Mala is the original Sanskrit word for Prayer Beads used for counting mantras in Buddhism. In Tibetan Buddhist communities around the world Malas are commonly worn on a neck, wrapped around a wrist, or held with fingers during humming recitations of mantras.
Since mantras in Tibetan Buddhist practice are repeated (silently or aloud) thousands or even hundreds of thousands of times, it is very practical to use malas, as a sort of spiritual counters, to count the number of prayers. Most commonly, in Buddhism, Mala consists of 108 beads. Mala Beads can be made of almost any material: ranging from seeds and grains, plastic and glass, to precious and semi-precious stones, scented fine wood of sacred trees and bones.
Once you had done a full circle on your Mala Beads, reciting mantra for each bead, you completed 100 repetitions. Another 8 beads are “spare” to compensate for any mistakes you might made in counting. At the end of the mala circle there is main large bead called the Guru. It is a starting point for counting and it is not counted in 108 beads.
Sometimes there are special separators inserted after certain number of beads. For example, after 27 beads, so that Worshipper would know that he has passed a quarter of the mala circle. Same as the Guru bead these separators are not included in the number 108.
Traditionally the number of beads in Buddhist Malas is 108. But there are no strict rules. One can make a custom design with 21 or 22 beads. The most important aspect is that this Prayer Beads could serve its purpose. It should be convenient to count mantras. In Tibetan culture, there are no strict rules for how to count mantras.
There are general rules, but they don’t matter as much as your intentions and attitude to the prayer. If you pray sincerely, from your heart, using your Mala, you are doing the right thing!
It is up to you to decide which hand to use to count prayer beads. Usually, it is your left hand. It is up to you to choose to count the Guru bead or not. Tibetans usually do not count it. When counting a very large (up to 100,000) number of prayers, they use special counters attached to their prayer beads.
Again, material of Prayer Beads is a matter of personal preferences. It can be ivory, fine woods, precious and gemstones or even plants’ seeds. There is no ultimate answer about the best material for Buddhist Prayer Beads. It is more about the purpose of Mala beads, personal preferences, prestige, and owner’s status.
Due to both Traditions and poor economic situation Tibetans commonly use lotus seeds, bodhi seeds, various type of wood, yak (ox) bones and even human bones (kingdom of Bhutan) for Prayer Beads.
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