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A Guide To Mala Beads

Guide To Mala Beads

Welcome to Golden Lotus Mala's guide to mala beads a straight forward article covering nearly everything you need to know about meditation and prayer with your mala, history, usage, and caring for your sacred beads. If you find this guide to be useful feel free to pass it along to your friends and share it on social media. 

What is a Mala?

Mala is a word from the Sanskrit language of ancient India and Nepal, it translates to "garland" in English, just as the word rosary which is a Latin term similarly means "garland of roses". A mala is often referred to as "prayer beads" or "Buddhist rosary."

A mala is a sacred tool used traditionally to count breaths while meditating, the number of times a mantra (prayer) is recited, or counting prostrations in Buddhism. These mantras can be recited for different purposes linked to working with the mind.

They are also worn as a necklace or bracelet to accompany meditation practice. A tassel is often attached to the beads, some are adorned with talismans or amulets depending on one's personal preference or tradition. 

The History of Mala Beads

Thousands of years ago, sometime around the 8th century BC, the ancient seers of India began to use beads to assist with their meditation. There is a text in the Mokugenji Sutra that tells the story of a king named Haruri who sought Siddhartha Gautama's teaching of a way by which the wisdom of Buddhism could be shared with his people. According to the Sutra, the Buddha replied:

King, if you want to eliminate earthly desires and to put an end to their suffering, make a circular string of 108 beads made from the seeds of the Mokugenji tree. Hold it always to yourself. Recite "Namu Buddha - Namu Dharma - Namu Sangha." Count one bead with each recitation.

Namu comes from the Sanskrit word "namas" meaning to devote or dedicate oneself. It was from this sutra text the number of 108 beads in a mala originated.

Although the number of beads on a mala is the same in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the reason given for that number is different. Hinduism draws on the cosmic significance of the number itself, while Buddhism refers to the number of passions to which one is striving to "put an end." More about that below.

History of Mala Beads
Pictured Left: 18th Century painting of woman using a mala at an altar in India. Center: Saint Vincent Ferrer's prayer beads painted in year 1437. Right: Emperor Taizong from China holding his mala, circa 1592.

Significance of 108 Beads

Monks and meditators of all kinds use malas to count the number of mantras or prayers they recite. Each of the 108 beads represents a human passion that impedes enlightenment.

The 108 Human Passions

Baseness - Deception - Disrespect
Blasphemy - Deviousness - Negativity
Capriciousness - Lust for power - Dipsomania
Desire for fame - Disrespectfulness - Gambling
Dogmatism - Violent temper - Masochism
Effrontery - Derision - Garrulity
Egoism - Ignorance - Greed
Enviousness - Imposture - Obstinacy
Envy - Deceit - Irresponsibility
Excessiveness - Vanity - Abuse
Greed for money - Ambition - Calculation
Grudge - Delusion - Ingratitude
Hard-hearted - Rage - Self-hatred
Hatred - Wrath - Quarrelsomeness
Headiness - Pessimism - Conceit
High-handedness - Unyielding - Malignancy
Hostility - Anger - Discord
Humiliation - Callousness - Discontent
Hurtfulness - Mendacity - Falseness
Imperiousness - Stinginess - Insatiability
Inattentiveness - Being a know-all - Torment
Jealousy - Censoriousness - Oppression
Lechery - Insidiousness - Intolerance
Mercilessness - Rapacity - Presumption
Ostentatious - Voluptuousness - Gluttony
Pretense - Hypocrisy - Contempt
Pride - Prejudice - Impudence
Prodigality - Seduction - Faithlessness
Ridicule - Arrogance - Unfriendliness
Sarcasm - Manipulation - Cruelty
Self-denial - Lack of comprehension - Dissatisfaction
Sexual addiction - Lust for domination - Obsession
Stubbornness - Shamelessness - Sadism
Tyranny - Intransigence - Aggression
Vindictiveness - Cursing - Indifference
Violence - Haughtiness - Belittlement
* Source

Modern Use of Mala Beads

In recent years, it has become common for non-religious individuals to wear mala beads as fashion accessories, with the beads having differing meanings depending on the type of materials used and without religious affiliation.

Meditation practitioners of all spiritual paths use mala beads for their own personal purposes, some reasons are to count mantra, provide anchoring when meditating, as part of yoga practice, gemstone energy for balancing the chakras, as worry beads for anxiety, and many other uses.

Different Types of Mala Beads

Traditionally a mala will have at minimum 108 beads plus 1 guru, mother, or end bead. The guru or end bead represents a spiritual teacher or being.

Malas also have more than 108+1 beads, they will have 108 primary beads and additional interval (or spacers) which are used to keep track of mantras, prostrations, or for aesthetic purposes.

A mala can be adorned with a tassel, pendant, or knot below the guru. The tassel symbolizes the lotus flower which represents purity and the ability of the mind to transcend human desires to attain enlightenment. 

The beads will normally have a small bit of "give" or "gap" along the cord to allow the beads to move freely for counting.

How to Meditate With Mala Beads

There are many ways to use a mala in your meditation practice. A common way is to use a mantra or chant as you advance through each bead, however this is not a requirement. The simple act of moving the beads through your fingers has a calming effect all on it’s own. Many practitioners like to wear the mala as a necklace during meditation.

What is a Mantra?

A mantra is a word or phrase with a powerful meaning, chanted to discipline the mind as an aid to meditation or as an incantation. While a mantra is repeated, it acts as a point of focus to help unify the mind into one focus, after each recitation of the mantra a bead is pulled forward.

The more pure of heart the practitioner is while repeating the mantra the deeper the effect and the calmer and more unified they become in their meditation. When saying a mantra the mala is used so that one can focus on the meaning or sound of the mantra rather than counting its repetitions.

Examples of Mantras

  • “Om” Sanskrit meaning “It Is” or “To Become”. This is considered a most sacred mantra the vibration of the universal consciousness.
  • “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” - Gandhi
  • “Om Shanti Shanti Shanti” - Buddhist and Hindu, the starting of Om followed by peace of mind, peace of body, and peace of speech.
  • “Om Mani Padme Hum” - Buddhist, a description of this mantra is found here.
  • “I am that I am” - One of the Hebrew Torah’s most famous verses, and it was God’s answer to Moses when Moses asked for his name.
  • “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.” - Laura Silva
  • “I change my thoughts, I change my world.” -  Norman Vincent Peal

Counting the 108 Beads

Traditionally the mala is held in the left hand. Symbolically, this represents bringing forth blessings and virtue. The basic instruction is to use the thumb to move the bead forward.

The large bead on the mala above the tassel is called the guru, mother, or end bead. Traditionally, out of respect, the practitioner never crosses over this bead, but instead reverses direction after moving through the 108 beads.

Wearing the Mala

As an alternative, you may prefer to wear the mala around your neck (like a necklace) as you meditate. A mala acts as an anchor or physical reminder of our commitment or practice and is known to physiologically trigger you into a deeper mind state the more you practice meditation while wearing it.

Praying with a Mala

Another way to use your mala is to hold the beads in prayer form between your hands in front of your heart while reciting a mantra or prayer.

How to Select a Mala

We have a guide on choosing the perfect mala which includes information on color,  intention, gemstone and wood energy properties. 

Cleansing and Charging Your Mala

It is believed that by wearing and handling your mala it transmutes and absorbs energy. You may want to cleanse your mala beads from time to time.

There are several ways to do this, you can recharge them by leaving them lay out in sunlight or moonlight for a few hours. Be mindful of how long you leave beads in the sun as extreme heat could damage them. Never put Amethyst in sunlight as it will fade.

Burning white sage or "smudging" is a tradition that dates back thousands of years. Essentially, a smudge is performed to correct the energy in a home, in an office, in an object, or even in a person. This is accomplished by burning sage or sage and a combination of herbs, in a focused, intentional way to cleanse out negative energy and to replenish positive, healing energy.

Caring For Your Mala

  • Like any cherished or sacred item treat your mala with care, store it in a safe place when not using or wearing.
  • Do not wear your beads while exercising or when practicing any strenuous activities as they may get caught on something and break.
  • Keep your mala out of water, this is especially important if you have a wood or seed mala as the organic material will break down and shorten the lifespan and beauty of the beads.
  • Gemstone and crystal beads are fragile and can be broken if dropped or exposed to extreme pressures.
  • If you need to clean your mala, use a lightly damp cloth and carefully wipe over the beads.

Setting Intentions

Review our guide on how to activate and set intentions for your mala.

What Does It Mean if My Mala Breaks?

When a mala breaks it is a positive expression of the law of cause and effect, creating good karma. If you have a broken mala, you can restring it and have it blessed or set your intentions as you did when you first wore it. 

Can I Meditate With More Than One Mala?

Yes, absolutely. Depending on the materials used in your mala you may have different types of malas for different spiritual purposes or intentions.