BUDDHISM IN THE NUMBERS
Jnana - Zen Dharma Teacher - IBMC
Dharma Talk at the IBMC --- The
rather inelegant title of today’s talk, “Buddhism
in the Numbers”, does an injustice to the elegance of
the subject itself, the role of numbers in communicating the
dharma. For there is indeed a rich vein of numerical references
in Buddhism, primarily in the sutras, but also in related doctrines
and teachings. My purpose here this morning is to briefly mine
that vein, to bring a greater degree of awareness to the place
of numbers that permeate so much of our study and devotion along
the Buddhist path.
a bit of historical and conceptual context. As we all know, Buddhism
is in origin an Indian religion. As such it developed within an
ancient cultural tradition whose scholarly mathematicians and
astronomers were concerned with practical applications and who
were motivated by a kind of passion for both numbers and numerical
calculations. Indeed, India is the true birthplace of our numerals,
which are popularly, but inaccurately, referred to as Arabic numerals.
a very basic, fundamental level, a practical application of the
Indian passion for numbers was in the compilation of lists. For
instance, if we set aside the accompanying stories and biographical/historical
information in the Pali canon one is left with a whole pile of
lists from the Buddha and long explanations about the lists. The
Buddha was like a scientist observing reality and Ultimate Truth
from the deepest levels of insight and enlightenment. The lists
are the breakdown of the doctrines, concepts, and reality as communicated
by the Buddha.
to the advent of written literature in India, including the initial
written recording of the Buddhist sutras, knowledge was orally
transmitted from one generation to the next. Once it was possible
to record sacred texts in written form there was still reluctance
on the part of religious figures to do so. The sacred word was
deemed to be less sanctified if committed to writing. In a society
in which it was quite possible for learned sages to commit the
entire text of the Vedas to memory it is hardly surprising that
the huge number of Buddhist lists, within the sutras, could be
committed to memory by the various early Buddhist teachers and
scholars. In a pre-literate society such lists were an ideal pedagogical
approach as well as being very useful mnemonic devices. These
enumerations helped, and still help, convey the meaning of the
succeeding centuries, when Zen developed in China, a rich tradition
of writing already existed. Thus, the development of numbered
lists greatly declined, as the original reasons behind them were
no longer extant. Accordingly, in the examples that follow, there
are relatively few Zen references.
the Mahayana Lalitavistara Sutra the Sage Vishvamitra, who was
teaching the eight-year old Shakyamuni, explained that numeration,
numbers and arithmetic constitute the most important discipline
among the seventy-arts and sciences that the Bodhisattva must
acquire. At a later point in this sutra the Bodhisattva Shakyamuni,
now of marriageable age, pits his wits against the great mathematician
Arjuna. Shakyamuni displays a mind-boggling mastery of numbers
and mathematical calculation, ranging from the measurement of
the size of what we would call a molecule to a value equaling
the number 1 followed by 421 zeroes.
one level, it is difficult for a modern student of Buddhism not
to be struck by the frequent use of very high numbers or large
numerical descriptions (such “as many as dust motes in Buddha
lands”, references to kalpas and mahakalpas, etc.) in certain
sutras and historical accounts. This is a reflection of the early
passion that Indian civilization exhibited for high numbers. While
it is unclear if this particular passion had been developed at
the time of the Buddha, it certainly was in place at the time
of the compilation of the later Mahayana sutras in the earliest
centuries of the Common Era. For instance, the previously mentioned
Lalitavistara Sutra is replete with references to high numbers
of gods, divinities, sons of gods, Bodhisattvas, Buddhas, ornaments,
flowers, etc. The Lotus Sutra or numerous other Mahayana sutras
would serve equally well as examples of the seeming obsession
in Indian Buddhist writings with high numbers.
we chant om mane padme hum any reference to a numerical value
is presumably far from our minds. The word padme, of course, means
lotus. This flower is identified as the ‘throne’ of
the Buddha as well as of most of his manifestations. It also represents
the bodhi or the Buddha nature of awakening to supreme enlightenment.
It is this idea of absolute and divine perfection that gives the
word padme a high numerical value as well. Originally padme represented
the number ten to the ninth power. Over time this value increased
to be identified with ten to the 119th power. A lotus of so many
petals would be inconceivably large, as inconceivable as is supreme
enlightenment itself to one who has not attained it.
turn from the rarefied realm of high numbers and proceed with
what I’ll call “Jnana’s List”, which provides
a very modest sampling of the more comprehensible enumerations
of various aspects of devotional and descriptive attributes, qualities,
concepts, and similar references that can be found in the Buddhist
literature. My primary emphasis as we progress through only 20
of the most important numbers will be on the lower end of the
scale, with the highest number considered being 108. The number
108 is an important magic and sacred number in Indian tradition,
with one of its associations symbolizing perfection. In this context
it refers to the 108 distinctive signs of perfection that distinguishes
a Buddha from other human beings. Partly related to this usage
then is the text of the chant, found at the back of our chant
book, which we use in the “108 Bows Ceremony” on the
first Sunday of each month.
first of the remaining 19 numbers to consider is 62. 62 refers
to the “62 Kinds of Wrong View”. Here the wrong views
are in reference to eternity, self and causality. A characteristic
example is the view that the self after death is healthy and conscious
refers to the “52 Mental Formations”. These range
from greed and hatred to discretion and balance of mind.
refers to the “40 Meditation Subjects”. This challenging
list of subjects on which it is most fruitful to meditate includes
a corpse that is hacked and scattered as well as the contemplation
refers to the “37 Factors of Enlightenment” or the
“37 things that are conducive to awakening”. Among
these factors are the four foundations of mindfulness as well
as the Eightfold Path.
refers to the “32 Parts of the Body”. These parts,
ranging from teeth to urine, are focal points for reflection on
their impure and impermanent nature.
also refers to the “32 Physical Marks” or the “32
Characteristics by Which a Great Man can be Recognized.”
These marks are found on the body of both a Buddha and a Universal
Ruler or chakravartin. Included among these are a long tongue,
blue eyes, and webbed fingers and toes.
refers to the “31 Planes of Existence”. Ghosts, animals
and humans occupy three of the planes, for example, and devas
of unbounded radiance occupy another.
refers to the “22 Faculties”, as identified in the
Abhidamma. Included here are the six senses, the three factors
concerning gender, the five feelings, the five spiritual faculties,
and the three super-mundane faculties.
refers to the “18 Principal Insights”. A characteristic
insight from this list is that “The contemplation of change
abandons the perception of stability.”
refers to the “16 Arhants” and their disciples, to
whom the Buddha entrusted the care of his teachings at the time
of his paranirvana.
have two references to 12. The first is to the “12 Links
of Dependent Origination” or pratitya-samutpada. When one
link exists the link following arises as an effect or the preceding
link, such as craving giving rise to grasping or birth giving
rise to old age and death.
reference for 12 is the “12 Psychic Powers” possessed
by a Buddha, such as clairvoyance and recalling one’s previous
existence and the existences of others.
number 10 is probably one of the three most important numbers
in Buddhist compilations, the other two being 3 and 5. We will
begin with the “10 Precepts”, the minimum number that
each member of the clergy sitting here on the tatami has taken
in achieving their current position.
also refers to the “10 Hindrances to Enlightenment”,
otherwise known as the “10 Fetters”. Included among
the fetters are conceit, restlessness and ignorance.
with the preceding listing, there are the “10 Good Deeds
or Meritorious Actions”. Representative of these are non-greed,
non-hatred and right views.
set of powers ascribed to a Buddha differing from the “12
Psychic Powers” mentioned earlier is described in the “10
Powers of a Buddha”. These powers confer on him knowledge
of various aspects of existence.
“10 Great Disciples” refer to the Buddha’s most
famous disciples, including the first two Indian patriarchs of
the Zen lineage, Mahakasyapa and Ananda.
in the Zen tradition the “10 Oxherding Pictures” utilize
an artistic metaphor for the path of meditation and the attainment
refers to the “9 Ways Not to Accept Something as Completely
True”, such as “do not believe in something just because
the authorities say it is so.”
are all familiar with the Noble Eight-Fold Path. 8 is additionally
represented by the “8 Jhanas” or the 8 states of meditative
are also the “8 Auspicious Symbols”, signs of good
fortune very popular in Tibetan Buddhism and linked with various
aspects of Buddhist teachings. They are visually represented in
the wall hanging on the south side of the tatami platform.
refers to the “7 Factors of Enlightenment”, such as
calm and equanimity as well as to the “7 Universal Mental
Constituents”. These arise in every unit of consciousness,
such as feeling and perception.
refers to the “6 Kinds of Temperaments”, which range
from lustful to devout or faithful temperaments.
there are the “6 Paramitas or Perfections”: generosity,
morality, patience, effort, meditation and insight.
also refers to the “6 Realms of Rebirth”, ranging
from gods to hell denizens.
Buddhist laypersons have taken the “5 Precepts”. There
are also the “5 Skandas or Aggregates”: form, feeling,
sensation, volition and consciousness. Finally, there are the
“5 Moral Sins”: killing one’s mother or father,
killing an arahant, causing division in the sangha and wounding
“4 Noble Truths” are the foundation of all Buddhist
teachings. 4 also refers to the “4 Supreme Efforts”,
regarding unwholesome and wholesome thoughts.
are “4 Types of People with Realization”, beginning
with the Stream Enterer and ending with the arahant. There are
also “4 Types of Reincarnation”, through which one
enters the cycle of rebirth.
the “4 Brahma Viharas” of loving-kindness, compassion,
sympathetic joy and equanimity are key meditative practices. The
positive qualities of each state of mind radiates outwards towards
oneself, then to one’s family, the local community, and
eventually to all beings in the universe.
number 3 strikes me as the most important of all in the various
compilations, so I’ve included more references to it than
any other number. Most all of us have taken the “3 Refuges”
in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. These are also collectively
known as the Triple Gem or the Triratna.
also refers to the triloka or the “3 Worlds” or the
“3 Realms” of existence. These are the Desire Realm,
the Form Realm and the Formless Realm.
Buddhas manifest themselves in “3 Bodies” or the Trikaya:
the Truth Body, the Body of Bliss and the Emanation Body.
are “3 Roots of Evil”, namely greed, hatred and delusion.
All negative states of consciousness are ultimately grounded in
one or more of these.
“3 Characteristics of Existence” are suffering (dukkha),
impermanence (anitya) and no permanent self (anatman).
of the above teachings are found within the “3 Baskets”,
or the Tripitaka, of the traditional Buddhist canon.
to ignore Zen, there are the “3 Pillars of Zen”: the
constituent elements of teaching, practice and enlightenment.
represents our mundane understanding of reality, as reflected
in our focus on duality. There are also the ”2 Truths”,
relative truth and absolute truth, the former referring to mundane
reality and the latter to transcendental reality.
refers to “1 Mind”, a focused, undisturbed mind, concentrating
on a single object. 1 also refers to the one person whose birth
into the world is for the welfare of many folk, a Tathagata.
most important of all of these numbers is another manifestation
of 1, namely each of you. Within each person in this room is a
not yet fully realized Buddha nature, to which all of the other
numbers mentioned here today ultimately point.
by - Rev. Lynn "Jnana" Sipe
Irreverent Look at Zen in America
European Discovery of Indian Buddhism