(In)finite number of beings


Great observation! I stand corrected.


It makes no sense having different versons of a being. If that is true achieving nibbāna would also be problematic. Would it even be possible?

Just remember when you think of kamma, jhāna, The Buddha and the world. Those are unthinkables.
As long as the blessed one has given less account to mechanisms and forces of these. You may create theories. So did number of bhikkus in the past. However, drawing into conclusions is impossible.

Mendicants, these four things are unthinkable. They should not be thought about, and anyone who tries to think about them will go mad or get frustrated. What four?
The scope of the Buddhas …
The scope of one in absorption …
The results of deeds …
Speculation about the world …
These are the four unthinkable things. They should not be thought about, and anyone who tries to think about them will go mad or get frustrated (AN 4.77).

Making any sense from SN 24.8? So many numbers and possibilities.


Perhaps it is not welcomed here, I’m not sure if this is the place for it, but since this does address your OP, bhante, your question is actually a point of Mahāyāna speculation, in that there is a treatise, the Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta (The Treatise on a Lack of Increase and a Lack of Decrease), T668, 佛說不增不減經, that has this question as its main priority in the beginning of the text.

The text itself is actually a tathāgatagarbha sūtra, because the last half of the text appears to be a later addition, and this is where the tathāgatagarbha material comes in. But the latter material is only curiously related to the earlier material that gives the treatise its name.

This paper analyses the treatise and offers a translation. Readers will notice the earlier parts of the work cite a lot of prajñāpāramitā material, and latter parts less so (they belong to a different kind of Mahāyāna).

Anyways, I hope that’s not too much, but it does happen to directly address you question, if not from an EBT-kosher perspective. Readers will have to read it for themselves to see if it has anything useful in it or if it seems reasonable. Certainly, there is a lot in this text that is not super relevant for practitioners seeking out the “historical” dispensation of the ascetic Gautama as a “person,” so to speak.


AN 10.95 seems relevant to this discussion:

[The Buddha:]“Uttiya, I teach my disciples from my own insight in order to purify sentient beings, to get past sorrow and crying, to make an end of pain and sadness, to end the cycle of suffering, and to realize extinguishment.”

“But when Master Gotama teaches in this way, is the whole world saved, or half, or a third?” But when he said this, the Buddha kept silent.

This sutta maybe suggests that speculating on whether there are finite or infinite amount of beings is the same as ‘is the world eternal or not eternal’ speculation.


The scales get pretty large in some suttas, e.g. AN3.80, which talks about thousand, million and billion world systems with the same number (thousands to billions) of separate levels of deva heavens, continents etc. (everything duplicated that number of times). Getting to galaxy level numbers there and Bhante Sujato’s translation uses more colourful cosmological terms rather than more mundane terms like great world system in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation of the sutta. And I suppose no reason to suppose there is only one such great billion world system.

“Ānanda, a galaxy extends a thousand times as far as the moon and sun revolve and the shining ones light up the quarters. In that galaxy there are a thousand moons, a thousand suns, a thousand Sinerus king of mountains, a thousand Indias, a thousand Western Continents, a thousand Northern Continents, a thousand Eastern Continents, four thousand oceans, four thousand Great Kings, a thousand realms of the Gods of the Four Great Kings, a thousand realms of the Gods of the Thirty-Three, of the Gods of Yama, of the Joyful Gods, of the Gods who Love to Create, of the Gods who Control the Creations of Others, and a thousand Brahmā realms. This is called a thousandfold lesser world system, a ‘galaxy’.

A world system that extends for a thousand galaxies is called a millionfold middling world system, a ‘galactic cluster’.

A world system that extends for a thousand galactic clusters is called a billionfold great world system, a ‘galactic supercluster’.

I suppose mathematically, if one assumes a universe of infinite duration, really an infinite number of beings is needed (as Karl alluded to earlier) to make things work. Hilbert’s Hotel is a fun example of countable infinity, invented by the mathematician Hilbert. It contains an infinite number of guest rooms numbered from 1 upwards. Everyday all guests in rooms with odd numbers can check out and everyone left (those in even numbered rooms) then changes room (to the room with number half of their current one), which results in the hotel then being full again. We can repeat this process every day for infinity and the hotel will always be full. Infinity (even mere countable infinity is weird :slight_smile: ).

I’m not sure that the Buddha ever said the universe was infinite anyway. Wasn’t it one of those questions he refused to give an answer to as being not conducive to the spiritual path? Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translations tend to use a phrase like without discoverable or discernible beginning (no matter how far the Buddha looked back there were still beings, but I’m not sure he actually definitively said there was no beginning). I suppose a universe without discernible beginning would require there to be no discernible limit on the number of beings (not necessarily an infinite number) for things to work.


The geographical naivety of the Iron Age is further illustrated when one realises from a variety of sources, one of them being a particular reading of the “Ten Indispensable Duties of a Buddha,” that more or less every world-system is expected to have an “India,” a Jambudvīpa, and a city of Savatthi handy (to perform the twin miracle there, of course, which all Buddhas are expected to do).

Each one also has a Sumeru, a Brahmā, etc. Very convenient when the entirety of the cosmos happens to look like your immediate surroundings.

The Buddhists were not the only group to conceive of the micro and macro cosmos in mathematical perfections, though. The Mandaeans, a Gnostic group from the Middle East, for instance, also have a perfectly geometrical geography they imagined the world would have.


Indeed! A well spotted possibility!

But such an extraordinarily depressing one. If the hell realms are infinite, then any finite number of higher beings is essentially a zero blip in an endless sea of hell :flushed::disappointed_relieved::disappointed:

Perhaps this is why the Buddha warned that


Well… at least that theory does motivate you to enter the stream and get out of here!


I was aware that this is a point of Mahayana speculation, but I wasn’t aware that they were extrapolating from the same EBT quote I mentioned above (cool!) nor did I know about that particular text, so thank you for sharing! :smiley:


Thanks for that quote! It actually lends evidence to the infinity of beings in my opinion, as the percentage of beings saved would be “0%” But since that’s a rather depressing and confusing answer, I can see why the Buddha would rather choose to remain silent. :slight_smile:


Back on the subject of EBTs and how non-EBTs get incorporated into the corpus of Buddhavacana, you’ll notice that the Sanskrit recension is called a nirdeśaparivarta, a treatise, and the Chinese recension is entitled “The Buddha Speaks the Lack of Increase, Lack of Decrease Scripture,” how things change. That is part of the process of how this text goes from being a treatise on cosmology to a tathāgatagarbha sūtra.


So, if I’m to summarize what we’ve found so far:

  • An infinite number of beings is a logical implication of beginningless time, and is implied or not-precluded by a few EBT quotes.
  • Those infinite beings, though, might either be outside our visible universe or in hell, but are definitely not all enjoying blissful realm(s) (which would rather undercut the first noble truth!) making the number of beings in our neighborhood finite

Does this sound right to everyone?


I physics there’s the concept of event horizon.

In practice it encapsulates the beings in a sphere beyond which, due to expansion of time-space, light ( the fastest thing) will never reach.

This effectively limits one’s observable universe at any given point in time.

This horizon serve as an edge for causality.

Given that we are dependent originated streams aggregates of suffering, born of causation, I argue that event horizon serves as a limit to what we can affect with our choices and actions (including observing and knowing).

Hence, while it may be the case that an infinite amount of timespace stretches beyond or event horizon, for the sake of shared samsaric experience we may be stuck with those within the same “radius” of timespace.

The topics below may be interesting to understand the geometry of causality.



It seems to me this question falls under the imponderable category of questions that bring madness to anyone who conjectures about them per AN 4.77. Specifically the fourth category in that sutta.


How so?

As I understand them, the sutta statements that saṃsāra is without conceivable beginning, and that there is no first point to avijjā, mean that all beings that exist have always been transmigrating. We didn’t start doing so at some particular point in the past. I don’t see how any conclusion could be drawn from this as to whether the transmigrating beings are limited or unlimited in number. Both possibilities would be equally compatible with the claimed beginninglessness. The only thing that is ruled out is the possibility of a completely new khandha-continuum coming into existence.



Perhaps to hedge our bets we should just focus on infinite metta, compassion, rejoicing and equanimous inclusivity for all, regardless of number.


Monotheistic religions say everything in this world has a beginning. The god created it at some point in the time. When they say so, they end up with a lot of questions. Why that particular moment, why not before? Who created the god? He lived all along?
When someone come up with a beginning, always draw into another problem.
Buddhism explains a existance without a beginning and that solves the problem. Then some ask what if all of the beings attain nibbāna? There wont be any in the universe. This is a stuation similar to above problem in monotheistic religions. Thats why both possibilities would not be equally compatible with the claimed.

Some argue there may be a way that generates beings however, that should not be the case since the blessed one said there is no beginning to the samsāra.


The questions that you think ought to bother a theist were actually anticipated and answered 1600 years ago by St Augustine.

In a nutshell, Augustine held that along with the heavens and the earth, time itself was created by God. And so Augustine would simply retort that your questions are based on a mistaken assumption, namely, that God “created the world at some point in time.”

“But if there was no time before heaven and earth, how, then, can it be asked, “What wast thou doing then?” For there was no “then” when there was no time.”


“There was no time, therefore, when thou hadst not made anything, because thou hadst made time itself. And there are no times that are coeternal with thee, because thou dost abide forever; but if times should abide, they would not be times.”

(Confessions XI)

Augustine, Confessions Book XI

Eric Rosenfield, An Analysis of the Concept of Time in the Confessions

In what sense would the absence of beings in the universe be a problem?


My phrasing was a bit wrong. Here, that is not the case anyway.

End up with a similar problem.
As the samsāra has no known beginning, why we are still here. We could have been long gone by now if the number of beings has a limit; thats why.
Therefore, this creats somewhat a paradox.


That would only be the case if saṃsāra conformed to the Ājīvakas’ “ball of string” model, wherein the end of suffering comes about through the mere elapse of sufficient time:

Makkhali Gosāla:

“Though one might think: “By this moral discipline or observance or austerity or holy life I will ripen unripened kamma and eliminate ripened kamma whenever it comes up”—that cannot be. For pleasure and pain are measured out. Saṃsāra’s limits are fixed, and they can neither be shortened nor extended. There is no advancing forward and no falling back. Just as, when a ball of string is thrown, it rolls along unwinding until it comes to its end, in the same way, the foolish and the wise roam and wander (for the fixed length of time), after which they make an end to suffering.”
DN. 2


This is not what I was telling.
Eventhough beings should have to practice the path and achieve Nibbāna, they got three different bodhis; Buddhahood, pacchekabuddhahood, Arahanthood.
There should have been unlimited number of buddhasasanas in past (as the samsāra has no begining). Logically, each being in the world should met their chance to practice dhamma. Why would someone drawn into Makkhali Gosāla’s ditti at all to put up the paradox.