What are Malas?
Mala is the an ancient Sanskrit word for the prayer beads that are used for counting mantra recitations.
Malas are used in Tibetan Buddhist communities all over the world and are wrapped around wrists or dangling from fingers accompanying the recitations of sacred mantras.
Since a very common part of the Tibetan Buddhist practice is to repeat mantras either mentally or aloud hundreds or even thousands of times, these beads act as a rosary for helping to count off the number of prayers, like a spiritual abacus.
Even if you are not actively counting, the repeated recitation of the mantra while going bead by bead through the mala helps to focus and calm the mind.
Each time you work your way around the mala, saying a mantra for each bead, you are considered to have completed 100 mantra recitations. The extra 8 beads are “spare” to make up for any mistakes you may make along the way. There is also a head bead, one that is larger than the others, and it is often called a “guru bead.”
Some people believe that this bead has a special significance, as representing one’s guru, for example, but very practically, this bead is the starting point for the circuit, and is not counted among the 108 total.
Sometimes, malas will have some extra precious stones added at various intervals, like some turquoise or rubies. These are sometimes added at intervals you can use for counting, like after 27 beads for example, so that you know you are 1/4 of the way through one mantra recitation.
These counter beads are extra, so your total bead count would be 111 rather than 108.
How to Hold and Count with your Malas
True to Tibetan Buddhist culture, there are no strict rules when it comes to malas and the way to count your mantras. Everybody does it slightly differently. There are common ways of doing things but these do not matter nearly so much as your intention and your attitude of prayer.
If you are speaking and praying from your heart while using your mala, you are doing it right! Although some sources recommend using the mala in your left hand, some Tibetans also hold them in the right hand.
If you have a prayer wheel in one hand and a mala in the other, it is more common to hold your mala in the left hand and the prayer wheel in the right. To use your mala, start with the first bead next to the “guru” bead.
Hold the bead between the index finger and thumb, and recite your mantra once out loud or silently. Then move on to the next bead with a rolling motion of your thumb, recite your mantra again and repeat.
When you get to the guru bead again you have completed 100 mantras without needing to count each one At this point, most Tibetans do not pass over the guru bead but instead reverse direction by turning the mala around, and starting a new circuit of 100, going back the way they came.
Types of Malas
There are many types of malas, made from ivory and bone to sandalwood and ivory. Other favorites are lapis lazuli or crystal or “Bodhi seed” (actually made from Rudraksha seed) or “lotus seed” (actually made from rattan seed).
Our favorite are these beautiful Sandalwood Malas that come in a variety of beautiful and calming colors!
We have talked about how important the lotus flower is in Buddhism and the beautiful meaning behind it. It doesn't really matter as to what type of beads you use for prayer just try and pick beads that you feel connected to and resonate with you.
Monks and nuns will generally use very simple and inexpensive malas, like wooden ones. Or you can buy slightly more colorful ones in pink, purple, or blue with precious gemstones or ones made from beautiful pure sandalwood.
You can use any mala you like just make sure to focus on why you are using the beads and the rest will come.
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