Mālā is the Sanskrit word for chain or necklace. Specifically, it refers to the beaded necklace that is often used during meditation.
The moment man began to use the beaded necklace for meditation is not certain. The oldest image of a beaded necklace in a religious context comes from ancient Greece (around 1700 BC). However, its use can probably be traced back to the meditative currents within the Indus civilization (3000-1500 BC).
In addition to Buddhism, other contemporary religions have similar necklaces. Think of the Christian rosary beads or the Islamic misbaha.
In Buddhism, a mālā is usually used when reciting texts or mantras (protective verses). Especially in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism, mālā are widely used.
With the exception of Myanmar, the use of a mālā is less common in Theravāda Buddhist countries. This may indicate the influences of Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna in the Theravāda Buddhist practice of Myanmar, where all these currents have come together.
Buddhist mālā usually have 108 beads, sometimes you see smaller versions of 54 or 27 beads (divisions of 108). The use of 108 beads in the necklace seems to stem from the Mokugenji sutta:
A king named Haruri once spoke to the Buddha in sorrow: “In recent years, famine and disease have plagued my little country. The people are sad. I worry about this all the time. We are in a predicament. The Dhamma is too deep and too great to practice. Please teach me the core of the Dhamma.”
The Buddha answered: “King, if you want to end worldly desires, make a beaded necklace of 108 wooden beads. Keep them always with you and recite ‘Namo Buddha, Namo Dharma, Namo Sangha’. Count a bead with each recitation.”
The use of the Mālā in Meditation on the Mantra Buddho
Within the Buddhist meditative tradition in Myanmar, in addition to the popular vipassanā movement of the past 100 years, there has traditionally been a group focusing on developing concentration (samādhi).
One of the objects used for developing samādhi is the sound of the word buddho. In other Theravāda Buddhist countries, such as Thailand, buddho is usually recited mentally, in silence or linked to breathing.
During meditation on the sound of buddho, we use a mālā as an aid to the development of deep calm and concentration (samatha).
This is because letting the beads pass through our fingers helps prevent the mind from wandering off into pleasant spheres.
The beads help to ground the mind so to speak.
They give extra material (rupa) support to the further mental process. Each bead emphasizes the mantra as it were.
How to Use the Mālā?
You place the mālā in an infinite sign (∞) and hold the beads loosely in your hands, with the beads more firmly between your thumbs and index fingers.
Each time you repeat buddho out loud, count a bead with your right thumb (if you are left-handed with your left thumb).
If you touch the beads one by one with your right hand, all you have to do is make sure the beads run through with your left, you don’t have to touch every bead with your left hand.
There are people who say that when the beads have gone round and you reach the ‘Guru bead’ (the often slightly larger bead from which the ends of the string come out) you have to turn the necklace around.
However, this is not necessary for anything. The chain is not sacred, it is not the end but a means to an end.
The object of concentration remains the sound, if you have to pay attention every time to what kind of bead goes through your fingers then you are too distracted and this hinders getting into deep concentration.
At some point it may be nice to rotate the beads faster than the words in order to emphasize the different moments within the sound.
It can also be that at a certain moment you start to see a mental light, or different (forms of) Buddhas.
It doesn’t matter what happens.
You just let the beads move quietly through your hands and keep listening to the sound. Patient and relaxed, without wanting anything.
You sit here, are here, just listening, word for word, bead for bead. Concentration comes naturally, becomes deeper when the conditions are right.
That’s how we use the mālā.
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You yourselves must strive, the Buddhas only point the wayBuddha, Dhp 276