Buddhist prayer beads
Buddhist prayer beads are a traditional tool used to count the number of times a mantra is recited whilst meditating, the number of breaths whilst meditating, the number of prostrations or the number of times chanting a buddha's name. They are similar to other forms of prayer beads used in various world religions; thus some call this tool the Buddhist rosary.
A Japa mala or mala (Sanskrit:माला; mālā, meaning garland) (Tib. threngwa) is a set of beads commonly used by Hindus and Buddhists. Malas are used for keeping count while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra or the name or names of a deity. This practice is known in Sanskrit as japa. Malas are typically made with 18, 27, 54 or 108 beads.
In Tibetan Buddhism, traditionally malas of 108 beads are used. Some practitioners use malas of 21 or 28 beads for doing prostrations. Doing one 108-bead mala counts as the 108 worldly sins in Buddhist doctrine.
In Tibetan Buddhism, malas are mainly used to count mantras. These mantras can be recited for different purposes linked to working with mind. The material used to make the beads can vary according to the purpose of the mantras used. Some beads can be used for all purposes and all kinds of mantras. These beads can be made from the wood of the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa), or from 'Bodhi seeds', which come from the Rudraksha (Elaeocarpus ganitrus) and not the Bodhi tree. Another general-purpose mala is made from rattan seeds (Calamus Arecaceae), the beads themselves called 'Moon and Stars' by Tibetans, and variously called 'lotus root', 'lotus seed' and 'linden nut' by various retailers. The bead itself is very hard and dense, ivory coloured (which gradually turns a deep golden brown with long use), and has small holes (moons) and tiny black dots (stars) covering its surface.
Pacifying mantras should be recited using white colored malas. Materials such as crystal, pearl, shell/conch or mother of pearl are preferable. These are said to purify the mind and clear away obstacles like illness, bad karma and mental disturbances. Using pearls is not practical however, as repeated use will destroy their iridescent layer. Most often pearl malas are used for jewelry.
Mantras for magnetizing should be recited using malas made of saffron, lotus seed, sandalwood, or other forms of wood including elm wood, peach wood, and rosewood. However, it is said the most effective is made of Mediterranean oxblood coral, which, due to a ban on harvesting, is now very rare and expensive.
Mantras to tame by forceful means should be recited using malas made of Rudraksha beads or bone. Reciting mantras with this kind of mala is said to tame others, but with the motivation to unselfishly to help other sentient beings. Malas to tame by forceful means or subdue harmful energies, such as "extremely malicious spirits, or general afflictions", are made from Rudraksha seeds, or even human bones, with 108 beads on the string. It is said that only a person that is motivated by great compassion for all beings, including those they try to tame, can do this.
The Mala string has received the mantra one is reciting. It is usually recommended that there be three vertical beads in decreasing size at this point: one white (Nirmanakaya) one red (Sambhogakaya) and one blue (Dharmakaya), or enlightened body, speech and mind.
Mantras and chants are typically repeated hundreds or even thousands of times. The Mala is used so that one can focus on the meaning or sound of the mantra rather than counting its repetitions. One repetition is usually said for each bead while turning the thumb clockwise around each bead, though some traditions or practices may call for counterclockwise motion or specific hand and finger usage. When arriving at the Guru bead, both Hindus and Tibetan Buddhists traditionally turn the mala around and then go back in the opposing direction. Other traditions emphasize that this is not important.
Within the Buddhist tradition, this repetition of the beads serves to remind practitioners of the teaching that it is possible to break the cycle of birth and death.
In case it is necessary to recite a very large number of mantras, Tibetan Buddhist malas have bell and dorje counters (a short string of ten beads, usually silver, with a bell or dorje at the bottom). The dorje counter is used to count each round around the mala, and the bell counter to count each time the dorje counter runs out of beads. After that, the dorje counter is reset. These counters are placed at different points on the mala depending on tradition, sometimes at the 10th, 21st or 25th bead from the Guru bead. Traditionally, one begins the mala in the direction of the dorje (skillful means) proceeding on to the bell (wisdom) with each round.
A 'bhum' counter, often a small brass or silver clasp in the shape of a jewel or wheel, is used to count 1000 repetitions, and is moved forward between the main beads of the mala, starting at the Guru bead, with each accumulation of 1000.
In Japanese Buddhism, Buddhist prayer beads are known as "ojuzu" (数珠?, counting beads) or "onenju" (念珠?, thought beads), where the "o" is the honorific 'o-'. Different Buddhist sects in Japan have different shaped juzus, and use them differently. For example, Buddhists from the Shingon, Tendai and Nichiren Buddhist sects may choose to use longer prayer beads with strands on both ends, similar to those used in mainland Asia. During devotional services, these beads may be rubbed together with both hands to create a soft grinding noise which may have a purifying effect. However, in Jodo Shinshu, prayer beads are typically shorter and held draped over both hands and are not ground together.
Jodo Shu is somewhat unusual because of the use of a double-ringed prayer beads, used to count the number of recitations of the nenbutsu: one ring contains single beads used to count a single recitation, while the other ring is used to count full revolutions of the first ring. Additionally, other beads hang from the strings, which can count full revolutions of the second ring (flat beads), or full revolutions of the first string of beads. In all, it is possible to count up to 120,000 recitations using these beads. The design is credited to a follower of Honen named Awanosuke.
Regardless of Buddhist sect, prayer beads used by lay followers are frequently smaller, featuring a factor of 108 beads. Some beads are made using plastic, while others may contain wood, or seeds from trees in India, such as the same species as the Bodhi tree.
Finally, it is common to find Buddhist prayer beads in Japan that contain a small image inside the largest bead, usually something associated with the particular temple or sect. When held up to the light, one can see the image clearly.
In Chinese culture such beads are named shu zhu 数珠 ("counting beads"), Fo zhu 佛珠 ("Buddha beads"), or nian zhu 念珠 ("mindfulness beads"). They are used to count mantras, chants, prostrations or breaths.
Theravada Buddhists in Burma use prayer beads, called seik badi (စိပ်ပုတီး [seɪʔ bədí]), shortened to badi. 108 beads are strung on a garland, with the beads typically made of fragrant wood like sandalwood, and series of brightly coloured strings at the end of the garland. It is commonly used in samatha meditation, to keep track of the number of mantras chanted during meditation.
Numbers and symbolism
Ananda Coomaraswamy holds that the numerology of the decimal numeric system was key to its inception. 108 is therefore founded in Dharmic metaphysical numerology. One for bindu; zero for shunyata and eight for ananta.
In traditional Buddhist thought, people are said to have 108 afflictions or kleshas. There are six senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and consciousness) multiplied by three reactions (positive, negative, or indifference) making 18 "feelings." Each of these feelings can be either "attached to pleasure or detached from pleasure" making 36 "passions", each of which may be manifested in the past, present, or future. All the combinations of all these things makes a total of 108, which are represented by the beads in the ojuzu. This same number is also used in Japanese New Year services where a bell is rung 108 times.
In addition, practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism, use the number 108 for a different purpose. After reciting 100 mantras, eight extra mantras are done to compensate for any errors, and one full circle around the mala is counted as 100 repetitions instead of 108. This also serves to make counting an extremely large number of recitations easier, because one can count in hundreds instead of 108s.
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- Buddha Dharma Education Association and Buddhanet.com Buddhist studies: Malas (beads) Retrieved 2009-02-05
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- Religion Facts
- Bishop Shinsho Hanayama, "Story of the Juzu"
- Dubin, L.S. (2009). Prayer Beads. In C. Kenney (Ed.), The History of Beads: From 100,000 B.C. to the Present (Revised and Expanded Edition) (pp. 79–92). New York: Abrams Publishing.
- Henry, G., & Marriott, S. (2008). Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words. Fons Vitae Publishing.
- Untracht, O. (2008). Rosaries of India. In H. Whelchel (Ed.), Traditional Jewelry of India (pp. 69–73). New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc.
- Wiley, E., & Shannon, M.O. (2002). A String and a Prayer: How to Make and Use Prayer Beads. Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Buddhist prayer beads.|
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- Rosaries of India: Buddhist Mala
- Botanical Beads of the World http://www.botanicalbeads.com/BBB_page_99.html (In reference to the "Moon and Stars" rattan seed "lotus seed" beads)