Choosing and Using Your Mala
Recite one mantra;
move your thumb and forefinger
along the next bead of the strand;
The Tibetan Buddhist mala, or beaded rosary, aids the practitioner in counting mantra recitations while also helping one to focus concentration and awareness. As one works the mala's beads with one's fingers, recites the mantra and visualizes the deity, one is at once involving the body, speech and mind.
The basic instructions for using a mala are quite simple. As with nearly any other form of ritual in Tibetan Buddhism and Bön, however, many specifics may vary from tradition to tradition, even within a given school of Buddhism. Always consult with a knowledgeable person in your tradition about matters of ritual.
Some Mala Basics
The mala is held with gentleness and respect, generally in the left hand. One bead is counted for each recitation of the mantra, beginning with the first bead after the "guru" bead—the larger, more decorative bead at the mala's end. The first bead is held between the index finger and thumb, and with each count the thumb pulls another bead in place over the index finger.
After completing a full circuit of the mala, the practitioner flips the mala around 180 degrees (this takes practice to accomplish) and continues as before, in reverse order. One aims to avoid passing over the "guru" bead, as doing so is symbolically like stepping over one's teacher.
According to the Office of Tibet, the official agency of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in London, the guru bead signifies the wisdom that cognizes emptiness. Surmounting it is another, cylindrical bead that symbolizes emptiness itself; together, these two beads symbolize having vanquished all opponents.
To aid in mantra counting, on many Tibetan malas there are divider beads of a different color, spaced equally along the mala's length. One also may attach a pair of counter strings to the mala as an additional counting aid—each string of the pair is a double-plaited cord threaded with 10 small ring beads, generally made of silver, gold or bronze, which are used to count the tens and hundreds of completed mala cycles.
A third counter also may be attached to the mala to keep track of the thousands of cycles completed. Often featuring the symbol of a wheel or jewel, this counter is attached to the thread between two beads, and then repositioned from bead to bead.
Choosing a Mala
A mala of 108 beads is used for general purposes by most practicing Tibetan Buddhists. Beads of bodhi seed generally are considered auspicious for any practice or mantra, and red sandalwood or lotus seeds also are widely recommended for universal use.
A variation of the standard 108-bead mala is the wrist mala of 27 beads—four circuits total 108 mantra repetitions. This number 108 is abundant in significance, according to Robert Beer:*
"The sacred number of 108 predates Buddhism, being the classical number of the Hindu names assigned to a deity or god. As a multiple of 12 and 9, it represents the nine planets in the 12 zodiac houses. As a multiple of 27 and 4, it also represents the four quarters of the moon in each of the 27 lunar mansions or constellations. Nine is also a 'magic' number. A number multiplied by 9 results in a number the sum of whose digits is also a multiple of 9. In Pranayana Yoga it is calculated that a human being takes 21,600 breaths in a 24-hour cycle consisting of 60 periods of 360 breaths; a 12-hour 'day' cycle therefore equals 10,800 breaths. The 108 beads also ensure that at least a hundred mantra recitations have been completed in a full rosary turning."
Besides the multi-purpose malas described above, there are other types of malas that are deemed auspicious for various purposes.
Mantras can be recited for four different purposes: to appease, to increase, to overcome, or to tame by forceful means, according to the Office of Tibet in London, which offers these additional guidelines for choosing the right malas for the purpose:
The beads used to count mantras intended to appease should be of crystal, pearl or mother of pearl, and should at least be clear or white in color. A rosary for this purpose should have 100 such beads. Mantras counted on these beads serve to clear away obstacles, such as illness and other calamities, and purify one of unwholesomeness.
The beads used with mantras intended to increase should be of gold, silver, copper or lotus seeds, and a rosary is made of 108 of them. The mantras counted on these serve to increase life span, knowledge and merit.
The beads used with mantras which are intended to overcome are made from a compound of ground sandal wood, saffron and other fragrant substances. There are 25 beads on this rosary. The mantras counted on them are meant to tame others, but the motivation for doing so should be a pure wish to help other sentient beings and not to benefit oneself.
Some Words About Mantra
Who is saying the mantra, how it is said, one's intent while saying it- all these are important considerations. In some cases, one also may need to consider who is within hearing distance as one recites. Bardor Tulku Rinpoche notes that in his Kagyu tradition, it is acceptable in any circumstances to recite a mantra out loud, even when others who are unlikely to understand or respect the sacredness of the mantra can hear it. However, a number of other traditions specify that certain powerful mantras must be kept entirely private.
Some practices require a practitioner to recite a certain mantra as many as 100,000, or even a million, times. Because just one mantra recitation condenses the essence of vast spiritual teachings into a few concise syllables, it's easy to conjecture about the power of repeating a mantra so many times over. Those who faithfully do the recitations, who keep the samadhi in their mind while reciting, and who rely on the blessings, empowerments and instructions of a qualified master, have an opportunity to experience the power of and blessings of mantra firsthand.
- From The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs, by Robert Beer, Boston: Shambhala, 1999.
- Reprinted with permission from www.tibet.com, the Website of the Office of Tibet, the official agency of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in London.
- * Bön specifications are per His Holiness Lungtok Tenpai Nyima, spiritual head of the Tibetan Bön tradition; courtesy of Sherab Palden and Judy Marz.