Outrageously Large Numbers

I have recently been reading the new translation of Mipham Rinpoche’s byang chub sems dpa’ chen po nye ba’i sras brgyad kyi rtogs brjod nor bu’i phreng ba by Lama Yeshe Gyamtso (A Garland of Jewels, Woodstock: KTD Publications, 2008). As the (Tibetan) name suggests, the text offers accounts of the lives and careers of the eight great bodhisattvas, also known as the ‘eight close sons’, compiled from canonical sources, mainly the sūtras. Not surprisingly perhaps, Mipham devotes considerably more space to Mañjuśrī than he does to the other bodhisattvas.

One of the things that struck me most about the book — which incidentally is very readable — was how the translator has dealt with the large numbers that often appear in the sūtras cited by Mipham Rinpoche. The Mahāyāna sūtras, as Yeshe Gyamtso tells us in his introduction, contain episodes “outrageous in their transgression of what we regard as laws of nature.” (p.x) One of the methods employed to convey this outrageous transcendence of mundane reality is the use of numbers so impossibly gargantuan as to border on the hyperbolical. In translating these figures into English, it is tempting to plump for vague expressions like “millions and millions” or “billions and billions” — and, in fact, this is precisely what Gyamtso does on p. 66, where he renders sangs rgyas kyi zhing bye ba khrag khrig brgya stong mang po simply as “billions and billions of buddha realms”.

Elsewhere though, he has adopted the terms of “the U.S. and…international scientific community” and so we encounter such potentially unfamiliar terms as quadrillion (1015), quintillion (1018), sextillion (1021), decillion (1033), tredecillion (1042), novemdecillion (1060), and vigintillion (1063). Gyamtso hasn’t given the Tibetan for these terms, and perhaps because the book is intended for a general readership, it doesn’t include a glossary of terms. Nevertheless, my curiosity getting the better of me, I went in search of the original, and I can offer here some of these numbers as they appear in the Tibetan and in Lama Gyamtso’s translation:

  • sum khri three myriad*
  • bye ba phrag bcu ten million
  • bye ba phrag ‘bum one hundred billion
  • bye ba stong phrag brgyad khri bzhi stong eighty-four trillion
  • bye ba khrag khrig ‘bum phrag brgyad cu rtsa bzhi eighty-four sextillion
  • bskal pa bye ba khrag khrig ‘bum phrag du ma septillions of kalpas
  • grangs med pa brgya stong phrag bdun seven hundred thousand decillion
  • bye ba khrag khrig phrag ‘bum ‘phrag grangs ma mchis pa ten tredecillion
  • grangs med pa phrag gsum three novemdecillion
  • bye ba khrag khrig ‘bum phrag dpag tu med pa grangs med pa dag vigintillions
  • ‘krigs phrag bye ba khrag khrig ‘bum phrag dpag tu med grangs med bsam gyis mi khyab pa innumerable vigintillions
  • grangs med pa stong phrag brgyad brgya eight hundred vigintillion
  • bye ba khrag khrig ‘bum  phrag tshad med grangs med pa infinite sextillion decillion
  • bye ba khrag khrig brgya stong tshad med pa sextillion novemdecillion

*the original meaning of the Greek muriori, from which myriad derives, is 10,000

It’s interesting to observe that million, rather than the standard ten million, has been used for bye ba. The Mahāvyutpatti, in its list of 60 numbers from the Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra (Tib. sdong po bkod pa), has bye ba as the equivalent of the Sanskrit koṭi, which is usually said to be the equivalent of ten million (one crore). Yet it is true that there is little unanimity or consistency on the use of these numbers beyond a certain point. Sa ya, which is the common Tibetan word for ‘million’, does not seem to appear frequently in the classical language.

One final note: this approach also offers translators the possibility of referring to bskal pa grangs med gsum, i.e., the time taken by Buddha Śākyamuni to accumulate merit and wisdom on the bodhisattva path, not as ‘three countless aeons’, which is the current expression of choice, but as three novemdecillion kalpas, or even three novemdecillion aeons. Let’s see if it catches on.