So just what is a mala?
The word mala is Sanskrit for ‘necklace’ or garland. Regular use of a mala for prayer or meditation can enhance knowledge of self, prosperity, health, raise energy, enhance communication skill, reduce stress and fine tune our intuitive selves. When we practice with our mala we experience sublime quiet…it recharges everything and hence the gifts it presents us with contribute to living a full life. We can use malas to create a more focused and centered meditation practice, promote a peaceful life and a calm mind finding our way home to who we truly are meant to be. Malas are perfect for those beginning the path of meditation as well as for those who already have an established personal meditation practice.
Traditional malas have 108 beads. There are many sizes of malas, and generally the number is divisible by the sacred number nine, but more recently wrist malas composed of 21 beads have also been welcomed into the mala family. A mala leaves your mind free to chant mantras or affirmations because you don’t have to track numbers.
Almost all malas have a large bead at the end called the Guru Bead. It is also said to be a reminder of the relationship between teacher and the student and I have also heard it is where the energy created from your practice is stored. Its function is to alert the practitioner they have completed one round in the cycle. One prayer, mantra, chant, affirmation - one bead. On a full-sized mala, the guru bead is the 109th bead. Tibetan malas include additional beads of assorted colours or sizes spaced at equal intervals (meru beads) to aid you in counting. In total your mala could consist of 112 beads. A tassel found at the end of many malas represents enlightenment and many wear this tassel to the back where it rests against the neck. The small wrist mala usually has 27 or 21 beads plus Guru Bead.
Malas are made from a wide variety of materials including but not limited to: wood, seeds (Bodhi/lotus), gemstones, crystals, pearls, steel, precious metals, plastic, glass and bones are frequently used in making mala beads. Semi-precious stone beads used in malas beads have been used since ancient times to aid physical and spiritual healing. The use of semi-precious stones in malas when used in your practice increases the healing potential of your mala.
Originally, malas were used to aid in the counting of herds. For anyone that has tried to count in their head and pay attention to the world’s distraction it makes sense! I am sure that sheep are not going to herd up to be counted a second time! The ease with which malas are thrown over the head and worn made them a functional pocket calculator for the time.
Buddhists have not always used malas and it is difficult to pinpoint where the practice began. It is surmised that Hindus who converted to Buddhism, transferred the practice of utilizing the mala beads from their old religion and integrated it into their Buddhist practice during their conversion. Mala beads are also integral to many religions including the Sikhism and Muslim religions.
Another explanation on the origins of Buddhist mala practice is found in a popular legend: King Vaidunya once said to the Buddha: "In recent years, disease and famine have swept my country. The people are distressed, and I worry about this night and day without interruption. Ours is a pitiful condition. The totality of the dharma is too profound and extensive for us to practice, given these circumstances. Please teach me just the main point of the dharma so that I may practice it and teach it to others."
The Buddha replied: "King, if you want to eliminate earthly desires, make a circular string of 108 Bodhi seeds and, holding them always to yourself, recite, 'I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.' Count one bead with each recitation of these three."
So, the long and short of it, the Buddha understood that the world was too much with this King, just like it is for us in our crazy world. Stilling the mind, chanting, and focus, can’t always be easily attained. It was not meant for Buddhist monks who could dedicate their time to chanting mantras. They didn’t have to worry about the real world invading their thoughts and disrupting their focus. However, for those that have used malas to chant mantras or mentally recite affirmations there is a calm energy absorbed in the process of running the beads over your fingers, much like the worry stones that were popular many years ago. We, like the King, have difficulty briefly putting aside the crazy worries that happen in our life during our meditation and the mala beads were meant to assist us to free our minds for a brief respite.
Now malas are part of the Buddhist monks uniform much like his shorn head and brightly coloured robes. Even the Dali Lama has admitted that he is very attached to his mala. There is a calming effect in the practice of using a mala. A testament to this is their increasing popularity in our modern world. People of all ages are wearing their intentions and actively seeking to carry their ‘happy place’ with them in a funky piece of jewellery. Now only people that know what a mala really is would have that understanding but to the rest of the world its simply jewellery.
But you and I now know better!
Sources: Tracing the History of Malas and How This Ancient Practice Brings Peace, by Clark Strand (Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Winter 2006) http://consciousbusiness.net.au/what-is-the-difference-between-positive-affirmations-and-positive-intent/