Mala the Buddhist praying beads

Although many people may recognize a variation of these prayer beads among today's newest fashion accessories, they carry a far deeper significance in the Buddhist culture. For this group of individuals, prayer beads, or mala beads as they are called in the Buddhist religion, represent a meditative tool. Their specific purpose may vary for different individuals, but commonly the beads are used to enhance goodness and diminish toxins.

The overarching purpose of these beads from a true Buddhist perspective is to drive away evil and fill you and all beings with peace and bliss. In accordance with the active nature of practice in Buddhism, this material object is used as an accomplice for gaining merit on the path to enlightenment.

The origin of mala beads is rooted in the Hindu religion. Individuals who converted from the Hindu faith to Buddhism during its birth, transferred this devotional practice with them and it soon became a part of the Buddhist faith. The story of the beads' origin is as follows:

Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, paid a visit to king Vaidunya Sakya directed him to thread 108 seeds of the Bodhi tree on a string, and while passing them between his fingers to repeat Hail to the Buddha, the law, and the congregation (2,000) times a day (Dubin).

Another interpretation of this prayer is om mani padme hum. During recitation, this phrase is repeated over and over again according to how many beads are on a person's strand of mala beads.

Traditionally, there are 108 beads on a strand of mala prayer beads. This number is significant because it represents the number of mental conditions or sinful desires that one must overcome to reach enlightenment or nirvana. Monks usually have mala beads with 108 beads, where as a lay person may have a strand numbering in 30 or 40 beads. This difference in length may possibly be explained by understanding each person’s distance traveled on the path to enlightenment. Commercial sellers of mala beads have also suggested that individuals just beginning this prayer ritual begin with a shorter strand of beads.

Just as variety exists for the number of beads, variety exists for the style, color, and material composition. Differences in the popularity and use of mala beads also exist cross-culturally. Typically, monks mala beads are made of wood from the Bodhi tree. In Tibet, mala strands often contain parts of semi-precious stones. In this culture, the most valued strands are made of bones of holy men or lamas. Typically there are 108 beads divided by 3 large beads. The end pieces on these strands are djore (a thunderbolt) and drilbu (the bell). These end pieces represent the Three Jewels, or Buddha, the doctrine, and the community.

In Japan, mala prayer beads are popular at social events such as funerals, weddings, and other ceremonies. Mala beads in Japan typically are 112 in number and made of wood. Additionally, the most coveted strands have been blessed by a monk. In Korea, the use of mala beads has been extensive. Their popularity diminished, however, during the period when Buddhism was banned from the country (1392-1910). In addition to the traditional 108 beads, Korean mala strands usually include 2 large beads, which are used during special prayers. In China, the use of mala beads was never really popular. They were used, but more commonly, they were used by the ruling hierarchy as a status symbol.

Although the structure of mala beads may vary among individuals or groups of Buddhists, the overall purpose of all mala beads is to create a sense of tranquility and inner-peace for not only the individual, but for the community as a whole. In reciting the prayer, toxins?will leave and a sense of peace will enter making an individual that much closer to reaching nirvana.