Buddhism’s obsession with numbers

Buddhism has this uncanny (but useful) obsession with numbers, I believe this is because – as it originated as an oral tradition – using groups of specific numbers would have helped the early Dhamma practitioners to remember vast amounts of rather complicated information and concepts.

I hope the list and resources below will help people while they are learning some of the main Buddhist concepts and also act as a kind of memory device. I know how difficult it can be to remember some of these things, especially when you want to keep in mind the names of suttas and other elements of Buddhism at the same time.

There are twelve beads on my mala bracelet so I decided to leave the number to 12 in order to keep the list simple. This is also a good way to remember these ideas, there are only so many numbers you can hold in your head at once, so one way to do that is to follow in the oral tradition of early Buddhism and simply turn them into mantras and associate each number to a bead on your mala. Because this list is not exhaustive I will probably write a follow up article of important numbers in the future.

I’ve added the number 108 because it is a number that pops up a lot in Buddhism as well as other religions, and it is the usual number of a full set of mala beads. Although I might add, that whenever asked, Buddhists tend to give very different answers regarding this number depending on who you ask. As a sacred integer it predates Buddhism by a long time and it may be we never know the initial meaning it may have had, but I will add some of the meanings that are ascribed to it below.

Also, I’ve included a few Mahayana references in this article, since my experience extends into some of the Mahayana concepts and interpretations as well as the Theravada and I try to express that where I can. 

1: Nonduality

(See ‘Two Truths’)
Bhikkhu Bodhi with a short essay on Non-Duality from the Theravada perspective

2: The Two Truths

(Provisional Dualistic Reality -one way of making sense of non-dualism) These would probably be better described as two lenses, or ‘modes’ of looking at reality rather than ontological truths. In fact I will write further about this in a future article.
Below is a link to the Theravadin explanation, which in the Abhidhamma is not too dissimilar to Nagarjuna’s interpretation as far as I’m led to believe but again, I will look into this further in a later article. Unfortunately it would seem that in general Mahayana Buddhists don’t tend to know about the Abhidhamma as it exists in Theravada and would claim many of its concepts as exclusively theirs, much as with the concept of the Bodhisattva: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theravada#Two_truths

An Essay on The Two Truths from a Mahayana perspective

The Parable of the Two Arrows 

(Sometimes referred to as ‘The Parable of the Poisoned Arrow’)
A parable describing the difference between the inevitable pains of the world and the preventable suffering we create for ourselves. It is a simple way of describing the concept of Dukkha to someone who is interested in Buddhism.

Mindfulness based cognitive therapy course video explaining the Parable of the The Two Arrows

A link referencing the ‘Poisoned Arrow’ version of the story and its origin in the Pali suttas

Another Buddhist arrow parable video that links quite nicely to the first:

3: The Three Jewels

(Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha)
The first three things you might learn in Buddhism are the ‘The Three Jewels’, they are the three things that we hold in high regard as precious, much like jewels. We remember them whenever we bow or prostrate ourselves three times to a Buddha image in a temple or monastery. It’s important to distinguish that we are not worshipping these things, the image of the Buddha is actually a focus point for us to pay our respects and remember the deeds and example of the Buddha. The Dhamma is the order of things as they rightly are, the clear teaching of these things is also known as Dhamma. Practicing the Dhamma will lead us from ignorance and much unneeded suffering, and the Sangha is the community that we belong to which exists only by mutual support, hard work and compassion.

The Three Marks of Existence

(Anicca, Dukkha, Anatta) The three marks of existence are Anicca: Impermanence/flux, Dukkha: Un-satisfactoriness, and Anatta: Non-self

How the three marks of existence are interlinked: The world is impermanent and in constant flux. there is nothing we can cling to that will stay the same forever, this also means that it is not possible to find a permanent point of self, much less a permanent one. Because of this, when we do try to cling to things in this world, whether objects, wealth, other people, pleasant states of being, or even our own views about ourselves we will always be left with un-satisfactoriness. Aversion, or trying to push away unpleasant feelings, or things that we do not want in life is the counterpart to clinging and also causes Dukkha. But this doesn’t mean we are doomed to suffer, because in fact the majority of Dukkha is caused by ignorance and illusion. The eightfold path was created by the Buddha in order to help people out of the situation of compounded suffering.

A link to an article about the Three Marks of Existence by the staff at Lion’s Roar Foundation

4: The Four Noble Truths

The principles by which we learn how to end dissatisfaction and unnecessary suffering in our lives. Below is the simple list each of the Noble Truths can be broken down into further teachings.

The simple version:

  1. There is dukkha, or un-satisfactoriness
  2. There is a cause of dukkha
  3. There is cessation of dukkha
  4. There is a path to end dukkha

The more detailed version:

  1. Dukkha: suffering, frustration, un-satisfactoriness
  2. Samudaya: The arising of dukkha, craving, greed, reactivity as a cause of frustration
  3. Nirodha: Cessation of dukkha through the cessation of craving
  4. Magga: The path leading to the cessation of dukkha

Bhikkhu Bodhi lecture on The Four Noble Truths

Ajahn Sumedho video lecture on the Four Noble Truths for The Buddhist Society

The Four Noble Tasks (Stephen Batcheler’s interpretation of the 4 noble truths as actions)

1. Embrace Life
2. Let Go
3. Stop Grasping
4. Act

Further description of Stephen Batchelor’s ‘Four Noble Tasks’

5: The Five Precepts

The Five Precepts are the basic code of ethics that lay followers of Buddhism undertake. Even if you are not a Buddhist you are expected to follow them while visiting Buddhist monasteries, temples or holy places, or while attending meditation retreats.

  1. To refrain from killing
  2. To refrain from stealing
  3. To refrain from sexual misconduct
  4. To refrain from lying (Sometimes interpreted as to refrain from ‘false speech’, since there are many other types of falsity and negative modes of speech.)
  5. To refrain from drugs and alcohol (Sometimes interpreted as to refrain from ‘intoxication’.)

An explanation of the five precepts by Buddhaghosa from Tricycle the Buddhist review

The Five Aggregates

The five material and mental factors that are part of the arising of craving and desire. They are also the factors that comprise a sentient being’s body and psyche, which is important in defining ‘anatta’ or ‘non-self’. I will write about this link further in a future article about emergence, non-self and the ‘modular theory of mind’, as well as an article on the concept of ‘sunyata’ or ‘emptiness’/’no-thingness’ and ‘atammayata’ or the ‘un-contrived’. 

The parts on the list are interdependent and give rise to emergent phenomena. Once again the below list can be further broken down into more descriptive teachings:

  1. Material form, or the physical world (rūpa).
  2. Feeling or sensations (vedanā).
  3. Perception (saññā).
  4. Mental formations (saṅkhāra)
  5. Consciousness (viññāṇa).

Below is a link to a talk given by Ajahn Brahm explaining The Five Aggregates:

6: The Six Kinds of Reverence

  1. Satthu-garavata – reverence for the teacher/master
  2. Dhamma-garavata – reverence for the Dharma
  3. Sangha-garavata – reverence for the Sangha
  4. Sikkha-garavata – reverence for the training
  5. Appamada-garavata – reverence for heedfulness
  6. Patisanthara-garavata – reverence for hospitality

Further description of the six kinds of reverence

7: The Seven Factors of Awakening

See the source image
  1. Sati-sambojjhanga: Mindfulness
  2. Dhamma-vicaya-sambojjhanga: Investigation of the Teaching
  3. Viriya-sambojjhanga: Energy
  4. Piti-sambojjhanga: Rapture
  5. Passaddhi-sambojjhanga: Tranquility
  6. Samadhi-sambojjhanga: Concentration
  7. Uppekkha-sambojjhanga: Equanimity

Further explanation of the Seven Factors of Awakening

Article on The Seven Factors of Awakening in reference to the ordinary

8: The Eightfold Path
(ariya aṭṭhaṅgika magga)

  1. Right understanding (Samma ditthi)
  2. Right thought (Samma sankappa)
  3. Right speech (Samma vaca) 
  4. Right action (Samma kammanta)
  5. Right livelihood (Samma ajiva) 
  6. Right effort (Samma vayama)
  7. Right mindfulness (Samma sati)
  8. Right concentration (Samma samadhi)

Below is a link to Yuttadhammo Bhikku’s talk on The Practical Application of The Eightfold Path

9: The Nine Attributes of the Buddha

Itipi so bhagava He, the Blessed One, 

Araham is indeed the Pure One,

Sammasambuddho the Perfectly Enlightened One.

Vijjacarana-sampanno He is impeccable in conduct and understanding,

Sugato The Accomplished One,

Lokavidu the Knower of the Worlds.

Anuttaro purisadamma-sarathi He trains perfectly those wishing to be trained.

Sattha deva-manussanam He is a teacher of gods and humans.

Buddho He is Awakened 

bhagava ti and the Blessed One

  1. Araham
  2. Sammasambuddho
  3. Vijjacaranasampanno
  4. Sugato
  5. Lokavidu
  6. Anuttaropurisadammasarathi,
  7. Satta devamanussanam
  8. Buddho
  9. Bhagava.
  1. The Buddha is known as Araham because He is worthy of special veneration by all men, devas and brahmas.
  2. The Buddha is known as Sammasambuddho because He has fully realized all that should be known by Himself.
  3. The Buddha is known as Vijjacaranasampanno because He is proficient in supreme knowledge and in the practice of morality.
  4. The Buddha is known as Sugato because He speaks only what is true and beneficial.
  5. The Buddha is known as Lokavidu because He knows all the three Lokas, namely Satta-Loka, the animate world of living-beings, Sankhara-Loka, the world of conditioned things, and Okasa-Loka, the planes of existences.
  6. The Buddha is known as Anuttaropurisadammasarathi because He is incomparable in taming those who deserve to be tamed.
  7. The Buddha is known as Satta devamanussanam because He is the guiding teacher of all devas, men and brahmas.
  8. The Buddha is known as Buddho because He Himself is the Enlightened One, and He can enlighten others.
  9. The Buddha is known as Bhagava because He is the most exalted One

10: The Ten Perfections (Paramitas)

  1. Generosity
  2. Morality
  3. Renunciation
  4. Wisdom
  5. Energy
  6. Patience
  7. Truthfulness (or perhaps better translated as honesty)
  8. Resolution
  9. Loving Kindness
  10. Equanimity

LearnReligions.com with a more in depth description of the ten perfections

12: The 12 links of Mutual Causation (Pratītyasamutpāda)

  1. Ignorance Avijja
  2. (Mental) formations Saṅkhāra
  3. Consciousness Viññāṇa
  4. Name and form Nāmarūpa
  5. Six Senses Saḷāyatana
  6. Contact Phassa
  7. Feeling Vedanā
  8. Craving Taṇhā
  9. Grasping Upādāna
  10. Becoming Bhava (kammabhava)
  11. Birth Jāti
  12. Aging and death Jarāmaraṇa

108 ???

Some Buddhists believe that there are 108 feelings – 36 in relation to the past, 36 in relation to the present and 36 related to the future. Others believe 108 represents the number of temptations or defilements (Kilesas) that man has to overcome in order to reach nirvana. In Hinduism there are also 108 Upanishads (a collection of philosophical texts) an perhaps the number 108 may have been generally seen as an auspicious number culturally between many peoples in the past. But of course now there are many other interpretations also, and I’ll add new ones as I find them.