What can I do with my Mala?
By Valerie Grigg Devis
During his life, the Buddha encouraged the use of malas or “prayer beads” as a way to relieve suffering. Over 2,400 years later, this practice remains with us in ways that Buddha himself might find surprising! Even the most “traditional” Buddhists now apply creative use of technology to their malas. Here are examples of how malas can be used, provided by several Buddhist traditions established here in the Pacific Northwest.
A Vietnamese Zen perspective
When I contacted Jerry Braza, Ph.D., of the River Sangha in Salem, Oregon (Order of Interbeing in the zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh), he mentioned he was ordering a couple hundred malas from Catholic nuns in Vietnam. “Really? For what purpose?” I asked him. “I met the nuns when visiting Vietnam with Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh), on his first trip back to Viet Nam after 40 years. I have always been intrigued with malas from a practice stand point and the value they have as a symbol. Twenty some years ago, I stopped wearing a watch and replaced it with a mala and have worn one ever since.” Jerry continues to purchase malas from these Catholic nuns. “I give the malas to anyone who says, ‘I like your bracelet.’ I just ask ‘Would you like one?’ and give them a mala from my wrist. Now, I meet people who ask if I have any more malas, because theirs broke. Another mala gift opportunity!”
Jerry uses his mala to support his meditation practice by “focusing on the breath, or on guided meditation, or both. It helps keep mindfulness alive.”
A Tibetan Buddhist perspective
“It’s a counter.” says Thubten Chonyi of the Sravasti Abbey (a Tibetan monastery for Westerners), near Newport, Washington. Some traditional Tibetan malas actually function as a sort of “abacus” by using 2 tassels, each with 10 small beads attached, to track the completion of 100, 1000 and up to 10,000 mantras. Counting a million mantras is part of raising awareness and “positive energy” for the Abbey’s new Buddha Hall, so their website is currently collecting mantras:
On the website, you can also listen to a recording of the Buddha mantra, recite it as many times as you like, and then submit a form adding your recitations to the other mantras collected so far. The total number is visually recorded on an electronic mala – of course!
But why repeat mantras? Chonyi explains: “Mantras are like the utterances of a holy being in deep meditation. We see this as a way to make a connection with the deity.” Mantras are also considered a form of “mind protection” and a powerful expression of commitment to practice. “We believe that if you continue to recite a mantra like
om mani padme hum
you will develop compassion, whether you want to or not!”
I know of one particularly creative Tibetan practitioner who devised a counter for his bicycle, so he could count mantras while riding. He also envisioned his bicycle wheels as prayer wheels increasing merit as they turned.
A Chinese Zen perspective
According to Koro Kaizan Miles of Open Gate Zendo in Olympia (Chinese Linji zen tradition), “I use my malas in three ways. First, when I am suffering physical pain or stress, I use my mala to slow down and regulate my breath. Within a few measured breaths, my breathing slows from about 30 per minute to around 18 per minute. I usually continue until it is stable at about 12 breaths per minute. This produces a much calmer effect.”
“Secondly, when I do my 108 Bow Practice, I use the mala to count bows. I typically use my wrist mala because it is easier to hold while bowing. Since my wrist mala has 27 beads, I bow 27 times, then do nine rounds of kinhin (walking meditation), then repeat bowing until I have bowed 108 times. I do this as a form of calisthenic exercise, as well as a meditation. Doing this regularly helps me to maintain my ability to bow during ceremonies.”
“Thirdly, I have a mala looped over the stick-shift of my truck. I often use it to relax when I am stuck in Seattle traffic. This makes the most productive use of my time!”
A Korean Zen perspective
Roshi Anita Feng, of the Blue Heron Zen Center in Seattle (Korean zen tradition) tells us, “There is a history of using malas in the Korean Zen tradition. Our root teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, practiced with a mala. Practicing with a mala is both a focusing and an "accounting" technique. They are not separate. Combining body, breath and mind, we account for our whereabouts as the thumb and forefinger pass from one bead to another. Just as when we do walking meditation and we focus on each part of the sole of our foot meeting the floor, so too with fingering the beads of the mala. Some of us use a mala to register the completion of each internal recitation of the Great Dharani. Others use it to register a single breath. Some find that simply wearing a mala reminds them to stay present in the midst of daily life.”
Where It All Began…
The origin of Buddhist malas is attributed to the Mokugenji Sutra, in which King Virudhaka asks the Buddha to help ease his suffering. The Buddha recommends that he recite “The Three Refuges” using a mala made of the seeds of a soapnut tree. Since then, malas have been made of simple, organic materials, such as wood, stone or bone. In Sanskrit, the word mala means "garland". More lavish materials, such as precious metals or gemstones, are not used to create malas, because it is a meditation tool, not jewelry. Buddhist monks are prohibited from wearing jewelry and serious lay practitioners usually follow this example.
Choosing and Using Your Mala
Malas typically come in two lengths: Wrist (18 to 28 beads) and neck (traditionally 108 beads, often with a tassel). Practically speaking, if you have large fingers or a limited sense of touch, consider a mala with larger beads so that you are less likely to “lose count” during your meditation. A few suggestions for use:
Begin at the “guru bead” (the large bead). Breath in & out (or repeat a verse or mantra) as you hold each bead between your fingers, moving to the next bead at the end. Repeat one breath or one mantra. When you return to the guru bead, you can finish your meditation period, or do another “round”.
When you complete one circle and reach the beginning bead again, briefly reflect on something you are grateful for: A teacher, a friend, something that brings joy to your life.
Consider doing just as the Buddha taught and recite a vow, such as “I take Refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha” with each bead.
Do you have a bad case of “monkey mind”? Are your thoughts refusing to calm down during meditation? The mala is an excellent “go to” tool for an unsteady mind. Focus on each bead and return to your breath, bead by bead.
If your meditation is disrupted by worries or concerns, you pause at the guru bead and recite a blessing, such as
“May (I/They) Be Well. May (I/They) be Happy, May (I/They) Know Love, May (I/They) know Peace”
. Then return to your meditation. When you are done, you can also dedicate the merit of your practice to that particular person or concern, if you like.
A mala can be used “on the move” for walking meditation. Just count your breaths one bead at a time as you walk. This is better for your well-being than looking at your cell phone - especially when you are crossing the street!
When you wear your mala, consider making it a practice to complete at least one meditation period before removing it. This is a good reminder that the mala is not just a decoration!
If you wear more than one wrist mala, you can easily offer a mala to someone who expresses interest in meditation or Buddhist practice. This is a simple way of practicing generosity and sharing the Dharma.
Your mala can also serve as a nifty timer: A wrist mala represents a 3 to 5-minute meditation period. Got 10 minutes?
Got High Tech?
There are numerous apps offering the same services that traditional mala beads serve. Is it time to toss your mala beads? In some sanghas, technology is considered a useful tool, while others remain suspicious of innovation. Is there a Middle Path? Perhaps you have an app that provides a timer for daily meditation with a lovely bell at the beginning and end. (I like a free one called “Zazen Meditation Timer”) This frees you from clock-watching while you follow the breath with each mala bead.
Valerie Grigg Devis,
a recovering bureaucrat, who retired from State government two years ago, is now an professional artist and Buddhist-Minister-in-training. She typically uses her mala to calm her mind, and likes to wear two malas so she can enjoy giving them away. She currently lives in Corvallis, Oregon and can be reached at