Buddhist Prayer Beads or Mala

Buddhist prayer beads or Malas in Sanskrit are a traditional tool used to count the number of times a mantra is recited, breaths while meditating, counting prostrations, or the repetitions of a Buddha’s name. They are similar to other forms of prayer beads used in various world religions and therefore the term “Buddhist rosary” also appears.

Conventional Buddhist tradition counts the beads at 108, signifying the mortal desires of mankind. The number is attributed to the Mokugenji Sutra wherein Shakyamuni Buddha instructed King Virudhaka to make such beads and recite the Three Jewels of Buddhism. In later years, various Buddhist sects would either retain the number of beads or divide them into consecutive twos, fours, for brevity or informality. A decorative tassel is sometimes attached to the beads, flanked by talismans or amulets depending on one’s local tradition. Because prayer beads are often painted in pigment, various traditional schools attribute a consecration ritual by the Sangha to the beads, to “open the eyes” for the purpose of achieving Enlightenment unique to the Karma of each believer.

Buddhist prayer beads

Since a common part of Tibetan Buddhist practice is repeating (mentally or out loud) certain mantras thousands or even hundreds of thousands of times, it is useful to use your mala for counting off the number of prayers, as a spiritual abacus. Even if you are not actively counting, the repeated recitation of the mantra while proceeding bead by bead through the mala serves to focus and calm the mind.

The most common type of mala is a made of precious or semi-precious stones, wood, seeds, or bone. Each time you work your way around the mala, saying a mantra for each bead, you are considered to have completed 100 mantra recitations. The extra 8 beads are “spare” to make up for any miscounts or mistakes you may make along the way.

There is also a head bead, one that is larger than the others, and it is often called a “guru bead.” Some believe that this bead has a special significance, as representing one’s guru, for example, but very practically, this bead is the starting point for the circuit and is not counted among the 108 total.

Buddhist prayer beads

In case it is necessary to recite a very large number of mantras, Tibetan Buddhist Malas have Bell and Dorje counters (a short string of ten beads, usually silver, with a bell or Dorje at the bottom). The Dorje counter is used to count each round around the mala, and the bellcounter to count each time the Dorje counter runs out of beads. After that, the Dorje counter is reset. These counters are placed at different points on the mala depending on tradition, sometimes at the 10th, 21st or 25th bead from the Guru bead. Traditionally, one begins the mala in the direction of the Dorje (skillful means) proceeding on to the Bell (wisdom) with each round.

A ‘Bhum’ counter, often a small brass or silver clasp in the shape of a jewel or wheel, is used to count 1000 repetitions and is moved forward between the main beads of the mala, starting at the Guru bead, with each accumulation of 1000.

When mala is not in use you can hang it in a clean place, maybe near your altar.  We actually keep ours in a special bookshelf under our altar. It’s all up to you and your intention to treat it with care and respect while maintaining a practical, non-extreme attitude.

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