Introduction to Number Symbolism
Tibetan: 1 chi 2 nyi 3 sum 4 shi 5 nga 6 truk 7 dün 8 gye 9 gu 10 chu
Numbers as Mnemonic Devices [memory aids]
The Buddhist tradition is no different from others in this regard. For example, the Anguttara Nikaya is the largest of the four main collections of the Buddha’s discourses contained in the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali Canon. Its title which is usually translated, Further-factored Discourse derives from the way it is arranged:
The Book of Ones (Ekaka Nipata) comprises unique or single items; the Book of the Twos (Duka Nipata), items of pairs of opposites, and so on up to the Book of Elevens.
Many examples of this use of numbers, so common to traditional literature of all kinds, will be seen in the Buddhist examples that follow this Introduction.
Letters as Numbers and vice-versa
Some traditions go further, placing an importance on the alpha-numeric equivalence of words. For example, the Jewish mystical system, Kabbalah, uses a technique called gematria [pron.: ghemahtria] in which each letter of the Hebrew alphabet accords with a number, so that hidden meanings may be derived from words.
This practice was transferred to other languages and alphabets where it is known as numerology.
The letters of Sanskrit, used for both Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, are thought to have great powers, too. Tibetan, though, is not an ancient but an invented script, and perhaps that is the reason why the numerology tradition does not seem to be practiced.
Numbers play an important role in Tibetan astrology, which blends the systems of China and India. Unlike the system used in the West, the Tibetan one places great emphasis on the phases of the moon using a system that divides a lunar month into 30 equal "days".
This lunar cycle is thought to be derived from the cosmic tortoise of Hindu mythology that is the foundation of the physical world. (Not surprisingly, North American aboriginal peoples also refer to the 13 moons on Turtle's back.)
The Numbers of Buddhism
Zero is a marker, it is not a number. See summary of philosopher Pandeya's article.
In Sanskrit, shunya stands for perfection, Emptiness, or Nirvana which translates as extinction. According to Venerable Ato Rinpoche, there is not such a negative connotation in Sanskrit references to zero, as in the usual Western view.
*The Syllable Ah which stands for Non-arising can be thought of as an expression of One.
*One Dharma, perfect in the beginning, the middle and the end!
*Pair: yab-yum, mother-father in union; skillful means with discriminating wisdom.
*Halves: The earth is half grass and half water, say Tibetans. It is used to remind someone whose partner has left that there are many other opportunities -- there is someone for everyone.
*2 stages of tantra: generation and completion.
*Three Jewels: Buddha, Dharma, Sangha
Some may think that the qualities and attainments of the 3 Jewels (Skt. triratna) are inaccessible, but by using methods that work with real-life experience -- that is, by means of the 3 Roots we can actualize these qualities.
*Three Roots: Guru, Yidam and Dakini/Dharmapala
*Vajrayana practitioners who choose to take the 3 Inner Refuges: Lung, Tsa and Tigle [winds, channels and bindus or drops] may attain the realization that the 3 Jewels and their qualities are within the physical body.
*3 Negativities: Ignorance; Clinging/Greed/Desire, and Passion/Anger. Also called the poisons. In Vajrayana Buddhism, these are not thought of as 'sins' but qualities which can be transmuted and recognized by sentient beings as three aspects of Tathagathagarbha.
*Three poisons [see also, 3 negativities, 5 poisons] ignorance, attachment, anger as symbolized by the 3 animals or swirls at the hub of the Wheel of Rebirth, and the tines of the khatvanga [pike or trident carried by adepts].
*Three Kayas: 'realities' or 'states of existence'
*3 Realms of samsara: of desire, of form, and formless.
*Three Great Red Deities of the Sakya denomination: Kurukulla, Ganapati & Kamaraja.
*three forms of action: mental, verbal, and physical
*3 trainings: discipline, concentration, and discrimination.
*Fourth Buddha: Shakyamuni.
*The Four Immeasurables: Skt.: maitri (kindness,) mudita (pity,) karuna (joy,) and upeka (equanimity or even-ness, poise, ie. not distracted/unbalanced) are the four qualities of the enlightened mind. The Four Immeasurables is the title of the following prayer:
May all beings+ know happiness and the causes of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.
May they never be separate from the highest bliss ...
May they come to rest in the great equanimity free from attachment and aversion.
+Strictly translated from this famous Tibetan prayer, all grandmother beings, since it is believed that every living being has been the parent of every other numerous times over numerous lifetimes.
*Four thoughts that lead the mind to Dharma practice. Read a 1970's teaching by Lama Ganga.
*4 empowerments of tantric initiation: vase, secret, wisdom - knowledge, precious word. [They are variously described/named.]
*Four continents of 4 shapes around Mt. [Su]meru in the mandala of Indian cosmology: They are: 'Superior Body', Jambu the Southern-most which is our world [so-called because it is home to the Jambuvriksha or Rose-apple Tree], 'Cow Utilizing', and 'Unpleasant Sound'.
*Four activities: pacifying, increasing, magnetizing and subjugating.
*Four Schools (Buddhist philosophy) Vaibhasika, Sautrantika, Madhyamika and Yogacara. [Link is to HH Dalai Lama's brief answer to query by NZ scientists.]
*Four friends in the Jataka story about ethics: Buddha Shakyamuni was a bird in a previous life while his attendant Ananda was his friend the elephant, Shariputra was the rabbit and Maudgalyana was the monkey.
*Four Maras: the Daughters, or Children, of Mara the Opponent
Knowing that words can create happiness or suffering, I vow to learn to speak truthfully, with words that inspire self-confidence, joy, and hope. I am determined not to spread news that I do not know to be certain and not to criticize or condemn things of which I am not sure. I will refrain from uttering words that can cause division or discord, or that can cause the family or the community to break. I will make all efforts to reconcile and resolve all conflicts, however small.
I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practicing a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial
for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.
NB: Not all preceptors treat these as broadly.
*Five Buddha Families: 5 kulas (in Skt.)
In the Gelugpa system, white or blue Vairochana [Illuminator] is the central Buddha seated on a Lion throne holding the Wheel of Dharma [Truth]. For the Nyingma, Samantabhadra is the central figure. In the East is white Vajrasattva [Purity] on the Elephant throne holding the thunderbolt [Determination], or blue Akshobya [Unshakeable]. To the West is red Amitabha [Radiance} on a Lotus throne with peacocks or water fowl and holding a bowl and/or lotus. To the North is green Amoghasiddhi on a throne supported by garudas [shang-shangs, really cf. harpies: part human, part bird] and holding crossed vajras. Yellow Ratnasambhava is in the South on a horse-supported throne, holding a jewel.
These Buddhas may vary in
arrangement somewhat, according to the various traditions or lineages. They are sometimes thought of as being in the embrace of their consorts
[Tib. yab/yum]. The corresponding shaktis or female activity-expressions
or in Tibetan Buddhism called the Wisdoms, are: central Mother of Space, the eastern Mamaki [All Mine], western Woman in White, the northern Green Tara the Achiever, and
*Five Skandhas: [bundles, or heaps] psycho-physical aggregates.
< kapila [Tib. nangchu] vessel, cauldron
*Five chakras in the body-of-light [gyalu] according to the Tibetan Buddhist system with their corresponding colours: white, red, blue, yellow and green.
*Five kayas of fruition. According to Padmasambhava, these aspects of enlightenment are: The perfection of the benefit of oneself (peaceful dharmakaya), the spontaneous present for the benefit of others (unified samboghakaya), the manifold skillful means to tame beings (nirmanakaya), the distinct and unmixed appearance (true bodhikaya) and the unified or one-taste as Emptiness (vajrakaya).
*Five Paths of Buddhism: Shravakayana (Way of the Hearers) and Pratyekakaya are the 2 besides Hina- , Maha- and Vajrayanas.
*Five poisons or pancha-klesha A.k.a. obscurations, contaminants, afflictions of human nature, they are: confusion (Skt.: moha), pride (mana), envy (irsya), hatred (dvesha), and desire (raga). They are also given as: ignorance, desire, anger, greed, sloth, or the
*Five obstacles or Hindrances,
*Five major disasters: war, epidemics, famine, pollution and poverty.
*Five wisdoms: of dharmadhatu, the mirror-like, of equality, the discriminating and the all-accomplishing.
*5 major consorts in the long lifetime of Guru Rinpoche.
*5 Forms of Desire or Qualities of Enjoyment (T. dod-yon sna-lnga, Skt. pancha kamaguna) Items symbolic of the senses remind us how susceptible we are to craving:
Fruit (T. shing-tog, Skt. phala) represents sweet taste. Incense Burner (T. spos-snod) as a shell container with pleasant fumes arising. Mirror (T. me-long, Skt. adarsha) like our eye, it captures form. Lute (T. pi-wang, Skt. vina) sweet sound impinges on our ears delighting the mind. Silk (T. dar, Skt. netra) evokes smooth, cool touch.
Wisdom can be regarded as their product.
There are six
creatures that represent the Six Perfections. They are:
*7 chakras in the body of light/'subtle' body [in the Hindu tantric system] and their corresponding lotuses. Seven chakras appear in some Buddhist tantric texts, too.
*seven precious substances: ruby, emerald, sapphire, diamond, pearl, coral, lapis lazuli. [Sometimes, silver, gold, crystal, turquoise, or amber are substituted.]
*The Seven Jewels:
In astrology, Saturn, Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, and the Moon and Sun are the traditional seven planets. Their respective symbols according to the Tibetan tradition are: a bundle of wood, an arrowhead, a phurba or ritual "dagger," a hand, an eye, and a crescent and a disk.
In the tradition descending from Guru Padmakara and Mahapandita Vimalamitra, a person who demonstrates mastery of certain spiritual abilities is said to have obtained "the immense and profound treasury endowed with the seven transmissions." They are:
*Seven Possessions of a Chakravartin:
They are the same as the Eight Magnificent Offerings, minus the symbol of Worldly Wealth which is the Treasure Jar.
*8 Great Events in the Life of Buddha Shakyamuni. See them as symbolized on an ancient Indian stele https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/38615
*Prayer to the Eight Noble Ones or, "Tashi Prayer" has lists of 8's including Tibetan names of the 8 Bodhisattvas.
*8 auspicious symbols (Skt: Ashtamangala): conch shell [shankha], auspicious seal [endless knot], banner of victory, umbrella of royalty that is a reminder of spiritual and material protection, dharma wheel, pair of happy fish, the flower, the treasure vase.
*See the gestures or mudras for the 8 Auspicious Symbols.
These symbols are displayed, alone and all together. They are marked on paper, cloth or metal, and used during ceremonies such as the consecration of houses, at life's passages, and at elaborate fire offerings.
Figuring in the mandala offering in which the whole world is visualized, they are thought of as pertaining to Mount Sumeru. Each is associated with a direction. To the East lies the Precious Wheel, to the South is the Precious Jewel, to the West is the Precious Queen, and to the North is the Precious Minister. In the SE is the Precious Elephant, in the SW is the Precious Horse, in the NW is the Precious General, and to the NE lies the Great Treasure Pot [or jar.]
*The 8 worldly dharmas are those influences that challenge equanimity:
*8 Chariots of Tibetan Buddhism: The "instructional lineages."
*The 8 Common Abilities/powers [resulting from mastery of Vajrayana techniques]: The sword, the pill, the eye lotion, swift feet, extraction of essences, celestial realm, invisibility and treasures of the earth.
*The eight favorable qualities of birth that are most conducive to success are: Having a long lifespan, a handsome healthy body, in a reputable family, with wealth and friends, with credibility of speech, with influence, as a male, and with a powerful body and mind.
*8 sub-continents [see 4.]
*8 vidyadharas: Manjushrimitra, Nagarjuna, Hungkara, Vimalamitra, Prabhahasti, Dhana Sanskrita, Shantigarbha, Guyachandra.
*8 classes of gods and demons. Regarded as impure manifestations of 8 types of consciousness, in the Tibetan tradition they are: ging [attendants and entertainers], mara [creators of obstacles, eg. Klesha who embodies passion,Yama who is death, Skandha who is war, Ganapati or 'Godly Son'] tsen, yaksha [genii, titans or guardians of 'upper' realms ], rakshasa [elementals], mamo, rahula and naga.
*8 Non-free States of Existence: These are also known as the "fetters" (e.g. leg irons) There are two kinds: four affecting humans and four affecting other classes of beings.
*The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism classifies the tantras as NINE stages on the spiritual path, or the
*Nine Gradual Vehicles [according to Padmasambhava]
*10 Bhumis to Buddhahood. [Sanskrit/Pali for plane, storey or level].
The realization of Emptiness, shunyata, is the goal. Therefore, the bhumis are the consequences of virtue-in-action. The bhumis are also interpreted as reflecting the 3 kayas or levels of "reality."
Chandrakirti, in the Bodhisattva-Avatara Shastra explains:
0. The Foundation: Beings in samsara [the 6 realms] having generated the aspiration to climb the Bodhisattva Bhumis by practicing the 6 paramitas.
Now we proceed through 3 stages on the Path of Accumulation and 3 more stages on the Path of Unification:
In the 10 Paramita system, the perfection is that of Skillful Means needed to overcome Mara who provides opportunities for others to act in opposition.
It is said that once the 7th Bhumi is attained, the Buddhas prophesy concerning your achieving Buddhahood, and will indicate your Buddha-Name and circumstances.
In a former life, Lord Shakyamuni received this prophecy after having presented 4 golden flowers to the Buddha of that aeon .
You might be reborn as Brahma, Lord of the Universe.
*10 Lunar months: correspond to 9 solar months; Mahamaya's pregnancy with the Buddha, Shakyamuni.
*10 Close Disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha:
*10 non-virtuous Actions: Killing, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct [ie. leading to disorder,] the verbal misdeeds of uttering divisive talk/lying/gossiping, and speaking harshly, and the mental misdeeds of covetousness, anger and holding wrong views [generally defined as the philosophies of Materialism or Nihilism.]
*One-in-Ten: The sign called in Tib. nam chu wang den (rnam.bcu dbang.ldan) that is the seed syllable of Kalachakra.
*10 Pillars of Tibetan Buddhism (kachen chu, spelled ka.chen bcu) The 10 founders.
*10 Opportunities of a Our Birth: (5 personal, 5 general) They are: being born as a human being, in a central place, having functioning senses and "aggregates," and possessing faith in the 3; being born in an era of "light" (ie. in which a Buddha has appeared,) in which the Buddha has agreed to teach the dharma, an era in which the dharma is sustained, with circumstances that engender devotion such as others who can support us in our practice, and where we are kind and have teachers who are also kind so that they will teach us.
*11-headed Chenrezi, see a Japanese version
*12 Links of Causation: (Skt.: Nidhanas "understandings")
They are depicted in segments on the rim of the Wheel of Samsara
*12 remati [semo or shvana] sisters: from the legend of Padmasambhava; they are sworn protectors for whom a torma [ritual food offering] is made to this day.
*Thirteen Golden Doctrines central to the Sakya tradition
*13 lunar months in 1 year
*some say there are 13 bhumis (see 10.)
*16 causes of premature death as per Amitayus [sambhogakaya form of Amitabha] practice.
*18 Mahayoga Tantras. The Essence of Secrets (Guhyagarbha Tantra) is considered by Jamgon Kongtrul to be the greatest of these.
*21 manifestations of Green Tara, consort of Amoghasiddhi.
Her sadhana [liturgy] is referred to as "Homage to the 21 Taras" or the 21 Praises.
*21 disciples of Guru Rinpoche
*21 genyen: sworn [bonded to the dharma] local deities
*28 Ishvaris: 7 for each of the 4 kinds of activity. (See 4 , 58).
*Thirty Pieces of Advice From the Heart is a famous text concerning the way to conduct oneself in this life by Longchenpa [Longchen Rabjam,] founder of the Longchen Nyingthig lineage of the Nyingma denomination.
Some Larger Numbers
Samantabhadra (All-Goodness) and Samantabadhri plus the five male and five female buddhas, the eight male and eight female bodhisattvas, the 6 munis, plus four male and four female gatekeepers. 58 herukas: five male and five female herukas [blood-drinkers, ie. forms of ego-clinging] plus eight yoginis, eight tramen [hybrid, ie. animal-headed] goddesses, four female gatekeepers, and the twenty-eight ishvaris ['ladies'].
Minapa, The Bengali Jonah
100 peaceful and wrathful deities.
253 precepts held by fully ordained monastics [Tib.: gelong]
500-year periods of ten in all in which Buddha-dharma is expected to endure.
1, 000 buddhas predicted for this eon, a Good Eon.
84, 000 teachings of the Buddha
160,000 years in an age of a buddha according to one tradition.
Note: Regarding the large numbers, Tibetan tradition prefers rounded numbers such as 100, 000 (Tib. bum, but called a lakh in India.) A large number written the Indian or Tibetan way may lead to some confusion for Westerners, eg. 11, 74, 000 (no zero is missing), means 11 lakhs 74 thousand. This is equal to the Western 1, 174, 000.
A koti (Sanskrit word) is a 100, 000 lakhs or 10 million. The modern Hindi for koti is crore.
An ayuta is 100 kotis, and a 100 ayutas is one niyuta.
Though a kalpa is considered to be 4,320,000 years, Buddhists describe its duration metaphorically: Rub a one-mile cube of rock once every hundred years with a piece of silk, until the rock is worn away -- and a kalpa still hasn’t passed!
In the Indian cosmological view, we are currently in the Kali yuga, a dark and decadent time. One etymology has Kali coming from kalaha meaning quarrel.
Pandeya's footnotes refer to W. Windelband's A History of Philosophy, (2nd ed. New York: Macmillan, 1960.) In the philosophy of the Renaissance, numbers played a very important part. "The book of nature is written in numbers; the harmony of things is that of the number-system."
In modern philosophy, the same problem of reality was viewed in terms of monism, dualism, and pluralism. Descartes' mind and matter, Spinoza's one Substance, Leibniz' plurality of monads, and, finally, Hegel's one Absolute show the way in which numbers play a part in the determination of philosophical concepts. Modern logicians like Frege and Russell give a new orientation to number-concept (B. Russell, An Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy).
In India, the controversy about the number of ultimate reality dates back to the Rig Veda. "Reality is one but described as many." (ekam sad vipraa bohudhaa vadanti--I.164.46), the episode of the twin birds (1.164.20), and the Nasadiya Sukta (RV, X.129), which perhaps thinks in terms of void or zero, give a glimpse of the numerical thinking of the ancient seers.
The Upanishads abound in discussions about the one and the many. Has the name "Samkhya" anything to do with numbers? Except [for] the two Mimamsa views, all other systems of orthodox Indian philosophy proceed with the enumeration of various categories, viz., 24 or 25 categories of the Samkhya-Yoga, six categories of the Vaisheshka, 16 categories of the Nyaya. The Uttara Mimamsa school discusses the relation between the one (Brahman) and the many (jiva-jagat). That early Buddhism was fond of categorization and counting is evidenced in Abhidharma philosophy. The term "sunya,"
[shunya-ta] preferred by Madhyamikas to designate their concept of reality, therefore assumes importance.