The Brahma Net Sutra (or Brahmajala-sutra in Sanskrit) is among the most important sutras in the Buddhist canon, particularly for Mahayana Buddhists. Mahayana Buddhism developed in the first century C.E. and departed from the Buddhism of the past in a number of ways, most importantly in the development of the concept of the bodhisattva. Previously, the goal of the Buddhist monk was to become an arhat, i.e., to achieve personal enlightenment by following a strict code of conduct that dissolves all personal impurities. In contrast, the bodhisattva, inspired by the doctrine of the illusory nature of the self, sees no distinction between oneself and others and thus does not seek personal enlightenment. Instead, the bodhisattva seeks the enlightenment of all sentient beings.
The Brahma Net Sutra under review is translated from a Chinese version that was translated from Sanskrit by Kumarajiva (344-413). It presents a kind of Decalogue for the bodhisattva along with 48 other minor precepts. The ten major precepts are to avoid killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and false speech, selling alcoholic beverages, broadcasting the faults of the assembly, praising oneself and disparaging others, stinginess and abuse, anger and resentment, and slandering the Triple Jewel (the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha). Violation of any of these precepts merits expulsion from the Buddhist Order, though according to the translators of this text, in practice, the monk is permit to repent and reform.
The Brahma Net Sutra also presents 48 "secondary precepts" that range in gravity from harming sentient beings to violating seating arrangements in a Buddhist assembly. Most of these can be seen as corollaries of the ten major precepts.
As important as this sutra is to Mahayana Buddhism, it is striking how much of it pertains to personal conduct and obedience within the Order. Furthermore, much of it presents "negative duties," i.e., actions that the bodhisattva must not perform. There precious few "positive duties," i.e., actions that the bodhisattva must perform for the benefit of all sentient beings. Still, by respecting these precepts, a monk will likely develop the discipline and strength of character to exercise the benevolence that is characteristic of the bodhisattva.