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Mala Beads: How to use Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Beads

Mar 5, 2018

What are mala beads?

‘Mala’ is the Sanskrit word for garland or necklace.  For centuries, mala beads have been used as a meditation tool.  Mindfully counting the beads by moving them through the fingers and reciting a mantra helps to build awareness and concentration on intention and the present moment.  Mala beads were originally created by the Hindus, many of whom took the beads and this method of prayer along with them when they converted to Buddhism. Prayer beads have since become a part of many religions ranging from Islam to Roman Catholicism.

What is the sacred number of prayer beads?

Nine is known as the sacred number in many spiritual societies, and this number is the common denominator in all Buddhist prayer beads.  The most common malas are 27, 54, or 108 beads in length.  Predating Buddhism, the Hindus believed the number 108 to be sacred and said that the gods Ganesha and Shiva had 108 names.

mala beads


Counting Mala Beads

Regardless of how many beads one possesses on their mala bead strand, counting each bead by holding it offers the opportunity to chant a mantra and build spiritual power or “tapa.  This tapa can help to attract certain qualities to your life or mindset, or bring greater awareness and mindfulness to a particular aspect of life.

What are Mala Beads made of?

Mala beads can be made from a variety of different materials, each possessing their own powers before the first mantra is even spoken.

Yak Bone Symbolism 

Used in practice because the more that death is contemplated the more meaningful life becomes. Yaks are an important animal in Tibet, and to honor their passing their bones are used so that the animal is continuing to be of service as they pass from this consciousness to another.

Lotus Seed Symbolism

The lotus seed symbolizes spiritual knowledge and power. The lotus flower grows in the mud and blossoms into a beautiful flower, never getting wet by the water. This type of mala bead in particular helps us to be mindful of our spiritual selves and walk through life unencumbered by the trappings of the material world.

Rudraksha Seed Symbolism 

The rudraksha seed brings peace of mind, protects against evil, and brings prosperity. Buddha, the Dalai Lama and Gandhi all wore Rudraksha beads. The beads have electro-magnetic properties similar to magnets.

Rosewood Symbolism

Rosewood is associated with the heart chakra, traditionally used for nervous tension, headaches, skin inflammations, and is especially effective in spiritual healing.

Sandalwood Symbolism 

Sandalwood has a soothing fragrance. Sandalwood also attracts positive energy and clear perception, and acts as an antidepressant, antiseptic and assists the immune system.

How to use mala beads?

The mala should be held in the left hand, and always used with gentleness and respect.  One bead is counted for each recitation of the mantra, starting with the first bead next to the “guru” bead. The guru bead is usually larger or more decorative, sometimes with a tassel coming out of it, which represents enlightenment. 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.

As you recite your mantra; move your thumb and forefinger along to the next bead; recite the mantra again, and repeat the movement.  After completing a full circuit around the mala, you should flip it around 180 degrees, and continue as before, in reversed order.  One generally avoids passing over the “guru” bead, as doing so is symbolically likened to stepping over one’s teacher.

How to choose a mantra?

Mantras are sacred sounds that are meant to uplift the speaker and help with concentration.  Oftentimes these words or phrases are religious in nature, but it isn’t required.  It is said that certain Sanskrit mantras possess a certain vibration and have been repeated with intention so many times over so many years that it is not even necessary to understand the exact translation–the vibration, your intention, and that of those throughout history give the mantra power anyway.

  • “Aum” is the sacred sound of Hinduism and Buddhism, meaning variously: It Is, Will Be or To Become.
  • “Om Mani Padme Hum” originates from Tibet, and calls upon the Buddha of Compassion.
  • “Namo AmitaBha” pays homage to the Buddha of boundless light.
  • “I am that I am” is one of the most famous lines from the Hebrew Torah, and it was God’s answer to Moses when Moses asked for his name.
  • “Shreem Lakshmi Maa” is directed to the Mother Goddess of Abundance, to attract prosperity.

There are many more traditional mantras, and these are just a tiny sampling.  Whether you choose a classic mantra from the Ancients, or a modern word or phrase that resonates with you, you will still be receiving the benefits of your mala beads and this meditation!

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