A looong time ago, one of our readers, Anjuli, asked if we could write a post on the proper way of holding and counting Tibetan prayer beads – malas – and the significance of the Bell and Dorje that are tied onto the beads. Finally, Anjuli, here you are :-)
What are Malas?
Mala is the original Sanskrit word for the prayer beads used for counting mantra recitations. Malas are ubiquitous in Tibetan Buddhist communities all over the world, wrapped around wrists or dangling from fingers, accompanying the humming recitations of mantras like om mani padme hum, om tare tuttare ture soha, or om muni muni maha muniye soha. In Tibetan we call them trengwa.
Since a common part of Tibetan Buddhist practice is repeating (mentally or out loud) certain mantras thousands or even hundreds of thousands of times, it is useful to use your rosary for counting off the number of prayers, like a spiritual abacus. Even if you are not actively counting, the repeated recitation of the mantra while proceeding bead by bead through the mala serves to focus and calm the mind.
The most common type of mala is a string of 108 beads, made of precious or semi-precious stones, wood, seeds, or bone. 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 miscounts or 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 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.
Video: Lobsang shows you how to use your Malas
Sometimes, malas will have some extra precious stones added at various intervals, like some turquoise or coral for example. 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 circuit. These counter beads are extra, so your total bead count would be 111 rather than 108.
There is also a smaller, wrist-sized mala, made of 27 beads for example, that is often used when doing prostrations. In this case, the smaller size is wrapped around your hand and repeated 4 times. One can make other configurations, of 21 or 22, for example, and that is not a problem, as long as you can use your mala for counting.
How to Hold and Count with your Malas
Types of Malas
There are many types of malas, from ivory and bone to sandalwood and lapis lazuli or crystal or “Bodhi seed” (actually made from Rudraksha seed) or “lotus seed” (actually made from rattan seed). Although we’ve seen and read a lot of theories about what kind of mala is best for this or that kind of prayer, we do not think that it matters so much what kind of mala you use. And we think that most other Tibetans don’t make big distinctions about types of malas, either. (If you are interested, here is a good explanation on Dharmashop.com about Bodhi Seed and Wood Malas.)
Monks and nuns will generally use very simple and inexpensive malas, like wooden ones.
You can use any mala you like. It is better to focus on the spiritual practice of praying and reciting mantras rather than on the looks or value of your mala.
Caring for your Mala
In general, your mala will grow in spiritual significance as you use it for mantra recitations and bring it to teachings and possible have it blessed by your guru. And while it is not in itself as sacred as a statue or a piece of Buddhist scripture, it is something we usually treat with respect. This means that you wouldn’t put it on the floor or put mundane objects on top of it or throw it.
When not using their malas, Tibetans wrap them around their wrists or hang them around their necks. (Although please note that they are not worn like a necklace, for decoration, or, with self pride, as a way to show that one is spiritual.) When you don’t need it for a while, or are sleeping, for example, you can hang it on a clean, highish place, maybe near your altar. We actually keep ours in a special bookshelf under our altar. It’s all up to you and your intention to treat it with care and respect while maintaining a practical, non-extreme attitude. That’s how Tibetans tend to do it anyway :-)