Prayer, or meditation, beads are common, in some form, to most of the world’s contemplative traditions. Rosary beads are used by Christians. Buddhists and Hindus typically posses what is called a mala (the Sanskrit word for garland). Muslims beads are called misbaha.
They are usually used as a tool for keeping track of the number of mantras recited during a meditation session. This article will focus on the practices surrounding the japa mala of Buddhism.
A History of Prayer Beads
You might find it interesting that the word bead derives from the Old English bede, which translates as prayer.
The origin of prayer beads likely lies with the worlds oldest religion, Hinduism. Malas are usually made with 108 beads, which coincides with the number of names for Bhrama. The separate groups of devotees would make their beads with different materials. Those who worshipped Shiva, for example, used the seeds of the rudraksha plant, whilst followers of Vishnu preferred those of the basil plant.
You can buy malas made from a variety of woods and seeds. Those of the “Bodhi tree” (the genus of the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment) and the Rudraksha tree are common. Many Buddhist malas are also made from sandalwood, which is believed to alter human desires and aid in maintaining alertness during meditation. You can find many others (including gemstones) that are used for their different intended benefits.
How to Use Prayer Beads
The beads are used to count the number of times a chant or mantra is repeated. The idea behind this practice is that it allows for complete focus on the mantra itself. You may find that three of your 108 beads are of a different size. These usually represent the three jewels (Sangha, Dharma and Buddha) of Buddhism.
Your Own Mantra
You can, of course, choose your own mantra. Any word that signifies your intention to be open to the divine or that fosters particular feelings (of compassion, equanimity, forgiveness etc.) is suitable.
I find that two-syllable words tend to work best. Inhaling, I whisper the first part of the word to myself; exhaling, I whisper the second. Examples are peaceful, happy, Jesus, Buddha.
Om Mani Padme Hum
Translated as: the jewel of the heart of the lotus. Pronounced: ohm-mah-nee-peh-may-hung. (The ng is said very softly.) Click here to see an example.
This mantra is one of the most widely used in Buddhism. It’s perfect for use by anybody who feels inclined to do so in their practice.
It is believed that both recitation of, and simply looking at, this mantra can provide spiritual protection and inspiration. You will find that it is displayed where it will be easily seen. It is usually engraved on Tibetan prayer wheels, which are meant to compound the effects of chanting. All the teachings of the Buddha are said to be contained in this mantra.
Loving Kindness Mantra
May I be well.
May all beings be well.
Or some variation thereof. You can choose a mantra that cultivates feelings of compassion and well-wishing to both yourself and other people.
If you find that you enjoy “OM meditation” then prayer beads can be a useful tool for keeping track of the number of times you have chanted the sacred syllable.
Product Guide – Top 5 Meditation Beads
I’d recommend buying a pair of prayer beads. They’re inexpensive and come in very useful. Malas also make excellent gifts. These are my top 5 picks.
|108 Bodhi Seed Mala (from Bodhgaya)||$26.39|
|Small Lotus Seed Mala||$13.99|
|108 Blue Stone Mala||$10.00|
|108 Sandalwood Mala (Nepal)||$15.99|
|108 Rudraksha Seed Mala (Bali)||$29.99|
Resources & References
Bead One, Pray Too by Kimberly Wilson
Image credit: Thimpu by Travis Lupick