The Buddha and around 500 monks were traveling along a main road between Rājagaha and Nālanda—two major cities in the kingdom of Magadha. They shared the road with two others, following behind them: the wanderer Suppiya, and his student Brahmadatta. These two were arguing with one another. Suppiya was criticizing the Buddha, his teaching, and his monastic order (collectively referred to as the Three Jewels). Brahmadatta, on the other hand, only had good things to say.
Everyone stopped for the night to camp at a royal park named Ambalatthikā (in ancient India, it was common for rich people to donate land to be used by holy men and their followers). The student and teacher continued their argument.
The next morning, some monks gathered in a pavilion to talk about the two and their bickering. The Buddha joins them, and tells them not to be bothered by criticism or praise. They should only focus on what is true, correcting misinformation when appropriate, and reaffirming when others say something true. Anything beyond that—such as getting angry, or feeling proud—is just a hindrance.
The Buddha goes on to say that when most people praise him, they fail to see the higher points of his teaching which can lead to enlightenment. Instead, they tend to focus on relatively trivial matters of moral conduct, which—despite being important—are not worthy of celebration.
The Buddha then lists these moral practices and qualities. This list is organized into three sections, beginning with basic ethics and progressing into higher ethics.
The section on basic ethics roughly corresponds to the 10 precepts observed by novice monks before fully ordaining. The first three are simple: no killing, no taking what isn’t given, and total celibacy. The fourth is refraining from improper speech, including: lies, malicious and divisive words, harsh speech, and useless chatter. The fifth point listed here is interesting; instead of the usual “no intoxicants,” the Buddha says he does not damage seeds or crops, unlike these other ascetics and brahmins he is referring to. Points six through ten resume the standard the formula: no eating more than once per day (never at night), no attending entertainment shows (such as dances, concerts, and performances), no wearing adornments or perfumes, no sleeping in a luxurious bed, and no accepting gold/silver. This tenth point is expanded to include many other things the Buddha does not accept as gifts, such as: raw grains and flesh; women, girls, or slaves; livestock or land (although…). He also discusses how he does not run errands for nobles or powerful men; how he does not cheat, bribe, or deceive; how he does not wound, kill, capture, or rob people; and finally, how he does not take food by force.
Next, the Buddha discusses the “Middle Ethics,” and here he begins to contrast himself with ascetics and Brahmins (other religious figures of his time) who failed to meet even these relatively low standards. These points are framed as things from which the Buddha refrains, while the ascetics and Brahmins remain addicted to them. Several of them are repeated from the previous section.
Again, the Buddha repeats his point about destroying seeds. He does not enjoy stored food, drink, clothes, or other belongings. Again, he repeats the point about not attending entertainment shows, though this time the list is expanded to include more examples, including “shows from the city of Sobha,” the city of celestial beings called gandhabbas, often described as heavenly musicians.
The Buddha says he does not partake in the games which ascetics and Brahmins play. He lists several specific games and toys which must have been popular in India during his time, calling them “idle pursuits.”
Once again, the Buddha brings up the use of luxurious beds, perfumes and adornments, and idle chatter—which here he calls “animal talk,” with “animal” being a derogatory way to refer lowly, unfavorable things.
He says he does not enjoy arguments and bickering about doctrines the way others do. He repeats his point about running errands. Finally, he declares that he does not deceive, speak indirectly or with hidden messages, he does not belittle others, and he does not concern himself with making further gains.
The Buddha then discusses the points of Greater Morality. This list is exhaustive and likely means little to someone unfamiliar with ancient Indian superstition—much of it goes over my head, certainly—but the main idea here is that the Buddha is declaring that he does not make a living through peddling services to people. Many types of divination, such as palm-reading, foretelling someone’s lifespan, and astrology, are listed. He also mentions the use of curses and charms, and various other things which we would now call “witchcraft.”
In this list of occult services, a few mundane activities are sprinkled in, such as various medical practices, philosophizing, and composing poetry. These things may seem out of place, but it is important to remind ourselves of the context here—the Buddha is simply saying it is inappropriate for a religious leader to make a living by offering these services, since ultimately they are “animal arts” and have nothing to do with enlightenment.
The Buddha closes this section by saying there are other things, much more subtle, which he has achieved. These things, he declares, are worthy of praise. He then segues into the final section, discussing the “62 Wrong Views,” false beliefs and conclusions taught by various ascetics and Brahmins. It is because the Buddha has not fallen into these false beliefs that he is worthy of praise.
This long list can be broken up into two primary sections: the 18 views regarding the past, and the 44 views regarding the future. These, in turn, have several subcategories.
The 4 Views of Eternalism
Eternalism is the belief that the self and the world are eternal. There are four origins for this belief, each of which the Buddha counts as a separate view. The first three involve people attaining the ability to recall varying numbers of past lives, leading them to the false assumption that the self is reborn forever and that the world is everlasting. The 4th simply originates from someone reaching the same conclusion with logic and reasoning.
The 4 Views of Semi-Eternalism
Semi-Eternalism is the belief that some things are impermanent, while other things are eternal. Again, the first three result from past life recollection; this time, however, the Buddha uses cosmogonic stories to explain how they originated.
In Buddhist cosmology, our world is understood as expanding and contracting throughout vast spans of time. In periods of contraction, beings are no longer reborn here—instead, they are mostly reborn in what is called the Ābhassara Brahmā Realm. These beings are “mind-made” (meaning they are born spontaneously, with mentally-fashioned bodies, as opposed to sexually). They do not feed on food; instead, they subsist on “delight” (pīti), the mental factor experienced during meditative absorption (jhāna). They are luminous, and they move through the air.
Eventually, our world begins to expand once more, and an “empty Brahmā palace” appears. A being in the Ābhassara Brahmā Realm dies, and is reborn into this “empty palace.” At first, he is alone, but eventually he thinks to himself, “If only there were others here with me!” Soon thereafter, purely by coincidence, other beings begin to perish from the Ābhassara Brahmā Realm and take rebirth in the empty palace. The first being—longer lived, more beautiful, and more powerful than the others—comes to the conclusion that he must have willed them into existence, making him “the Great Brahmā” (the creator god). The other beings, not knowing any better, assume this is true as well.
Eventually, one of those lesser beings dies and is reborn into the world as you and I know it. In this new life, he ends up becoming a religious renunciate, giving up the householder’s life in order to pursue the truth. He develops mental concentration and achieves the ability to recall one past life—the one immediately prior, when he was a lesser being in the Brahmā palace. From this incomplete level of attainment, he develops the assumption that “God” (the higher being) is eternal, but everyone else—having been created by that God—must die. This is the 1st source of Semi-Eternalism, bringing us to 5 Wrong Views.
Next, the Buddha talks about a type of deva (a god, more or less) called “Corrupted by Pleasure” (khuddapadosikā). These devas, despite being reborn in a higher state, remain addicted to sense-pleasures, instead of feeding on “delight,” so their mindfulness wavers and they, too, get born into this world. One such being likewise attains the ability to recall their past life, and they reach the conclusion that devas who are not addicted to sense-pleasures are eternal, but those who are must die. This is the second source of Semi-Eternalism, and the 6th Wrong View.
Next, the Buddha tells of the devas called “Corrupted in Mind” (manopadosikā). They are consumed with envy for one another, leading to their falling away from the higher realms and into our world. Once again, such a being recalls their previous life, and assumes that other devas are eternal, but the devas Corrupted in Mind are impermanent. This is the 3rd source of Semi-Eternalism, and the 7th Wrong View.
Finally, the 4th source (and 8th View) is that a brahmin or ascetic reaches this conclusion through logic or reasoning.
The 4 Views Regarding the Span of the Universe
The next set of views are about the span of the universe—beliefs that the universe is either finite, or infinite. There are 4 sources in total: the first three involve a Brahmin or ascetic attaining a state of concentration which leads him to believe the world is either finite, infinite, or both—finite vertically, but infinite horizontally. The 4th source, again, results from logic and reasoning. This brings us to 12 Wrong Views.
The 4 Views of the Eel-Wrigglers (Evasive Agnostics)
Here, the Buddha addresses what he calls the “Eel-Wrigglers,” or people who rest on extreme agnosticism instead of truly investigating possibilities for the truth. When pressed on any issue, they resort to evasion, wriggling like eels instead of wrestling with any of these ideas. There are 4 sources for this kind of agnosticism: the person fears making a themselves a liar by being wrong (and thus damaging their prospects of spiritual advancement or a better rebirth); the person fears feeling strong emotions about the objects which would be considered and pondered (and the ensuing effect on spiritual progress); the person fears being bested in a debate, and the resulting distress which would be an obstacle; and finally, the person is simply too unintelligent to make heads or tails of any greater religious/philosophical concerns, so they simply don’t bother. This brings us to 16 wrong views.
The 2 Views of Acausality
These last two are beliefs that the world and the Self exist merely by chance. There are two sources for this, and to explain the first one, the Buddha once again talks about a certain kind of deva. This time, the devas are called “Unconscious,” and these beings exist for most of their lives not experiencing feeling or perception. The moment any perception arises, they perish. One such being is reborn in our world, and becomes able to recall only his previous life. He mistakenly believes that he did not exist, since he was entirely unconscious, and reaches the conclusion that life must exist by mere chance. The universe, and the living being, must be the product of random happenstance. This is the 17th wrong view.
The 18th wrong view simply stems from someone reaching that same conclusion through logic and reasoning. This concludes the 18 Views regarding the past.
This section is organized in much the same way, but is more repetitive, so we may brush over it with broad strokes for the sake of brevity.
The 16 Views Regarding the Post-Mortem Conscious Self
This set of views involves the belief that, after death, the self remains healthy and conscious. There are 16 variations of this belief, expressing differing opinions on the exact nature of the self in this post-mortem state—whether or not it is material, or both, or neither; whether it is finite, infinite, both, or neither; whether it is of uniform/varied or limited/unlimited perception; and whether it is happy/miserable. Altogether, this makes 34 Wrong Views.
The 8 Views Regarding the Post-Mortem Unconscious Self
This set of views is similar, but this time, there is a belief in an *unconscious* self which persists after death. There are 8 differing opinions: whether or not the self is material, immaterial, both, or neither; and whether it is finite, infinite, both, or neither. This makes 42 views.
The 8 Views Regarding the Post-Mortem Self Which is Neither-Conscious-nor-Unconscious
These views purport that there is a self which survives after death, but it is neither conscious nor unconscious. They have the same variations as the set above, bringing us to 50 Views.
The 7 Views Regarding Annihilationism
These views declare, in differing ways, that the self is annihilated after death. The first declares quite simply that the self is merely the physical body. Since the body breaks up after death, the self is annihilated when you die. Each of the successive views introduce a new self; they all acknowledge the existence of the previous selves, but insist that each newly-introduced self is the truer self, and it is through the destruction of that self, after death, that one can be said to be truly annihilated.
The second Annihilationist view proposes the existence of a self which is divine, yet still material (meaning it is within the body); like the body, it exists in the Sense Realm (the lowest of the three cosmological realms - this can also mean that it experiences sense desires), and it is fed by material food (like the lower gods).
The third proposes a self which is likewise divine and material, but is "mind-made," being the product of mental activity. It is complete in all its parts (limbs and faculties).
The fourth proposes another self, which belongs to the Sphere of Infinite Space, completely beyond bodily sensations. This corresponds to the 1st Formless Jhāna - an advanced state of meditative absorption.
The fifth view proposes a self which belongs to the Sphere of Infinite Consciousness, corresponding to the 2nd Formless Jhāna.
The sixth view proposes a self which belongs to the Sphere of Nothingness, completely beyond consciousness, corresponding to the 3rd Formless Jhāna.
The seventh view proposes a self which belongs to the Sphere of Neither-Perception-nor-non-Perception, completely beyond nothingness, corresponding to the 4th Formless Jhāna.
In each of the above cases, the self is believed to be destroyed at death upon with the perishing of the body. Altogether, this makes 57 Wrong Views.
The 5 Views Regarding the Self's Attainment of Nibbana, Here-and-Now
These final five views are centered on mistaken beliefs about how nibbana (more commonly known as "nirvana" in Sanskrit) can be attained within this lifetime. Each successive view denies the one before it, proposing an alternative means of nibbana.
The first proposes that the self may attain nibbana through the experience of sense-pleasures. The second view acknowledges that sense-pleasures are impermanent, and proposes the attainment of nibbana through the first jhāna. The third view acknowledges that the first jhāna still involves vitakka-vicara (a state of applied and sustained thought), it cannot lead to nibbana; instead, it proposes nibbana through the second jhāna. The fourth view argues that the second jhāna cannot lead to nibbana because of the presence of pīti (a mental delight which stimulates and energizes the meditator); instead, it proposes nibbana through the third jhāna. Finally, the fifth view argues that the third jhāna cannot lead to nibbana because of the presence of sukha (a calm, pleasurable mental bliss); instead, it proposes nibbana through the fourth jhāna.
The Buddha now wraps up his sermon, and he begins by saying that he understands how the 62 Wrong Views lead to continued rebirth, instead of liberation from dukkha. He also understands the truth which these wrong views fail to reach - the truth of the arising and cessation of feelings, the ways in which we find them appealing, the dangers they present to us, and how to overcome them. Through this understanding, the Buddha has uprooted craving, and has attained liberation through non-attachment. This is a truth which is deep and difficult to understand, and it is precisely because the Buddha has realized and spread this truth that he is worthy of praise - not for the relatively basic matters of ethics ordinary people focus on.
He goes on to explain that all of these false beliefs are adopted by people who have yet to overcome ignorance and are still bound by craving. Adherents of these beliefs adopt them in response to the feelings which arise from sensory contact. From those feelings, craving arises, and due to craving, they cling to the various beliefs and modes of existence. This clinging leads to "becoming," or continued existence in the cycle of dukkha. Becoming leads to rebirth, and from rebirth necessary follows aging, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness, and despair. When the Buddha's monks understand and overcome this sensory process, they may also attain the liberation found by the Buddha.
The Buddha boldly states that the 62 Wrong Views are like a broad net, and like fish, the people who fall into these beliefs become trapped. The Buddha's body stands free and triumphant, having severed the bond which had, for so long, kept him tied to becoming and rebirth. This powerful imagery evokes the idea of cutting open the net of false views, and we may imagine ourselves also finding this freedom. He concludes his sermon by stating that as long as his body remains, humans and devas will be able to see him - once it perishes, however, humans and devas will not be able to see him, (since he will have attained final nibbana). This is meant to contrast with those ascetics and Brahmins who believe and teach the 62 Wrong Views, who will remain trapped in the cycle of dukkha.
The sutta ends with Ānanda asking the Buddha what to call this sermon, and he replies with a few options: the one which has stuck over the ages is "The Brahmā Net." The scripture then records how the monks delighted, and the ten-thousand worlds (or, in other words, the universe) shook.
It is only in the Pali Canon that this sutta is presented as the first scripture. In the Dirgha Āgama, it is the 21st sutra. Like all Dirgha sutras, it is preserved in the Chinese Canon from the now-extinct Dharmaguptaka school. Furthermore, there is another sutta in the Pali Canon which mentions the 62 Wrong Views (SN 41.3), but its counterpart in the Chinese Canon (SA 570), a Sarvāstivādin text, does not include the 62 Wrong Views at all. This has led Bhikku Sujato to suggest the possibility that the 62 Wrong Views - while being present in all forms of early Buddhism - were especially favored and emphasized by the Mahāvihāravāsins (now known as the Theravādins), perhaps to establish the precedent for decrying other sects as heretical. This might explain why this sutta was placed first and foremost amongst the entire canon. Even so, I believe it's a good choice for the first sutta; it establishes clearly why the Buddha's teachings are supreme, and explains the workings of Dependent Origination and the sensory processes which are central to the Buddha's teaching.
The version of this scripture preserved in the Chinese Canon skips some of the narrative framing in the introduction, and begins with the Buddha and a much larger group of monks (1,250) stopping at the park, named here as "Veluvana." The story is essentially the same. Interestingly, in the dialogue between the monks and the scripture's prose narration, it makes more explicit reference to the Buddha's supramundane abilities. This is entirely consistent with the depiction of the Buddha's capabilities in the Pali Canon, but the Pali version of this sutta doesn't mention it here.
Most of the body of the sermon is identical to the Pali version. There are a few minor differences, however. Where the Pali sutta mentions how the Buddha does not damage seeds, given among 9 of the 10 precepts, the Chinese Canon's version lists the more expected "no alcohol" precept, making the list of the Minor Ethical Practices consist wholly of the 10 precepts. Furthermore, instead of saying that the Buddha only eats once per day, it says more generally that he eats moderately, according to the needs of his stomach, in order to nourish his body and prolong his life.
Finally, in the middle section on ethics, where the Buddha says he abstains from playing games (unlike rival ascetics and brahmins), the list is much simpler. Instead of all of the unique games and toys, this version only lists versions of "chess" with differing numbers of rows on the game boards. I suspect this is because the monk who translated this text couldn't be bothered trying to translate the names of all of the Indian games and toys which may have been unknown in China, but it's possible I'm wrong. That's only a guess.
All in all, the versions of this sermon preserved in the Pali Canon and the Chinese Canon are remarkably similar, and accordingly we can assume that this was an important early text.