The number 108 is the list of defilements or obstacles to overcome on the path to enlightenment.
Some sources calculate this number by appealing to the usual Buddhist love for multiplicities:
3 sense “flavours”: pleasant, unpleasant, neutral X
6 senses: sight, smell, taste, hearing, touch, thinking X
2 stances to the sense parameters: aversion, craving X
3 time periods: past, present, future
The intent of practice is to observe these 108 factors of experience and to cultivate wisdom about their impact on our life. Cultivating wisdom through the confluence of our senses, sense perception, attitude, and the time in our life leads us to becoming more skillful. Cultivating ignorance prevents that confluence from fostering skillfulness.
Why 108 Zen Books?
Like a flavourful meal, books evoke a full body experience in all sense realms (if you think no one ever tastes a book, think back to those great soft, chewy children’s books). They create a reaction; we consider the contents and accept or reject the premise of a book. We feel attached to authors, topics, themes, genres. Childhood tales, current best sellers, and those great “pre-order this book now” future publications place us in time frames that impact our thinking and spur us to action. Books are our conduit to growing or being stuck. They elicit emotions, ideas, and desires. They shape our vision, focus our lens on self and other. When we enter a book, we open ourselves to 108 forms of experience (though we may only be aware of one or two – touch, sight, maybe smell) which can open or close doors to understanding , ethics, and connection.
There may well be 108 Zen books on my shelves. Regardless of how many there are, each book contains an opportunity to enter 108 possible experiences of opening and closing. And entering through the number ‘108’ keeps in my awareness the boundlessness of the experience and the vast potential for transformation.