Buddhist Malas


Mala beads and enlightenment through meditation might be seen as a single concept in Buddhism. Indeed, the very words "bead" and "Buddha" derive from the same source—the Sanskrit word buddh, meaning "self-realization." The ultimate goal of every practicing Buddhist is Buddhahood or nirvana: a permanent and supreme state of bliss, which ends the constant cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Chanting and contemplation with prayer beads, or malas, is one of the principal routes to this form of liberation, and has been practiced for centuries in Tibet, China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Korea and Burma to inspire the devotee to be free from transgression, full of virtue and clean of heart.

Living and Chanting with Prayer Beads

The voices of groups of monks chanting together resound from the monasteries of Tibet in a continual murmuring. Appropriately, the Tibetan word for the repetition of a name on the rosary is the same verb used to describe the purring of a cat.

Chanting with a string of 108 prayer beads helps the Buddhist faithful to reach an interior state of supreme reality beyond time and place. In his silent flower discourse, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (563-483 BCE), when asked to shed light on Buddhist laws, merely held up a flower and gazed at it in silence. This silence corresponds to the mystic calm reigning within the supreme state of nirvana.

The word derives from the Sanskrit verb nir-va, meaning "to blow out," very like a candle. It suggests the extinguishing of ingrained thought and behavior patterns based on human attachment to sensual pleasures, which bring with them hatred, jealousy, anger and delusion.

Meditating with mala beads on this present state of samsara, or the cyclical nature of attachment and suffering, enables you to become aware that, as everything you desire and cherish must end, so attachment to it is futile. By confronting this truth, Buddhists come to terms with the transience of all things, gradually learning to surrender the illusion of permanence and attain release from temporal bondage.

Supreme State of Being

Although most religions venerate God as both a transcendent and immanent being, Buddhists place their emphasis not on God but on a supreme state of being: enlightenment or nirvana. In one of the most popular forms of Buddhism practiced in China and Japan, this ultimate reality can be reached by chanting the name of Amitabha Buddha. Repeated three times to the Buddha, dharma (spiritual teachings) and sangha (Buddhist community), the statement or remembrance invoked with the mala beads to lead the practitioner towards this state of being translates as "I take refuge in the Buddha of Infinite Light." This invocation, called Buddha nusmriti in Sanskrit, nien-fo in Chinese and nembutso in Japanese, offers deliverance to the individual, as well as serving as a solemn religious sacrament or a means of receiving grace based on unquestioning faith. The saving power of a revealed name, such as Amitabha Buddha, enables you to withdraw into the mercy of the Named with surrender and gratitude to tap into a basic serenity, which carries Buddhists towards Sukhavati, the Western Paradise of Pure Bliss.

Invocatory Prayer

The central prayer chanted in conjunction with the mala in Tibetan Buddhism is Om Mani Padme Hum ("O thou jewel in the Lotus, Hail"). The treasure is often interpreted as being the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Mercy and Compassion (a bodhisattva is an altruistic being who has reached individual enlightenment but delays reaching nirvana by returning to earth to help steer others down the ultimate path of self-realization). Mahayana Buddhism is the only branch of this religion to celebrate bodhisattvas.

The lotus on which the Buddha is enthroned is a symbol of his purity and freedom from the faults of cyclic existence. Avalokiteshvara's feminine counterpart is Tara, the dynamic Deity of Compassion, said to have arisen from one of his tears when he cried at how much suffering there is in the world. The figures of Avalokiteshvara and Tara unite masculine and feminine elements, analogous to the Christian prayer Jesu Maria and the Hindu invocation Sita-Rama. A plant of transformation the lotus draws nourishment from a pond's muddy bottom to nurture a perfumed blossom. Like the dew-tipped rose of the Roman Catholic tradition, the lotus flower is emblematic of the pure and humble soul opening its petals to receive Divine grace, willing to transcend everyday life and blossom into a state of perpetual bliss.

Praying with the Buddhist Mala

Buddhist prayer beads number 108, said in the Japanese Nichiren tradition to be the number of the earthly desires of common mortals. In this belief system, the circlet is known as jyuzu, in China su-zhu, and fozhu and ojuzu in the Mahayana Zen tradition, all terms that share the meaning of the words mala and rosary—a "garden" or "garland of roses."

The entrance to the 108-bead circle is marked by a large tassel or ribbon and one guru bead, a reminder to the devotee of the importance of having a spiritual teacher. In Sanskrit, gu means "dark" and ru "light." The guru leads you out of spiritual darkness and towards enlightenment, or the Light. This is particularly apt with regards to Buddhism, where the Buddha is worshipped less as a god than honored as a teacher.

The sequence of regular mala beads may be interrupted with accent beads of another material, perhaps at bead numbers 21 and 27. The jyuzu features four, equally spaced, smaller beads representing the four virtues of the Buddha's life. There are also two larger mother and father beads, both representing the Buddha. Cylindrical, jar-shaped beads act as receptacles for storing benefits accrued through chanting, and in some traditions signify knowledge or emptiness. A Tibetan mala, or trengwa, may be adorned with ghaus prayer boxes and looks more ornate than its Hindu precursor. "Eternal knots" symbolically acknowledge the interconnectedness of all things.

Two separate cords of 108 beads or discs terminate in thunderbolt pendants, known as dorjes, or small bells. These permit the counting of 20 rounds, forwards and backwards, of the 108 beads, making 10,080 repetitions of a single mantra theoretically possible in one go! Japanese malas employ even more elaborate ways of counting repetitions to help calculate as many as 36,736 iterations of the same statement. Buddhism often employs an immense number of repetitions to transport the mind beyond the physical act of counting to an original pure and empty state, devoid of distraction.

As mala cords fray and break with use, they are invariably restrung. Such physical wear-and-tear serves as a reminder of the Buddha's teachings on life's impermanence and transience and the need to learn non-attachment as a result.

Wrist Beads

Shorter "quarter" malas of 27 beads were traditionally devised for use with prostrate methods of prayer: ideally a mala should never touch the ground. In Tibetan Buddhism, cycles of 108 prostrations are performed with wrist malas in a practice known as ngondro, which acknowledges the sanctity of the three "jewels" of Buddhism—the Buddha himself, the teachings of dharma, and sangha, or practitioners. This practice seeks to purify the human soul from the negative influence of karma, the universal law of cause and effect, which states that doing ill inevitably results in the perpetuation of ill.

Sacred Beads

Holy seeds are especially revered. Bodhi malas are threaded from the seeds of the species of tree under which the Buddha originally attained enlightenment at Bodhgaya in present-day northern India. The seeds of the sacred lotus flower are also highly regarded, representing the potential for spiritual growth under the most inauspicious circumstances. The rudraksha seed mala is valued for prayers of protection, particularly in Tibet.

Bone malas, such as Sherpa yak bone, prompt the devotee to recall the Buddha's teachings about the impermanence of the world. Most of the holiest malas are cut from the skull bones of deceased lamas.

Semi-precious stones, especially in Tibet, are employed to honor deities that have associations with the qualities or colors of the stone: turquoise for the green deity Tara, red stones for the medicine Buddha, Sangye Menla. Remnants of older folk belief are also common. Amuletic chunks of turquoise recur in traditional Tibetan malas to ward off danger and bring about wealth. They may be combined with beads or discs of the equally talismanic amber, coral or agate. Associated with the clarity of spiritual wisdom, the appearance and the nature of crystal is such that it is thought to convey, amplify and project positive energy. It befits the compassionate contemplative techniques underlying so much of Buddhist tolerance, such as metta, a loving kindness practice in which you extend love first to yourself and eventually to all other living beings.

Jain Malas

Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, preceded the Buddha by about 100 years. Twenty-three thirthankaras (prophet figures) came before the arrival of Mahavira, who recapitulated and systematizes the doctrines of all previous thirthankaras into what is recognized as Jainism today. The first thirthankara is even said to have come at the beginning of time. Like Buddhists, Jains do not worship a creator God, but believe in the potentiality of each soul to become a god in the form of a siddha, one who attains the original state of bliss and so moksha, or liberation, from the cycle of rebirth.

Universal Prayer

Jain worshippers seek to perfect the soul through dhyan, the contemplative stilling of the mind, in which one becomes so absorbed in the true nature of the self and the universe that one is purified and freed from the bondage that is negative karma.

The central, fundamental Jain mantra, the Navkar Mantra, or Universal Prayer, can be recited upon mala beads. Instead of mentioning historical founders or saints, it extols the virtues of all spiritually elevated Jains. Worshippers physically bow down to the superior beings who have attained spiritual self-realization through sacrifice and abstinence, and also honor those who teach the ascendancy and importance of the spiritual over the material.

The Navkar Mantra salutations remind worshippers of the path which all Jains strive for and aspire to. The first paean is not sung to liberated beings, but to arihantas, those who show the way because they have found infinite knowledge and no longer suffer attachment, but have yet to die and become siddhas. The mantra then proceeds to venerate those liberated souls who have achieved moksha, and pays tribute to acharyas, spiritual leaders, and upadhyayas, monks with specialist knowledge of the scriptures. The prayer ends by praising all sadhus and sadhvis, monks and nuns who follow the Jain philosophy and codes of conduct that include an adherence to celibacy, non-violence and a renunciation of worldly pleasures.

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words
Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott (2008) Fons Vitae Publishing

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words

Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott (2008) Fons Vitae Publishing

The practice of the rosary in various faiths is thoroughly covered in this stunning book and its accompanying DVD. For background, the commentary explains that the word "bead" has an interfaith origin: it comes from both the Sanskrit "Buddh," which refers to self-realization (the Buddha is the "Enlightened One"); and it also derives from the Saxon verb "bidden," meaning to pray. The rosaries pictured are made from such materials as rose petals, chunks of Tibetan amber, exquisitely carved Italian coral, and silken Turkish tassels. One simple mantra or prayer for each faith is also presented, as is a prize-winning DVD that takes the viewer into various world cultures where the recitation and method can be heard and seen.