Fanwang Jing (Brahma's Net Sutra)

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The Fanwang jing (Brahma's Net Sūtra) is a highly regarded apocryphal text in East Asian Buddhism that provided a set of uniquely MahĀyĀna precepts. According to tradition, the sūtra was spoken by the Buddha, recorded in Sanskrit in India, and then translated by KumĀrajĪva (350–409/413) into Chinese in 406. In fact, however, it is now known that the Fanwang jing was composed in China by unknown author (s), sometime during the middle of the fifth century c.e. The sūtra purports to be the last chapter of a longer Sanskrit text, and its full title is Chapter on the Mind Ground of the Bodhisattvas of the Fanwang jing. However, there is no conclusive evidence that this framing text ever existed.

The Fanwang jing consists of two fascicles: The first enumerates the stages of practice of the bodhisattva path, and the second, which had been circulating as an independent text, contains a list of the ten major and forty-eight minor precepts. The set of precepts illustrated in the Fanwang jing is popularly called the "bodhisattva precepts" or the "Fanwang precepts"; thus the second fascicle on its own is often called the Sūtra of Bodhisattva Precepts and is used in East Asian countries as a bodhisattva prĀtimokṣa (collection of rules). Traditionally, East Asian Buddhist monks and nuns are ordained using a set of rules drawn from the Sifen lu (Four-Part Vinaya) of the Indian Dharma-guptaka school. The Fanwang precepts were rarely used by themselves for ordination in China and Korea but instead were treated as a supplementary set of Mahāyāna precepts.

Composed at a time when mainstream Buddhist and Mahāyāna texts on monastic discipline had just been transmitted into China, the contents of the Fanwang jing reflect Chinese Buddhist concerns about the impact a foreign morality would have on the indigenous culture. These concerns are reflected in the emphasis placed in the sūtra on filial piety and obedience, two subjects of vital concern to Confucians. In addition, several minor precepts concern the relationship between the Buddhist order and the state, which claim Buddhism's autonomy from secular power. Also of particular interest is that whereas vinaya rules are intended only for monks and nuns, the Fanwang precepts are said to apply universally to both the laity and monastics, as illustrated by the sūtra's stated audience of monks, nuns, laypeople, and bodhisattvas. In some instances, the sūtra notes that certain precepts are intended either for laypeople or for members of the Buddhist order. For example, the major precepts against killing, stealing, and illicit sexual activity apply both to members of religious orders and to lay believers, whereas the fifth major precept, a prohibition against selling liquor, was principally directed at the laity.

Numerous commentaries were written on the Fanwang jing, representing the significant role its Mahayana bodhisattva precepts played in East Asian Buddhism. Many leading scholars in China, including Zhiyi (538–597) and Fazang (643–712), wrote commentaries on the text, most focusing on the second fascicle. In Korea, more than fifteen commentaries are known to have been written on the suūtra, including works by the eminent monks WoŎnhyo (617–686), Sŭngjang (d.u.), Ŭijŏk (d.u.), and Taehyŏn (fl. 753). Six of these commentaries are extant, coming primarily from the Silla period. In Japan, Saichō (767–822) made the Fanwang jing one of the most influential texts in Japanese Buddhism by arguing that its set of precepts should serve as the sole basis for ordination in the Tendai school, the Japanese branch of the Tiantai school.

See also:Apocrypha; Mahāyāna Precepts in Japan


Groner, Paul. "The Fan-wang ching and Monastic Discipline in Japanese Tendai: A Study of Annen's Futsū jubosatsukai kōshaku." In Chinese Buddhist Apocrypha, ed. Robert E. Buswell, Jr. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

Eunsu Cho