Buddhist Beads

Buddhist mala made from the bones of a lama (holy man)

Originating in India about 500 B.C., Buddhism reached China in the first century A.D., Korea about the beginning of the fourth century, Japan in the sixth, and Tibet in the eighth. As Buddhism became the established religion in these countries, it was influenced by the diverse cultures with which it came into contact. Unlimited tolerance is an essential principle of Buddhism, a concept reflected in the various forms and materials of its prayer beads. This can be seen, for example, by comparing Tibetan Buddhist beads with those from Japan. Differences exist in the elaboration of form, the number and types of pendants and tassels, the dividing beads, and the materials—the Japanese, regardless of their social status, have tended to use wood, while wealthy Tibetans preferred amber and coral or human bone.

Buddhism adopted rosaries from the Hindus. The rosary, an important part of a Buddhist monk's attire, usually consists of 108 smooth beads, corresponding to the number of mental conditions or sinful desires that can be overcome by recitation with the beads. Although monks use full chains of 108 beads, rosaries carried by lay people often consist of only thirty or forty beads.

Favored beads are from the seed of the sacred bo tree, a species of fig (Ficus religiosa). The use of beads for meditation and attainment of a mystical state through repetition of prayer has its widest application in Buddhism, particularly in the Himalayan region, where they are still a familiar part of life.


Tibetan mala composed of 108 disk-shaped beads of human bone

In old Tibet, nearly everyone carried or wore prayer beads of wood, shell, amber, semiprecious, or precious stones. The materials differed according to the owner's taste and wealth, and depended too on the devotee's sect and the deity worshiped. The most highly prized beads were made from the bones of a lama.

In old Tibetan rosaries, three beads of different sizes and materials were used to divide the full rosary of 108 round or disk beads into four groups of twenty-seven each. At the point where the two ends of the string came together, three large retaining beads were included to indicate the completion of a round or circuit of prayer. These last beads symbolize the triad of Buddha, the doctrine, and the community. Attached to the main string were usually two strands of ten smaller beads. Known as the "number keepers" or counters, these act like a miniature abacus, keeping track of the number of times the user recites his prayers or mantra. The counter strings generally terminate with two small pendants, called the djore and drilbu. The djore (a representative of the conventionalized thunderbolt of Indra) is the single circuit string, while the drilbu (a tiny bell) marks every ten repetitions. In addition to these conventions, it is common to find personal odds and ends, such as tweezers or keys, attached to the rosaries.

China, Korea, and Japan

Shozoiki jiu-dzu beads used by Japanese Buddhist sects

Prayer beads were less widespread in China. Under Manchu rule (1644–1912), however, Buddhist prayer beads, modeled after those from Tibet, became fashionable with the ruling hierarchy and quite elaborate. Called "court chains," they were used in China primarily for status symbols rather than prayer. In Korea, where Buddhism was the official state religion until banned by the Yi dynasty (1392–1910), rosaries were quite an important part of religious rituals. Korean rosaries typically have 110 beads, whereas most Buddhist rosaries use 108. The two extra beads are large: one is decorated with a swastika and located at the beginning of the strand; the other is plain and placed in the middle. A devotional treatise entitled "The Classic of the Rosary" is displayed as a poster on the walls of Korean Buddhist temples. "The Classic" shows a rosary and explains its numerous uses.

Among the Japanese, prayer beads were also an important component of both social and religious life. The beads were carried by monks and lay citizens to funerals and other ceremonial events. All teahouses had a hook on the wall for hanging the beads; an important or unusual set gave prestige to the teahouse.

The Buddhist rosary took on unique forms in Japan, with different sects exhibiting various numbers and arrangements of beads. The most widely used was the shozoiki jiu-dzu, a strand of 112 beads. Jiu-dzu shops, often located at pilgrimage stops, advertised their sacred wares by hanging huge wooden rosaries outside the store. A set of prayer beads that had been blessed over the incense smoke of a respected temple was highly valued by its owner.

Wood was the preferred material for Japanese Buddhist rosaries. Cherry, rose, plum, carved and smoothed peach, ebony, and mahogany were all used. Walnut shells, cherry pits, and the nuts of the bead tree (Melia azedarach) were also popular.

Buddhist mala made from the bones of a lama (holy man)

Buddhist Mala

A Buddhist mala. The 108 disk-shaped prayer beads are made from the bones of a lama (holy man). The dividers and retaining beads are coral, and the tassels are silk. The satin ribbon is partially covered with Tibetan writing. The two counters, each with ten silver beads, terminate in thunderbolt pendants (djore). Several hundred years old, this mala belonged to Lama Kunga Rinpoche of the Ngor monastery. Length (side to top center bead), 40 cm. Collection Ivory Freidus

Tibetan Buddhist mala composed of 108 disk-shaped beads of human bone

Tibetan Mala

A Buddhist mala composed of 108 disk-shaped beads of human bone, inlaid with turquoise, coral, amber, pearl, and lapis lazuli. One retaining bead and three large divider beads of jade, turquoise, carnelian, and coral separate the mala into four sections of 27 beads each. The circlet ends in a dorje, indicating the beginning and the end of the prayer cycle. There are no counters. Skull beads, like other Tibetan ritualistic objects of human bone, were meant to impress upon the devotee the transient nature of human existence. Length, 72.4 cm. Collection Franyo Schindler, New York

Shozoiki jiu-dzu beads used by Japanese Buddhist sects

Shozoiki Jiu-dzu

The shozoiki jiu-dzu are prayer beads used by all Japanese Buddhist sects. Each composed of 112 plum wood beads of equal size, these two rosaries are split into two groups of larger parent beads called the "father" and "mother" beads. Length (either), 180 cm. National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Buddhist Beads » Prayer Beads » The History of Beads: From 100,000 B.C. to the Present
Lois Sherr Dubin (2009) Abrams Publishers, Inc.

The History of Beads: From 100,000 B.C. to the Present

The History of Beads: From 100,000 B.C. to the Present

Since its publication in 1987, The History of Beads has become the world's definitive guide for bead lovers, collectors, and scholars. In this new edition, author Lois Sherr Dubin updates al chapters with the latest archeological discoveries; pens a new chapter on contemporary adornment since the 1980s, with a focus on glass beads; and best of all, revises and adds 225 beads to what is considered by many to be the piece de resistance: the eight-page gatefold timeline that guides readers through the remarkably rich history of the world's first form of adornment. The latest revisions include an update on the oldest bead ever discovered, now dating to around 100,000 B.C., and an explanation on why beads worn on the human body were the original media communication system.

Beads are among the most stunningly attractive and varied items of jewelry known to humankind. Yet they represent far more than mere personal adornment. Beads have been used throughout the world in countless ways: as talismans in prehistoric and contemporary societies; as status symbols in the ancient world and in present-day Africa; as religious articles in the Buddhist, Christian, and Islamic faiths; and as a standard medium of barter throughout the world. They represent basic relationships to life and the supernatural and have been used to organize and symbolize cultural world views. They have been guideposts in human relationships and expressions of innermost feelings. Each bead is therefore a capsule of cultural information, containing a fascinating tale of the origins of its materials, its manufacture, its multifold uses, perhaps its travels, and certainly its potent symbolism.

Lois Sherr Dubin presents the panoramic scope of these ubiquitous objects, unravels the mysteries of the world's rarest beads, and explores the myriad cultural context from which beads have come. Along the way, she examines the dominant historical, geographic, and thematic features of beads, as well as their impact on cultural cross-fertilization and the light they shed on the ritualistic practices of various peoples.

Updates include the numerous maps, which have been modernized and are now in color; approximately seventy formerly black-and-white images have been changed to full color; and 200 new photographs have been taken especially for this edition. Beautifully packaged with a new cover, this revised and expanded edition of The History of Beads is a must-have for devotees of the first edition and for the next generation of bead obsessives and aficionados.