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What is a Mala: How to use Tibetan Prayer Beads

Tibetan Prayer Beads NEW: Five part video series on How to Make a Mala! See the


section. One of the challenges of integrating recovery from addiction and Buddhism is the mention of ritual practices. I’ve met many a few self-proclaimed recovering Catholics in 12-Step recovery over the years. The last thing they want to be told is that they have to sing this, chant that, prostrate here or kneel there. Many of us have had traumatizing childhood experiences at the hands of religious fundamentalists who talked a lot better than they walked. The more Zen oriented among us often might think this kind of stuff is a little wacko. I understand completely. But get over it. You’ll see that we can draw out the essence of any practice and apply it to our lives in recovery. Spiritual enhancement is the plan. It’s just prayer and meditation, so relax. Remember, you don’t have to buy in at the heaviest level. Try what you want, leave the rest. Back in the time referential where I became substanceless, they used to tell us to learn prayer and meditation from the people in the God business. The old-timers meant priests. Ok, so we take that principle from recovery to the Buddhist realm. The Tibetans have a lot of knowledge. Let’s see how we can apply this aspect of Buddhism to freedom from any addiction. A mala is usually made up of 108 beads, not counting the spacers or guru bead (If the word guru bothers you, read my last article, Getting Naked with the Guru). The Guru Bead represents your Inner Guru, your Root Guru, Buddha Mind, God Consciousness, etc. The label doesn’t matter. The essence matters. The tassel is symbolic of a lotus blossom, the universal symbol of enlightenment. When we count, we can flip the mala so we don’t step over the guru. But it varies. Some lamas don’t flip, they skip, I’ve watched them. Just so you know, every part of a ritual implement in Tibetan Buddhism has a meaning and a function. The mala is used to bring peace and contentment and holds the power that you put into it with your prayers and mantras. It is used to keep count of the number of mantras that one is doing in their practice. For example, I did a personal Green Tara retreat and knocked out 20,000 Tara mantras in about a week. Sometimes a lama will assign her students to do a million, or many millions of a particular mantra. A rosary is one loop around the mala and counts as 100 mantras at a time. There are eight extra to cover errors, such as in distraction or pronunciation. We can add separate counters on the mala to keep track of higher numbers. So every time you do ten malas (1000 mantras), you push up the spacer for thousands. When you do ten of those, you move up the spacer for the 10k. I was taught mala making by Venerable Ingrid, who learned in Nepal where she used to make them by the dozen for Lama Zopa Rinpoche. You’ll see these constructed differently, but I make these for practice, not jewelry, so they have to be functional. The way I do it is with spacers at seven and twenty-one going out from the guru bead. These numbers are auspicious and occur in ancient rituals going back at least 4000 years to the Veda scriptures. If you can’t do a full mala (100 after mistakes), it’s said to be auspcious to do seven or twenty-one, rather than a random number. Your lama’s advice may vary. As your mala collects spiritual merit or good karma, you’ll find that simply holding it and rubbing it in your hands will bring you peace. You can do any prayers or good thoughts from any spiritual tradition with your mala.What matters is the heart blessings that you make while praying, rather than any tradition or lack of tradition. That said, there are some recommended ways to use your mala to maximize it’s potential. The mala is traditionally worn by Buddhist monks, nuns and lay practitioners around the left wrist. It can be worn also around the neck, but take care not to make prayers while it is worn this way. The reason for this, as told to us by a Tibetan monk, is that the purpose, or intention of jewelry is as an adornment. A mala’s purpose is for making blessings. To use your mala, it’s recommended to always hold it in your left hand. This may be tradition, but there are probably Tantric reasons for it that are related to energy – channels and chakras. To count, start at the first bead after the guru bead and count one bead per prayer or mantra. Start from one side to do seven, the other to do 21, or go all the way around for one hundred. When you get all the way, you can choose not to pass over the guru bead if that’s your preference. I find that little tools like this are good (or bad) for the ego. As an addict, anything that I can do to counterbalance my ego is a good idea. So when you get around to the guru bead, you can flip it around so that you reverse direction. This is a sign of reverence for your guru, as you understand he, she, it or them. Be sure to take your mala with you to any spiritual teachings. Have it blessed by the teacher/lama/guru if you have the chance. Your mala grows in power with use. I keep mine on my altar, or in a zip lock baggie when traveling. Never throw your mala or treat it like a mundane object. Treat it as part of your spirituality. Try not to leave it under ordinary things. I put it in a higher place than mundane, non-ritual items. This is the way we treat any Dharma object, be it a book, a bell or a statue. Just this is a practice in itself. But you don’t have to get paranoid about it. I find that I have so many Dharma items around the house that I’m in the habit of not putting anything on top of anything any more. All the Dharma stuff goes in a stack, and the newspapers and magazines go in another stack. But it’s best to relax about these things. It’s a practice and is not supposed to be another obsession. But if you notice yourself getting obsessed, practice with that. Once your mala is used, it is considered a Dharma object. It therefore should never be sold, but can be given away. When I learned to make them I decided that I would do so mainly for purposes of Dharma gifting. The one you see in the picture was made for my friend who recently took an empowerment. You can use the following mantras with your mala. To really make them work, you’ll have to take an initiation from a qualified teacher for the deity associated with the particular mantra. Consult any Dharma magazine, Snow Lion’s newsletter or Vajrayana center. These events are going on all over the country all of the time. You can use these mantras yourself, but be sure not disturb others. Don’t make a show of it. Once I closed a 12-Step meeting with the Medicine Buddha mantra. That was not a good idea. Buddhists aren’t missionaries. The mantras can be sung melodically, chanted in monotone, or said silently in your mind. OM AH HUM This is the sound of All Buddhas and Enlightened Beings from the Past, Present and Future. Use this to bless people, places and things. Tibetans say it during prostrations, when making altar or other offerings. Tip: say this to yourself over your food before you eat. Think of all the beings that died to bring you your tofu salad. Bless them with the mantra. OM MANI PADME HUM The sound uttered by Chenrezig (Tibetan), also known as Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Infinite Compassion. Use this mantra to spread compassion from your heart to all beings. Tip: say this mantra for someone with whom you are resentful. Wish them to be free from suffering, and the root of suffering. TAYATHA OM MUNI MUNI MAHA MUNIYE SOHA The Mantra of Shakyamuni Buddha, the Buddha of our time. Use it at the beginning of teachings and meditation sessions to remind the Buddha of his samaya: promise to liberate all beings. If you ask his help, he has to help you. That’s his job. Tip: Sing this mantra before prayer/meditation sessions. Visualize the Buddha before you, or on top of the heads people in meetings. Say the mantra and imaging golden light pouring from the Buddha into people’s hearts. It’s very positive and is better than whatever resenement you were probably nursing anyways. TAYATHA GATE GATE PARAGATE PARASAMGATE BODHI SOHA The Wisdom of the Heart Sutra Mantra. Everything is empty of inherent nature. This mala is used for letting go, in meditation on emptiness and decreasing the power of ego attachment. Tip: This is a good mantra for the 3rd Step. Turn your attachments over the the realization that they are impermanent as you recite the mantra. There are more. But this should give you an idea what the mala is and how it is used. If you have questions, hit the Ask button above and shoot me an email. Or make a comment below. Be sure to share this article on Stumbeupon and other sites. How many Buddhas do you give this article? [ratings]


5 comments to What is a Mala: How to use Tibetan Prayer Beads

  • ronin

    Very cool. Didn’t know all that about mala beads. Thank you Darren for the info. Now I can wear my mala beads on the right hand (well, you know, the left hand). 🙂

  • DaveHotei

    Darren – How about a follow up for wrist malas?

  • How to use them? Same way. But there are only 21 beads. In terms of making them, I haven’t mastered that yet I’m afraid.

  • mk

    This is great info – thank you so much – I am in Dharamshala and just picked up my first set of mala beads and this will be very helpful!

  • Tanya

    Wow, I’m so excited to have found this and by accident? I am a true addict, suffering with depression right now and have been seeking the Buddhist path for a long time now and more so recently. I read alot about Buddhism and try to live this path with what I have read. This is exactly what I needed for where I am right now. I am purchasing this book right now and look forward to all the readings and self help you are providing. Thank you.

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