SuttaCentral

(In)finite number of beings


#1

I’ve heard several knowledgeable monastics now offhand remark about there being a finite number of beings in saṃsāra. To me this is quite incompatible with the “beginninglessness” of saṃsāra, etc.

Now, I have seen those abhidamma charts about X number of beings in each realm, but my question is: is there an EBT basis for the claim that there’s a finite number of beings?

Thanks!


#2

I could not find a sutta in EBT, which gives any countability of beings in the world/universe. (There may be??)
This might be one of those questions that the blessed one did not answer.

‘sassato loko’tipi, ‘asassato loko’tipi, ‘antavā loko’tipi, ‘anantavā loko’tipi, ‘taṃ jīvaṃ taṃ sarīran’tipi, ‘aññaṃ jīvaṃ aññaṃ sarīran’tipi, ‘hoti tathāgato paraṃ maraṇā’tipi, ‘na hoti tathāgato paraṃ maraṇā’tipi, ‘hoti ca na ca hoti tathāgato paraṃ maraṇā’tipi, ‘neva hoti na na hoti tathāgato paraṃ maraṇā’tipi.

Since the origin and ending of the world are explained in terms of sense experience giving rise to craving and suffering in SN 35.107 above question can more or less be counted down to a qestion about the world being finite or infinite.


#4

There is this sutta, which seems to imply that the deva and asura realms at least can grow and shrink:

[If they are] good and doing what they should… the number of devas will grow, and the number of asuras will decrease.

Which puts a big dent in the infinite beings theory by raising the question “which realm, then, are all those infinite beings in, if the deva realm is finite?”

Yet this sutta seems to suggest that nibbāna and saṃsāra are indeed infinite, since

even if many bhikkhus attain final nibbāna by way of the nibbāna element without residue remaining, neither a decrease nor a filling up can be seen

:thinking:

Perhaps a “multiple universes” interpretation is called for here?


#5

Essence of this part is that Nibbāna is not physical, not a place.
Even if many lighting occur there is no change of the chance for another one to occur, which means second event is independent from the first. Similarly achieving Nibbana is independent from others who attained nibbāna.
Extinguishment of one lamp is independent from another and it takes no space. Nibbāna has the same way.


#6

This is a concept that makes more sense to me the more I consider its implications.


#7

I’m wondering if beginningless is the same as infinite? For example, the surface of the world is beginningless (it has no start, no end, no bounds - I can wander around it until my legs give up), whereas the surface area of the world is finite - I can only fit a finite number of humans on its surface.


#8

In that case, time would be a loop and escape from saṃsāra would be impossible, no?


#9

It depends on what drives time. If Samara is ‘wandering on’, then it is ones intentional activities driving time. Stopping (via 8 fold noble path) is then escape from wandering on, at which point (after momentum is lost) one disappears.


#10

“… the sentient beings who die as gods and are reborn as gods are few, while those who die as gods and are reborn in hell, or the animal realm, or the ghost realm are many.” (SN 56.108–110)
Whole Pañcagati Peyyālavagga says how rare it is to be in higher realms.


#11

That still leaves the original paradox of why there’s anyone here at all. If the state space is finite and history infinite, we’d all have hit the jackpot by now.


#12

Right? It explains how everyone’s karma can all simultaneously work out so perfectly, for one thing. What implications were you thinking of?


#13

Nice find! But I don’t think that helps us, does it? For example, prime numbers are relatively rare. There’s still an infinite number of them.


#14

Not infinite, beginningless. My understanding is we go around in circles (samsara) until we stop (nibbana). But one needs to come across the ancient path which allows one to stop. But maybe I am misunderstanding you, so I’ll bow out now. Thank you for your patience Bhante :anjal:


#15

Why would you think of multiple universes?
Modern science is also not that certain about the limits of this particular universe. There are infinite number of chances in this particular universe right?


#16

The first sutta quote of that post seems to imply that the realms have a finite number of beings, but the second implies that all of saṃsāra has an infinite number of beings. If both are true, there must be an infinite number of realms, which sounds to me like a multiverse.

Well, we are quite confident regarding the cosmological horizon, but I’m not talking about modern science at all right now. I’m only trying to understand the cosmology of the EBTs :slight_smile:


#17

An infinite series of random integers will always have a countable number for every element, but the number of elements is infinite. That would be my understanding of the EBT quote.

sn15.12: Transmigration has no known beginning.

I.e., at any moment there are countable forms, but, oops that moment is now in the paaaaaast. Repeat until non-return over the interval (-:infinity:, Tnon-return]


#18

Not all of them, actually the numbers are taken into account for higher realms not lower ones. So there is a possibility to assume that those are having infinite number of beings.
Since you are concerned about numbers, you may think of suddāvāsa brahmakayikā devās. There is no chance of someone to be reborn in that realm (which has five levels) without a birth of a Buddha in the world. So we can assume that the realms exist because of the the presence of suddāvāsa devās. Realms exist beause of the existance of beings (presence of devas). So there may be times when there are no devas in those realms. Therefore, the number can also be zero for some realms.


#19

Multiple universes easily accommodates the Buddha seeing his countless past lives, his clans, the foods he ate, etcetera. That might explain 7 billion and rising in the human realm. It also puts different spins on karma. Actions have very different consequences. If there are multiple versions of “me”, that might explain puzzling aspects of craving and becoming.


#20

You are talking about “parallel universes”, but Bhante mentioned “multiple universes”. Different right?


#21

I don’t know of any suttas which specify a number of beings, but your question brought this film clip to mind: