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On New Year’s Eve some people drink themselves silly. Others make improbable resolutions. In Japan, however, millions travel to Zen temples to listen to a heavy log strike the temple bell 108 times. Symbolically, the 108 strokes of the bell banish the 108 delusions to which the human mind is prone.

But why 108? Why not 107—or 10,001? In several spiritual traditions, the number 108 is thought to have numerological significance. Hindu deities have 108 names, and the recitation of their names is sometimes accompanied by the counting of 108 beads. Buddhist temples often have 108 steps, and Zen priests wear a string of 108 prayer beads on their wrists. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’s wife, Penelope, has 108 suitors, which Odysseus must dispatch before he and his missus can be reunited. In his book Sailing Home, the Zen priest Norman Fischer interprets this action as an allegory for the extinguishing of delusions.

Suggestive as such correspondences are, they are not enough to convince the Zen priest Anzan Hoshin Roshi, who argues that “108” is really the equivalent of “a lot.” As he explains, “We say 108 because, well, that is a lot, isn’t it? You can try to picture, say, three things, five things. At ten things it starts to get a little fuzzy. Try to picture 18 things, 37 things, 108 things. Can’t do it. So 108 means means measureless, numberless.”*

But what constitutes a delusion, and why does the human mind produce so many? In his classic satire The Praise of Folly, the Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus contends that we human beings generate delusions to keep ourselves happy. To dramatize the point he enlists the goddess Folly, who delivers an ironic lecture in praise of herself. As Folly sees it, the more we fool ourselves about our looks, wit, learning, and the like, the happier we are. Therefore Folly, who makes this happiness possible, deserves our praise.

Zen takes another tack entirely. According to Zen teachings, delusion does not conduce to happiness. On the contrary, it is a primary cause of suffering. And the delusions that afflict us, however many their number, stem from a common root, which is sometimes called “a fundamental ignorance of reality,” or more succinctly, egoistic delusion. Robert Aitken Roshi, an American Zen master, describes that core delusion in this way:

We desire permanent existence for ourselves and for our loved ones, and we desire to prove ourselves independent of others and superior to them. These desires conflict with the way things are: nothing abides, and everything and everyone depends on everything and everyone else. This conflict causes our anguish, and we project this anguish on those we meet.**

The Heart Sutra, chanted daily in Zen monasteries, calls these egocentric attitudes “upside-down views.”  And the second of the Four Great Vows, also chanted daily, describes delusions as “inexhaustible” and expresses the intent to “extinguish them all.”

That is a tall order, and to some it may sound like a negative effort. But from the vantage point of Zen, the extinguishing of a delusion is also the opening of a “dharma gate”: an opportunity to rid ourselves of self-deception, right our upside-down views, and live in harmony with the laws of reality. That is why the tolling of a temple bell on New Year’s Eve, however solemn it may sound, is not a rite of mourning but truly a cause for celebration.

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*Anzan Hoshin Roshi, “Joya: Resolutions,” http://www.wwzc.org/teisho/joya.htm.

**Robert Aitken, The Dragon Who Never Sleeps (Parallax, 1992), xiii.

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