# sutta, literal or figurative meaning

• This topic has 8 replies, 5 voices, and was last updated 4 years ago by Lal.
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• #29520
oetb
Participant

Hi,

I read this phrase: “..those who depart from the human realm, those will be reborn as humans or devas can be compared to the few grains of sand that I pick up on my fingernail. Those who are reborn in the lower four realms are exceedingly many, compared to the sand on this great Earth”.

If is it to be considered literally, we can make some numbers. Some estimations I’ve read say that there may be about 2.5e21 and 1e22 grains of sand in the Earth.

Let’s suppose that 100 grains of sand can be picked up with a fingernail. Then, with those numbers, we can calculate that only will NOT be reborn in the apayas between 1e-18% and 4e-18% of “those who depart from the human realm”. That is, only between 0.000000000000000001% and 0.000000000000000004% will NOT be reborn in the apayas.

If we read “those who depart from the human realm” as the actual living humans, then there are about 8e9 humans (today, not in the time of the Buddha). Then, with those percentages, only between 8e-11 and 3.2e-10 of the actual living humans will NOT be reborn in the apayas, that is, only between 0.00000000008 and 0.00000000032 (not percentages) will NOT be reborn in the apayas.

If we read “those who depart from the human realm” as all the humans that had lived, live, or will live in this maha kappa, then it is difficult to figure out how many humans will have being, but we can count that only between 1 in 2.5e19 and 1 in 1e20 of those who depart from the human realm will NOT reborn in the apayas.
Suppose that every 100 years all humans are “renewed”, that is, that all humans of the previous century died and the actual human living being are all from the new century. Suppose that we maintain humanity in its 8e9 humans constantly. Then, with those numbers, we can calculate that only between 1 human every 3.125e9 centuries and 1 human every 1.25e10 centuries, that is, between 1 human every 312,500,000 millennials and 1 human every 1,250,000,000 millennials will NOT be reborn in the apayas. Earth is approximately 4,467,000 millennials old. Then, statistically, no human being since the formation of the Earth until now has NOT been reborn in the apayas, and it will take a long long time for the first human to not be reborn in the apayas (78 times the time it has been since the formation of the Earth until now). It seems that even monks or “saints” like Teresa Calcutta had no chances of NOT been reborn in the apayas.

Numbers I’ve made may be wrong, but even if the ratio of humans who do not reborn in the apayas is much bigger (according to the sand analogy), it remains been negligible.

If that sutta is to be understood literally, then we are really really really helpless?
Where devas and brahmas came from (not from humans)?
Are Dhamma learners excluded from that analogy?

If it is to be understood figuratively, then at least the sutta where the Buddha says that is to be understood as a hyperbolic analogy or a metaphor. But if there is a sutta that is a hyperbolic analogy or a metaphor, what prevents other suttas to be hyperbolic analogies or metaphors? And how to distinguish between the suttas that are to be understood literally and the suttas that are to be understood figuratively?

My opinion is that it is to be understood figuratively and that the Buddha pretended to transmit using the sand analogy that the average human will reborn in the apayas and that we must strive for Nibbana. But I may be wrong, therefore I would like to know your opinions/knowledge.

Thanks

• #29523
Lvalio
Participant

You need to consider that there is Bhava and Jati. When a being can be reborn human due to his good Kamma he can achieve, 1,000, 2,000, 3,000 or more years of existence as a human… (Bhava). That can mean many births as humans.
And it is also necessary to consider that there is an infinite number of beings and only approximately 7,000,000 human beings. If you also consider that there is a number, 3 or 4 times more of human Gandhabbas waiting to be reborn, all this added up is negligible near the number of species on the planet.
Over trillions of species. The chance of one of these beings being born in the human kingdom is negligible, immensely less…

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• #29526
y not
Participant

“The chance of one of these beings being born in the human kingdom is negligible, immensely less…”

Yes, Lvalio, but oetb starts off the other way around: “those who depart from the human realm..”

I wonder now which of the two is less likely! A human not taking birth in the apayas, or a being in the apayas attaining human birth?

I have done such calculations myself based on the Buddha’s analogies about the rarity of a human birth and the length of an aeon, for instance. The estimates come remarkably close to what we would call acceptable, even from the scientific point of view. I will not bother you with the math; the important take from all that is to be ever ‘awake to the fact’ that we are living a very rare moment indeed:

– The appearance of a Buddha is very rare. (In a mahakappa with 5 Buddhas like this one, the interval could well be as ‘short’ as a billion years. But in most mahakappas by far there are none; the latest two ‘voids’ have been of 30 and of 60 mahakappas.

– Being born human is VERY rare. (accurate estimates aside!)

– An Ariya teaching the Dhamma is very rare.

– One who listens to the Dhamma, understands it and strives to apply it is very rare.

– Feeling and expressing gratitude for that is very rare.

Now multiply the odds. A very rare MOMENT indeed.

• #29530
Lal
Keymaster

Hello oetb. Before I comment on your question, I would like to make a couple of suggestions.

1. It is a good idea to quote the source of what you are quoting, if possible.

2. Also, when you quote someone at the forum (this is regarding your other comment that I just saw on another thread), please say who (at that thread) said that, if there are several people who had commented.

Now, regarding your analysis, Let me clarify a few things first.

I had discussed the sutta in question, Nakha­sikha Sutta (SN 20.2), in the post, “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm

To quote from that post: “In the same way, bhikkhus, sentient beings reborn as humans are few as this bit of sand on my fingernail. But those not reborn as humans are many as the sand on this great Earth. Therefore, you should strive diligently and without delay to end this suffering in the rebirth process”.

I have highlighted the fact that the Buddha said that, “of all living beings” that die the fraction born as a human would be similar to the fraction of grains of sand that can be picked up on a fingernail to that on the Earth.

I just Googled and found that an estimate for the grains of sand on Earth to be about 10^19.
There are roughly 10 billion (10^10) people on Earth.

However, we need to take the number of all beings on Earth.

The article, “The Largest Study of Life Forms Ever Has Estimated That Earth Is Home to 1 TRILLION Species
says there are over a trillion (10^12) species of living species on Earth.
– One of those species is ants. I did a Google search on just how many ants in this world and saw that an estimate was 10^15.
– That is just one species out of over a trillion species.
– Of course, there are fewer animals of larger species.
– But the number of microscopic living beings could be staggering.
– Here is a video on how many in a drop water contaminated water:
How many living things are in a drop of dirty water?

Of course, what I discussed above includes just animal species on Earth.
There are 31 realms based on the Earth too. We simply do not know how many living-beings are in the other three realms of the papaya, or in the Deva/Brahma realms.

It would be impossible for us to do such a calculation to get a meaningful number. But as always, the Buddha would know for sure. I personally don’t have any reason to doubt it.

The Buddha said there are four things that we should not waste our time on.
– They are: knowledge of a Buddha, jhana, working (finer details) of kamma, and details about the world.
See, “Acinteyya Sutta (AN 4.77)
– a couple of English translations are available there.

I am not discouraging looking into things with an open mind. But sometimes, we are not capable of finding answers to some questions. In particular, the Buddha advised against looking into those four.

• #29538
Lal
Keymaster

The following post is from oetb.

Thanks!

I just wrote a reply, but I do not copy it before posting, and it has not been posted (I lost the reply). I’ll make a very brief resume.

The quote I made is the quote in point 6 of Wrong Views (Miccā Diṭṭhi) – A Simpler Analysis, and it seems to me that that quote tells that the very next bhava (those who depart from) of practically all human beings is one in the apayas. That is not exactly the same as saying that to grasp a human bhava is very rare.

As I had understood, beings in the apayas are “perpetuated” there because with the conditions they have is very easy to do akusala abhisankhara and very difficult to do puñña abhisankhara, so they are helpless, and for them, it is very very exceptional to grasp a human bhava after their actual bhava in the apayas. But I thought that humans are not so helpless. Humans have better conditions and more chances to do good deeds or cultivating merits. If the above quote is literally, then humans would be helpless and all good humans that try to live morally or to cultivate merits do it in vain (I am referring in the short term, i.e. in the very next bhava, not in the long term, where only Sotapannas and above are safe).

• #29541
Lal
Keymaster

You are correct, oetb!

I just revised #6 on that old post as follows:
“6. The Buddha said,  “..bhikkhus, sentient beings reborn as humans are few as this bit of sand on my fingernail. But those not reborn as humans are many as the sand on this great Earth. Therefore, you should strive diligently and without delay to end this suffering in the rebirth process”. That statement appears to most people as an exaggeration. That quote is from the post, “How the Buddha Described the Chance of Rebirth in the Human Realm”.”

Regarding the second part of your above comment:

Yes. It is extremely difficult to “come back up” once born in an apaya.

As for humans, the problem is the following. Many people engage in good deeds. However, it is very easy for a human (one who has not grasped the anicca, dukkha, anatta nature) to be TEMPTED by sense desires.
– By the way, the fraction of HUMANS getting a rebirth in a good realm (after the human bhava, which may last thousands of years as Lvalio pointed out above), is higher than what the Buddha quoted in the above sutta.
– Those in the apayas are MUCH MORE numerous than the human population. There are more living beings (belonging to the animal realm) in your backyard soil than the entire human population on Earth! That is why the “sand on a fingernail” analogy applies to ALL living beings.
– If we just take the humans who are reborn, they have better odds of being born human again. Still, it is quite low.

• #29542
oetb
Participant

• #29544
cubibobi
Participant

Hi,

I am curious about one of the Acinteyyā, the one about jhana.

First off, I assume this admonition applies to anariya jhana; if so, does it mean either one of these two, or both, or something else:

(1) Not to speculate what is is like to be in a jhana
(2) Not to cultivate one (e.g. via breath or kasina meditation)

Best,
Lang

• #29546
Lal
Keymaster

Hello Lang,

Those four things mentioned in the “Acinteyya Sutta (AN 4.77)” are “imponderables.’

They CANNOT BE grasped FULLY by anyone but a Buddha.
– That means we can understand them to some extent, but not in full detail. So, the Buddha said not to try to understand them in great detail, for one could spend one’s whole life and not be satisfied.
– Furthermore, that would take time away from pursuing the most important objective of attaining Nibbana.

Regarding jhana: Just like the other three subjects, one will never be able to learn everything about jhana, including iddhi powers that can be cultivated.
– For example, Ven. Moggallana was only second to the Buddha in iddhi powers. But once he decided to “explore” the vast universe and got lost. Buddha had to come to his “rescue.”