A number of years ago, I started compiling a collection that I called “Numbered Buddhist Things.” Not a particularly clever title, but certainly to the point. Looking back at it, I’ve found that there is a vast number of numbered things that I left out, and some that are often overlooked when the teachings of the Buddha are discussed. Four Noble Truths (including the Eightfold Path), everywhere. Four Signs? Not so much. Three Dharma Seals, sure. Three Doors to Liberation? Not so often. Five Skandhas, yep, every time we chant the Hear Sutra. Five Hindrances? Can’t really remember the last time I came across that one.
This is all very nice, and certainly puts the teachings of the Buddha into bullet point form (Did the Buddha use PowerPoint? No, that was probably Ananda). As mnemonic devices, these are great; numbering things is a useful means to spurring our often-faulty memories. But we also use numbers in less-than-skillful ways to remember things. We may remember the number of times “I gave you a ride to work,” or “I paid for dinner,” and “How many times have I told you!?!” And it would be mighty convenient to forget about that $20 you lent me.
Keeping score is great in Baseball, not so great in terms of Bodhisattva action. I’ll violate keeping “Don’t Know Mind” here, but from what I’ve heard (from people who haven’t actually died yet) that there is no Karmic scorecard at any Pearly Gates ready to tally up our lives when they are over. Our karma will manifest just fine without us having any control over it. (One of the Five Remembrances is “ownership of one’s actions). And there is really no numerical value to it.
I don’t often see all Six Perfections listed together, but I’ve always found them to be a guidepost for how I’m doing day-to-day. If there’s greed, I can practice Dāna Paramita and exhibit generosity. Not living quite right, Śīla Paramita, morality, discipline, proper conduct will take care of that. Tapping my foot and rolling my eyes in the grocery line—time for Kṣānti Paramita to remind me to be patient and tolerant. Do I have that, “Oh, I don’t wanna, I’ll get to it later” attitude? Nothing like Vīrya Paramita to bring a bit of energy back to my efforts. Mind wandering? Dhyāna Paramita will get concentration going again. When I’m doing the previous five Imperfections so much I need to remind myself of their antidotes and what I need to do instead, that’s when I’m exhibiting some Prajñā Paramita, a moment of wisdom.
As the Bodhisattva Vow is there likewise as a reminder, “Sentient Beings are numberless, we vow to save them all. So since I’m already being told they’re numberless, why even bother trying to keep score? It’s not like there’s a sentient beings checklist that I can tick them off as they are saved. And “all?” Well, that means I’m going to have a lot of opportunities to ask myself, “What have I done for you lately?’