Malas: How to use Tibetan Prayer Beads

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.

Mala: Beads
Holding your malas while sitting

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 humom 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

We want to say, as is often true in Tibetan culture, that 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 praying from your heart while using your mala, you are doing the right thing!  

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. (And if you’re interested in seeing for yourself how Tibetans on the street do it in Lhasa, you can learn how to travel to Tibet here.)

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. We are not sure, honestly, why this is so, and we do it out of habit rather than for any special reason. (Some people believe that if you continue in the same direction and cross over the guru bead, it is like stepping over your teacher.)

Counting with Dorje and Bell  

When counting very high numbers of mantra recitations, it is helpful to have some additional counters attached to your malas. For these, Tibetans often us a miniature dorje and bell (the most common Tibetan Buddhist sacred ritual objects) counters. (Tibetan: chupshay) These are 2 shorter strings of 10 small beads, attached to your mala. One of the strings has the dorje at the end, and the other the bell. Where these strings are placed on the mala is up to you. We have ours after the 6th bead on either side of the guru bead, but that is for no special reason and you can put them wherever you like.   We use the dorje counter to keep count of each circuit of 100 that we make on the mala. So each time you finish one circuit, you will pull forward one bead on the dorje counter.

After 10 circuits of the mala, you will have moved all 10 beads on your dorje counter, and you will have recited 1000 mantras.   At this point, you will move one counter forward on the bell counter, to symbolize 1000 mantras counted. Then you begin again with a new circuit on your mala, and once you have made a new circuit, you move one of the dorje counter beads forward, and continue like this. With a dorje and bell counter, you can count up to 10,000 mantra recitations.  

If you need to count more than that, you can use anything that you wish. When counting 100,000, we have used stones to mark each 10,000 (making a pile of stones in which each one represents 10,000), or you can make a note on a piece of paper. The basic idea at this point is that you can use whatever is practical, and not get too concerned about any ritualistic rules or objects.

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!

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Updated on February 9, 2020. First published on July 15, 2017.

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Reader Interactions

Comments

  1. Cynthia McGowan says

    Tashi delek! I enjoy your site so much and am learning Tibetan (not so difficult as I live in Dharamsala) and how to cook Tibetan food as a result of your site. I have a question about using the mala, however. I didn’t quite understand the reversing info. I wanted to know if one was supposed to go in a clockwise direction when doing the mantras, but from what I read, one would go clockwise and then counter-clockwise on the reverse. Is that the case? I’m left-handed which sometimes means I’m inclined to go backwards on some things, which I try to correct if there is spiritual significance or a matter of respect. I’m hoping you can clear this up for me. Many thanks! Cynthia

    • yowangdu says

      Hi Cynthia. This is a good question. It doesn’t matter if you use your right hand or left hand. And about going forward or reverse, it’s a little tricky. Yes, Tibetans do usually “reverse” the direction when they get to the head bead. However, I don’t really think of this as going backwards, because when I switch directions, I’m still always moving “forward” if that makes sense. (moving my fingers forward along the beads so that the beads feed toward me.) Anyway, it’s very common to do this. Maybe some monks may know this better than I do. Since you’re in Dharamsala, see if you can find a senior monk to ask. I hope this helps!

  2. Brandon says

    Hello,
    I am new to the practice of using Malas and really enjoy it. It truly makes me feel more intune when meditating. I was wondering though, should a person stick with one Mala? Or would having more than one be okay? (Ex. One for work and one for home)

  3. selena says

    Hello, it is my turn to thank you for this valuable information you are sharing with us. I have just visited the Stupa from Sedona and I felt I needed to make my own mala beads. Thank you for clearing out some aspects of the use of the mala beads of which I wasn’t aware myself.

  4. Tarvos says

    Hello. I would like to thank you for the many useful information presented on the site. I ask: Why do we look for images of monks praying in their malas, do we see these malas with four, five or more counters? Is there any greater reason than simply counting the tens, hundreds, thousands, or millions of mantras?

  5. Paula Silva Ruvalcaba says

    Hello, thank you very much for your information. It is very helpful. Do you know where can I get some information about which mala es used for different practices? I mean, for Shiva, or Shakti, or the Mahavidias or Medicine Buda, or Vajrasatva… Yeshe Walmo or Dzambala? if they are wrathful… what is the specific gemstone or seed to use accordingly to each practice? Is there any guide available? Is it upon each lineage?

    Thanks a lot, I would appreciate very much your help.

    Paula

  6. Scott says

    Hi, just a quick question about mala materials. I just recently bought a mala carved from yak bone, but afterwards heard that one might need an empowerment in order to use bone malas, as they are often associated with wrathful practices. I don’t live near a temple or meditation house, so I have no teacher or anyone to ask. I am very fond of the mala, and I would love to keep using it, but I also want to show proper respect to the tradition and follow the rules. Is there a common/popular consensus for using bone malas for simple mani mantras, or an official source I can check? Thanks very much, and blessings to all!

    • yowangdu says

      Hi Scott,
      We personally don’t know of any prohibition from using bone malas. There could be something we don’t know about. In general we believe that if your motivation is good it is fine to use them. Hope this helps!

  7. Lisa Rosenkoeter says

    Many thanks for this educational information!!!! I wasn’t aware of reversing and going back the other way. I really appreciate your emails full of wonderful information. I am also excited to try this recipe.
    Blessings!

  8. oool fjolkunnigr says

    We have been making these at our Shivas Cave Tibetan Yogi cafe in Bali. But spinach is not available here. We have an asian green leafy broccoli here which is a type of choy sum also a leaf called bayem and a water spinach called kangkung. All of these veggies can substitute the spinach and taste delicious. For cheese we rarely can get parmesan but some cheddar or local cheese mixed with some tofu is just fine. for dipping we use salty soya sauce mixed with a little sweet soya (kecap manis) and some grated fresh ginger. It tastes superb. Thanks for your great recipes and website. Tashi Dekek. Lama Ulu

  9. Joshua Smith says

    Hi lately my mala has been feeling heavy when I put them on. I’ve been doing some mantras and they just seem to be getting heavier. What does this mean?

    • Danny says

      Wow, amazing.
      I have noticed some Mahayana Monks would take the beads of their disciples and flip it gently in the air in their palms as if trying to weigh it.
      I was once told that the mala tends to be heavier if we r sincere with our prayers or whatever we chant.
      Else it will remain light.

    • Elizabeth Zakkour says

      I have been told that the mala protects the wearer, absorbing negative energies the wearer comes in contact with. I also noticed a change in my mala and felt my neck, (where I was wearing the mala continuously when not using it), had a cloud of heaviness around it. This was solved by clearing the mala using a singing bowl.
      You might try that and see if your mala feels lighter.
      Liz

  10. deb says

    Hello. I’d like to ask what mantras(we could do)to be most beneficial to the Tibetan’s & monastic community in Larung Gar. Any practices that would be of overall benefit for the people of Tibet would also be much appreciated. Thank you.

    • yowangdu says

      This is a very worthy idea. You can pray the Avalokiteshvara mantra: Om mani padme hung. Also Guru Rinpoche’s mantra: Om a hung benza guru pema siddhi hung.

  11. Fernando Gonçalves says

    Dear Yolandala and Lobsangla,

    I would like to get more information about mala counters as ideal number, position in which secure them on mala etc … I would like information about such uses according to different traditions and customs.

  12. Dave Scannell says

    Dear TC, Hope all is well. Thank you very much – this left hand – right hand thing has been troubling me for a while now. Either works – fine, good. Thanks. Another subject: about putting books etc on the floor. Of course one should not put sacred books on the floor out of basic respect. I was wondering if there is another reason for doing this?

    Many Thanks,

    Dave

      • Sukhmani says

        Hello sir…. I need your help im sukhman from pynjab, india student of jewelry designing and im working on thesis of tibeatian ornaments can u please help me in providing wooden malas used by buddhist during chants…. I really need it urgently otherwise my thesis will be cancelled

  13. Genny Soto says

    Dear Yolanda and Lobsang,
    Many thanks for the information about how to use the malas. Now I know for sure I can put it around my neck, as well.
    I have another question for both of you in regards of the blessing of the meat I read on the book of Essential Buddhist Prayers, volume 1, Basic Prayers and Practices in an FPMT Prayer Book. If Buddhist do not eat meat as are vegetarian, why the blessing of the meat ?
    I, myself am a vegetarian and so are all the people going to the Atisha Gompa in Bendigo, next to the Great Stupa of Compassion. We believe in no killing of animals. Would like your comment about it.
    Genny

    • yowangdu says

      Hi Genny! Thanks for your message. We should have mentioned that Tibetans generally only put them around their necks when they are out doing kora — some elderly people wear them often around their necks because they are out praying all the time — but the general public wouldn’t generally wear them on their necks. (Definitely refrain from wearing your mala like a necklace 😉 The meat issue is a very confusing one. Although there is much in Tibetan Buddhism to refrain from killing, there is also a very long history of eating meat in Tibet. Traditionally we think this was because of the high altitude challenges of growing sufficient food, and a yak-based culture so that yaks provided meat, cheese and dairy, and along with barley — provided the main means of nourishment. At any rate, the great majority of Tibetans ate meat, when they could afford it. Now, outside of Tibet, and in Tibet too, there are so many options, so some young Tibetans have become vegetarians. In the Tibetan monasteries in India, most kitchens serve no meat, under guidance of His Holiness, but many of the monks do eat meat outside the monasteries as they grew up on it and enjoy it. His Holiness himself tried to become vegetarian but stopped when after some weeks or months he developed jaundice and both his Tibetan and Western doctors advised him to return to eating meat. (He often tells this story at teachings.) So the bottom line is that as Buddhists many Tibetans respect and may even aspire to vegetarianism but as a matter of habit and tradition, they continue to eat meat. (Tibetan cuisine is actually very meat heavy.) We two eat meat, though we love veg food as well, and tend to eat more veg than meat dishes. Hope this helps.

  14. Neil Buck says

    I wish to set up a Buddha shrine and have read that my Buddha should face East so that he bathes in the days first rays of light, and as I have not long had Buddhism enter my life I do not know if this is true. Unfortunately I do not have a window which faces East.
    I wish to show my Buddha respect and would appreciate any advice anyone could give me.

    • yowangdu says

      Hi Neil. We ourselves do not have Buddha facing East and think that it is perfectly fine to face your Buddha whichever way works well for you. If in your mind and heart you are doing all you can to show your Buddha respect, then you are fine. Best to you.

  15. Jeanette says

    Hi! 😀
    A small while ago, I bought a rattan “lotus” seed mala, and I enjoy using it very much so, however I started to notice that where the mala is in contact with my skin, like my neck, there are discolourations starting to show. The white seeds are starting to get a darker ivory shade now, and I’ve heard that the oils of your skin will do this and turn them a goldfish colour with long use, but does this happen? Is there a way I can care for them and keep them bright, or is this just natures way?

    I haven’t found any help elsewhere to answer my question; I’d love to know :))

    Thank you!

    • Zoe says

      I can confirm that rattan “lotus”, (or Moon and Stars) seed beads do gradually darken and develop a lovely golden ivory patina over time.

      I have a wrist mala of rattan seeds that began a creamy ivory color and it has indeed grown more golden over time. I do not know the process that causes this, (but I’d like to learn), nor am I any kind of authority. This is just anecdotal evidence of what I’ve observed.

      At least it’s aesthetically pleasing (or I find it so). You can also look at it as a physical manifestation of accumulated merit, energy, blessings, what-have-you, if you’re so inclined. 🙂

  16. Shinzo Shiratori says

    Hi Wangdo, I was just wondering if there is any meaning if a 2 weeks old sandalwood mala brakes suddenly? I am a little bit concerned.
    Thanks, Shinzo

  17. Beau says

    The reason for reversing the mala instead of passing over the guru bead symbolizes breaking the cycle of life and death in Buddhist tradition.

  18. the young buddhist says

    to answers anns question it can be om mani padme om or mani mani mani manisoha nomastay and happy holidays to all

  19. Jolee Vasquez says

    Dear Yolanda and Lobsang,
    Many thanks for the wonderful post about malas. As it often happens, I was lead
    To other videos. Specifically the movie Kundun.
    My bilateral knee replacement has been very successful and I went back to
    work part time delivering mail this week. Unfortunately this has aggravated a heel
    spur and I was in pain. The pain disappeared as I watched the movie and the sunrise
    seemed perfectly timed to the end of the movie and the hope of the Dalai Lama
    and the triumph of good over evil. Thank you so much for the blessing of your
    website. Happy Thanksgiving! Sincerely, jolee

  20. Noe Kelly says

    Thank you for the article. I have read that whilst passing each bead through the fingers, one should also imagine pulling a sentient being out of samsara. Any thoughts

      • yowangdu says

        Hi Ann,
        Usually we say any of the mantras while using your beads, though you could say any prayers. For the mantras, see the Avalokiteshvara mantra, the Buddha Shakyamuni and/or the Green Tara mantra. You can find posts about all of these on our site. Best to you!

  21. Eddy says

    I’ve been looking for something like this for weeks. You have no idea how helpful this has been. Thank you very very much! Keep up the GREAT work!

  22. Victoria says

    This was an excellent read…I have often wondered about the dorje and bell’s significance. And was pleasantly surprised to read that it’s okay to wear the mala around the neck. I have a wrist mala specifically for the many times I find stress thoughts ‘knocking’ on the door:) and will use it but would also find comfort and reason to have my larger mala around my neck. I had heard that this was not appropriate because it would be like jewelry.
    Now I am going to put it on.
    Thank you always so much for the information and always informal presentation that makes it easy to understand AND remember.
    Btw, have been off the pc quite a bit…we moved from our home and it’s taken several months to get ourselves packed, moved and unpacked…almost unpacked anyway.
    Please note my new email address with this post….Victoria

  23. Anjuli says

    Dear Yolandala and Lobsangla,
    Tashi Delek!
    Thank you very much for such an impressive and detailed information. It’s worth the wait. Thank you so much again!
    Lots of love and regards
    Anjuli 🙂

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