Article The Buddhist Rosary or Mala ©
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Article Date : 03 June 2012
Article Author : Chris Jones

The Buddhist Rosary or Mala

Nearly two-thirds of the world's population meditates or prays with beads, and the Hindu or Buddhist mala is the great mother of rosaries. From India and the Himalayan kingdoms, it traveled east to China and Japan. It also traveled west to Africa and Europe, where it evolved into the Islamic subha, the Christian rosary, the Eastern Orthodox prayer rope, and the secular worry beads used throughout Greece and the Middle East.

The rosary, or mala is an important part of a Buddhist monk's attire, usually consisting of 108 smooth beads, corresponding to the number of mental conditions or sinful desires that can be overcome by recitation with the beads. Although monks use full chains of 108 beads, rosaries carried by lay people often consist of only thirty or forty beads or other numbers divisible by nine

Chanting with a string of 108 prayer beads helps the Buddhist reach an interior state of supreme reality beyond time and place. In his silent flower discourse, Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (563-483 BCE), when asked to shed light on Buddhist laws, merely held up a flower and gazed at it in silence. This silence corresponds to the mystic calm reigning within the supreme state of nirvana.

The word derives from the Sanskrit verb nir-va, meaning "to blow out," very like a candle. It suggests the extinguishing of ingrained thought and behavior patterns based on human attachment to sensual pleasures, which bring with them hatred, jealousy, anger and delusion.

Meditating with mala beads on this present state of samsara, or the cyclical nature of attachment and suffering, enables you to become aware that, as everything you desire and cherish must end, so attachment to it is futile. By confronting this truth, Buddhists come to terms with the transience of all things, gradually learning to surrender the illusion of permanence and attain release from temporal bondage.

Buddhists and Hindus use the Mala to count the number of times a katha or mantra is chanted. The practice of counting the number of times a mantra is chanted, recited or metally repeated is known in Sanskrit as japa. Performing a complete 108 repetition of a mantra counts as 100 recitations as the extra repetitions are to amend for mistakes in pronunciation or other such faults.

Unlimited tolerance is an essential principle of Buddhism, a concept reflected in the various forms and materials of its prayer beads. Materials used to make these beads can vary from molten lead or precious metals, bone, ivory and sacred woods such as the wood or seeds of the Bodhi tree.

Bone malas, such as elephant bone used by Luang Phor Suk prompt the devotee to recall the Buddha's teachings about the impermanence of the world.


Shorter malas such as the finger above were traditionally devised for use with prostrate methods of prayer: ideally a mala should never touch the ground.

The Mala string itself is usually composed of either three, five or nine threads symbolizing the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha), the five Dhyani Buddhas (Vairocana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi) and their wisdoms or the nine yanas or Buddha Vajradhara and eight Bodhisattvas.

Typically the Mala will have one large central bead often called the Guru bead, symbolizes the monk, from whom one has received the mantra that is being recited.

Mantras are typically repeated hundreds or even thousands of times. The mala is used so that one can focus on the meaning or sound of the mantra rather than counting its repetitions. One repetition is usually said for each bead while turning the thumb clockwise around each bead.

When arriving at the Guru bead, Hindus traditionally turn the mala around and then go back in the opposing direction. However, Buddhists do not do this, passing over the Guru bead and continuing in the same direction.

There are numerous explanations why there are 108 beads. In traditional Buddhist thought, people are said to have 108 afflictions. There are six senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and consciousness) multiplied by three reactions (positive, negative, or indifference) making 18 "feelings." Each of these feelings can be either "attached to pleasure or detached from pleasure" making 36 "passions", each of which may be manifested in the past, present, or future.