Buddhist numerology

It doesn’t take long to notice that there are a lot of numbers in Buddhism. Four of this, eight of that, seven of the other. Some of the major Buddhist scriptures, such as the Aṅguttara/Ekottara are actually organized according to numerical sequence. Which raises the question: what do these numbers mean? Are they merely a way of organizing information, or is there more to it?

Let me start off with a general observation. Buddhism is a religion of the Axial Age. That period of time is characterized by a turning away from the older mythic or symbolic ways of thought to our more familiar rational, linear thought. Axial Age religions and philosophies have, therefore, a twofold or ‘Janus-faced’ character: from ‘behind’ they look back to the age of magic and myth; in ‘front’ they look towards reason and compassion. It is in their insistence on reason that they appeal to the modern consciousness; and in their preservation of the symbolic they appeal to the subconscious.

The ‘conscious’ relates to numbers as pure rationality; the very definition of abstract, perfect logic. But our ‘unconscious’ takes a great interest in numerology, the ‘hidden’ meanings and implications of numbers. Such discourse would never make it into the Academe, except as an object of curiosity, but it probably has more real-world followers than ‘proper’ theoretical mathematics.

When, with our modern bias, we see numbers used in the Buddhist texts, our initial assumption is to see them purely as counting devices, devoid of meaning. It soon becomes obvious, however, that many numbers cannot be taken literally. As is well known, ’500′ means ‘hundreds’, for example. In other cases numbers are given as if they were literal measurements, when they in fact relate to mythical sea creatures or Mount Meru. So it’s clear that there is at least some non-rational use of numbers in the texts.

How far down does this go? If the inflated size of a sea monster can clearly not be taken as literal, what are we to make of the equally vast numbers given to cosmological periods, the life span in various realms, and so on, details that are not so readily falsifiable? Or if the number ‘seven’ is found in many symbolic contexts, are we to infer that, say, the ‘seven lives’ of a stream enterer is equally symbolic?

Our modern number system derives from two main sources. Our basic counting system is base 10, which is derived from the widespread practice of counting on the fingers. We still teach children this way: one ‘apple’ = 1 ‘finger’. The fingers are the literal basis on which the metaphor of number is constructed.

It is a major leap of abstraction to take the ‘apple’ and the ‘finger’ out and just have pure number. Even as adults most of us need some physical aids to help with any more than very basic calculations. This base 10 system is inherently practical. It deals with the here & now. It would find use in, for example, building, where the sizes of building are measured using parts of the body; or in trade, where a quick and ready means of counting or weighing items is needed. Our most ancient writings from Sumer consist largely of bills of trade, endless lists of camels and goats and grain being transported and sold from here to there.

The other source is far more exalted: the sky. The months of the year are 12 which almost (but not quite) relates to the approx. 360 days of the year. Astronomical numbering systems tend to be in base 12, or  as in Sumer, base 60. We have abolished the base 60 system for everything, except in how we measure time. Our clocks still rotate in cycles of 12 and 60, mimicking the heavens and reminding us of the earliest inspiration for our science and our sense of wonder.

Let’s have a look at some of the basic numbers used in early Buddhist texts, and their basic symbolic connotations. This is something I’ve noticed here and there over the years, but have done no systematic study. So this is just a few random suggestions.

One – eka: This is the number of the original cosmic unity. It is the most characteristic number of the Vedas: ‘That 1 Thing’, which lies before all. 1 represents a spiritual union, a healing and return from this fractured world. 1 is used in Buddhism in exactly the same way, except that the healing union is not metaphysical, but psychological: jhana.

Two – dve: Like most of the numbers, the Indo European root still shows in the similarity between the English and Pali. (In other numbers, where the Pali and English appear quite different, think of the Latinate forms, e.g ‘penta’ =  ‘pañca’.) 2 is what happens when one falls apart. It is division, diversity, dichotomy. The original primordial Being splits into 2 beings, which simultaneously desire and oppose one another. Day/night, male/female, left/right; the world of binaries and oppositions comes into being. 2 always yearns for the lost 1.

Three – tayo: 3 represents the integration of the Divine (1) and the profane (2). Religions are full of trinities, and like the Christian trinity, the basic meaning is always finding some way to express or manifest the relation between the pristine, longed-for unity with the reality of worldly diversity. In the Chinese Ying-yang symbol (which is, incidentally, found in Rome centuries before China) the yin-yang duality is encompassed within the circle that is the original 1. The 3 Vedas (and later the Tipitaka) are the voice of the 1 Truth as it speaks and manifests in the world. In the Pali Abhidhamma, the primary triad is ‘good, bad, undeclared’, where the ‘undeclared’ (or ‘undefined’) constitutes all that does not lie within the worldly duality – including Nibbana.

Four – cattāro: The literal basis of this is the 4 directions, and hence ’4′ carries the connotation of ‘completion’, encompassing’, perfection and balance. It is in this sense that the ’4 noble truths’ are like an ‘elephant’s footprint’ that can encompass all other footprints; or that the ’4 assemblies’ constitute the perfect, balanced, and complete sasana. It is the most characteristic number in Buddhist texts. As well as being the most common in its own right, it is also common in its ‘strengthened’ forms: 8 (4 directions and 4 intermediate directions), 10 (the same, plus ‘above and below’, c.f. the basic passage on the 4 brahmaviharas.), and so on. These numbers sometimes appear in elaborate interlocking, almost geometric, sets, most strikingly in the Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta, with its ’4′ noble truths, ’8-fold’ path, and ’12′ aspects of penetration to the truths.

Five – pañca: In Pali this is still strongly rooted in the ‘hand’. The basic mechanism of the hand is that it divides into 1 (thumb) + 4 (fingers), rather than 2 + 3. So in, say, the 5 indriyas, wisdom is said to be the peak, held up by and securing the other 4, like the rafters holding up a ridge pole. or in the 5 khandhas, viññāṇa is singled out (not rūpa!), and the other 4 are said to be established up against viññāṇa. This is why the khandhas are almost always said to be ‘upādānakkhandhas’, ‘grasping-aggregates’. Like the hand grasps with the thumb opposing the four fingers, the khandhas grasp with vinnana (the knowing) in opposition to the other 4 (the known). While the later traditions tried to place ‘grasping’ in one of the 4 khandhas (saṅkhāra), for the Suttas the grasping is the act of what the hand does as a whole.

Six – cha: I’m not so sure of the metaphorical basis or symbolism of 6, but perhaps it derives from the astronomical cycle, and this might be related to the common description of the 6 sense fields as ‘the All.’

Seven – satta: This is the primary number of magic, especially life and death magic. It relates to two cosmic phenomena: the lunar cycles (and hence menstrual cycles); and the number of visible planets (5 = sun and moon). In both of these there is a sense of a cycle and a return, but also a death and rebirth. The moon dies each month, the sun each night; women’s fertility governs life and death; the wandering planets are an erratic curiosity compared with the static nobility of the stars. 7 is found all through myth and ritual, there being too many examples to even begin to cite them. But the general idea, as in the 7 days of Genesis, is ‘the entire cycle of birth and death’. 7 appears in this sense repeatedly in the Buddha’s mythology: taking 7 steps after his birth, Maya’s death 7 seven days, and so on. It carries on into folk Buddhist belief, where the soul crosses over after 7 (or 49) days. Some cases are not so clear: the 7 lives of the stream enterer is presented as literal, but it carries similar connotations of crossing over the cycle of birth and death.

I’ll stop there. The higher numbers are usually felt as combinations or enhancements of the basic ones, so there’s no need to spell them out. there is, to my knowledge, little written on this topic, but there are a few notes on the number entries in the PTS Pali Dictionary.

In any case, I think it’s clear that numbers have a symbolic dimension in Buddhist texts. In ignoring this we are keeping ourselves blind to one layer of the richness of meaning these texts have to offer us. Given that the Buddhist tradition, to my knowledge, does not itself offer the keys to understanding these matters, it’s important to understand how numbers are used in various traditions, especially axial age traditions.

While numbers started out as concrete, and these concrete bases can still be discerned in the Pali texts, they have already moved very far towards abstraction. It is this very ‘emptiness’ of number that offers such an invitingly blank canvas for the projection of dreams. Like all fundamental symbols, they convey a range of meaning that is always vague and hard to define, but which speaks in some way to fundamental questions of existence.

Number is part of the universal language of symbolism. The spectrum of connotations of numbers is similar across different cultures, but as always, what is actually said in this shared language may be quite different. For example, the symbolism of ‘One’ is shared between Buddhism and Vedism, but while the Vedas yearn to return to the One, Buddhists seek to let go of the One so as to realize the only truly Buddhist number – zero.

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29 thoughts on “Buddhist numerology

  1. A very interesting article. I would like to know more about your sources for some of these observations, or how you came to understand them this way.

    Just a few thoughts:
    (1) What is probably more important, is to try to discover what the Buddha had in mind with using numbers. No doubt his education would have informed him of contemporaneous meanings, say in the Vedas, but we also know that the Teachings are over and above what came before them, as well may have been his idea of the meanings (if any) of the numbers used within them;
    (2) Bearing in mind that the teachings were transmitted orally for hundreds of years before being committed to writing, perhaps the numbering was also an aid to memorisation;
    (3) The meaning attached to numbers is by no means a universal thing – different cultures during different time periods attributed various meanings to numbers. Ask a Chinese person what certain numbers mean, for example, and you will get a very different answer. To them, the number 2 is positive (“good things come in pairs”) while the number 4 represents death.
    (4) Both the fields of astrology and numerology are problematic in terms of their scientific bases.

    I would appreciate any feedback on these points to deepen my own limited understanding. Thank you again for this article.

    • dear greg,

      Thanks for your comments, to reply to them in order:

      1) What is probably more important, is to try to discover what the Buddha had in mind with using numbers. No doubt his education would have informed him of contemporaneous meanings, say in the Vedas, but we also know that the Teachings are over and above what came before them, as well may have been his idea of the meanings (if any) of the numbers used within them;

      Quite true. As with so many things, the Buddha spoke within an existing culture of language and ideas – as indeed we all must – but radically shifted the meanings of words when it suited him.

      (2) Bearing in mind that the teachings were transmitted orally for hundreds of years before being committed to writing, perhaps the numbering was also an aid to memorisation;

      Again, very true, and i should have mentioned this. If you know that there’s ‘four’ somethings and you’ve only got three, you keep trying…

      (3) The meaning attached to numbers is by no means a universal thing – different cultures during different time periods attributed various meanings to numbers. Ask a Chinese person what certain numbers mean, for example, and you will get a very different answer. To them, the number 2 is positive (“good things come in pairs”) while the number 4 represents death.

      This is true, but not the whole story. to begin with, i would make a distinction between ‘symbol’ and ‘sign’. A symbol is primarily unconscious, and has an infinitely complex series of connotations. A sign is primarily conscious, and has (typically) just one clear denotation. The examples you have quoted, for me, would be ‘signs’ rather than symbols. They are a fairly shallow, local phenomena, often prompted by things like a coincidence in sound between unrelated words. That coincidence will often not be shared by other dialects. Symbols, on the other hand, tend to be more universal. For example, the spiritual connotations of ‘one’ and ‘three’ are very widespread. That is not to say that they do not vary between cultures – of course they do. But there is a deep level parallel going on, which I believe should be related to fundamental properties of how numbers are experienced by humans generally.

      (4) Both the fields of astrology and numerology are problematic in terms of their scientific bases.

      Hardly problematic – more like complete bunkum. But here I’m not interested in the science, only the meaning.

    • Hi Greg,

      I think there is a big difference between the mythology/symbology of numbers and “numerology” as a pseudo-science (used for personality assessments, predicting the future, fortune telling, and other highly questionable parlor-type games).

      The former is more about how numbers have evolved in human culture (and our human propensity to “make meaning” and see symbolic relationships as a way to learn) and are embedded in stories and teachings across cultures and across time in similar ways symbolically, mythologically and archetypically (not that there aren’t some differences in specific meanings ascribed to them). I find this a fascinating area to look at in the suttas, not just in terms of numbers but in other areas as well (such as when should a “historical” story be read mythically?)

      This is not to say that there is a “hidden meaning” underneath the texts that needs to be decoded or that we should take ideas about the symbolic meanings of numbers and project that onto the teachings or assume the Buddha was using numbers in the same way as the Brahmanical culture of his time, or even symbolically, or things of this nature.

      The issue of numbers interesting because they are clearly used in a variety ways in the suttas (that was what prompted my original question about this topic, back in the thread in March entitled “Update and Questions”) and I find exploring this brings out a certain dimension and richness of the texts that we don’t have available to us otherwise.

      So thanks for this thread! And, Bhante, I thanks for pointing this out about Axial age philosophies and religions: ” It is in their insistence on reason that they appeal to the modern consciousness; and in their preservation of the symbolic they appeal to the subconscious.”

  2. As for one …

    One Thing…

    Monks, when a monk becomes entirely dispassionate towards one thing, when his lust for it entirely fades away, when he is entirely liberated from it, when he sees the complete ending of it, then he is one who, after fully comprehending the Goal, makes an end of suffering here and now.

    What one thing? “All beings subsist by nutriment.” When a monk becomes entirely dispassionate towards this one thing (nutriment), when his lust for it entirely fades away, when he is entirely liberated from it, and when he sees the complete ending of it, then, O monks, he is one who, after fully comprehending the Goal, makes an end of suffering here and now.

    — AN 10.27

    And there are four kinds of nutriment: edible food, sense-impressions, volitions, and consciousness.

    Hunger, craving is behind the entire process of nutrition. Just as the body craves for food, so the mind nungers for it’s own nourishment, for new sense-impressions, for ideas, for variety …

    • Hey this is great Visakha. Thanks for bringing the Buddha’s words into the blog. We can’t get better than the Buddha:)

      Also, the particular sutta you write is quite ironic since blogging can be a nutriment: it can give fuel for more being, self and samsara (and hence more suffering!) it gives more sense-impressions, ideas, variety etc.

      It’s difficult to use blogging or ‘discussion on Dhamma’ for wholesome reasons: to clarify our understanding on Dhamma and make sure we understood correctly and even motivate and inspire to further practice.

      It’s easy to get caught up with expressing ideas or putting others down (which I found myself doing at times) to give a bigger sense of self. Even now I am not sure if blogging now is discussing Dhamma and clarifying my understanding of the Sutta or just expressing this delusion of self and fueling more samsara.

      How does the Buddha want us to understand nutriment? does nutriment just mean nutriment for more being and samsara? Is it similar to upadana/uptaking? attachment? clinging?
      Does anyone have a good understanding of what Buddha explains nutriment to be: is it just the object of attachment? Is it similar to upadana?

      • I won’t quote the whole thing here, but you’d maybe want to look at SN 46:2:

        Bojjhangasamyutta – The Body

        “…the five hindrances, sustained by nutriment, subsist in dependence on nutriment and do not subsist without nutriment.”

        Bhikkhu Bodhi notes:

        “Nutriment (ahara) here has the meaning of condition (paccaya). This portion of the sutta is repeated below at 46:51, to which Spk gives a detailed explanation of the nutriments for the individual enlightenment factors. See below, nn. 85-91. Cp. AN I 3-5.”

        So then, to SN 46:51:


        (i. The nutriments for the hindrances
        ii. The nutriments for the enlightenment factors
        iii. The denourishment of the hindrances
        iv. The denourishment of the enlightenment factors)
        <3

      • Dear Dania,

        Don’t worry too much: speech about Dhamma is, in itself, right speech. We learn the best way to do it, not be being right all the time, but by continually trying and being mindful of where it works and where it doesn’t.

        Yes, nutriment (āhāra) is basically similar to grasping (upādāna). In fact, the two words are etymologically parallel. One difference is that upādāna mainly focuses on ‘intellectual’ defilements: grasping at views, self, and so on. Nutriment focuses more on fundamental sources of experience, how we are conditioned and created by sense stimulus, feeling, and so on.

      • Bhante, can you explain this further please?

        “In fact, the two words are etymologically parallel.”

      • This pointed out long ago, I believe by Nyanaponika (?) in an essay on the four nutriments.

        Nutriment, or simply ‘food’, in Pali is ahara. (Sorry, I can’t do diacritical marks right now, I’m on another computer). The root hara means ‘take, bring’, and the prefix here has implies ‘in’, so literally ‘intake’.

        Upadana is from a root meaning ‘take up, grab hold of’, with a mildly intensifying prefix, so we could render it ‘uptake’.

        They are also parallel in that, like many Pali terms, they can be used either of the external object, or the internal desire/attachment to that object. Upadana, for example, can mean the ‘fuel’ for a fire, which is very close in meaning to ‘food’. So the basic, pre-philosophical meaning, is essentially the same, and they are then extended to an abstract application in a similar way.

  3. Well worth reading —

    http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel105.html

    The Four Nutriments of Life
    An Anthology of Buddhist Texts
    translated from the Pali, with an Introductory Essay by
    Ven. Nyanaponika Thera

    The similes are powerful and dreadful. The Buddha obviously didn’t want us to take nutriment in a casual, eerything is basically OK sort of way! To impress us of the dangers, he uses these graphic similes.

    1. Edible Food
    Simile: A couple, foodless in the midst of a desert, eat their little child, to enable them to reach their destination.

    2 Sense-impression
    Simile: A skinned cow, wherever she stands, will be ceaselessly attacked by the insects and other creatures living in the vicinity.

    3. Volitional Thought
    Volitional thought here means chiefly kamma — i.e., rebirth-producing and life-affirming action — and the Buddha has compared it with a man dragged by two others towards and into a pit of glowing embers.

    4.Consciousness
    The nutriment consciousness has been compared with the punishment of a criminal who thrice daily is pierced with three hundred spears.

  4. Dear Bhante,

    Thank you for this very interesting and insightful post. I hope to respond more fully later, but I wanted to let you know how much I appreciate these reflections.

  5. One of the most problemmatic (at least for me) of the Buddhist numerical sets are the 37 Wings of Enlightenment. This set is supposed to have an internal coherence to the way the respective sub-sets and dhammas intersect, but I cannot see it. This mysterious quality is further compounded by the number 37, which does seem like a magical combination of any of the major symbolic numbers.

    • Ajahn Thanissaro has more on 37 at:

      http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/thanissaro/wings/part2.html

      Here is the relevant excerpt:

      “Another hypothesis — not necessarily at odds with the first — is that the Buddha wanted the number of factors to total 37 because the number had symbolic meaning. In ancient times, before the development of the decimal system, multiplication tables were arranged in hexagonal patterns. The complete table used to calculate the ratios used in tuning musical instruments to reciprocal scales — scales that played the same notes going up as going down — had one member in the middle surrounded by three hexagonal rings containing, in ascending order, six, twelve, and eighteen members, giving a total of 37 members. (See the diagram on the back cover of this book.) The table of whole-number ratios that formed the basis for trigonometry, and thus for the study of astronomy, contained 37 members. Thus the number 37 carried connotations of basic completeness. This principle is at work in Plato’s Laws, where the ideal city has 37 guardians, and it may also be at work here.”

    • Hi Sylvester and Californian,

      If you haven’t seen it already, Rupert Gethin’s book “The Buddhist Path to Awakening” is a “comprehensive study of the of the 37 conditions that contribute to awakening (bodhi-pakkiy dhamma).” (from back cover).

      And from his introduction, in explaining the course of his investigation: ” “First, details of the seven sets individually are scattered throughout the Nikayas, but without any firm indication that the seven sets are associated. Secondly, in a number of Nikaya and Abhidhamma contexts the seven sets are found brought together in a bare sequence, yet without any definite statement as to why. Finally, in the post-canonical literature the seven sets receive the collective appellation ‘thirty-seven dhammas’ that contribute to awakening’ and are in some sense explicitly identified with the path. What I want to do is trace the logic behind this state of affairs….”

      • Gethin’s description of how the 37 bodhipakkhiya dhammas occurs misses out what I believe to be the most important context, which is the chapter on the path from the Samyutta Nikaya/Agama. While it is true that teachings on them are found ‘scattered individually’ through the Nikayas, it is here that the vast bulk of all the teachings are collected. This pattern is further reinforced in the Samyukta Agama, where, for example, many of the teachings on the balas are found in their proper place, rather than in the Anguttara as in Pali. It is to this collection, I believe, that the Buddha is referring when he says elsewhere, such as in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, that this collection of teachings is the ‘dhammas that he has taught after directly knowing them.’

        I had always taken this collection to be a somewhat arbitrary one, and had not thought the actual number to be of significance. But after (re) reading Thanissaro’s comments above, I’m not so sure. There is no doubt, however, that each of the sets was originally intended to be an overall depiction of the path. There is no basis for the (commonly held) idea that they were meant as a progressive sequence.

      • Dear Bhante,

        Thanks for pointing this out: “Gethin’s description of how the 37 bodhipakkhiya dhammas occurs misses out what I believe to be the most important context, which is the chapter on the path from the Samyutta Nikaya/Agama.” I haven’t read Gethin’s book yet as I only recently got it.

        Re: “I had always taken this collection to be a somewhat arbitrary one…”, one thing I’ve always been curious about is why, for example, the Brahma-Viharas aren’t listed, while both the indriya and bala are enumerated, even though they contain the same set of dhammas. And then the jhanas aren’t listed either.

      • Exactly. But when they are collected, as e.g. the Samyutta or any number of Abhidhamma texts, such groups are added, though never as systematically as the basic 37. Also, there are many groups of balas and indriyas, so why those specifically?

      • Bhante,
        Oops, I just reread your post saying:
        “There is no doubt, however, that each of the sets was originally intended to be an overall depiction of the path.”

        I guess that would explain why things like the Brahma-Viharas and Jhanas aren’t included. Still not sure though why the indriya and bala need to be separately listed then.

      • Thanks Bhante.

        I’m still at that stage where the whole schema looks arbitrary. Even after reading and reading and re-reading Bhikkhu Bodhi’s Intro to the Samyutta’s Mahavagga, I still don’t get it. Piya cited one of your essay of the subject but memory fails me. Any pointers?

        My problem really could like with the fact that (i) I am a very linear thinking sort, and (ii) it’s hard for me to chuck the primacy of the Noble Eightfold Path when its intersections with the other “wings” are not so apparent.

        Dear Californian

        Thanks for highlighting AJ Thanissaro’s theory about the numerical significance of the 37. I’ll check out the figure of that hexagonal table. Perhaps I’ll check that out with my music teacher to see if he can divine how that fits into pentatonic music systems.

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