Understanding Buddhist Mala Beads

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If there is one iconic item that people often identify with a Buddhist practitioner, it must be the “Mala”, commonly called “Buddha Beads”, or even “Buddhist Prayer Beads”.

These may look like “Buddhist Bling”, but they aren’t!

When I attended my Triple Gem Refuge Ceremony and officially became a Buddhist, we all received a wrist Mala at the end of the ceremony.  While I thought this was a pleasant thing to receive after the ceremony, it was never explained what it was or to be used for (thankfully I already knew).  With that in mind, I thought it was important to explain what these beads are all about!

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What is a Buddhist Mala?

In the simplest of terms, a Mala is a series of beads on a string that is used to help a practitioner maintain “single-mindedness” when practicing.

Typically the practices in which a Mala is used are: reciting sutras (“sermons”, typically by the Buddha), mantras/chanting, samatha meditation (in Theravāda), and reciting the Buddha’s name (or a future Buddha, such as Amitabha).

Although this video is not in English, it is subtitled and highly informative and can give a little more insight:

What Did the Buddha Say About Malas?  

Nothing, actually.  There is nothing (at least to my knowledge) in the Theravāda suttas or Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna sūtras regarding using “Malas”.  We also don’t see any representations of the historical Buddha using Malas.  This is important to note because it is not mandatory to use a Mala unless it is part of your school or teacher’s instruction.

For example, my two favorite Buddhist teachers are at different ends of this:  Ven. Master Hsing Yun does use beads, whereas Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh does not (and this is ok!).

It is more than likely that, since ‘prayer beads’ are commonplace in many religions (especially in India, where Buddhism flourished), that Buddhists found them extremely useful when it came to their practice. By using beads, a practitioner can focus on the practice itself, and not counting, which becomes greatly beneficial.

Another reason Malas became popular with Buddhists referenced a sūtra (although I cannot find this sūtra online).  There is a story that is going around that a King prayed to the Buddha for a simple practice, to which the Buddha responded by telling him to string together 108 soapnut seeds and recite the three-part refuge prayer upon them.  This entirely sounds like something coming from Mahāyāna.

What Makes a Mala?

Example of a short “Wrist” Mala.  CC0 Photo via Pixabay

Although technically called a “Mala” (or Mala Beads), these are often called Dharma Beads, Buddha Bracelets,  Buddhist Beads, Recitation Beads, Power Beads, and various other terms.

Despite the terms, these beads are not unique to Buddhism and were believed to have started in the Indian continent as a religious tool thousands of years ago.  You can also find “prayer beads” used by many of the major religions.

  • A traditional “full” Mala is 108 beads.  However, Mala’s come in various bead counts such as 27, 42, and 54.  No matter the number of beads on the smaller ones, you will always be able to reach “108” (more on that later).  The smaller Mala’s, such as the 18 and 27, are often used as on the wrist for daily use while out, and as a sign of devotion.  The 18 bead versions are often called “Arhat beads”.
  • The beads of a Mala can be made from various materials, such as seeds, wood, plastic, gems, and anything else you can think of.  The type of material your Mala is made from is very personal, as it should be!  For example, the Dalai Lama favors the Tiger Eye for his Mala.
  • A large or ornamented bead (sometimes called a “Buddha bead” or “mother bead” always appears to let you know you have reached the beginning or end, and allow a pause before repeating a mantra, chanting, etc.  When you reach this bead, it is often where you end (with a 108 bead Mala), or you would reverse direction and start again.
  • Often, a “knot” will appear on the large “Buddha” bead.  This knot symbolizes the popular Buddhist notion of the “endless knot”, and the tassels (strings) from the knot reflect the roots and stems of a Lotus flower.

There are also special Malas, such as those found in Chinese Buddhism, which is more traditional and used for identification purposes.

In the picture below, you can see former Abbot Hsin Pei of Fo Guang Shan with these types of ‘Buddha beads’ around his neck which indicate he is the Abbot of that monastery.

How Do You Use Malas?

A Mala is used to “count”, and that is it!  While that sounds extremely simple, it helps to keep a practitioner single-mindedly focused on the practice (such as recitation) itself rather than having to devote concentration on “numbers”.  Since Buddhism is focused on the mind, having to count becomes a distraction…so it is no wonder why Malas are so popular! The following instructions are adapted from the book “Bells, Gongs, and Wooden Fish – Voices for Buddhist Change“:

  1. Beads are held in the hand
  2. Start with the bead next to the Buddha/mother bead (the large bead)
  3. Carefully slide one bead aside with a pinching motion for each recitation (e.g., of Amitābha Buddha’s name, a Buddhist scripture, or mantra)
  4. Divider beads, if present, are not counted
  5. When the Buddha/mother bead is reached once again, one rarely goes past it (and instead reverses direction)
  6. In wearing Buddhist beads, practitioners are mainly reminding themselves to always keep up the practice or reciting and further practice Buddhism in daily life

What Is With the Number 108?

Ultimately, understanding what the number 108 means as it relates to a Mala will not have an overall impact on how you use it.  However, it is remarkably interesting to understand how the number 108 is so popular not only in Buddhism but elsewhere.  This list and explanation are far from complete!

  • The number 108 is an important number in not only Buddhism but Hinduism and other religions (for example, in Islam 108 is used to refer to God).
  • 108 virtues to cultivate
  • 108 defilements to avoid
  • 108 could also refer to the feelings a person has (according to some schools of Buddhism)
  • 108 questions asked by Bodhisattva Mahamati in the Lankavatara Sutra
  • 108 temptations
  • 108 vexations

So, 108 does have a very symbolic meaning when it comes to a Buddhist Mala!  Even if you don’t have a full 108 bead Mala, you can often meet “108” beads simply by going around several times (for example, I have an 18 bead wrist Mala which can get me to 108 if I use it 6 times).

Buddhist Wrist Malas:  The Ultimate Smart Watch?

We are seeing an explosion of “smart watches” now from Android Wear watches, to the Apple Watch, and even a “smart band” by Microsoft.  What is interesting is that (as of the date of this article in 2015) nobody really knows what they are good for, and there is nothing utterly amazing about them.  I’m sure that will increase in time, but it reminded me of something:  there is an even better smartwatch out there…the wrist Mala.

  • As explained earlier in this article, the tiny wrist Mala is often used to help practitioners remember to practice Buddhism while they are out in the world.  It also provides a very easy way to perform recitation without having to carry around a large 108 bead Mala (although those can be wrapped around the wrist, they are often too big for most people).
  • So when it comes to a “smart watch”, I believe the Mala always wins.  Why?  Because it is a tool that helps you practice Buddhism, of which the goal is the mind…and that’s pretty darn smart!
  • Apple may have that slogan of “The only thing that’s changed is everything” for their iPhone, but I would say the Buddhist Mala has its own:  “The only that’s changed is your mind”.  I will take enlightenment any day 🙂
  • If you would like to find a Buddhist Mala, check out the selection on Amazon.com by clicking here.
  • Check out my humorous satire advertisement below on why the Mala is the best smartwatch 🙂
The Ultimate Buddhist Smart Watch by Alan Peto
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