I plan to write here all my Buddhism related posts, particularly related to my “Brahma Net Sutra” project, an attempt to create a “one person orthodoxy” and the methodology for others to do the same, that updates the precepts to be usable in the West in our current day, especially in an independent, lay context.
The Brahman Net Sutra (BNS)
The Brahman Net Sutra is a sutra written in China that reforms the vinaya, which was the list of rules that Buddhist renunciates followed. In is not strictly a monastic system, it is available to anyone who wants to be on the Bodhisattvas path.
The BNS is remarkable for a precept that outlines “self ordination.” For the original author, they probably had in mind the situation of an enthusiastic Chinese Buddhist who has returned to his village and now he is only Buddhist for miles and miles around. But the BNS is two things– it is a moral code anyone can try to follow and it is a rule list that you must follow to stay in good standing in an existing institution. Historically this “self ordination” rule has been inert– why would any abbot allow people to self ordain? In many ancient jurisdictions there were tight government controls on how many people could become monks.
In the US, there is nothing similar to the nationwide institution of Imperial Chinese Buddhism, or the huge network of renunciates in ancient India. There isn’t an orthodoxy and picking a flavor of Buddhism is as arduous and inventing your own flavor of Buddhism. Like mantras? You can find a temple for that. Don’t like mantras? Same. Now if you are the sort of person who would just like to be told what to believe… you can’t! You still have to choose which temple to go to and they are all different.
Or if you don’t live in a big city, there are no temples. You’re going to be practicing independently in your bedroom.
The ideal time to decide not to have a family, ever, and dedicate your entire life to the Bodhisattva path is about age 20. I don’t know about you, but I’m not 20 anymore. The best place to do that, is abroad. There are not a lot of well funded monasteries in the US. Itinerant begging is illegal in most jurisdictions.
But in the US, it is already obvious that us recent converts are not like Buddhists in countries where Buddhism has been around for 100s of years. The new converts, as a rule of thumb in any religion, are the most enthusiastic. Few recent coverts in the US fulfill the minimum that say, Chinese society expects. Instead, we are meditating, reading Sutras in the original, taking on practices that normally only monks would do. But we have families, jobs and so on.
The BNS is again a remarkable document in that it seems to be encouraging everyone to take the precepts, both lay followers and officially ordained. In Buddhism there is the concept of lay followers following what precepts they can. If we read the BNS in this way, and skip over the handful of precepts that don’t apply, then the BNS has a way of life that can be followed as a lay person.