After I informed the Assembly of my intention to lecture on the Brahma Net Sutra, a laywoman asked, "Master, I havenot yet received the Bodhisattva Precepts. Would you still allow me to attend the lectures and listen to your explanations?"
I replied, "Of course, by all means. If I were lecturing on the Bhiksu/Bhiksuni precepts, you would not be permitted to attend, even if you requested it with utmost sincerity. However, as far as the Bodhisattva Precepts are concerned, I hope that you and all your friends can come and listen; the more people, the better. Listening to the Precepts not only does not violate the rules of discipline, it in fact helps to awaken the Bodhi Mind and develop the precepts of the Buddha Nature inherent in all of us." (Elder Master Yen-p'ei, Singapore, ca 1969)
In the ancient sutras, the story is told of a group of 500 seafaring merchants who, having reached a treasure trove of immense proportions, opted to return home empty-handed. This feeling has at times been our own, as over the last few years, we have attended several precept-giving ceremonies -- lay as well as Bodhisattva -- and noticed a certain reluctance among the participants to take these precepts.
In later conversations, we realized that this feeling stemmed from two causes: lack of understanding of the precepts and fear of not being able to live up to them.
Although the second reason -- the fear of breaking the precepts once received -- is genuine, it is largely unwarranted. In the first place, according to many teachers, the lay and Bodhisattva precepts may be taken selectively, with the disciple himself choosing which to take and which to omit. Secondly, these fears are no different from those of a promising student who dreams of becoming a doctor yet refuses to register for medical school lest he fail. Still, even if he were to fail, he could always try again, and in any case, he would be exposed to medical knowledge useful to him in later life. Thus, he could only benefit and would have nothing to lose, nothing to fear.
The other reason for the participants' hesitation is more difficult to address. How can a person agree to abide by something he does not know, except perhaps out of overwhelming faith, a rare gift in today's world, to say the least! It is in part to address that need that we have undertaken the present translation of the Brahma Net Sutra, a major Mahayana text which explains the Bodhisattva precepts. These are the most altruistic and most exalted of all precepts -- they are the precepts of the Mind itself. To keep these precepts is to transcend greed, anger and delusion and return to our Self-Nature True Mind -- all wisdom and all compassion. The healthy, happy, innocent life which is our birthright will then materialize. This liberating message underlies the entire Brahma Net Sutra.
In the course of this translation, we have consulted (or listened to tapes of) a dozen annotated versions/ explications of the sutra, including three full-length commentaries. We acknowledge our indebtedness in particular to the commentaries of Elder Master Prajna-Suddhi and Dr. J.J.M. de Groot and respectfully recommend the commentaries of Elder Master Yen-p'ei (Dien-Boi) and Elder Master Hui Seng.
Here then is the full text of the Brahma Net Sutra. We hope that by studying it, perhaps a few readers may discover karmic affinities with the Bodhisattva precepts and resolve to accept them. Observing these precepts, they may develop, in time, samadhi and wisdom -- this is the universal path of cultivation laid down by the Buddha. Failing that, perhaps the sutra can awaken in the reader the compassionate ideals of the Bodhisattvas, those true heirs of the Dharma, as they go about their silent work of rescuing sentient beings and cultivating the Bodhi Mind -- the resolve to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all.
A disciple of the Buddha should always teach the Bodhisattva precepts to save and protect sentient beings. On the day his father, mother, and siblings die, or on the anniversary of their death, he should invite Dharma Masters to explain the Bodhisattva sutras and precepts. This will generate merits and virtues and help the deceased either to achieve rebirth in the Pure Lands and see the Buddhas or to secure a good rebirth in the human or celestial realms. (Secondary Precept 20).
May all sentient beings nurture the Bodhi Mind and swiftly attain Buddhahood.