For thousands of years, Buddhist practitioners have used the strings of beads called malas to keep track of their practice. The origin of Buddhist malas––which is the Sanskrit word for “garland”––is attributed to the Mokugenji Sutra, in which King Virudhaka asks the Buddha to help ease his suffering. The Buddha recommends that the king recite the three jewels––the buddha, dharma, and sangha––using a mala made of the seeds of a soapnut tree. Since then, across Asia malas have been made of simple, organic materials, such as wood, stone, or bone. More lavish materials such as gemstones are not used, because the mala is considered a meditation tool, not a piece of jewelry.
Buddhist monks in many traditions are prohibited from wearing jewelry, and serious lay practitioners sometimes follow this rule as well. But the modern popularity of malas––as accessories, meditation tools, and otherwise––has led to the manufacture of a wider variety of options, including malas of colorful polished stone beads.
To try to understand how American Buddhists are using their malas, I spoke with a handful of practitioners in the Pacific Northwest about the new and sometimes surprising ways they use these beads to enhance their practice. As I reached out and documented the responses, I was fascinated by the array of perspectives these Buddhists bring to their mala use.
River Sangha; Salem, Oregon: Vietnamese Zen
When I contacted Jerry Braza, facilitator of the River Sangha in Salem, Oregon, he mentioned he was ordering a couple of hundred malas from Catholic nuns in Vietnam.
“Really? For what purpose?” I asked him. Braza’s sangha practices in the Vietnamese Zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh.
“I met the nuns when visiting Vietnam with Thay [Thich Nhat Hanh], on his first trip back to Vietnam after forty years,” Braza said. “I have always been intrigued with malas from a practice standpoint 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.”
Braza continues to purchase malas from the Catholic nuns in Vietnam, and gives them away whenever the opportunity arises. “I give the malas to anyone who says, ‘I like your bracelet,’” he explained. “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, since theirs broke. Another mala gift opportunity!”
As for practice, Braza says he uses his mala as a device when meditating, “whether focusing on simply the breath or on the guided meditation or both. It helps keep mindfulness alive.”
Salem Zen Center; Salem, Oregon; Japanese Zen
When I spoke with Roshi Lee Anne Nail, teacher at the Salem Zen Center in Oregon, she described her experience with malas as one that has evolved since she first encountered the Buddhist beads.
“I used to understand malas as a way to connect to breath, to count breath or in many traditions to count mantras or bows,” Nail said.
“Then, one winter during monastery training, I tuned into the sound that my teacher’s mala made. The zendo would get really quiet, and I noticed that every once in a while, my teacher would move his mala and make a clicking sound. Occasionally the head monk did the same.
“This made me wonder: ‘Were they making a sound on purpose? Did it have a meaning? Was it a reminder of the importance of breath? Or a way to let go?’” Nail shared, recalling the amazement she felt when her ideas began to shift.
“That winter this sound became so intimate that tears would come to my eyes each time it occurred. I had no idea why,” she said. “At some point this tiny sound was no longer ‘outside’ of me. Yet, I resist defining it. This tiny sound points the way home.”
Blue Heron Zen Center; Seattle, Washington: Korean Zen
Roshi Anita Feng, teacher at the Blue Heron Zen Center in Seattle, explained how she understands malas in her Korean Zen tradition, noting the somatic experience of mala use, drawing similarities between using a mala and the embodied practice of walking meditation.
“There is a history of using malas in the Korean Zen tradition. Our root teacher, Zen Master Seung Sahn, practiced with a mala,” she said. “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 [a Buddhist chant in Korean Zen]. 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.”
Open Gate Zendo; Olympia, Washington: Chinese Linji Zen tradition
Koro Kaizan Miles, founder of Olympia, Washington’s Open Gate Zendo, which is in the Chinese Linji Zen tradition, said he uses his malas in three ways.
“First, when I am suffering physical pain or stress, I use my mala to slow down and regulate my breath,” he told me. “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.
“Second, 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,” Miles said. “Doing this regularly helps me to maintain my ability to bow during ceremonies.”
“Third, 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!”
Sravasti Abbey; Newport, Washington: Tibetan Buddhism
“It’s a counter,” said Thubten Chonyi, referring to her mala. Chonyi is a nun at Sravasti Abbey, a Tibetan monastery for Westerners near Newport, Washington.
Chonyi explained that traditional Tibetan malas function as a sort of “abacus,” an ancient counting device. Tibetan malas utilize two tassels, each with ten small beads attached, to track the completion of one hundred, one thousand, and up to 100,000 mantras around the 108-bead mala.
Today, Sravasti supporters are using their malas to count a million mantras, as part of raising awareness and positive energy for the abbey’s planned new Buddha Hall. Their website is currently collecting mantras, and you can listen to a recording of the 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 online.
“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,” Chonyi explained. Mantras are also considered a form of “mind protection” and a powerful expression of commitment to practice, she told me. “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!”
Malas in 2020: When Digital Counting Replaces Clicking Beads
In a perhaps not so surprising development in the history of malas, some people are adapting digital devices to support their dharma practice as effectively as physical malas have since the time of the Buddha.
Some tech-savvy practitioners are turning to smartphone apps like My Mala, Mala, and Mala – Prayer Beads, which offer the same functions as traditional malas, albeit on a screen. As I researched these trends, I wondered: “Is it time to toss our mala beads?”
Members of some sanghas consider technology a useful tool, while others remain suspicious of innovation. Perhaps the “middle path” is to use an app that adds a lovely bell at the beginning and end of daily meditation, freeing us from clock-watching. Meanwhile, a simple mala, like a true friend, reminds us to return to the essence of our practice.
But I wouldn’t worry about the makers of old-fashioned malas going out of business just yet. The Seattle-based nonprofit Tibetan Nun Project (TNP), which supports over 700 nuns in exile in eight nunneries in India and Nepal, says that their mala sales are growing. “We are selling more internationally, thanks to our growing online presence and social media,” TNP executive director Lisa Farmer said. She attributes the growth to new trends in consumer values. “People are looking for gifts that are ‘meaningfully made’ and ‘ethically sourced,’” she explained––and TNP has become a “major source” for malas in the Pacific Northwest. Best sellers include malas made of carved sandalwood beads, rose quartz, and coral beads.
Some malas aren’t malas at all––I know of one particularly creative Northwest practitioner who devised a counter for his bicycle, so he could count mantras while riding. He also envisions his bicycle wheels as Tibetan prayer wheels, increasing and sending out merit as he pedals them into turning.
This article originally appeared in the winter 2019 issue of Northwest Dharma News.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.