h Phoenix Qi: Symbolism of numbers - especially 108

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Symbolism of numbers - especially 108

Just about every culture around the globe has thoughts and ideas attached to numbers. There's "lucky 7" and "unlucky 13," the "4 corners of the earth" (which actually is grounded in observation of the rise and set of the sun on the solstices), "two's company, three's a crowd" when you're on a date and want to be alone with your special someone. I'm sure we all remember our mom saying, "I've told you a million times….." Then there is the mysterious pinnacle of numerological significance, the nth straw that broke the camel's back.

Numbers and numerology can be fun, but they are very serious, too. Most numerological symbolism and significance comes from the observation and recording of celestial events, the wheeling of the Big Dipper in the sky is of particular interest in China, the Stars and Constellations helped to mark the seasons of the year for ancient peoples, the Sun and Moon are of special importance even today to calculate the date on which Easter will fall. (In case you are curious, non-Orthodox Easter occurs on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox.)

Below you can enjoy some writings on numbers and numerology, especially the number 108 which is known to have great significance in Buddhism and Hindu traditions.


As we are taught by the I Ching, keeping the calendar, which meant keeping track of days, solar and lunar months, solstices and equinoxes, and years in cycles of 60, was a sacred duty by which man learned to understand cycles-within-cycles and order within the universe.

Hexagram 49, "Revolution" from The I Ching or Book of Changes Wilhelm/Baynes translation:

Fire in the lake: the image of Revolution.
Thus the superior man
Sets the calendar in order
And makes the seasons clear.


The writing “Numbers” from 365 Tao: Daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao

One gives birth to two, two gives birth to three,

Three gives birth to the ten thousand.

One hundred and eight counts make one cycle,

Constant turning creates all things.

Today is the one hundred and eighth day [of the year*]. Why are numbers so important to those who follow Tao? Even today, when numbers are more commonly yoked to the service of finance and engineering, there are those who revere numbers with the cheap version of mysticism -- superstition. Numbers form a closed world with mysteries to explore and exploit if our understanding is deep enough.

Followers of Tao emphasize certain numbers: One is the unity of Tao. Two is duality. Three is the unevenness that will generate movement. Four is the seasons. Five elements generate the world. Six parts of the body are the arms, legs, head, and trunk. Seven is the day of the waxing moon by the lunar calendar. Eight is the number of divination. Nine is the number of life. Ten is heaven's cycles.

There are twenty-four periods in a year, each with its own characteristics. Thirty-six is six squared. One hundred and eight is three cycles of thirty-six and represents a greater cycle, although there are even more esoteric connotations attached to it.

Numbers are only symbols, a way for human beings to project order upon the universe. They are a language more precise than words. But does Tao talk? Numbers are important to master, but take care to look beyond language and numbers to the true reality that they foreshadow.

* This writing was assigned to the date of April 18, the 108th day of the year.


Verse Sixty-one of the The Hua Hu Ching: Unknown Teachings of Lao Tzu translated by Brian Walker

To understand the universe, you must study and understand these things:

First, the Oneness, the Tao, the Great Tai Chi

Second, the Great Two, the forces of yin and yang;

Third, the Three Main Categories, expressed either as Heaven, Earth, and Man, or as body mind, and spirit;

Fourth, the Four Forces, strong, weak, light, and heavy;

Fifth, the Five Elements, symbolized by water, fire, wood, metal, and earth;

Sixth, the Six Breaths--wind, cold, heat, moisture, dryness, and inflammation--which transform the climate and the internal organs;

Seventh, the processes of change and recycling;

Eighth, the Eight Great Manifestations--Heaven, Earth, Water, Fire, Thunder, Lake, Wind, and Mountain--the combinations of which reveal the subtle energetic truth of all situations, as taught in the I Ching.

Understanding these things, you can employ them internally to leave behind what is old and dead and to embrace what is new and alive. Once discovered, this process of internal alchemy opens the mystical gate to spiritual immortality.


Just what is it about the number 108 that is so special? Perhaps we will find a hint in the multiples.

A few of the multiples are: 2X54, 3X36, 4X27, 5X21.6, 6X18, 7X15.428571, 8X13.5, 9X12, 10X10.8, 24X4.5

How about some other relationships? 108/60=1.8, 108/120=.9

In the base 60 numeric system, 108 = decimal 128

Hmmmmmmm…… Well, here are a few explanations and ideas. I have included the url at the beginning of each section of quoted information. I hope you will visit these websites and read the complete articles…I think you will enjoy them!

Explanation One:

In Buddhism, 108 is a prescribed number of times to repeat prayers or mantras among other things. See The Number 108 in Buddhism:

108 is seen as a very special one in particular, as it refers to the number of defilements to overcome to gain enlightenment, and it is derived from the following formula:

The Three Sense Experiences (times) The Six Senses = 18

Aversion or Craving to these experiences = 18 X 2 = 36

Past, Future, and Present incidents of aversion of craving = 36 X 3 = 108

The three sense experiences are:

* good, ie pleasurable

* bad, ie unpleasant

* neutral, ie indifferent

The six senses are

* touch

* taste

* smell

* sight

* hearing

* consciousness (It should be noted that Buddhism considers that the mind is a sixth sense that senses thought objects.)

Temples will often have 108 steps for example, and malas (rosaries) usually have 108 beads.


Explanation Two:

One-hundred-eight is also sacred to the Hindus: See 108:

The number 108 is sacred in Hindu philosophy as a number of completeness frequently associated with astrology. The average distance between the Earth and the moon is approximately 108 times the diameter of the moon (More accurately, 110), and the same relationship exists between the Earth and the Sun (107.8 to be exact). This is why the Sun and the moon appear the same size. Also, there are 9 planets and 12 Zodiac constellations, so there are 108 possible ways to place a planet in a constellation.


Explanation Three:

There is yet another idea – this happens to be my personal favorite – at Why 108?:

Big 1, little 8

One of the arithmetical properties of 108 is dependent on the choice of counting system. In the near-universally used decimal counting system, the quantity 108 is expressed as “108”, meaning “1 hundred, 0 tens, 8 units”. In other counting systems, it would look different, e.g. in a duodecimal (12-based) system, it would be written as “90”, and in the binary system, it is written as “1101100”. Assuming the conventional decimal system, what is remarkable about “1-0-8”?

Like 18, it brings together the numerals 1 and 8, with the former in the leading and the latter in the lowly position. The main difference (valid even more in subsequent numbers like 1008) is merely that an abyss of worshipful distance is created between the regal 1 and the servile 8. So, let us briefly focus on this symbolism of 1 and 8. It is chiefly remarkable as a reference to yet other important symbols.

8 1 6

3 5 7

4 9 2

[Flipped top-to-bottom, this is the magic square known as the Luo Shu used in Flying Star Feng Shui, and each of the eight outer numbers corresponds to a trigram (gua) of the I Ching – Phoenix.]

In the magic square of 9, there is 1 little square in the middle and 8 on the periphery. Also, the 1 central number is 5, the sum of the 8 peripheral numbers is 40, yielding a ratio of 1:8. The magic square itself, with equal sums of the three numerals on every line, is an important symbol of cosmic order, balance and integration. Painted on walls or wrought into little metal plates it is used as a luck-charm.

The Golden Section and 108°

But for now, we may settle for the division [of a circle] in 360°. In that case, the angle of 108° has a unique property: the ratio between the straight line uniting two points at 108° from each other on a circle’s circumference (in effect one of the sides of a 10-pointed star) and the radius of that circle equals the Golden Section. Likewise, the inside of every angle of a pentagon measures 108°, and the pentagon is a veritable embodiment of the Golden Section, e.g. the ratio between a side of the 5-pointed star and a side of the pentagon is the Golden Section. So, there is an intimate link between the number 108 and the Golden Section. But why should this be important?

The Golden Section means a proportion between two magnitudes, the major and the minor, such that the minor is to the major as the major is to the whole, i.e. to the sum of minor and major. The general equation yielding the Golden Section is A/B = (A + B)/A, or alternatively but equivalently, X = 1 + 1/X. In numbers, X = (1 + square root 5)/2; or decimally, X = 1, 618… This infinite series of decimals can be replaced with a more predictable infinite series of numbers, viz. X equals the limit of the series G/F in which F is any member and G is the very next member of the Fibonacci series, i.e. the series in which every member equals the sum of the two preceding members: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144,… This means that every next fraction G/F, i.e. 1/1, 2/1, 3/2, 5/3, 8/5 etc. forms a better approximation of the Golden Section, whose value can be approximated to any desired degree of precision if fractions of sufficiently highly-placed members of the Fibonacci series are considered.

In art and architecture, it is found that the Golden Proportion is naturally pleasing to our inborn tastes. In living nature, there are plenty of sequences where every member stands to the preceding member in a Golden Proportion or its derivatives (square root etc.), e.g. the distances between or the sizes of the successive twigs growing on a branch, the layers of petals on a flower, the rings of a conch, the generations of a multiplying rabbit population, etc. What this symbolizes is the law of invariance: in every stage of a development, the same pattern repeats itself. The son is to the father as the father was to the grandfather. Wheels within wheels: every whole consisting of parts is itself likewise part of a larger whole. And the principle of order: the underling obeys the orders of his master to the same extent that the master obeys the requirements of the whole. Or with a pre-feminist maxim: “he for God alone, she for God in him”, i.e. the wife serves the husband because (and to the extent that) the husband serves the cosmic order defining his duties. As Confucius said, the authority of the ruler, his capability of making the people willingly obey him, is that he himself obeys the Laws of Heaven.

So, the Golden Section is a meaningful symbol in the cosmological, aesthetical and ethical realms. And somewhere in a corner of Golden Section lore, in the pentagon and decagon, we see the number 108 participating. This is meritorious though perhaps a bit too indirect to count as sensational.

[There is an excellent section in this article about the sacred numbers 9 and 12, but it is a bit lengthy for inclusion here. I do hope you will visit the url and read the entire article for yourself. It’s quite interesting and enjoyable! – Phoenix] Why 108?

Square times cube

Among other intrinsic and ever-unchangeable properties, it may be hard to choose which one is sufficiently relevant. Thus, 108 equals the sum of the first 9 multiples of 3, viz. 0, 3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21 and 24. This reconfirms its intimate relation with the richly symbolic number 9, but then, so what?

Slightly more remarkable is that 108 equals the product of the second power of 2 and the third power of 3, i.e. the first non-trivial even and odd numbers multiplied by themselves as many times as themselves. In figures: 108 = 2² x 3³, or 108 = 2 x 2 x 3 x 3 x 3. This way, it unites on their own terms the polar opposites of even and odd, the numerical counterparts of female and male, yin and yang, etc.


Amazing, isn't it? And that's just a drop in the numerical bucket!

Numbers….they aren't just for math class!


Amit said...

:-O When I first saw the title of the article my jaw dropped! I always see the number 108 wherever I go!!

I will definitely come back and read this through more thoroughly!

Also there is a temple on Mount Abu in India which has a temple called the Delwara Temple. In it, there are 108 Deities sitting in open eyed meditation.

one again - :-O

Phoenix said...

Wow...that's fascinating about the 108 Deities in the temple!

If you or someone you know happens to know someone in India who lives near Mount Abu or attends that temple, maybe you can find out their explanation as to why there are 108.

If you ever do find out, I would love to know!

Amit said...

I've been there and seen them for myself. It was a long time ago. I found a bit of information on wikipedia here - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dilwara_Temples but not as much about the reason for the 108 deities.

From what I've been told it's to represent the 108 great deities of human history. But who knows! :)