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The Inclinations, The Nourishments, the Vajras: problems in reading Mahāyāna sūtras

VimalajātiVimalajāti VeteranWhitby, Ontario Veteran
edited March 26 in Philosophy

At home what with coronavirus-related work shortages, etc., I had the time to take a look at a bodhisattvaśīla sūtra that I've long-wanted to take a closer look at. It is a strange piece of Chinese-born apocrypha, with two names: the Brahmājālasūtra and the longer Vairocanabhāṣitabodhisatvasyacittabhūmiśīlaskandhasūtra.

Posters familiar with the Pāli suttas might recognize the name "Brahmājālasūtra," because that name is nearly identical to the first sutta in the Dīghanikāya. Why this Chinese piece of apocrypha bears the name of the twenty-first sūtra in the Dīrghāgama and that other Pāli sutta is largely an unsolvable mystery. It is a Chinese composition (likely) dating from after 400AD. Perhaps it originated as an esoteric vaipulya (expansion) on the text of DA 21 and then was later separated, retaining its old title?

The second longer name of the sūtra means "Vairocana Speaks the Sūtra of the Bodhisatva's Mind-Ground; the Aggregated Precepts." It is a bodhisattvaśīla sūtra, meaning it is a sūtra concerned with the preservation of the methods of teaching, meditation, and the interpretations of the precepts for a certain monastic community, in addition to presenting a codified system of upāsakaśīla (lay precepts) for the supporters of the community.

Here is the opening of the sūtra abridged (i.e. with some superfluous details removed, i.e. elaborate displays of visual light miracles, etc., for the sake of readability):

Śākyamuni Buddha resided within the fourth dhyāna in the heavenly mansion of Maheśvara Devarāja in the company of the limitless host of Mahābrahmā Devarājas of the heavens and with an incredibly multitudinous host of bodhisattvas.

Coming out of deep dhyāna, the Lord spoke of the Sermon of the Lotus Vault, the Sermon of the Womb of the World-System. He spoke of the sermon which Vairocana Buddha spoke: the Sermon of the Dharma Gate of the Mind-Ground. Then from Śākyamuni Buddha's body radiated a luminous wisdom, which brightened in the minds of the assembly the celestial palace of the heavens and on high, ascending to the Lotus Vault, to the Womb of the World-Systems, where they witnessed Vairocana Buddha enthroned with one million lotus blossoms in a bright brilliant constellation around him.

Śākyamuni Buddha spoke: "Within these world-systems, from their grounds to the empty spaces [above their skies,] what stirs the fate of a living being toward the consummation of the path of the ten bodhisatva grounds? What are the fruits, the myriad marks, of the completion of Buddhahood?"

Vairocana Buddha, the Mahākāruṇika, then manifested the Samādhi of Empty Space that illuminates the Svābhāvika, that illuminates the root source of the completion of Buddhahood. He manifested the samādhi that illuminates the Dharmakāya. To the assembled many he revealed this samādhi. He then spoke:

"O sons[, O daughters,] of the Buddha, listen carefully and practice this well, for I have cultivated for endless aeons this mind-ground, and with this as cause, first abandoned the way of the worldlings and attained that gnosis which is consummate, which is highest, taking on the name of Vairocana and dwelling here in the Lotus Vault, here in the Womb of the World-Systems, here in the Ocean. I am surrounded everywhere on all sides by the petals of the lotus blossom, each petal bearing a world-system, each world-system bearing a thousand worlds.

"Now, I am become one thousand Śākya sages in one thousand world-systems enthroned on one thousand thrones of gnosis, each expounding that which you have asked of me, each elaborating on the bodhisatva mind-ground. Now, I am become nine hundred and ninety-nine Śākya sages each emanating ten trillion Śākya Sages like this. Each of the one thousand Śākya sages atop these lotus petals are my transformative bodies. All of the ten trillion Śākya sages are one thousand transformative bodies. I am the root source for all these -- named Vairocana Buddha.

"All bodhisatvas should know that to the patience of deep faith there are ten entrances and ten fruits, ten decisions of inclination. These are the [inclination of the] heart that renounces the world, that observes the precepts, that is patient, that is enduring, that is vigorous, that is in dhyāna, [the heart] that is goodwill, that is protected, that is joyous, and which is inclined to the highest wisdom. The bodhisatvas should know the ten nourishments by which one enters into the ten entrances and experiences the ten fruits, which are kindness, pity, joy, detachment, generosity, good speech, beneficence, empathy, concentration, and wisdom. They should know the ten vajras of the mind by which they are nourished so that they may enter into the ten entrances and experience the ten fruits, which are faith, mindfulness, the dedication of merit, penetration, directness, nonretrogression, the great vehicle, signlessness, wisdom, and indestructibility. Relying on these ten vajras, they enter into the entrances and fruitions of the firm path of the ten grounds, which are the ground of svābhāva, the ground of the svābhāva of wisdom, the ground of the svābhāva of luminosity, the ground of the svābhāva of flaming wisdom, the ground of the svābhāva of bright wisdom, the ground of the svābhāva of the bright lotus, the ground of the svābhāva of consummation, the ground of the svābhāva of the Buddha's roar, the ground of the svābhāva of the avataṁsaka, and the ground of the svābhāva of entrance into the Buddhadhātu.

"Via these forty dharma gates Śākyamuni, formerly, as a bodhisatva, entered into the source of the fruits of Buddhahood. In the same way, like this, all living beings enter into the inclinations [of the heart,] the nourishments, the vajras, and the ten grounds, and demonstrate the fruit of completion, the uncreated, the signless, the great consummate constant abiding. With ten powers and eighteen definitive practices, the Dharmakāya, the Body of Wisdom, is completely attained."


This is a difficult sūtra to read on many levels, and I find many of the difficult features it bears it has in common with many other Mahāyāna sūtras, like the Mahāprajñāpāramitā, the Lotus, and especially the Buddhāvataṁsaka (Buddha's Flower Ornament) sūtras. One of the reason is its audience: already-initiated preceptors in a monastic community. As a bodhisattvasīla sūtra, it is chiefly concerned with outlining a schema for the sake of preserving a monastic practice. That it also includes lengthy details on precepts for the laity is a common feature of Chinese apocrypha. Most Chinese apocryphal texts are either of the mediation-manual variety or are actually precept-sūtras for the lay bodhisattva.

"Ten inclinations," "ten entrances," "ten fruits," "ten nourishments," "ten vajras," "ten grounds." These are all instances of what are called "bhūmimārgha" ("grounds and path") mysticisms, stemming from the community of esteemed sages, the saints so-to-speak, of the community that produced this scripture. As progressive teachers leave dispensations, schemata arise as to the grounds (levels or ranks of progress) and the path they form (the path to bodhi/gnosis), all subsumed within a matrix of Buddhavacana and preserved exegeses.

The "inclinations" are the stirrings of the heart towards the path of the bodhisattva. The "entrances" and the "fruits" are the "the entrances and fruitions of the firm path of the ten grounds." This is technical terminology borrowed from the Dharmaguptaka Śāripūtrābhidharmaśāstra, an Abhidharma text, and applied to the newer schema of the "ten grounds of the bodhisattva." In Abhidharma, the four persons of the path, the stream-entrant, the once-returner, the non-returner, the Arhat, are conceived of as streams of mind-moments (dharmas) on a path to bodhi. Each person of the path has an associated dharma of entrance and an associated dharma of fruition, those being the entrance into that stage of cultivation and the completion of it respectively. The Dharmaguptaka are like a shadow-twin of the Theravāda tradition, themselves only ambiguously still existing, unlike the thriving Theravāda, but both having come from the earlier Indic Vibhajyavāda tradition of early sectarian Buddhism. They even both have a similar mythology concerning Venerable Śāripūtra having received the Abhidharma via psychic transmission from the Buddha in the deva heavens.

The "nourishments" are somewhat self-explanatory, but then we get to the "vajras." These are meditations and practices referred to by shorthand and preserved by the dhyānin community, almost only monastics, that has left us this scripture. From the "vajras" on to the "grounds," we can no longer really read this section of the sūtra without instruction from the community that produced it. It is like a tantalizing look into an ornate but smoky mirror, a list of increasingly esoteric terms.

And this is one of the problems with treating Mahāyāna sūtras like they are texts designed for evangelization or in-depth Dharma instruction that one can undertake on one's own. The Lotus Sūtra is a text that I see getting treated like this occasionally, like a substitute Bible: "Just read the Word of Buddha, and you'll be saved." The Lotus Sūtra is something of a complicated text in many places, and sometimes has the same general tone as this bodhisattvaśīla sūtra: lists of practices, associated samādhis, and prerequisite moral cultivation, all referred to with names like "appearance," "nature," "entity," "power," "influence," "internal cause," "relation," "latent effect," "manifest effect," and "consistency," to steal a similarly-esoteric list from the Lotus Sūtra. And this is the purpose of the saṁgha -- to allow these lists to continue to have meaning, and not have them transform into a list of deity-names for propitiation or worse -- a series of hapax legomena.

Anyways, there's some musings from this Covid Cabin.



  • VimalajātiVimalajāti Veteran Whitby, Ontario Veteran

    @Vimalajāti said:
    Most Chinese apocryphal tests are either of the mediation-manual variety or are actually precept-sūtras for the lay bodhisattva.

    Alas, *texts, not "tests."

  • federicafederica Seeker of the clear blue sky... Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator
    edited March 26

    On it, @Vimalajāti ...

    ETA: Done.

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