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.