Also known as japamala, jaap mala, prayer beads, and Buddha pearls, mala beads are to Hinduism, Sikhism, and Buddhism as rosaries are to Catholicism.
Mala is the Sanskrit word for garland, and people use these specially strung beads as a meditation and prayer tool.
Mala meditation is exceptionally effective for people who want to improve their focus and strengthen their spiritual resolve.
So today, we’re unpacking everything you need to know to get started with meditation beads.
- What Are Mala Beads?
- History of Mala Beads
- Cultural Differences
- Ways You Can Use Mala Beads
- What Are the Benefits of Using Meditation Beads?
- How to Practice Meditation with Mala Beads
- More Questions Answered About Mala Beads for Meditation
What Are Mala Beads?
Broadly speaking, mala beads are meditation aids. People use them to count mantras and other spiritual recitations.
How many beads are on a mala? Traditionally, there are 108, with a bonus “guru” bead. You can also get them with 18, 27, and 54 beads, which are factors of 108.
Why 108 beads? Some schools of thought see each bead as representative of the 108 human kleshas and dharmas. Kleshas are akin to mental states and include conditions like fear, anxiety, anger, greed, jealousy, and hate.
Conversely, dharmas are virtues like patience, generosity, honesty, self-control, and tolerance. Another interpretation is that each bead represents one of the 108 Hindu deities.
The 109th bead is called the “guru bead.” It’s not used when using the mala to count mantras when meditating or doing a recitation. Instead, it represents knowledge and learning.
Often, a tassel is attached to the guru bead, symbolizing the connection between the earthly and spiritual realms.
Some meditation malas have spacer beads that help practitioners track where they are. In a full strand, markers are typically placed every 27 beads.
Mala Bead Materials
What are mala beads made of? Options abound. Wood (sandalwood, bodhi), stone, seeds, bone, marble, glass, metals, minerals, and gems all work.
Some people use plastic mala beads, but we recommend using something with a natural essence that isn’t 100% synthetic.
Authentic mala beads use natural fibers — cotton, silk, animal hair, et cetera as the string. But these days, many are put together with synthetic materials, and it’s perfectly fine.
History of Mala Beads
Nobody is 100% certain when mala beads first hit the historical scene, as counting beads has been commonplace since prehistoric times.
In fact, bead trading was one of the main reasons humans developed language. The oldest beads found to date are about 75,000 years old and were discovered in the Blombos Cave near Cape Town, South Africa.
Garland beads are believed to have originated in the region now known as India.
Different religions and cultures have preferences when it comes to mala materials. Let’s take a look.
Hindu Mala Materials
Hindu traditions favor red and black japamalas. Saivas, devotees of Siva (Shiva), prefer to use the fruit stones of rudraksha trees. Vaishnavas, followers of Vishnu, make beads from the tulsi plants.
Buddhist Mala Materials
While Hindu malas are typically made from wood or plants, Buddhist ones come in various materials for different purposes. Crystals, pearls, and translucent or white gems are used for purification purposes.
Gold, silver, copper, and lotus seeds are standard in Buddhist japamalas tailored for enhancing lifespan, knowledge, and merit.
Bodhi wood is another common material used in mala beads made following Buddhist traditions.
Tibetan Buddhism Mala Materials
Tibetan Buddhists frequently use rattan seeds (aka “moon stars,” “lotus root,” and “linden nut”). They also use animal bones, preferably from a llama.
Red coral is another popular choice for Tibetan Buddhists since the stone is associated with the Padma family of Buddhists, who are revered in the country.
Tibetan Buddhists may also use semi-precious stones and colored glass.
Nepal Mala Materials
People in Nepal use a variety of stones and other materials for their mala beads, but they’re especially fond of ones made from the Ziziphus Budhensis tree, which is endemic to the country and helps support its economy.
Moreover, beads made from the plant are thought to hold tremendous amounts of energy.
Ways You Can Use Mala Beads
How can you use mala beads? Traditionally, they’re meant to be used during mantra meditation and recitation sessions. However, you can also:
- Wear them around the wrist, as a necklace, or suspended from a belt
- Hold them if your hands during prayer
- Keep them on your body as a talisman to touch when needed
When you’re not using your mala beads, it’s standard to store them in a pouch, box, or on a shrine. Some people get a small Buddha statue to hang their meditation garlands.
Is it OK to use the same mala beads for meditation and jewelry?
Some argue it isn’t ideal because you don’t want other people touching your japamala as it may pull in their energy.
Others disagree and believe using them for dress and prayer is fine.
The one thing to remember, though, is they’re never supposed to touch the ground. If they do, conduct a cleansing ritual.
What Are the Benefits of Using Meditation Beads?
Do you need mala beads to meditate? Absolutely not. But they can prove beneficial. Using mala beads:
- Helps you keep track of mantra meditations
- Provides a tactile device to help you focus
- Enhances your spiritual connection with divine and surrounding energies
Mala beads strengthen the connection between you and the divine, thus enhancing your spiritual growth.
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How to Practice Meditation with Mala Beads
In the most basic sense, mala beads are used for counting japas, the Sanskrit word for a meditative recitation of a divine mantra or name. There are many different ways to incorporate mala beads into your meditation routine.
Today, we’re looking at the breath method.
- Start by getting comfortable and into your meditation position. Don’t forget to prep the room. Also, choose your mantra ahead of time.
- Hold your mala in your right hand when you’re ready to begin.
- How you handle it is up to you. Just make sure you can hold the position to count.
- Place two fingers around one of the starting beads next to the guru bead. If you want to follow tradition, avoid using your index finger. Most people use their thumb and middle finger.
- As you touch each bead, complete a full breath (inhale and exhale) and say or think your mantra.
- Once done, move your fingers to the next bead and repeat.
- Make your way around the mala until you reach the guru bead on the other end.
Don’t worry if you can’t get through all 108 recitations on your first try. It’s a lot! Be gentle with yourself. You’ll eventually get there. Also, consider getting a smaller set to start. Beginning with an 18-bead bracelet is less intimidating for some people.
More Questions Answered About Mala Beads for Meditation
Do you still have questions about how to meditate with mala beads? We’ve got answers.
How do you activate mala beads?
Activating mala beads awakens their energies and bonds them to you. There are several ways to do it.
The traditional option is holding your beads in your right hand as you say “Om Hrim Namah Shivaya Om” three times.
The Sanskrit mantra roughly translates to: “I bow to supreme consciousness, as the universal divine resonance vibrates within my heart as shakti, to that consciousness who is my beloved teacher, I bow.”
Feel free to use a mantra that better resonates with you.
Is it OK to wear mala beads?
It’s a personal choice. Some schools of thought teach that you should never wear your mala beads as decoration. Others encourage you to have them on your person at all times.
So ultimately, the choice is yours. Try different options to discover what feels best for you. And believe it or not, your beads will help guide the way.
How do you properly use a mala?
The only hard-and-fast rule about mala beads is that they should never touch the ground. Beyond that, use and wear them as you see fit.
Think of them as a spiritual extension of yourself, and treat them accordingly.
Mala beads can enhance your spiritual journey — and your wardrobe. The key is getting a pair that resonates with you and your development goals.