Mala beads can be used to create fabulous jewelry and are especially striking when used to make bracelets and necklaces. However, the meaning of Mala beads and the way they are used has changed over the years. Whereas nowadays they are used to make fashionable jewelry such as Mala bracelets, they have long been associated with Buddhism. For those who follow the Buddhist faith, Mala beads have a spiritual purpose and are used in prayer and meditation with the design of a Mala braceletor necklace having a reason but more of that later.
Originally, Mala was found in India where beads and seeds were used as a way of counting – for instance keeping a tally of an account or the number of days that had passed. This meant there was no need to write anything down as the beads were a very simple yet effective way of counting and keeping track. Back then, rather than Mala pieces were general made from rudraksha seeds and these can still be found in today’s Mala pieces. As a counting method, the seeds would be either added to strings or laid in columns or rows.
Mala and Buddhism
In a similar way to the way in which a rosary is used in other religions where each bead represents a prayer, Buddhism uses Mala beads for praying and meditating but each bead represents a specific mantra. By acting as a physical reminder, Mala beads help the wearer to stay focused on their prayers and meditation.
However, not all followers of the Buddhist faith actually wear Mala beads all the time and prefer instead to keep them safe until they wish to pray or meditate. Others do prefer to wear the beads in the form of Mala bracelets or necklaces, not just for their own benefit but because it also makes people more aware of the Buddhist faith.
What are Mala beads made from?
More often than not, Mala beads are used to make Mala bracelets or Mala necklaces and these are made from either rudraksha seeds or they are carved out of sandalwood which would be what traditional Buddhists would use.
However, some Mala jewelry also uses beads that are made from gemstones and, even more recently, those who want to combine meditation and prayer with healing use crystal beads instead.
The beads that make up a Mala necklace are used as a type of prayer bead for those who follow the Buddhist faith and while the necklaces are usually worn, they are sometimes simply carried but, however they are used, they represent a symbol of the person’s faith.
A traditional Mala necklace, called a Japa Mala, consists of 108 individual beads, one Guru bead and one tassel. Why specifically 108 beads? Well let’s look into this further
The 108 Mala beads
The string of 108 beads are used by Buddhists when they chant or do breath work to help them with the meditation process or with their mantras. Each Mala bead of the necklace is passed through their fingers as they chant either aloud or in their heads. While no one really knows why there are specifically 108 beads on a Mala necklace, they are quite a few theories why this is so:
Breathing in and out 108 every day helps on the path to enlightenment
The human journey consists of 108 steps
108 energy lines lead to the anahata or heart chakra
108 is believed to be a lucky number
There are 54 male characters and 54 female characters in the Sanskrit alphabet
Each bead represents a vexation so when the name of a Buddha is recited, one vexation is eliminated or one worry is cast off meaning that one full cycle will rid the wearer of every vexation
The Guru bead
The Guru bead sits above the tassel and signifies that a complete cycle has been completed. When the wearer comes to this bead, they can either decide to finish chanting or start again. If a Mala bracelet is being used rather than a Mala necklace, then the wearer will need to go round the beads of the Mala bracelet 18 times to complete the 180 bead cycle.
The tassel sits below the Guru bead and represents eternity. At the beginning of a meditation session, the tassel points towards the wearer as a general rule. For some, the tassel symbolises lotus blossom which is also considered to be a symbol of enlightenment.
While Mala necklaces are made up of 108 beads, Mala bracelets tend to consist of 18 beads, also knowns as Arhat beads. Mala bracelets can be used in just the same way as Mala necklaces to count the 18 cycles of meditation and chanting.
Nowadays, Mala bracelets are not only made from the traditional materials of seeds or sandalwood. To enhance the wearer’s intentions, Mala bracelets made from crystal beads are also available which not only offer the healing properties associated with crystals but also help the wearer to focus more fully on the goal of achieving enlightenment.
Using Mala beads
With the tassel facing you, hold the first bead that is next to the Guru bead between your thumb and finger but it is important not to use the index finger in this process because this represents your ego. Then run every bead through your fingers using your thumb as you speak your mantra out loud or think of it silently. When you finally reach the Guru bead again, now is the time to reflect and pause or continue with another cycle of the beads.
In traditional Buddhism, the Guru bead is never skipped over. Instead, the beads are flipped over so that to repeat the cycle, you go back the same way.
How to care for your Mala beads
As with all jewelry, over time and with much use, the Mala beads may have a build-up of dust and dirt which can easily be dealt with by washing them. If the Mala beads are made from seed then special care is needed and it is advisable to use a cotton bud so that every nook and cranny is accessible and can be thoroughly cleaned.
Mala bracelets and necklaces that are made from crystals are cleaned differently depending on the type of crystal used. Some crystal beads can be cleaned by simply holding them under running water whereas others may need an alternative method. All crystal beads can be cleansed by using either Tingsha cymbals or sage leaves.
As you wear your Mala bracelet or necklace, you will find that over time the beads might become darker in colour. This is because they start to absorb the natural oils from your skin as well as your energy. It is said that this discolouration helps the Mala beads to be more powerful which is really useful if the intention you have set involves a great deal of work.
If your Mala bracelet or necklace breaks then this is a signal that the intention you have set is no longer needed or relevant to your life and therefore it is time to set a new intention.