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Malas, Buddhist Prayer Beads

Prayer beads have been used for centuries as a form of devotion and meditation. A prayer or mantra is recited for each of the beads. Many religions have some sort of prayer bead, Christianity-rosary, Hindu-jappa, Islam-subhah, and Buddhist-mala. The ones I am most familiar with are Buddhist malas. I am a Buddhist and use them in my practice.

There are many traditions surrounding the use of prayer beads. The type of material the beads are made from, symbols carved or painted on them, the number of beads, how they are actually used, and what religion they are from. I have seen references state that Buddhism was the first to use beads as a form of meditation and devotion. Here in the West, western Buddhists are forming their own traditions as many of the Eastern traditions are not relative to our cultures. The importance of practices are kept, the way they are done may be done from a different perspective. So, this article will reflect how I use the mala on my path. A search of articles will produce traditional uses in each of the major branches of Buddhism if the reader is interested in traditional uses.

Exactly what is a mala?

Making a mala is like composing haiku, sonnets, or limericks. There is a prescribed framework that must be worked within. This framework can be number of beads, in some cases patterns of beads (where markers go), always a guru bead that ties the whole into one and usually a tassel, though the last is personal preference. The guru bead has three holes. The guru bead represents the guru or spiritual teacher.

The categories of malas are as follows.

Full Mala 108 beads, 3 markers spaced every 27 beads, and the guru bead.

Hand Mala: 27 beads, 2 makers, and guru.

Jappa: 36 beads, including the guru and there are no marker beads.

Wrist mala: 18 beads, no guru or markers and is usually, on a cord made adjustable by a Chinese slip knot.

The astute reader will notice a pattern in the number of beads... they are all divisible by 3 or 9. These are considered holy numbers. Stay with me while I explain some math concerning these numbers. 108 is divisible by both 3 and 9. If we take the individual components that make up the number 108 and add them together, 1+0+8=9, and there is 9 again. 27 is divisible by 3 and 9. It is the interval between the marker beads 2+7=9. There is 9 again and 27 is divisible by 3 and 9. There are 3 marker beads which marks 4 groups of 27 beads. The first mark is 27 beads, as explained it adds up to 9. The second set of 27 beads makes the total counted 54...adds up to 9. The third set of beads makes the count 81, it adds up to 9. And at the guru bead it is the 108. A 27 bead mala may be self explanatory, but to stay consistent, 2+7=9 and 27 is divisible by 3 and 9. 36 beads, yes, you see it, 3+6=9 and 36 is divisible by 3 and 9. An 18 bead wrist mala, 1+8=9 and 18 is divisible by 3 and 9. In Hinduism, the number 108 is a holy number and many devotional practices must be repeated 108 times. Both Buddhism and Hinduism took this numerology from earlier Indian religion.

The choice of materials may or may not have significance. They can be made from wood, bone, carved bone in the shape of a human skull, semi-precious gemstones, sandalwood, red sandalwood, bodhi seed, rosewood, precious metals, lotus seed in the sun and moon pattern...white with black speckles for the stars and a small hole drilled for the moon, resins which are called amber in Tibetan malas, glass, and can be embellished with metal spacers, focal beads between the guru and the tassel, with the tassel being real silk or imitation. Carnelian, a natural stone that is often dyed to make it a consistent carnelian cherry red, is the stone associated with the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, Gotama. Quartz crystal is the stone associated with Quan Yin, the boddisattva of compassion. Lapis lazuli is the stone of the Medicine Buddha Basaijaya Guru whose skin is the color of lapis. The bodhi seed is wood from the bodhi tree, Ficus religiosa, under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. Sandalwood is a scented wood which helps the user to reach a higher purpose. Red sandalwood is not fragrant but is a naturally red wood. Rosewood is endangered and it is difficult to find and is expensive. Red sandalwood is substituted for it and often sold as it. The lotus seed is representative of purity. Up from the muck and decay at the bottom of the pond, it rises to the surface to open pure, brilliantly white... a metaphor of a journey through the cycles of birth and suffering to finally gain the purity of enlightenment. The carved bone human skulls are the reminder of impermanence. All things are impermanent including us and as a point of meditation, it is an aid to realizing the truth of impermanence and an end to the suffering caused by the misconception that things are permanent.

The actual usage of the beads depends on the tradition or the practitioner. Tibetans believe if a mantra (a prayer) is recited 100,000 times, the practitioner will gain the wisdom of the mantra. A mala for this purpose also has counters to keep track of each round of recitation and one for groups of 10, and others can be added to keep track of thousands. For many other Buddhists, the recitation of a mantra, in addition to receiving merit that is then dedicated to all beings, is a form of meditation, a focusing or sharpening of the mind. It also brings calmness and stilling to the body. Hindus, when telling the beads, never cross the guru bead, but reverse the beads at the guru bead and go back the way they came. Buddhists generally do not have that rule and will cross the guru. The beads are counted, one for each recitation of the prayer with the mala held in one hand and the beads counted with the thumb which advances the mala one more bead and makes the next ready for the count over the forefinger. I've often seen it referenced that the goal is telling 100 recitations with the extras just in case one did some of them imperfectly. I do not agree with that as the merit is gained from the telling of mantras no matter how imperfectly said. I think it is the importance of the number 108 to the ancient numerology. Ask other Buddhists and there will be other answers.



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