Thursday, 19 February 2009

The End of the Buddha-Dharma: or "demythologizing numbers"

I have heard many scholars debating the meaning and so-called "prophesy" of the Buddha, who claimed that his Dharma, or teaching, would last only 500 years (later revised to 5000). In fact I had a class once in which a student tried to 'calculate' the end of the world based on the 5000 year cut in half prediction (and it was coming soon!).

This is especially discussed in light of his other controversial claim, that the life of the Dharma would be cut in half when he began ordaining women.

But all of the academic speculation seems quite beside the point as I read today in the Rhys-Davids and Stede Pali Dictionary that:
Note. When Gotama said that his "religion" would last 500 years he meant that it would last a very long time, practically for ever. The later change of 500 to 5,000 is immaterial to the meaning of the expression, it only indicates a later period (cp. 5,000 in Nibelungeniled for 500, also 5,000 men in ambush Joshua 8. 12; converted by Peter Acts 4. 4; fed by Christ with 5 loaves Matthew 14. 21). Still more impressive than 500 is the expression 5 Koṭis (5 times 100,000 or 10 million), which belongs to a comparatively later period, e. g. at DhA i.62 (ariya -- sāvaka -- koṭiyo), 256 (˚mattā -- ariyasāvakā); iv.190 (p. koti -- mattā ariya -- sāvakā).
I've read several accounts showing that the number 84 (84,000, 84,000,000, etc) is similarly of mythical significance in ancient India. Likewise, in a recent Journal of Buddhist Ethics paper, Charles Prebish points out that the number 100 was probably at least at times used as a mere approximation.

But this is the first I had heard of a similar clarification in regard to the 500/5000 years issue. Very interesting...

* image from Kit's Bits.


  1. Was it a prophesy or just an estimate?

  2. Justin, I would say neither. Setting aside claims of the Buddha's omniscience, we can think that in his time "500 years" just meant "like, a really long time, dude" or "more generations than you can even think of."

    It is neither an estimate nor prophesy, but an indication of scope: long time. It is perhaps only in our time that we take numbers more on face value or literally.

  3. Its not the end of the world after 5000 years, the world will become so called "dark age" , however future Buddha "Maitreya" will come after that.

    we are half of it since the Buddha born in 5xx BC , now is year 2000 something, more 2500 years to come.