the king’s relaxation. This was known as the royal rest-house.” Thus, there were two buildings in the park, one for the king’s use, and one for the use of travellers.

Early the next morning, the Buddha’s entourage got up and sat together in a place (presumably in the same park) called the Round Pavilion, possibly some sort of gazebo. Here it seems they discussed the things that were being said by Suppiya and Brahmadatta in relation to the Buddha, although this is rather obliquely expressed in the sutta. Sometime later, the Buddha joined the monastics and asked them what they were discussing, so they told him.

The Buddha told the monastics that they should not be angry, resentful, or upset with someone who disparages the Buddha, dharma, or sangha, as that would be a hindrance to them, since the emotion of anger would bias their judgment. Instead, they should simply explain what is incorrect, with an attitude of perfect dispassion. Similarly, the Buddha told the monastics that they should not be pleased, happy, or elated with someone who praises the Buddha, dharma, or sangha, since that too would be a hindrance, since the emotion of happiness would also bias them. Instead, they should simply explain what is correct.

This first teaching of the Buddha is refreshingly unique in the history of religions, since it discounts the value of emotion, whether anger or happiness, and of faith in favour of a calm assessment of the truth, and therefore the importance of rational, objective analysis, even in the context of spiritual matters. This implies in turn that spiritual matters can be evaluated in this way, or such an injunction would not make sense. How few, even amongst Buddhists, have recognized the importance of these pivotal principles and applied them to their own mode of thinking in the spiritual realm.

TathagataThe Buddha then drops this bombshell, which decisively separates Buddhism from every religion of which I am aware: “It is, monks, for elementary, inferior matters of moral practice that the worldling would praise the Tathagata.” The word that Walshe translates as ‘worldling’ is puthujjana. This is generally explained as puthu, ‘many’ + jjana, ‘folk’ – an ordinary, average person; a common worldling; a man of the people; an uneducated person.

The word ‘tathagata’ is the word that the Buddha uses with reference to himself. This word is somewhat mysterious. It is an epithet of an arhant, and non-Buddhists are assumed to have known what it meant. According to the PED, the compilers of the Nikayas regarded it as pre-Buddhist, and yet the word has never been found in any non-Buddhist work. Moreover, although it is an epithet of an arhant, it is only ever used of the Buddha, especially by the Buddha with reference to himself in the third person. Although the derivation is uncertain, it may be glossed as follows:

TA: this, that, just this (or that), even this (or these), referring back to somebody or something just mentioned; or this now, indicating something immediately following the statement of the speaker;

TATHA: so, thus and not otherwise, in this way, likewise (cf. TAT, “that” in Sanskrit, referring “suchness” or “reality as it is”); cf. TATTA, the real nature, reality;

AGATHA: come, arrived;

GA: going;

GATA: gone, gone away, arrived at, directed to;

TA: see above.

This is often glossed as “he who has thus come and gone,” commonly represented visually as a series of footsteps with no beginning and with no discernible end. Buddhaghosa suggests eight possible meanings:

  1. He who has arrived in such fashion;
  2. He who walked in such fashion;
  3. He who by the path of knowledge has come at the real essentials of things;
  4. He who has won Truth;
  5. He who has discerned Truth;
  6. He who declares Truth;
  7. He whose words and deeds accord;
  8. The great physician whose medicine is all-potent.

Modern Sanskritists boil the meaning of the word down to two alternatives: “the one who has gone to or arrived at suchness,” or “one like that,” with the implication of immobility or freedom from transitoriness.  In each case, ‘suchness’ or ‘that’ is essential.[1]

At the end of the sutta, the Buddha himself declares the nature of a Tathagata:

Monks, the body of the Tathagata stands with the link that bound it to becoming cut. As long as the body subsists, devas and humans will see him. However, at the breaking up of the body and the exhaustion of the life span, devas and humans will see him no more. Monks, just as when the stalk of a bunch of mangoes has been cut, all the mangoes on it go with it, just so the Tathagata’s link with becoming has been cut. As long as the body subsists, devas and humans will see him. But at the breaking up of the body and the exhaustion of the life-span, devas and humans will see him no more.

This statement need not imply that the Tathagata ceases to exist at death. In fact, the metaphor of the mangoes suggests rather the opposite. Rather, he ceases to exist as a transitory, samsaric being, and thus becomes invisible to samsaric beings, both devas and humans. The only thing remaining to keep the Buddha in incarnation is the energy or vitality of the life span, after the exhaustion of which he will be freed forever from the cycle of rebirth.

Now that we have examined these two words, which will recur frequently throughout the suttas, let us look again at this remarkable statement of the Buddha and consider what it means. The Bodhi translation says: “It is, bhikkus, only to trifling and insignificant matters, to the minor details of mere moral virtue, that a worldling would refer when speaking in praise of the Tathāgata.” How utterly distinct from the self-righteous moralizing of religion this statement is. We find this attitude in all religions. Many students of religion will tell you that morality is the essence of religion, from religio, ‘moral obligation,’ or religare, ‘to bind fast.’ For many religions, morality is everything. Even in Buddhism today, how often are we told that first one must perfect the rules of moral conduct, especially as a monastic, followed by meditation, in order to obtain wisdom, the final accomplishment – a construction that, as we shall see in this series of talks, is precisely the opposite of what the Buddha taught. We read this in popular Buddhist books all the time. For many people, following the rules is the practice and the more rules you follow, the holier you are. Thus, from this perspective a monk is superior to a householder because he follows 227 rules, compared to 331 rules for a nun, and yet the greater number of rules for women is not an indication of superiority but rather of their inferior status as a female (we shall also have occasion to discuss this view too later in the series). However, here the Buddha says that these are elementary, inferior, trifling, and insignificant matters, mere minor details that an uneducated, common, inferior person would praise but not, by implication, a superior person. Rhys Davids refers to “trifling things, of matters of little value, of mere morality, that an unconverted man, when praising the Tathàgata, would speak.”

The Short Section on Morality

So what are the things that the Buddha finds so inferior about moral practice? Perhaps they are merely superficial ethical observances that have little or nothing to do with the spiritual life, like matters of etiquette, that sort of thing. Here we encounter the second bombshell, for what the Buddha elaborates in detail in the next six pages in the English translation of Maurice Walshe are not mere formalities. Rather, he lists the essential rules of the entire Vinaya, starting with Pansil, the Five Precepts, starting with not killing, followed by:

  • Not stealing;
  • Chastity; and
  • No false speech.

Notice too that he does not even mention alcohol, an omission that occurs frequently throughout the Pali texts, as we shall see. He then expands the list to include the Eight Precepts, viz.,

  • Eating at the wrong time;
  • Singing, dancing, playing music, attending entertainment performances, wearing perfumes, and using cosmetics and garlands;
  • Using high or wide beds.

The list expands to include the Ten Precepts, viz.,

  • Accepting money.

Moreover, the list continues to include:

  • Not damaging seeds and crops;
  • Not accepting raw grain or flesh, women and young girls, male or female slaves, sheep and goats, cocks and pigs, elephants, cattle, horses and mares, fields and lots;
  • Not running errands, buying and selling, cheating with false weights and measures, bribery and corruption, deception and insincerity, wounding, killing, imprisoning, highway robbery, and taking food by force.

This completes the short section on morality, which summarizes the things for which the worldling would praise the Tathagata. Note that the Buddha does not state that these things are in fact allowed. Unless we assume that the Buddha sanctions murder, this is not his point. His point appears to be that these are merely superficial moral observances that, while appropriate, perhaps even necessary, really fall below the status of the Tathagata, who is far beyond such considerations, and that the admiration of the common, uneducated folk for such things really misses the point.

The Middle Section on Morality

In the middle section on morality these practices are elaborated in greater detail and some new items are added, including not destroying seeds, not enjoying stored up goods, not attending displays, not indulging in idle pursuits, not using high and wide beds, not adorning oneself, refraining from unedifying conversation, refraining from disputation, refraining from errand running, and refraining from deception.

The Large Section on Morality

Finally, in the large section on morality the Buddha describes the kinds of practices that we might regard as questionable: making one’s living by the practice of “base arts,” including palmistry; divining by signs, portents, dreams, body-marks, mouse-gnawings, fire oblations, oblations from a ladle, husks, rice-powder, rice-grains, ghee, oil, the mouth, or blood; reading the fingertips; house and garden lore; skill in charms; ghost lore; earth house lore; snake lore; poison lore; rat lore; bird lore; crow lore; foretelling a person’s lifespan; charms against arrows; knowledge of animals’ cries; judging the marks of gems, sticks, clothes, swords, spears, arrows, weapons, women, men, boys, girls, male and female slaves, elephants, horses, buffaloes, bulls, cows, goats, rams, cocks, quail, iguanas, bamboo rats, tortoises, deer; predicting matters related to war, astronomical phenomena, the weather, or their outcome, including harvests, security, danger, disease, and health (perhaps a reference to astrology); accountancy; computing; calculating; poetic composition; philosophizing; arranging marriages, engagements, or divorces; declaring the time for saving, spending, bringing good or bad luck; procuring abortions; spells; getting answers with a mirror, girl medium, or a deva; worshipping the sun or Great Brahma (thus refuting any suggestion that Buddhism is theistic); breathing fire; invoking the goddess of luck (probably Lakshmi); appeasing devas and redeeming vows to them; making earth house spells; causing virility or impotence; preparing and consecrating building sites; giving ritual rinsings and bathings; making sacrifices; giving emetics, purges, expectorants, and phlegmagogues; giving ear, eye, or nose medicines, ointments, or  counter-ointments; surgery, including eye surgery; pediatry (pediatrics); and countering the side effects of previous remedies using balms.

Many of these practices are associated with Brahmanism, which the Buddha repudiated. The short and middle sections on morality appear to be an early version of the Vinaya rules, so esteemed by monastics, yet they are declared by the Buddha to be trivial. Nor is this the only place in the Pali suttas where the Buddha makes such statements about the Vinaya.  The large section on morality includes a variety of practices with certain discernible characteristics, all subsumed under the heading “base arts.” Many of these correspond to practices that we would associate with magic, sorcery, or witchcraft. The third group is particularly associated with wrong livelihood by monastics, which has led some to suggest that these practices are not necessarily prohibited in themselves, but only prohibited for monastics, but this interpretation is refuted by the phrase “base arts.” This leads to some difficulties, however, because not all of the practices described fit into what we might think of as debased, including house and garden lore, foretelling a person’s lifespan (insurance companies do this routinely), knowledge of animals’ cries (being studied seriously by science), predicting astronomical phenomena, predicting earthquakes, predicting the weather, agricultural forecasting, accounting, computing, calculating, poetic composition, philosophizing, and medical arts, including prescribing drug remedies and surgeries. One theme that runs through the items is that of prediction, which the Buddha seems to have associated with magic. Of course, science in the Buddha’s day was different from today. Perhaps he regarded some items that we could regard as science today as pseudoscience or harmful. In any case, the inclusion of these items suggests that we cannot interpret the suttas in a naïve literalistic or fundamentalistic way. We should regard them seriously, of course, but try to discern the intent underlying them, without falling into superstitious reverence for rites, rituals, and dogmatic beliefs.

That completes the summary of the things for which the vulgar, uneducated common person, the puthujjana or worldling, would praise the Buddha, following which the Buddha says, “There are, monks, other matters, profound, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond mere thought, subtle, to be experienced by the wise, which the Tathagata, having realized them by his own superknowledge, proclaims, and about which those who would truthfully praise the Tathagata would rightly speak.” This passage further elucidates our understanding of the first section in which the moral practices are summarized. Based on this passage, we may further clarify the moral practices as superficial, the opposite of profound; obvious, the opposite of hard to see; easy to understand, the opposite of hard to understand; conceptual, the opposite of beyond mere thought; and to be experienced by the ignorant, opposite of to be experienced by the wise. The Tathagata himself, therefore, is also profound, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond mere thought, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. The reference to “superknowledge” is an extension of “beyond mere thought.” The implication is that there is a wisdom that transcends mere logic, which is reserved for those who have attained to it, and which transcends mere moral practice. In English, we have a word for this kind of wisdom. It is gnosis, and this trans-rational knowledge or wisdom was the special preoccupation of the early Gnostics, both Christian and non-Christian, before the Roman Church exterminated them. The message is that while morality may be necessary, it is superficial and inadequate. We shall see this concept elaborated later in the suttas when we come to discuss upaya, skilful means.

The Sixty-Two Kinds of Wrong Views

In the next section, “The 62 Kinds of Wrong Views,” the Buddha moves from moral practices to an itemization of erroneous philosophical positions. This is essentially a catalogue of philosophical views held by other schools at the time of the Buddha that the Buddha held to be false, including:

  • eighteen speculative theories about the past; and
  • forty-four speculative theories about the future.

All of these theories pertain to various views of the nature of the self and the world, and are based on one or a combination of three modes of reasoning: empirical observation, logical or rational argumentation, or even direct spiritual realization, as we shall see.

Speculative Theories About the Past

The Buddha identifies four theories that he calls Eternalist, four theories that he calls partly Eternalist and partly Non-eternalist, four theories that he calls Finitist and Infinitist, four theories that he calls Eel Wrigglers, and two theories that he calls Chance Originationists. These add up to eighteen theories.

Speculative Theories About the Future

Similarly, the Buddha identifies the following speculative theories about the future: sixteen doctrines of Conscious Post-mortem Survival, eight doctrines of Unconscious Post-mortem Survival, eight doctrines of Neither Conscious Nor-unconscious Post-mortem Survival, seven doctrines of Annihilationists, and five ways of proclaiming Nibbana Here and Now. These add up to forty-four theories.

If you add up these two groups of theories, they add up to sixty-two wrong views.

From the foregoing one can arrive at the following list of nine essential theories:

  1. Eternalism;
  2. Partly Eternalism and Partly Non-eternalism;
  3. Finitism;
  4. Infinitism;
  5. Eel Wriggling;
  6. Chance Originationism;
  7. Post-mortem Survivalism;
  8. Annihilationalism;
  9. Nibbana Here and Now.

The first six concern the past, and the last three concern the future. These are presumably theories that were current at the time of the Buddha. Let’s examine these theories and see what they say, remembering that the Buddha rejected all of them.

Eternalism asserts that the self and the world are eternal based on four arguments. First, the recollection of past lives that results from a state of mental concentration or meditation. This is interesting in itself, in that the Buddha himself is reputed to have attained this state at his enlightenment. The spontaneous arising of past-life memories has also been documented in recent times in the context of near death experiences (NDEs), psychedelic experiences, kundalini awakening, Rolfing, and various traumas. Ian Stevenson has studied thousands of cases of spontaneous past-life memory in children. However, the Eternalist infers from these experiences that the self and the world are eternal. The second view is similar to the first, except that one period of universal contraction and expansion of the universe is remembered as distinct from past lives. The third is almost the same as the second, except that multiple periods of contraction and expansion are remembered. Whereas the first three arguments are essentially empirical, the fourth argument is based on a priori logical reasoning. Thus, the Eternalist asserts the eternity of the self and the world. Note that the Buddha is not denying the experience of rebirth or the expansion and contraction of universes. This is part of the Buddhist worldview. Only the Buddha is denying that the eternity of the self and the world follows from these facts. It is a case of false inference.

The Partly Eternalism and Partly Non-eternalism doctrine is the view that God is eternal but that subordinate beings are non-eternal. The first argument for this view is that when a lower world contracts, discussed above, the beings living in that world are reborn in a higher world not subject to contraction. This doctrine remarkably presages scientific cosmology. After a long time the lower world begins to expand again, and a being from a higher world is reborn there, either as a result of the exhaustion of his life span or the exhaustion of his merit. After a long time other beings appear, and he thinks he is the First Cause, and they think he is “God” for the same reason. The ascetic who remembers one past life because of meditation remembers this life, and he concludes that the first being is permanent and that the later beings are all impermanent. Thus, he concludes that the world is partly eternal and partly non-eternal.

The second argument is, like the first, based on the recollection of a single past life because of meditation. In this case, the ascetic in his past life was a type of deva called “Corrupted by Pleasure.” This is a class of devas who spend an excessive amount of time addicted to merriment, play, and enjoyment, and so fall into the human state. When they remember this past life, they conclude that the devas who are not addicted to pleasure are permanent, but that they are impermanent, and so conclude that the world is partly eternal and partly non-eternal. The third argument is like that second, except that in this case the ascetic remembers a previous birth as a class of deva called “Corrupted in Mind.” These dwell in the realm of the Four Great Kings (catumaharajika devas), the next plane above the human world. Instead of being corrupted by pleasure, however, like the “Corrupted by Pleasure” devas, these beings are corrupted by envy. Seeing the long life of the non-envious devas, they fall into the same error of believing those devas to be eternal and themselves to be non-eternal. Finally, the fourth argument is an a priori logical or rationalist argument in which the objects of the five senses are perceived to be impermanent but thought, mind, or consciousness is believed to be permanent, and so the same conclusion as above is arrived at.

Finitism is the belief that the world is finite and bounded. Infinitism is the belief that the world is infinite and unbounded. In addition, the Buddha refers to the belief that the world is both finite and infinite and the belief that it is neither finite nor infinite. This is the first reference to a logical structure that we will also find in later suttas, viz.:

  1. X is X;
  2. X is not X;
  3. X is both X and not-X;
  4. X is neither X nor not-X.

This construction, called the “fourfold negation,” tetralemma or catuskoti, is a feature of Indian classical logic that is made much use of by the Buddha. We will be discussing this further in connection with later suttas.

Each of these beliefs corresponds to a separate argument, but each one comes down to the same thing – the direct realization of the fact because of meditation. Thus, these are less arguments than direct spiritual realizations.

The Eel Wrigglers (amaravikkheppika), which can also be translated as “endless equivocators,” are agnostics who refuse to commit themselves to any position, but simply say, “I don’t say this, I don’t say that. I don’t say it is otherwise, I don’t say it is not. I don’t not say it is not.” This belief, if we can call it that, is based on the desire to avoid lying, the desire to avoid attachment, and the desire to avoid cross-examination, which comes simply from not knowing. These are the first three arguments. The fourth argument is because one is dull and stupid!

The final category in the group of speculations about the past is that of the Chance Originationalists. This is the belief that the self and the world arise by chance, and it is based on two arguments. Here a deva who belongs to the class of devas called Unconscious (asaññasatta) is reborn in the human state, and because of mental concentration he remembers his birth there. From this, he concludes that before he did not exist, now he exists, therefore he has arisen by chance. The second argument is an a priori logical or rationalist argument that the self and the world have arisen by chance. This concludes the summary of speculations concerning the past.

The next group of speculations concerns the future. Fortunately, there are only three beliefs here, the first of which that we will consider is Post-mortem Survivalism. Post-mortem Survivalism asserts that after death the self is healthy and conscious and material, immaterial, both material and immaterial, neither material nor immaterial (note that recurrence of the tetralemma), finite, infinite, both, neither, of uniform perception, varied perception, limited perception, unlimited perception, happy, miserable, both, and neither. These are the sixteen beliefs, which really boil down to four logical variations of four fundamental beliefs concerning materiality, finitude, limitation, and happiness.

The doctrine of Unconscious Post-mortem Survival is based on two underlying views in all four alternatives discussed above, that after death the self is healthy and unconscious and material or finite (four alternatives each).

The Neither Conscious Nor Unconscious Post-mortem Survivalists hold that the self is healthy and neither conscious nor unconscious with the same eight variations as above.

The Annihilationists all believe in the annihilation, destruction, and nonexistence of the self at death but differ as to the nature of that self. The seven views of the self are that it is or has:

  1. Material, composed of four elements (or states of matter), product of mother and father (or male and female stuff). This corresponds to the dominant view under scientific materialism or secularism.

The next six views all accept the reality of the first view, but add a second self that also dies.

  1. Divine, material, sensory, and made of real food;
  2. Divine, material, mind-made, complete and not defective in any sense organ (a kind of “mental body”);
  3. Attained the Sphere of Infinite Space (the first plane of the Formless Realm);
  4. Attained the Sphere of Infinite Consciousness (the second plane of the Formless Realm);
  5. Attained the Sphere of Nothingness (the third plane of the Formless Realm);
  6. Attained the Sphere of Neither Perception Nor Non-perception (the fourth and highest plane of the Formless Realm).

All of these selves, even those that are spiritually advanced, are samsaric and are therefore subject to death.

Finally, we come to the final speculation concerning the future, that of Nibbana Here and Now. These are five views concerning the realization of nirvana here and now by existent beings, viz.,

  1. The self experiences nirvana when it indulges in the pleasures of the five senses.
  2. The self experiences nirvana when it experiences the first jhana or meditative accomplishment, characterized by thinking, pondering, detachment, delight, and happiness. This view rejects the previous view because of suffering.
  3. The self experiences nirvana when it experiences the second jhana, characterized by inner tranquility and oneness of mind, free from thinking and pondering, born of concentration, and accompanied by delight and joy. This view rejects the previous view because of thinking and pondering.
  4. The self experiences nirvana when it experiences the third jhana, characterized by waning of delight, equanimity, mindfulness and clear awareness, and joy experienced in the body. This view rejects the previous view due to mental exhilaration.
  5. The self experiences nirvana when it experiences the fourth jhana, characterized by the abandonment of pleasure and pain, the disappearance of joy and grief, equanimity, and mindfulness. This view rejects the previous view due to joy.

That completes the Buddha’s summary of the sixty-two wrong views.

At the end of this dissertation, the Buddha comments on all of these views using exactly the same language:

This monks the Tathagata understands. These viewpoints thus grasped and adhered to will lead to such and such destinations in another world. This the Tathagata knows, and more, but he is not attached to that knowledge. And being thus unattached he has experienced for himself perfect peace, and having truly understood the arising and the passing away of feelings, their attraction and peril and the deliverance from them, the Tathagata is liberated without remainder.

These, monks, are those other matters, profound, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful, excellent, beyond mere thought, subtle, to be experienced by the wise, which the Tathagata, having realized them by his own super-knowledge, proclaims, and about which those who would truthfully praise the Tathagata would rightly speak.

It is easy to jump to the conclusion based on the foregoing that the Buddha held no views on the nature of the self and the world, that is, that he rejected ontology, the science of being, altogether, since all of the sixty-two wrong views relate to the nature of the self and the world in one way or another, including empiricism, rationalism, and direct spiritual intuition. Such a view would make the Buddha an agnostic or even a nihilist. However, I will argue throughout these talks that such a view of the Pali Canon is erroneous, for various reasons that we will discuss as they come up in the suttas.

In the context of the present sutta, I would point to the Buddha’s rejection of the Eel Wrigglers, both in this sutta and elsewhere. You will recall the philosophy of the Eel Wrigglers: “When asked about this or that matter, they resort to evasive statements, and they wriggle like eels on four grounds.” In fact, the Buddha is quite judgmental about eel wriggling, this being the only view the adherents of which he characterizes as dull and stupid. If one reads his conclusion with attention, one notices various statements that imply more than simply not knowing: “the Tathagata understands … the Tathagata knows, and more, but he is not attached to that knowledge beyond mere thought, subtle, to be experienced by the wise, which the Tathagata, having realized them by his own super-knowledge, proclaims, and about which those who would truthfully praise the Tathagata would rightly speak” (italics added).

If we reject ontology altogether, then we are left with moral practice, which the Buddha has already made clear is not appropriate when referring to the Tathagata. Moral practices, as we have shown, are elementary, inferior, trifling, insignificant, minor, of little value, etc. Rather, what the Buddha appears to be alluding to is a mode of knowing that transcends ratiocination and that cannot be arrived at by experience, logic, or even intuition, which is referred to as the “superknowledge of the Tathagata,” but which can be spoken of. The trans-logical character of this knowing is shown by his frequent allusion to the tetralemma, which can be interpreted in various ways.

The Buddha’s rejection of the sixty-two wrong views is suggestive of the Buddha’s rejection of the concept of rebirth in any samsaric state because any samsaric state is subject to suffering, a view that we will encounter in later suttas. Thus, the Buddha rejects the religious notion of “heaven” altogether. Thus, he says, “These viewpoints thus grasped and adhered to will lead to such and such destinations in another world.” This is of course the concept of rebirth based on the law of karma. Here two things must be distinguished: the viewpoint itself, which the Buddha designates as “wrong view,” and the attachment that leads to samsaric rebirth. Thus, the Buddha says, “This the Tathagata knows, and more” – implying a superknowledge that transcends wrong view – “but he is not attached to that knowledge.” Two things are necessary: the acquisition of a trans-rational superknowledge that transcends and corrects the sixty-two wrong views, and non-attachment. In other suttas, the Buddha warns his followers against attachment to rites, rituals and beliefs, the latter apparently rejecting dogmatic philosophical speculation altogether. Similarly, when encountering a disputant who does not share the Buddha’s worldview, the Buddha usually seeks out common ground, and bases any further discussion with them on such common ground as can be identified, and reasoning from there. Invariably he leads the inquirer to a higher, more comprehensive view. Thus, he rejects disputatiousness altogether as a method of knowing.


The relationship between knowledge and attachment is made explicit at the end of the sutta, where the Buddha summarizes the sixty-two wrong views, saying of each one, “that is merely the feeling of those who do not know and see, the worry and vacillation of those immersed in craving.” The implication is that these views are personal, subjective, and rooted in craving or attachment. At the same time, it is clearly implicit that there is something to know and see and that there are those who know and see (“the wise”), since falsehood and error can only be identified in relation to truth and correctness and only one who knows the truth can identify error. The Buddha proceeds to analyze the nature of feeling and craving with respect to contact, the six sense bases, clinging, becoming, birth, and ageing and death. These are of course the fifth through twelfth nidanas, or ’causes,’ in the chain of dependent origination (paticcasamuppada), which we will discuss in detail later on in the series.

The Buddha says, “When, monks, a monk understands as they really are the arising and passing away of the six bases of contact, their attraction and peril, and the deliverance from them, he knows that which goes beyond all these views.” The six bases of contact are the organs of the six senses – eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind –affirming that the superknowledge of a Tathagata is trans-mental and that such superknowledge is not unknowable but is attainable by realization, despite the previous rejection of intuition as an intrinsically reliable method of obtaining truth in connection with Finitism, Infinitism, and Nibbana Here and Now.

The Buddha denigrates the views of the ascetics and Brahmans who speculate about the past and/or the future as both “fixed” and “speculative”: “these are all trapped in the net with its sixty-two divisions, and wherever they emerge and try to get out, they are caught and held in this net. Just as a skilled fisherman or his apprentice might cover a small piece of water with a fine-meshed net, thinking: ‘Whatever larger creatures there may be in this water, they are all trapped in the net, caught, and held in the net,’ so it is with all these: they are trapped and caught in this net.” Thus, I have translated the title of this sutta, “The Great Entanglement.”

Armed with this information, let’s look again at the nine theories in the light of what we know about Buddhist principles, and see if we can discern the essential error in each case. To recap:

  1. Eternalism is the belief that that self and the world are eternal.
  2. Partly Eternalism and Partly Non-eternalism is the belief that the self and the world are partly eternal and partly non-eternal. Note that the third logical category, non-eternalism, is absent. Here is our first clue.
  3. Finitism is the belief that the world is finite and bounded.
  4. Infinitism is the belief that the world is infinite and unbounded.
  5. Eel Wriggling is agnosticism. That the Buddha rejects this doctrine is our second clue.
  6. Chance Originationism is the belief that the self and the world arise by chance.
  7. Post-mortem Survivalism is the belief that after death the self is healthy and conscious.
  8. Annihilationalism is the belief that after death the self is healthy and unconscious.
  9. Nibbana Here and Now is the belief that the self experiences nirvana in some state.

suchnessThe key to understanding the Buddha’s rejection of all of these theories lies in the Buddha’s repeated reference to attachment. We know that attachment leads to samsaric rebirth. What is attachment? It is that which posits self-identity, permanence, and satisfactoriness, whereas we know from other suttas that the three marks of existence (tilakkhaṇa) are non-self-identity, impermanence and change, and suffering.  If we apply this key to the nine theories just enumerated, we find that each one contains a vital flaw that leads to attachment. The views that the self and the world are eternal or even partly eternal, finite or infinite, arise by chance, survive death, or are annihilated, and achieve nirvana in a samsaric state (the fourth jhana is still a samsaric state), all violate the three marks of existence. Similarly, eel wriggling violates the three marks of existence by denying that there is a knowable truth. This is the error of those who deny that the Buddha had an ontology. Thus, we see that the key to the Buddha’s repudiation of these theories is the fact of attachment, the craving that intrinsically posits self-identity, permanence, and satisfactoriness. We might call this process “objectification.” Implicitly, therefore, the superknowledge of a Tathagata is this realization of the Three Marks, which is an ontological realization, through which spiritual realization is purified of attachment and thus, paradoxically, leads to the realization of the dhamma, the TAT, “suchness,” reality as it is, beyond samsara, which is self-identical, permanent, and ecstatic.

Ananda asks the Buddha what this sutta should be called, implying that Ananda was self-consciously memorizing the discourses with the Buddha’s approval, and the Buddha replies that it may be called “the Net of Advantage, the Net of Dhamma, the Supreme Net” (hence, Walshe’s title), “the Net of Views, or the Incomparable Victory in Battle.” The reference to Ananda implies that this sutta was not the first sutta of the Buddha, as we discussed when we began, but was rather delivered during the final twenty-five years of the Buddha’s career, Ananda becoming the Buddha’s personal attendant in the twentieth year of his career, between the ages of 55 and 80. The sutta reports that when the Buddha delivered this sutta, the whole energy-information system of the universe vibrated in resonance. This is the only sutta in the Digha Nikaya, perhaps in the whole Pali Canon, of which this is said.

To summarize, the Brahmajala Sutta or “the Great Entanglement” is an extensive discussion of moral practice and wrong view, culminating in a discussion of the nature of realization of the Tathagata. The Buddha informs us that all of the moral virtues for which one would praise the Tathagata are actually trivial, superficial things that might impress vulgar, ignorant people due to their obviousness but are really of limited value and importance. Thus, the commentary says, “morality is inferior in comparison with higher qualities, for morality does not reach the excellence of concentration, nor concentration the excellence of wisdom.”  Similarly, a wide variety of metaphysical speculations concerning the nature of the self and the world are also denigrated. These speculations, rooted in craving and attachment, will only lead the believer to be reborn in the world corresponding to their particular outlook, because they are all based on the same mistake, the error of which attachment itself is the symptom, i.e., the ignorance of the Three Marks of non-self-identity, impermanence, and angst that characterizes the special realization of a Tathagata. These speculations are contrasted with the superknowledge of the Tathagata, the Buddha himself, which means “he who has reached the Absolute.” The superknowledge of a Tathagata transcends all of these philosophical theories, is trans-rational and dispassionate, and is rooted in the realization of the TAT, the Absolute, reality as it is, truth, of which the realization of the Three Marks is an expression. This is the true dharma that is only discernible by a few, the wise, for whose sake the Buddha chose to teach rather than remain silent.

In addition, the Brahmajala Sutta includes references to some basic conceptual structures that appear throughout the suttas, including:

  • The tetralemma, or “fourfold negation”;
  • The four jhanas, or meditative accomplishments; and
  • The chain of dependent origination (paticcasamuppada) based on the twelve nidanas.

We will be discussing all of these concepts in greater detail in future talks.


1. See also Hajime Nakamura, Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts, trans. Geynor Sekimori (Tokyo: Kosei, 2005), Vol. 2, pp. 216-219.  Nakamura contradicts the PED’s statement that the word is not known in pre-Buddhist sources: “In the epics this word meant ‘having become a splendid being’; in that sense it entered ancient Buddhist verse as an epithet meaning ‘perfect.'” (op. cit., p. 216)


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Brasington, Leigh. “The Authenticity of the Suttas of the Pali Canon.” June 2010.

Gethin, Rupert. Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press, 1998.

Nakamura, Hajime. Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts. Trans. Geynor Sekimori. Vol. 2. Tokyo: Kosei, 2005.

Nyanaponika Thera, ed. Advice to Rahula: Four Discourses of the Buddha. Wheel Publication, No. 33. Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1961; rpt. 1974.

———-, trans. “Brahmajala Sutta: The Supreme Net. What the Teaching Is Not.” The Long Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya, Chap. 1. Boston: Wisdom, 1987, pp. 67–90. Rpt. 1995.

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