The meaning of 108

I always smile when MH, the Barefoot Herbalist, keeps asking others, “What is the meaning of the number 108?”  Mysteriously it keeps being revealed to him in various ways in his daily life.  He believes no one will ever know the answer.  However, with a little help the meaning can be known.

In the mystical world, especially to Buddhists, the number 108 is a metaphor for the number of steps required in order to completely “graduate” from this earth plane.  The mind’s labyrinth is deep and complex.  To accomplish this path, first one must discern the 8 consciousnesses and the 10 bhumis.  Putting them together equals 108.

The aspirant is required to develop the mind by sharpening the practice of concentration (shamatha) and insight (vipashana) meditation.

Along with learning, reflecting and meditating one is able to progress through all of these stages of practice.  This is the real meaning of Ascension.

According to the Hinayana path, the Arhat (hearer) and Pratyekabuddha (solitary realizer) have four stages of enlightenment:

  1. stream-enterer
  2. once-returner
  3. non-returner
  4. fruition (arhant)

However, according to the Mahayana path, the Bodhisattva (enlightening being or hero) ascends through the grounds (bhumis) to achieve the goal of complete enlightenment with the compassionate intention to reduce the suffering of all sentient beings.

The structure of the stupa represents the enlightened mind of the Buddha.  The one above is exactly 108 feet tall.  It is an architectural representation of the entire Buddhist path.  Click the image to learn more about the symbolism of the stupa.  The body, speech, and mind of enlightenment is contained therein.

The Avatamsaka Sutra explains the first part of the number 108 in relation to each of the ten bhūmis:


  1. The first bhumi – the Very Joyous. In which one rejoices at realizing a partial aspect of the truth
  2. The second bhumi – the Stainless. In which one is free from all defilement
  3. The third bhumi – the Luminous. In which one radiates the light of wisdom
  4. The fourth bhumi – the Radiant. In which the radiant flame of wisdom burns away earthly desires
  5. The fifth bhumi – the Difficult to Cultivate. In which one surmounts the illusions of darkness, or ignorance as the Middle Way
  6. The sixth bhumi – the Manifest. In which supreme wisdom begins to manifest
  7. The seventh bhumi – the Gone Afar. In which one rises above the states of the Two vehicles
  8. The eighth bhumi – the Immovable. In which one dwells firmly in the truth of the Middle Way and cannot be perturbed by anything
  9. The ninth bhumi – the Good Intelligence. In which one preaches the Law freely and without restriction
  10. The tenth bhumi – the Cloud of Doctrine. In which one benefits all sentient beings with the Law (Dharma), just as a cloud sends down rain impartially on all things

The second part of the mystical number 108 explains the following eight consciousnesses  in depth:


  1. First consciousness: “Eye-consciousness”; seeing apprehended by the visual sense organs
  2. Second consciousness: “Ear-consciousness”; hearing apprehended by the auditory sense organs
  3. Third consciousness: “Nose-consciousness”; smelling apprehended through the olfactory organs
  4. Fourth consciousness: “Tongue-consciousness”; tasting perceived through the gustatory organs
  5. Fifth consciousness: “Body-consciousness”; tactile feeling apprehended through skin contact, touch
  6. Sixth consciousness: “Ideation-consciousness”; mano vijnana, the aspect of mind known in Sanskrit as the “mind monkey”; the consciousness of ideation
  7. Seventh consciousness: “Obscuration-consciousness”; manas vijnana, “obscuration”, “poison”, “enemy”, “ideation”, “moving mind”, “monkey mind” (volition); a consciousness which through apprehension, gathers the hindrances, the poisons, the karmic formations
  8. Eighth consciousness: “store-house consciousness”; alaya vijnana, also seed consciousness (bija vijnana); “the consciousness which is the basis of the other seven”. The seven prior consciousnesses are based and founded upon the eighth. It is the aggregate which administers and yields rebirth; this idea may in some respects be compared to the usage of the word “citta” in the agamas. In the early texts the sankhara-khandha plays some of the roles ascribed to the store-house consciousness by later Yogacara thinkers.

While practicing serious meditation and then going through all the dhyanas, samapattis, and samadhis one slowly purifies all their negative karmas, afflictive emotions, and cognitive obscurations which enable one to rises through the 10 levels.  At the 11th Bhumi one becomes a super-man, a fully realized being called a Buddha – the fully Awakened One.

Good Luck!



Filed under Buddhist sutras, Spiritual Healing, Tibetan Buddhism

2 responses to “The meaning of 108

  1. This is an interesting story, but it is putting the cart before the horse. The number 108 does not have such a single meaning as a metaphor for “the number of steps” required to “graduate” from this earth plane. Such a concept of graduation may exist in some branches of esoteric or tantric Buddhism but does not appear in Buddhism generally. There are many metaphors that may be derived from the number 108. In the Lotus Sutra is it said that the Pure Land is 108,000 li away. In the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, the Zen master Huineng says this represents the 10 evils and 8 errors within us and if we put into practice the 10 good deeds and do away with the 8 errors then we have travelled the distance to the Pure Land in a twinkling of the eye. The Lankavatara Sutra mentions 108 statements of negation. D.T. Suzuki points out the Sanskrit word translated as “statements” is “pada” which can also be taking as “foot-steps”. This confusion of “pada” with steps is possibly the source of the concept that 108 is “steps” of some kind. But 108 is not a linear concept, such as steps to graduate from this world. 108 is a circular concept like the mala beads.

    108 is 4 times three to the third power– which can be metaphorically conceived of representing the 4 truths times the objective cosmos consisting of the three realms (desire, form & formless) times the three poisons (greed, hatred and ignorance) times the three divisions of time (past, present, future). Other metaphorical meanings can be derived from the mathematical combinations of 108 as “4x3x3x3” or “12×9” or “4×27” etc. in addition to the many metaphors possible in the image of 108 as “10 and 8”. The point I would make is that all the metaphors relating to 108 are correct when applied appropriately (as expedient means), but no single such definition of 108 is correct as a literal one and only truth about 108.

    The closest we can get to the origin of the mystical significance of 108 as a literal number is in the mystery of nature and the cosmos. Before Buddhism arose, the number 108 was already a sacred number within the Vedic worldview because of its astronomical significance. Since the measured distances vary according to orbital ellipsis, by rounding off to an apparent constant it was discovered that the moon is 108 of its diameters distant from the earth, the sun is 108 of its diameters distant from the earth, and the sun’s diameter is 108 times the earth’s diameter. This mystery of gravitational equilibrium and relative size made 108 a profoundly rich number for natural significance.

    The number 108 is in itself a mandala. This wealth of synchronicity between the relationship of size and distance of the sun, moon, and earth and the structural dynamics of the psyche in framing the cosmos in mandala symbolism of 4s (north, south, east, west; sunrise, noon, sunset, midnight; etc) and 3s (trinities such as three poisons, three times, three treasures, three bodies of Buddha) makes 108 a number that signifies the identity of the objective with the subjective within differentiation which is the function of the mandala.


    • You are right – there are many references to this mystical number and each metaphor has its own place within its own context. This is all exciting to know, yet could lead someone astray if one is merely satisfied with relative knowledge. Its nice to know the distance to the Pureland is such and such, but it is more significant to begin a right path toward freedom and happiness. When you get down to business, one must face reality and start on the path to Buddhahood…provided that one understands the real significance of traversing such a path. It is more important to know that there is such a path out of suffering on this planet right now. This is the fourth noble truth itself which the Vedas don’t quite get to the point and explain the definitive meaning.

      The word bhumi is a Sanskrit term that literally means ground and represents a level of spiritual attainment. The implication is that each successive ground is an ascension towards full Awakening. As it states in the Lankavatara sutra each bhumi is a stage of increasingly higher perfection in wisdom. The bodhisattva on the higher bhumis has more intelligence and more abilities because he is perfecting his understanding of Sunyata. It is interesting to note that each of the Ten bhumis corresponds to a specific perfection starting with generosity and moral conduct and ending with skillful means and Knowledge.

      When one acquires more wisdom through right meditation, one’s full potential, that has been dormant since beginingless lifetimes, starts to unfold by traversing the five paths towards Buddhahood. And as one reaches the final Path of No-More Learning one becomes a Buddha. In this regard, can we truly say that one is finished school…whether we call it Earth school or Bodhisattva school or Nyingma school. The last path is specifically called no-more learning or Asiksa-marga. Before, one had to learn to perfect the two-fold accumulations of merit and wisdom for many aeons. But now, as a Buddha, one is “finished the course” and “completely graduated” from this earth-plane because there is no more chance for rebirth; as those karmic-seeds are gone even at the eighth bhumi. The Buddha has completely escaped all the sufferings of cyclic existence (samsara). Furthermore, it is impossible for a Buddha to revert back to ignorance or “start school again” from the beginning since the chain of interdependent origination (birth, old age and death) has been cut off. We might say the continuity of the 108 beads of the mala has finally broken.



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