PRAYER ROPE @ ROSARY @ MALA @ TENWA @ KOMBOLOI @ PRAYER BEADS @ SEB'HA @ POWER beads or DREAM BEADS @ tasbiyye @ fozhu & ojuzu @ chaplet @
A device for counting recitations such as prayers and mantras has been used by people of various cultures for thousands of years. It may consist of a notched stick, a simple knotted cord or a leather strap that has rings of metal sewn to it in such a way that one after another can be flipped over when each recitation is completed.
The mala in its most common form consists of a series of beads threaded onto a closed loop that can be worn around the neck or the wrist. It may be inherited, received as a gift, purchased ready-made, new or antique. If you would like one made to order especially for you, the price can vary quite a bit depending on the length (number of beads), type of beads, and should you so desire -- by whom or if, it is to be empowered or blessed.
The first criterion in choosing the beads is the substance and colour. It should correspond with the colour of/or substance associated with the deity or the practice. For example, for Green Tara practice turquoise is often used because it is considered to be a green stone in Tibetan culture. Malachite is also suitable and of course, emeralds and jade. In eastern Asia, jade is associated with longevity and prosperity, so it is used for many deities associated with these concepts.
Similarly, since Chenrezi is depicted holding up a crystal mala, that substance is the most suitable, but so is any clear or pure white substance. It is said that pearl will multiply prayers by 1,000,000. If one can afford precious stones, diamonds might seem more attractive, but could you ignore the suffering that may go along with their discovery?)
Coral beads are cherished for their reddish tint results from their growth off the Italian coast, in sea beds rich in iron. As a consequence of their rarity in inland countries, the color is often enhanced by special dyeing techniques.
Red is the most auspicious colour in many cultures, associated as it is with life and fertility. The word for "beautiful" is synonymous with "red" in Slavic, and various other, language families. Around the Mediterranean, a single, bright coral bead may be given as a gift to be threaded on a string for the neck or wrist of an infant. This custom is probably the remains of a very ancient dedication ritual. (It seems to predate the blue glass bead amulet that affords protection from the Evil Eye.)
Since red symbolizes the blood associated with the essence of female energy, it is a suitable choice for the practice of Vajrayogini or Dorje Pagmo.
Beads in the golden and orange range such as are found in amber, tiger's eye, topaz and hessonite are suitable for practices of Manjushri. manufactured
Lapis lazuli, the stone native to Afghanistan, has been associated with royalty and wisdom for thousands of years. The Sumerian/Babylonian Great Goddess, Inanna-Ishtar, divests herself of her lapis ornaments before descending to the land of the dead. After her crucifixion, she resurrects herself, restoring her dark blue and gold ornaments before returning to the land of the living. In Tibetan Buddhist images, it is the colour of Guru Rinpoche's inner garment. Lapis is associated with Sangye Menla, the Medicine Buddha. However, a lighter sky blue such as aquamarine or "blue beryl") is also associated with him.
In other words, there are archetypal significances to these substances that go beyond colour associations.
Even when vegetable (ie. plant) material such as sandalwood (red or white santal,) or tulsi seed -- what are known as bodhi seeds -- are used to make a mala, the "guru" or, as it is sometimes called, the Meru bead which is the larger or terminal bead, and/or any marker beads after the 21st or 27th place, may be of a mineral or other substance. Coral, turquoise, amber, silver, bone are some of these. Carnelian, amber, and lapis are also used, and they are also characteristic of Islamic amulets and ornaments.
There is nothing wrong in using beads made of glass, wood, bone, or plastic. The beads should be durable and pleasing to the touch.
The brown and white "Buddha-eye" or dzi beads are nice, especially if you can find old, authentic ones, but those are now very expensive. Because of their long shape, they tend to be used alone as amulets. They have a characteristic design of white lines produced by a resist or etching process or sometimes, by the mix of two materials used in their formation. Few of those on the Internet or for sale in shops today have the true "eye" design, and it is very unlikely that you will find any ancient ones.
People used to say that they are the petrified bodies of heavenly insects. Others, that dzi [or Zi] beads just manifest from the soil of Tibet, or that they are the product of a lost Tibetan technology. In the 1990s, it was shown that the original place of origin was South India, although Persia [Iran] has also been cited as the source.
Today, they are being manufactured in China.
Rudra is the Vedic name for Shiva in his capacity as the forces of nature; aksha means tears, so the name means Shiva's tears. These are the beads made by drilling the brown, knobby seeds of Elaeocarpus ganitrus roxburgii. A mala made of these is most often associated with Hindu austerities, penances and Shiva-ritual worship. They are also used by some Buddhists for wrathful deity practices, partly because of the Tibetan Buddhist use of the term rudra for that which is to be transformed.
A rudraksha is believed to confer benefits according to the number of segments in the seed.
A preferred seed has 5 faces [pancha mukha] but the beads also come with a single face, 2 or as many as 14 segments. A single bead with 8 faces can sell for US $30; an 11-faced bead sells for US$60, and so on.
Plant and animal substances like bone, antique ivory or mammoth ivory -- nowadays it is unthinkable to use new elephant ivory -- are good for all-purpose use since, as Venerable Tenga Rinpoche said, subtle beings find natural products more attractive -- less intimidating, as it were.
People sometimes request a mala from an assortment of different beads mixed with other objects like so-called lama necklaces, or medicine (or "magic charm") necklace.
In May 2000, the American Antiques Roadshow (television show) featured an early 18th century Tibetan mala of hand-rubbed bone discs terminating in a red silk tassel. Each bead was inset with 3 or 4 flakes of gold or silver, tiny corals, turquoises or pearls. The estimated value was over 2 thousand dollars. Copies soon appeared, and similar malas became popular. So, like anything else, there are fashions in malas, too.
Strength & durability are priorities in malas used for japa (repetitions of mantra).
The ones made to order are strung on a cord twisted of three smaller threads twisted of strong linen or silk; usually white but sometimes black or red. As each bead is slid into place, there is a mantra repetition that goes with it, often accompanied by a visualization.
The type of guru, or Meru bead (at the "end") depends on the denomination [or religion] of the practitioner. In some lineages a vase-bead is used through which the ends of the cord are knotted.
One or two decorative knots with tassels may be used to finish it, none at all, or a gao. This is a Tibetan charm box or reliquary, usually in silver, often with a window in a shape that some describe as resembling a seated buddha or the head of a gaur [Indian wild horned ox.] It can also have another type of amulet or significant object suspended from it.
When the mala is being worn around the neck, some teachers say the guru bead goes at the nape or back, others say it does not matter, and some say a mala should never be worn like a piece of jewelry. As in other matters, it is best to ask your own guru.
To keep track of the hundreds and thousands of repetitions, a little clip or a series of little rings of metal strung on a double cord having a charm such as a little dorje or bell at the end is used. It is inserted into the mala by looping it over the main cord and then through the loop in the counter's double cord.
Counters are inserted after bead 21 [or 27] and its opposite number, although some denominations prefer that if two are being used, they both be on the same side, probably because that is less ostentatious.
Some practical people prefer to use for tallying a click-type of mechanical counter that is a chrome object held looped over the thumb. This is the thing which is used to keep track of golf strokes, or the number of people being admitted to a restaurant.
If you interrupt your japa or mala-round and want to keep track, little silver pinch-clips are available for the purpose. (You could use a small safety pin, a brooch, a little tie of cord or even a paper clip.)
Using the Beads
In India, -- that is, in the Hindu tradition -- the mala is rarely used in the left hand and the index, thought to be a rude finger, is not used to manipulate beads. The Tibetan Buddhist manner is to use the left hand. That is because the one transmitting the blessings or the practice (the visualized deity) does so with his or her right hand, and the practitioner receives with his or her left.
It is also the custom not to cross over the vase, Meru or Guru bead, but rather to flip the mala around and then go on again, since it is believed the power of accumulated mantras stored there could be dislodged.
To go back and forth with a short mala, insert your left hand into the ring of beads so that the guru bead is at the top. Flick or draw the beads towards you using the thumb. When you have "run out of beads" so that they are up against the guru bead at the back of your hand that is away from your body, let the mala drop around the hook formed by the thumb so that you turn it around with a rotation of the wrist "into the body" so that you have flipped the mala over, as it were.
Khenpo Chokey Gyaltsen of the seat of Jamgon Kongtrul in Pullahari, Nepal said, "That is the way my mother and grandmother did it, and that is how I do it, too. But the Buddha never said anything official on the subject."
He was clear that not to do so (not to pay attention to the matter of crossing the larger bead) should not be cause for worry, and certainly does not harm one's guru nor invalidate one's practice.
Since Buddhism sought to eliminate distinctions of class [Skt. jati] or caste [varna] with its attendant ideas of ritual purity, for Buddhist practitioners there is no "official" way of using the mala. In fact, to emphasize this view, the left hand is preferred for general practices. For wrathful deity practices, the other hand is used.
The best person to ask about the use of a mala is, of course, your own teacher or lama.
Kyabje Gyaltsen Sogdzin Rinpoche taught this way to his students:
The details may vary from teacher to teacher -- here the difference is in the position of the Buddha or Guru bead -- and it is best to ask your own mentor.
The expressions to tell one's beads or to say a rosary are used in a Christian context.
The Mala Oracle
A mala may be used as a type of oracular device, too.
To tell the future; that is to predict an outcome, one picks up the mala grasping it between the hands and poses the question. By fingering the beads moving both hands at once towards the mid-point, either one (yes) or no beads will be left between the hands. A variation is the "he loves me, he loves me not" method by picking up the heaped mala at any bead without looking, and then sliding the beads towards you until the end bead.
The method described by Dorjee Tseten in the Tibetan Bulletin: March - April 1995 follows:
iii)) Divination on a rosary: The person doing the divination prays to the deity he is invoking for the correct answer and recites that deity's mantras. He then holds up the rosary horizontally in front of him, with the fingers of each hand grasping a randomly chosen bead, leaving half the beads of fewer between them. Then the fingers of each hand move towards each other counting three beads at a time. The outcome of the divination depends on the number of beads left. The procedure is repeated three times.
When only one bead remains, the result is called `falcon'. When two beads remain, it is called 'raven'. When three beads remain the result is called 'snow lion'. The outcome on the first attempt indicated the extent of the deities' support and the quality of the divination in general. A falcon at the first attempt would indicate support from protectors, luck in a new enterprise, success in a lawsuit.
A raven on the first try means the protectors are not on your side. There will be no accomplishment, lawsuit will be unsuccessful and there are enemies present. Such a divination would caution against starting on any new enterprise. A snow lion on the first round would indicate support from the deities, slow but stable accomplishments and weakness on the part of enemies. If the question concerned successful business, this would be regarded as a neutral result.
At the second attempt, the outcome indicates conditions to take place in one's immediate environment. The falcon indicates good luck in general, but not much success for those wishing to have children. The risk of thefts and illnesses in general would remain small. The raven indicates serious illness, obstacles to health and a decline in the life force. There will be a tendency for things to get lost or stolen. However, in the case of an ordained person, these negative aspects would be reduced.
On the third occasion, the number of remaining beads gives clues about an expected person arriving from elsewhere. This was a very important aspect of life in Tibet, for people traveled constantly and there was no communication system. A falcon with regard to an expected visitor indicates imminent news or arrival. With regard to illness, it would indicate finding the best way to cure it.
A raven represents a bad indication concerning expected travelers. They are likely to encounter obstacles on the way will not arrive at all or will be robbed. The sick will not be cured and possessions will be lost or stolen. The snow lion indicates that travelers will arrive late, but come to no harm. Problems with health will be few, although there will be difficulties in finding the right treatment.
The best [result] would be three consecutive falcons. This would indicate that travelers will arrive quickly, patients will recover and accomplishments will be swift.
Another kind of tenwa mo or teng mo:
After the visualisation, a random result is generated by seizing the tenwa anywhere with both hands. The random number of beads obtained between the hands is reduced in a certain way to produce a final, random count of between 6 (maximum) and 0 (minimum) beads. The number is interpreted in the following way:
Though we think of Hindu and Buddhist malas as comprising 108 beads [some have 111], as long as there are around a 100 (in a long or full mala) it is still usable. (In fact, any number of beads that you are used to using -- that is convenient in keeping track of mantras -- is fine.)
108 is a number with numerologic [9 x 12] and cosmological significance. Another, Vedic [ancient Hindu] reason, is that there are believed to be 108 channels going from the heart chakra out to the rest of the subtle body.
"What are the thirty-six feelings? There are six feelings of gladness
based on the household life and six based on renunciation; six feelings of
sadness based on the household life and six based on renunciation; six feelings
of equanimity based on the household life and six based on renunciation.
On a more mundane level, the reason for the 8 "extra" beads is to make up for any errors or omissions in the "telling" or for breakage or loss of a bead.
There is a chapter on the mala and its use in Tibet at the turn of the last century in L. A. Waddell's classic Buddhism of Tibet which is still in print, including the account of the British "pundit" or spy-lama who measured the circumference of Lhasa using mantra-recitation as a way of judging distance. It is believed that he (or they) used only 100 beads to make the math less troublesome.
In buying or making a mala, the size of the beads must be considered, as well as the length of the space of bare thread that will permit the shifting of the beads. These choices depend upon the size of the hands that will be using the mala. Generally one made for a man is composed of beads of at least 10 mm. in diameter but often 12 or greater.
The wrist mala has become quite popular. It usually has 21 or 27 beads, and though some use elasticized cord, if it is to be used not just as a decoration, it is better that it be made of the usual strong cord or string in a length to suit the user. It must allow for being wrapped around the wrist without dangling so loosely that it will get caught on things or slip off too easily.
A mala of 27 beads, 1/4 the full 108-bead one, can be used while doing the full prostrations of the Tibetan Buddhist Preliminary Practices [ngondro]. These malas are usually of wood, since glass or stone ones may crack as they strike the floor while clutched in the hand.
There does not seem to be any profound significance to holding the mala while doing prostrations, but some prefer it. The knocking of the beads against the floor can be distracting to others.
Basically, a mala is a tool for keeping track of counting. However, many people believe that the energy of accumulated mantras may be stored in the mala, and hence it should be kept in a bag with its drawstring drawn tight, or enclosed in a special box when it is not being used.
The Vishnavite Hindu mala
[Vishnavite is the adjective for Vishnu-worshippers; Krishna is one of his avatars or manifestations.]
1. There are 108 beads and the Krishna bead. The 108 beads symbolize
the 108 Gopis [dairymaids] who represent bhakti (loving devotion
[In Jamaica, the Pocomania sect associate the tulsi plant with
the Christian trinity - an interesting diffusion.]
Early Christians used a rosary of 150 beads -- the number derived from the Old Testament's 150 Psalms. The contemporary rosary consists of various sections; the ten-bead sections are known as decades. A chaplet is a short rosary of only a decade (10 beads.)
"Saying the Rosary"
The device used by Catholics as a tool to aid in counting may have been adapted from the mala. But the Christian rosary is in fact, more than that, since it provides the order and the cues for a complete sadhana, as it were, that is dedicated to Notre-Dame or Our Lady.
*The Christian Orthodox tradition of oral practices is contained in a work called Philokalia. It is currently available in two versions, the Greek and the Russian. An English translation of the smaller Russian one appears in Writings from the Philokalia on Prayer of the Heart translated by E. Kadloubovsky and G. E. H. Palmer. (London: Faber, 1951.)
After our own fingers and toes, or the braids of our hair, the knotted cord is likely the earliest form of counting device. Orthodox Greeks use 100 knots on cords and call the device, kombologion. It is used to keep track of repetitions of this prayer: Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison or "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner."
To call any prayer string a rosary is not inevitably correct. That is because the rosary (in German, die rosenkranze -- remember the character in Hamlet?) derives its name from the fact that when the practice of using a cord with counters was adopted by the Roman Church, the beads were carved to resemble roses.
Actual rolled petals or miniature rosebuds can be used to make the beads. They are prepared by simmering at a low heat, or by drying and enclosing them in metal "cages."
Mexico is rich in rosary traditions: See a lazo, a double or "wedding" rosary.
Sufi and Other Islamic Bead Practices
The so-called worry beads carried by Middle Eastern men number 33 beads. They are used (3x) in Muslim practice to count the 99 Names of God.
For many people, though, when the beads are rolled between thumb and forefinger two at a time, they serve merely as an outlet for anxiety or to channel nervous energy, so they are often truly Worry Beads. Often the number of beads will be few and the beads much larger if it is intended to be used in this way.
Tools of the Spinster's 'Trade'
The telling of beads or the use of mala was often been seen as the most suitable activity for unmarried females. This is still true today in Pakistan, for as Amnesty USA discovered, when there is no suitable man for a husband: "In Punjab daughters are kept unmarried till the age of menopause when they take up the Qur'an and Tasbih [prayer beads] voluntarily."
This world religion with headquarters in Haifa, Israel, began as an offshoot of Islam. It, too, uses beads to count prayers.
Bahá-u-lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas (26 para. 18)
Therefore, some people make use of a long knotted string (with or without beads) to keep count.
The prayer beads used in the Bahai faith consist of a loop of 95 beads with a tail of 5 . There are odd-shaped marker beads as the 9th and 19th beads. They can be used to count either nine ..., nineteen or..., ninety- five repetitions or a multiple of 100 repetitions. Ninety-five is for repetitions of Allah'u'Abha ordained for each morning. 500 repetitions is for "Remover of Difficulties". Nine or nineteen are usual numbers for any prayer.
and in greater detail:
... a beginning bead, and . . . markers for the 19th bead, the 40th bead, the 95th bead and the 100th. [There is] a prayer which was to be said every night for forty nights. ... the number forty is mentioned so many times... . ... beads are nothing more than a counting tool. I do not believe that there should be any significance to the beads. ... string beads with an indicator bead for the start, an indicator at 19 for the prayer of the Dead, and a total of 95 beads to recite 'Allah-u-Abha'
Sept. 30, 1999.
The consumer should be wary in purchasing beads since disreputable suppliers may enhance the shape and color of their products. What is advertised as quartz, tiger's eye, and so on is often acrylic-coated plastic, a.k.a. "resin." Little bracelets selling for under $10 are rarely the genuine article. Even quartz and natural stones are commonly altered to enhance their properties.
Be especially wary of beads resembling amber that are being advertised as "Faturan," especially if claims are made that the substance is ancient. See
Howlite, a calcium silica-borate mineral found in Nova Scotia and California, is easily dyed a turquoise-blue and is often sold as Turquoise.