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MA Thesis Summary

MA Thesis Summary

Jeffrey Kotyk

My MA thesis at Komazawa University was written in Japanese with the following title:


"A Study of Ethics in Fazang's Commentary on the Brahma Net Sūtra and its Background."

The Brahma Net Sūtra 梵網經 became the basis for bodhisattva precepts in East Asia from the fifth century onward. A number of major commentaries were written on the text and specifically with respect to the bodhisattva precept set therein. The Huayan patriarch Fazang 法藏 (643-712) wrote the Fanwangjing Pusa Jieben Shu 梵網經菩薩戒本疏 (T1813), a commentary on the precepts. It is a unique guide to early Tang aristocratic Buddhism and its values. Fazang's flexible interpretation is realistic albeit perhaps tailored for state officials who inevitably had to compromise on personal Buddhist values, especially when employing violence or maintaining a military or guard. The text was quite influential with later commentators across East Asia, marking it as one of the most important classical interpretations of the Brahma Net Sūtra.

My work drew on research by past scholars primarily including Yoshizu Yoshihide 吉津宜英 (Kegon Ichijō Shisō no Kenkyū 華厳一乗思想の研究; 1991), Ishii Kōsei 石井公成 (Kegon Shisō no Kenkyū 華厳思想の研究; 1996) and Chen Jinhua (Philosopher, Practitioner, Politician: the Many Lives of Fazang; 2007). I did a detailed reading of the text, paying particular attention to the noteworthy features as pointed out by the aforementioned scholars. I was further able to ascertain links to other texts by using the search feature on CBETA, which uncovered areas of Fazang's text which had been directly copied from earlier works, often without citation. I examined the relevant sections from the texts Fazang employed while furthermore identifying some of his stated ideas in the Chinese classics, such as the Liji 禮記.

In order to place Fazang's text within its historical and textual context, I drew on a number of modern works, most notably Satō Tatsugen 佐藤達玄, Chūgoku Bukkyō ni Okeru Kairitsu no Kenkyū 中国仏教における戒律の研究 [Research on the Precepts-Vinaya in China] (Tokyo: Mokujisha木耳社, 1986) and Mori Shōji 森章司, Kairitsu no Sekai 戒律の世界 [The World of Precepts-Vinaya] (Keisuisha 溪水社, 1993). Aside from bodhisattva precepts, the history of the conventional bhikṣu Vinaya had to be addressed, specifically with respect to its influence or lack thereof in Mahāyānist treatises by Chinese authors. Commonalities between some of Fazang's ideas and secular law codes were addressed. I also considered Fazang's work in the greater context of Huayan thought and exegesis, especially with respect to Fazang's own teacher Zhiyan 智儼 (the second patriarch of Huayan in China).

One of Fazang's motivations for writing the text was a dissatisfaction with commentaries by other scholars, such as that of the Silla monk Seungjang 勝莊 (student of Woncheuk 圓測, wrote much on Yogācāra). It also seems probable that the commentary was compiled based on Fazang's lectures, especially in light of the presence of vernacular terms in the text. Fazang also visibly borrows from earlier authors, such as the earlier Vinaya masters Daoxuan 道宣 (specifically, Daoxuan's dichotomy of edifying teachings 化教 and practical teachings 行教; Fazang calls the latter disciplinary teachings 制教) and Fali 法礪 (the ideas of inherent evils 性惡 and hidden evils 遮性; additionally, Fazang plagiarizes Fali's work directly without citation).

One striking feature of the text is Fazang's comments on the potential permissibility of killing in extreme situations, such as when ending the life of an individual intent on mass killing or the slaying of a noble being. Such ideas are primarily cited from the Yogācārabhūmi Śāstra and thereafter justified under certain extreme conditions. Fazang also cautiously explains that killing someone to avenge the death of one's parents is to only be classed as a minor transgression, which reflects classical Chinese values as presented especially in the Liji. Here we see the precepts clearly adapted to Chinese values.

Additionally, with respect to the storing of weapons, Fazang consents to it if it is “to defend the Buddhadharma or to placate sentient beings.” Consequently, “if a Bodhisattva sees others owning [weapons], he encourages them to destroy them. If his encouragement is unsuccessful, he should beg or trade for them. If he still is unable to obtain them, then he should use coercion, threats and so on and obtain them. He must stop them [from keeping the weapons].” His remark about “placating sentient beings” (調伏眾生) suggests affirmation of contemporary political realities among the elites who inevitably had to employ violence to ensure order or the authority of their own regime.

Fazang also affirms the social order of his day when judging the severity of a transgression based on the victim, which incidentally shows similarities to laws provided in the secular Tang legal codes. For example, with respect to selling slaves, he considers it worse to sell a free commoner into slavery than selling an already enslaved individual. Such a differentiation in severity level with respect to selling people into slavery is also found in secular law codes, specifically the Tanglü Shuyi 唐律疏議. This indicates that both in secular law codes and Buddhist ethics of this time the issues arising from slave trade were being discussed, though the validity of the institution of slavery itself was not called into question.

One other noteworthy feature of the text is Fazang's utilization of Sanskrit-based compound classifications which he employs when interpreting terms in Chinese. For instance, he defines the term fanwang 梵網 (Brahma Net) as if it were a karma-dhāraya 持業釋, tat-puruṣa 依主釋 or bahu-vrīhi 有財釋. While Fazang cannot be credited with being the first known writer in China to do this, it does perhaps say something of his apparent understanding of Sanskrit and moreover it may indicate that in his time there was a certain degree of affinity for these classifications amongst Buddhist intellectuals.

With respect to dating the text, as Fazang quotes the Buddhabhadra 佛馱跋陀 translation of the Avataṃsaka Sūtra (translated around 420), it therefore can be assumed he wrote this commentary prior to 699 when Śikṣānanda 實叉難陀 completed his new translation of said sūtra, a project that Fazang himself participated in. Moreover, Fazang in the text is identified with Weiguoxi-si 魏國西寺, where he purportedly composed the commentary. Said temple was named as such between 687-690. In light of Fazang's movements as suggested by Chen Jinhua (2007), I tentatively date the text to 687.

The text includes detailed explanations of the ten major 十重禁戒 and forty-eight minor bodhisattva precepts 四十八輕戒. Fazang interprets each precept from ten hermeneutic approaches: the meaning of the regulation 制意, its ordering in relation to other precepts 次第, interpretation of the name of the precept 釋名, requisite conditions for violation 具緣, potentially lacking conditions (which would entail no violation) 闕緣, severity 輕重, karmic consequences to be suffered for violation 得報, exceptions 通塞, correction 對治 and the interpretation of the text 釋文. The commentary curiously does not refer to Fazang's famous doxography of five teachings 五教. There are also few references to the Avataṃsaka Sūtra 華嚴經, yet more references to non-Huayan texts such as the Mahāprajñāpāramitā Upadeśa 大智度論 and the Yogācārabhūmi Śāstra.

Other commentaries including Daehyeon's 大賢 (Beommanggyeong Gojeokgi 梵網經古迹記; T1815) and Tiantai monk Mingkuang's 明曠 (Tiantai Pusajie Shu 天台菩薩戒疏; T1812) utilized Fazang's commentary. It was also studied extensively in Japan where Gyōnen 凝然 wrote his own enormous sub-commentary in 50 fascicles (Bonmō Kaihon Sho Nichishushō 梵網戒本疏日珠鈔).

Taken altogether, the commentary is a unique and influential guide to the Brahma Net Sūtra from the early Tang. It digests earlier ideas on the bodhisattva precepts while introducing Fazang's own pragmatic approach, informed by the Yogācārabhūmi Śāstra, classical Chinese values, and perhaps contemporary law codes. The text is a window into intellectual currents and approaches with respect to Buddhist ethics in Fazang's time. It also became widely read in East Asia, influencing other authors and becoming one of the most important interpretations of the Brahma Net Sūtra.