The hidden significance of a number“On the count of three... go!”
So in all cultures: three is the number of action.
And, not incidentally, the number of religion.
Trinities are everywhere. In Christianity, Father, Son and Holy Ghost; in Hinduism, Vishnu, Brahma and Siva. China enshrines the “three paths,” Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism.
Korean shamanism worships the “three stars”: Sanshin, Toksong and Chesok, or Chilsong. Buddhism comprises the “three jewels”: Buddha, dharma, or teaching, and sangha, or community of believers.
Buddhist temples usually show three figures on the main altar; most commonly, a Buddha flanked by two Bodhisattvas, bejeweled Buddhist saints. Sometimes it is the “Sambul” motif: three near-identical Buddhas in a row.
And the fact that there are three Buddhas seems far more important than who the three are. The members of this trinity differ from temple to temple ― almost interchangeable, so long as there are three.
One common formulation has the three as Sokkamuni, the historical Buddha, to the left, Pirocana, the cosmic Buddha, in the middle, and Loshana to the right.
Anglican Bishop M.N. Trollope, one of the first Westerners to examine the matter in Korea, himself saw a similarity to the Christian trinity: Sokkamuni a Christ-like incarnation, Pirocana a cosmic creator like God the Father.
But Loshana? Interesting; he seems to appear only here. He is rarely revered independently. Little distinctive is said of him in the sutras: merely the Buddha of an Eastern paradise.
Does he represent the East? This fits. Buddhist temples usually face South, so in the trinity, Loshana would be seated to the east, Sokkamuni to the west, Pirocana in the middle.
But why should this geography matter? Without north and south?
Perhaps because east is the direction of the rising sun, so of new beginnings. West is the direction of sunset, so of endings. And no matter who or where you are, if you parse time, you must come to these three: past, present and future. This much of experience is no social construct: it is a universal meaning of the number three, its universal significance. Three means time.
Do all trinities represent time? It seems possible. With the three Buddhas, Sokkamuni, the founder, the beginning, could be the past. Pirocana, the “dharma-body Buddha,” is the cosmic present. Locana, new enlightenment, is the future.
With the three jewels, the Buddha, the founder, Sokkamuni, is the past. The dharma, Pirocana, the teaching, is the present; it is what brings us to the prayer hall. And the sangha or community is the future: in the end, enlightenment will be shared by all. Unknown Locana represents this future enlightenment.
The Hindu trinity is obvious: Brahma is creator, past; Vishnu is preserver, present; Siva is destroyer, future. The Christian trinity is more subtle: The Father is Creator, past, the Son, present, both senses of that word being linked. The Son promises the Holy Spirit to come, the spirit of prophecy, predicting the future.
Why revere time?
Because it is the door to the spirit. The physical universe, the world perceptible to the five senses, exists entirely in the present. What we cannot see now, this instant, is known not by the eye, but by memory or imagination.
So, to represent the spiritual in spatial terms, a reference to time is the obvious strategy: space is physical, time is mental. The trinity of past, present and future is equally the trinity of memory, sensation and imagination. To accept the reality of time, to realize that things change, is automatically to acknowledge the reality of the spiritual, of an objective truth to which memory and imagination refer. The worlds of “was” and “will be” are the Western and Eastern paradises.
See a prominent Sambul in the main hall of Hwagye-sa in eastern Seoul. Take subway line No. 4 to Suyu station and walk west along Hwagyesa-gil.
Or just look at your watch.
by Stephen K. Roney