Mala beads are a string of beads used to count mantras (Sanskrit prayers) in sets of 27, 56 or 108 repetitions. The large meru (mountain) bead provides a starting and ending point on the mala for counting the repetitions. A mala is an eastern rosary with 108 beads. The mala is used both in Hinduism and Buddhism for counting mantras, chants or prayers. Mala beads are an ancient tool that was developed to keep the mind focused on the practice of meditation. It is a tool used to keep your mind on the meditation practice. The overall purpose of all mala beads is to create a sense of tranquility and inner-peace for the individual and for those around them. In reciting a mantra, a sense of peace will enter making an individual that much closer to nirvana.
Malas are used especially in esoteric Japanese and Tibetan Buddhism, in which they are worn by priests and devotees alike. Rosaries are also the attributes of certain deities, most notably Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
The word mala, also referred to as japa mala, is derived from the Indian Sanskrit phrase for garland. The English word rosary, the western term for prayer beads, owes it's etymology to Roman miscommunication. "When Roman explorers came into India and encountered the mala, they heard japa mala, and japa for the Romans meant "rose". The word "rosary" eventually evolved from that translation as Romans carried the prayer bead concept back to the western world.
Buddhist prayer beads or malas, first developed as a religious tool on the Indian continent. The use of beads in prayer appears to have originated with Hindu religious practices in India, possibly arround the 8th century.
In Buddhisms the right hand represents the religious world we walk in. The left hand represents the Buddha's pure world. That's why it is said the wrist mala should be worn on right hand when walking and on the left hand when sitting.
The mala can be used in two ways. It is traditionally held in the right hand and beads are moved towards the user one by one synchronized with each mantra recital. In one method, the mala is hanging between the thumb and the ring (third) finger. The middle (second) finger is used to rotate the mala. The other way to use the mala is to let it hang on the middle finger with the thumb used to move the beads. (the index finger is never used to touch the beads).
Traditionally, Buddhist have 108 beads, representing the 108 human passions that Avalokiteshvara assumed when telling the beads. This number also ensures the worshipper repeats the sacred mantra at least 100 times, the extra beads allowing for any omissions made through absentmindness in counting or for the loss or breakage of beads. Malas of 111 beads are also common, and derive from this same idea.
Most Buddhists normally utilise mala of 108 beads, but the number may vary in different sects of Buddhism. Just like the Hindu variety, Buddhist mala consist of a strand of 108 beads(not including guru bead or marker beads or decorative beads), each a symbol of impurities and flaws that an individual must overcome.
108 beads is said to represent the following formation:
- 6 x 3 x 2 x 3 = 18
- 6 senses of a human being: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought
- 3 times: past, present and future
- 2 conditions of heart, mind or intention: pure or impure
- 3 disturbing emotional states or "kleshia": like, dislike and indifference
But it is not that every body use 108 beads mala, A lesser number of beads is also seen in various forms of Mahayana Buddhism, usually a number divisible by three. In Pure Land Buddhism, for instance, 27 beads rosaries are common. Many Chinese rosaries have only 18 beads; one for each of the 18 lohans.
Before being knotted, the string is passed through a large central bead and two smaller beads. These three additional beads keep the rest in place and indicate the completion of a cycle of mantras. They also symbolize the Three Jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha. The hidden string that passed through all the beads symbolizes the penetrating power of the Buddhas.
Mantras are often repeated hundreds or even thousands of times. The basic function of the mala is to allow one to think about the meaning of the mantra as it is chanted without having to also concentrate on counting the repetitions. Each time the mantra is repeated, the fingers move to the next bead. Prayer beads are generally worn as bracelets, usually by followers of the Japanese and Tibetan esoteric schools of Buddhism. But priests often carry longer strings of beads as necklaces. Many paintings of important Buddhist priests or patriarches show them seated on a platform wearing robes and handling rosaries.
According to Hindu tradition, the correct way to use a mala is with the right hand, with the thumb flicking one bead to the next, and with the mala draped over the middle finger. The index finger was considered rude, and so was also considered bad to use it with a mala.
Buddhism, however, taught that it was perfectly acceptable to use the mala in the left hand with any fingers. In Tibetan Buddhism, depending on the practice, there may be preferred ways of holding the mala (left or right hand, rolling the beads over the index or any of the other fingers, etc.).
Very large rosaries or even regular malas are sometimes used as rituals dedicated to particular deities.
Buddhist rosaries are made from a variety of materials, most commonly wood, bone and stones. Pereferred woods are sandalwood or sacred wood from the bodhi tree. More expensive rosaries are made of precious and semi-precious stones, including pearls, rubies, crystal, amber, coral or jade or precious metals such as gold. They can be made of seeds, animal bone(most commonly yak).
The string that holds the beads together is usally made of silk but plastic strings are also used. In Buddhist Tantra or Vajrayana, materials and colors of the beads can relate to a specific practice.
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