The number 108 has great significance in Buddhism. There are multiple commentaries the meaning of 108. The following are two common explanations.
Nagarjuna’s explanation of the significance of the number 108 from his Commentary on the Perfection of Great Wisdom:
Human beings have 6 senses 六受:
1) sight 眼→色
2) sound 耳→声
3) smell 鼻→香
4) taste 舌→味
5) touch 身→触
6) thought 意→法
Nagarjuna says that for each of these senses we can experience 3 different kinds of feelings:
1) Pleasurable Feelings 心生喜
2) Unpleasant Feelings 心生憂
3) Neutral response to feelings that are neither pleasurable nor unpleasant 心生捨
6 Senses X 3 Feelings = 18
Nagarjuna goes on to explain that these 18 kinds of feelings can be either pure or impure.
1) Pure feelings 淨 are free of self-centered expectations that things will look, sounds, taste a certain way. Ex. Even if things aren’t as expected, I can enjoy peace of mind with the reality of the situation as it is.
2) Impure feelings 垢 arise in response to our self-centered expectations. Ex. I get upset when I see, hear, smell something that doesn’t accord with my desires.
18 X 2 (pure/impure) = 36
Finally, Nagarjuna says that each of these thirty-six kinds of feelings exist in one of 3 time periods 三世
1) past 過去世,
2) present 現在世, or
3) future 未来世.
36 X 3 (past/present/future) = 108
In the Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Tradition, the ringing of the bell 108 times on New Year’s Eve is a time to recognize the various ways that our self-centered feelings cause us to create problems for ourselves and others.