A Practice You Can Count On

By Edward Sullivan

You get good at counting—at least up to 108. You mark off the days on your calendar like a convict in the county jail. You realize that 108 days is a really long time. Fifteen weeks and three days, to be exact. But who’s counting? Oh, right, you are.

The Zen 108, often referred to as simply “the one-oh-eight,” is a practice that consists of meditating for one hour a day for 108 consecutive days. Miss a day and you start over. It’s a relatively new practice that has gained popularity in a number of sanghas lately. The one-oh-eight is designed for newer Zen students who want to deepen their practice. The curious digits, at least to newcomers, correspond to the number of beads on a standard mala.

When I first heard about the one-oh-eight, I gulped. 

Yes, I was a seasoned practitioner with years of daily sitting under my belt. Mostly, I sat every day, but if something came up that disturbed my routine, I might miss a day. No big deal—I’d sit the next day. And that was my practice for years. I always tried to meditate for a minimum of thirty-five minutes, and, on rare occasions, I’d actually sit for one hour. My approach to a daily practice was consistent but relaxed. It worked for me.

During one zazenkai (daylong retreat), our teacher men­tioned a practice he had learned about while attending a meet­ing of Zen teachers: meditate for an hour for 108 consecutive days. He encouraged us to do it. In the notoriously subtle way of Zen, a gauntlet had been cast gently on the zendo floor. If Zen newbies were going to do this, shouldn’t the senior stu­dents be able to say they’d done it? Lead by example and all that. Yes, I was a little intimidated by the prospect of doing the one-oh-eight. This would require me to demonstrate on a daily basis a level of discipline seen only when I’d attended sesshins.

Predictably, some of our newest members enthusiastically embraced the challenge, and, sure enough, a few months later, I helped preside over our first Bead Ceremony. This ceremony, which acknowledges students’ completion of the one-oh-eight, is witnessed by the entire sangha and culminates with the person receiving a mala bead bracelet.

Slowly, however, stories of one-oh-eight failures began to circulate among the senior students. One of our older hands could never quite get past a week. Another got to the midpoint and, while on vacation, missed a day. The result? Reset the calendar to zero. Doing the one-oh-eight was tough. Sure, it would be a snap if we were monastics. They log an hour and a half of meditation before their first cup of coffee. But we are a lay sangha with family responsibilities and demanding bosses. How could we find that much time each day?

Casually and discreetly, I asked those who received the mala bracelets how they had approached the one-oh-eight. Tactics varied. Some sat for an hour flat out. The most com­monly adopted approach, however, was what I call the “half­and-half” method: get up a little earlier and sit half an hour before work, then do another thirty minutes in the evening. That’s what I decided to do. This required some rearranging of my daily routine (I generally sat at night) and some meditating in strange places—like the Philadelphia train station—but it worked, and the days slowly passed by. On one occasion, my wife asked me what day it was. “Seventy-three,” I replied. An odd response since she just wanted to know whether it was Wednesday, trash pickup day.

So, what did I learn from this practice? Well, it turns out that 108 days really isn’t very long after all. It had only seemed that way because I’d been attaching myself to a goal. I had forgotten that meditation is best when simply done for its own sake. I rediscovered the joy of early morning meditation, and how it sets the tone for the day.

Was it worth it? You bet. I continue to sit for an hour a day, because it deepens my practice. And now I get to wear those cool mala beads on my wrist, too.

Edward Sangetsu Sullivan
is a dharma holder in the White Plum lineage of Zen. He trains with the Zen Community of Baltimore/Clare Sangha and is a member of the Red Rose Sangha in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.