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Prayer beads (mala) are a very personal religious article. They can be made of a varying number of beads and of different substances depending on the intended use. Strictly speaking the materials that the beads are made from and the specific number of beads are determined according to the intended type of religious practice to be performed along with the guidelines of the Four Activities. Several Indian Sanskrit texts explain the general creation and uses of the mala such as the Vajra Garbha Lamkara, Samputa and Dakarnava Tantras.
The Four Activities can be differentiated by purpose and visually by appearance, colour and geometric form for palaces, ritual shrines, and the fire hearth. They are also known as the four lower, or common, activities. The higher, or uncommon, activity is the striving for enlightenment. The four lower activities are:
According to the Samputa Tantra: "In general for accomplishment in Mantrayana the number [of beads for a mala] is fifty . Specifically, for Powerful [activities] the [number is] half of that [25 beads]. For Peaceful [activities the number is] one hundred . Likewise, for Increasing [activities] add eight extra [108 beads]. For Wrathful [activities] it is sixty [60 beads]."
Prayer Beads & Numbers:
- Mantrayana in General = 50 Beads
- Peaceful Activities = 100 Beads
- Increasing Activities = 108 Beads
- Powerful Activities = 25 Beads
- Wrathful Activities = 60 Beads
In modern times it is common to find prayer beads with numbers such as twenty-one (21), twenty-seven (27) and one hundred and eight (108).
The Samputa Tantra also presents the basic substances of the beads according to the Four Activities. For Peaceful activities and the corresponding colour white, the beads can be of crystal, pearl, bodhi seed, or various types of wood. For the activity of Increasing, yellow colour, the material of the beads can be gold, silver, copper, or lotus seed. For Powerful activities, the colour red, beads of red sandalwood or red coral are used. For Wrathful activities, black in colour, the material is rudraksha seeds, fruit pits, or beads made from human bone. It is commonly said that a bodhi seed mala is good for all four activities in general.
Types of Malas:
Bodhiseed | Ivory | Lotus Seed (composite) | Metal | Plastic | Rudraksha | Sandalwood (red) | Sandalwood (white) | Stone | Wood |
Substances in General: bodhi seed, lotus seed, rudraksha seed, fruit pit, ivory, human bone, buffalo bone, amber, coral, crystal, pearl, lapiz lazuli, wood, white sandalwood, red sandalwood, stone, gold, silver, copper, etc. In rare but specialized cases there can even be prayer beads made of snake vertebrae and other exotic substances. Specific Tantras such as the Hevajra and the twenty-five and fifty chapter Mahakala Tantras will also prescribe malas made from a particular substance for any number of specialized activities. The Hevajra Tantra lists rock crystal, red sandalwood, soap tree wood, human bone, horse bone, Brahmin's bone, elephant bone and buffalo bone. The Mahakala Tantra of fifty chapters further adds: horse teeth, tiger teeth, elephant teeth, pearls, rice, stool and musk beads.
In modern times the most common types of beads are bodhi seed and probably sandalwood, red or white. The bodhi seed is acquired from a tree related to the rudraksha (Elaeocarpus ganitrus). Bodhi seeds do not come, as popularly believed, from the Bodhi tree. All beads in general can be round, oval or flat discs. There are no rules or recommendations determining the dimensions, size, or shape of the individual beads.
The uses of a mala are varied but generally are employed first and foremost for counting the number of repetitions of mantras and prayers. They are also used for counting the numbers of prostrations performed and in more advanced practices of yoga for counting the inhalation and exhalations of 'vase' breathing. The mala is also used as a theatrical device in Tibetan philosophical monastic debate. Another variant use is in divination and fortune telling known in the Tibetan language as a 'mo'. Lastly, the mala is sometimes used incidentally as a means of spiritual blessing from a teacher to one or many students. The teacher holds out the mala and in turn the students approach and either bow and let the mala touch their head of they hold the two hands out, palm up, and gently touch the mala. With some strict Buddhist teachers the mala can serve as a disciplinary tool used to strike lazy or sleeping youths during class or during the performance of temple rituals.
The symbolism of the mala can vary between teachers and traditions. According to Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen (1147-1216) there are three elements of the mala that have symbolic significance,  the string,  the beads and  the head bead. The string is made from nine threads which represent the Eight Bodhisattvas and Vajradhara. The beads themselves represent the arhats of early Buddhism. The head bead has two parts placed together, a stupa shape and a sphere shape. Together they represent the dharmadhatu.
The components of a mala are primarily the beads made from whichever substance is chosen, and in whatever number, followed by the head bead which is often larger than the others and not included as belonging to the beads that are counted for recitation. The head bead is also referred to in popular culture as the guru bead and is said to represent the teacher. In early Tibetan texts from the 11th and 12th centuries the head bead was said to represent a stupa and had two parts, a spire shape and a vase shape, without any reference to a teacher. The head bead generally has three connecting holes facilitating the main string along with a small tassel or some ornament indicating it as being different from the other beads. This bead also marks the beginning of any session of counting. It is common with more fancy malas to have divider beads approximately at the quarter points and middle point of the mala. These are often made of a different material than the other beads but can sometimes be made of the same material as the head bead. There are no rules for this and it is entirely up to the manufacturer or practitioner.
Counter beads are sometimes attached either to the head bead or at the two quarter points on the mala closest to the head bead. Counter beads are two small lengths of string that each have ten small beads that are used for calculating large numbers of rounds of the mala. They basically serve as special counter beads for calculating 10s, 100s and 1000s. This is important when performing practices where knowing the precise number of repetitions is required. Counter beads are not actually necessary but have grown in popularity through both function and fashion. The counter beads can be made out of any substance but most often made out of either wood or metal. They are generally placed at the two quarter points on either side of the head bead, or sometimes attached to the head bead. Metal counters are popular and they are often decorated with a very small vajra scepter on one set of 10 counters and vajra handled bell on the other set of 10 counters.
The acquisition of a mala is generally through purchase, as a gift, or making a string of prayer beads by hand. Many Buddhist teachers commonly give away malas to their students and visitors. Buddhist teachers are often asked to bless a new mala. This is generally accomplished by the teacher simply reciting a few mantras and blowing with the breath on the new mala. The teacher might also rub the beads between his hands and recite mantras while moving through each bead to the completion of one round of the mala. There are also more involved rituals, visualization practices and mantras specifically used for the blessing of a new mala. If a mala has become sullied or damaged in some serious way then re-blessing a mala by the owner or a Buddhist teacher is also done.
Malas are commonly restrung after repeated use and some texts give very detailed explanations on how to create the string from nine individual lengths of thread and then twisted together prior to adding the beads. The family of a deceased practitioner might pass along the mala to another family member, or perhaps the mala might be sold. The prayer beads of a very respected practitioner are often kept and treated as sacred objects by the family or students. Sometimes the mala is divided up and the beads given away as a blessing to the most senior students and benefactors.
There are different methods and techniques for using a mala. According to the Dakarnava Tantra the right hand is placed palm upward in the lap to hold the prayer beads. The left hand is held at the heart with the palm facing in and grasping the mala. The beads are directly in front and drawn up from below with the hook-like thumb as if drawn from outside and directly into the heart. A round, or full round, of the prayer beads means that each bead has been used in the recitation process. When the head bead is reached it is not counted or crossed over. The mala is turned in the hand and the beads continue to be counted in a continuous manner. The thumb and index finger are used for Peaceful Activities, middle finger for Increasing Activities, ring finger for Powerful Activities and the little finger for Wrathful Activities. Some traditions believe that the index finger should generally not be used in the bead counting giving preference to the middle finger. The reason for this is because the index finger of both hands is commonly used for pointing and as an accusatory gesture.
The Gyalwa Karmapa of Tibet is famous for performing a black hat ritual where the right hand places and holds the hat to the head. The left hand grasps a crystal (or glass) mala to the heart while reciting mantras.
Mala etiquette is very similar as with other religious and ritual objects and their treatment. The prayer beads should never be put in a place considered dirty such as on the ground, on a chair, or even on a bed. It should not be stepped on, or stepped over, used for calculating sums, or household finances. In general it is not proper to touch or handle another persons mala. Many practitioners have several sets of prayer beads used for different purposes. Often when a practitioner is outside, or in public, and habitually counting the beads or wearing the mala, then that set of prayer beads is intended for outside and public use. When the practitioner does the prescribed daily practices in the solitude and privacy of their own quarters performing one, two, or three sessions a day, then another mala is used. That private mala is kept with the prayer and meditation books and kept discrete and hidden for more serious and intense practice.
With particular tantric practices the vows and observances might require the practitioner to keep the mala for that practice in strict secrecy, unseen by others, and possibly tied when not used into a special knotted shape. That mala might even have a non standard number of beads. Exceptions for specific types of tantric practice are not uncommon.
Practitioners often collect a number of different sets of prayer beads over time. Some are received as gifts, or acquired at holy sites such as Bodhgaya, Sarnath, or the sacred mountain of Wutaishan or Omeishan in China. At many of these locations prayer beads are sold to the pilgrims. Sometimes the different sites have also developed their own prayer bead culture with a particular type of mala made from a locally available material or wood. Local legends often help to support the significance of such regional or site specific malas.
Prayer beads have also been used as both fashion and announcing social standing. The more expensive the materials the higher the social standing, or so it is often wished. In recent centuries some of the fanciest and most expensive prayer beads in a Himalayan and Tibetan style were worn as part of the household uniform by the servants of the emperor of China at the Imperial Palace in Beijing.
The actual manner of wearing a mala when not in use is mostly dictated by practicality and custom. Traditionally the string of beads are worn around the neck with the head bead, or guru bead, at the top and positioned behind the neck. It is also common to find the mala wrapped several times around the left wrist. It is sometimes tucked into the front of the belt or sash supporting the robes of a monk or nun. The mala can also be placed in a clean pocket or sometimes kept in its own bag. Rarely, but sometimes, if a string of beads is very large which can be the case with bodhi seed or rudraksha then the beads are worn around the neck and under the right arm in a similar manner like carrying a handbag.
Malas and iconography are a common pairing in art. Many popular deities and religious figures are known for holding, or being associated with, a string of prayer beads. In Buddhism, Hvashang the patron to the Sixteen Elders is almost always depicted with a mala in the left hand. A number of different forms of Mahakala carry a mala of human skulls in the right or left hands. In the Shaiva Hindu tradition, the god Shiva is known for displaying a mala. He is also specifically associated with the rudraksha bead and its many eyes. (See the list of iconographic figures).
Jeff Watt 7-2013
dpal yang dag par sbyor ba'i rgyud chen po. TBRC W25291.
dges pa rdo rje zhes bya ba'i rgyud kyi rgyal po brtag pa gnyis. TBRC W25326.
nag po chen po mgon po mngon par 'byung ba zhes bya ba'i rgyud kyi rgyal po. TBRC W25348 (volume 81).
mkha' 'gro rgya mtsho rnal 'byor ma'i rgyud kyi rgyal po chen po. TBRC W25282.
grags pa rgyal mtshan. rdo rje dril bu dang bgrang phreng gi de kho na nyid bzhugs. (Collected Works vol 2, pp. 391-396).
zhu chen tshul khrims rin chen. dpal phyag na rdo rje 'bjung po 'dul byed kyi sgrub pa'i thabs kyi bsad pa rnam gsal nyi ma shes bya ba bzhugs so. (sgrub thabs kun btus, vol.6, pp. 35-36. TBRC W19221).