To kindness (and beyond) in 108 beads

By Michael Lobsang Tenpa

Very few things in the Dharmic traditions of the Indian subcontinent are as enigmatic as the origins of the number 108. While Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Jainism and Buddhism—along with the modern-day New Age authors—all have their own ideas about the signifance of the figure, no particular way to trace this number to its ultimate historical root seems to exist. Just like the mantric syllable OM itself, it is both mysterious and perennial.

While Buddhism in no way claims to be the original source of this intriguing number, it does use it extensively. By the time of the great philosophers Chandrakirti and Shantideva, an important sutra they both quoted from, Descent into Lanka, already contained a chapter in which Bodhisattva Mahamati posed a hundred and eight questions to the Buddha, seeking to clarify such issues as “How is a thought purified?” and “Where do thoughts originate?” The Buddha responds with a hundred and eight statements of his own, quoting the awakened beings of the past as the source for his replies. In the Sūtra of Boundless Life (Tsedo), the Buddha repeatedly references the 108 names of Buddha Āmitāyus, praising the benefits of reciting and praising these names. For the Vajrayāna textual tradition, at least two early Tantric hymns (one of them translated here) listing the hundred and eight names of Tara were preserved in Tibet preserved, both beautiful in their way of praising our ultimate potential as exemplified by the goddess. Similar texts listing one hundred eight names exist for Avalokiteśvara, Khamgarbha, Samantabhadra, Maitreya, and for the Buddha himself. These, of course, mirror hymns of the same genre that exist in the Hindu tradition.

On a more institutional side, the monastic university of Vikramashila is said to have had 108 temples: the main one, 54 smaller ones dedicated to the common teachings of the Buddha, and 53 for the practice of the uncommon tantric teachings. In addition to that, the Indian king Dharmapala was providing the means for the 108 panditas of Vikramashila to continue their studies and practice; this is perhaps the earliest recorded case of benefactorship associated specifically with this number. Still a powerful basis for rejoicing! Furthermore, the great master Vasubandhu, author of many quintessential treatises still used by the Tibetan and Chinese traditions, is quoted as creating 108 Dharma centres in Magadha, and the same number of centres in Odivisha (modern-day Orissa).

When Buddhism arrived to Tibet, the sacred number became similarly embedded in the religious thinking of the country. Sources related to Padmasambhava’s life state that a hundred and eight gifted youngsters were sent to the Indian subcontinent to train in languages and to bring back scriptures for the great translation project initiated by King Trisong Deutsen. When the translated teachings of the Buddha were being compiled into Kangyur (most likely during the period of the new translation schools, or sarma, with the final editions produced by Buton Rinchen Drup), the editors chose to organize the most important texts in 108 volumes. Almost 800 years later later, in the 19th century, the prolific non-sectarian scholar Jamgon Kongrul Lodro Thaye wrote a biography for the most important tertons, or treasure teaching revealers, once again symbolically enumerating them as one hundred and eight; this shows that the number remained highly significant throughout the entire history of the Tibetan literary tradition.

108 beads

For people who did not grow up in an environment associated with one of the Dharmic traditions, the first encounter with the number 108 often has more to do with merchandise than anything philosophy- or practice-oriented: most mass-produced malas (prayer beads) used for practice or simply as jewelry have 108 beads. While scrolling through the numerous malas offered on Etsy and similar platforms, one might get to see a huge variety of bead-related creations, many of them beautiful as an ornament—even if not fully usable as a tool for serious Tibetan Buddhist practice.

A mala (trengwa in Tibetan) literally means “garland”; in both Sanskrit and Tibetan this term can be used to refer to a string of flowers, to a range of mountains, or to any other garland, metaphorical or literal. However, when the word “mala” itself is used as a borrowed term in modern English, it almost exclusively refers to an Indian-style rosary, commonly used by the practitioners of the Dharmic traditions. The

specific way of using a mala is slightly different in the different lineages of spiritual practice. Certain common points exist (such as the number of beads or the respect afforded to the rosary), and yet there are major differences as well, even when it comes to the material that a mala is made of. For example, while rudraksha seeds are used by both Hindus and Buddhist, other materials remain fairly exclusive to a specific tradition: tulsi basil malas are only popular amongst the followers of Vishnu, while the so-called “bodhi seeds” and “lotus seeds” are exclusively used by Buddhist. In many places, like the Pashupatinath complex and the Swayambhu hill in Nepal (where Hindu and Buddhist holy sites overall), an experienced eye would immediately recognise which tradition one belongs to by seeing one’s prayer beads.

For Buddhists, malas, as a sequence of beads on a looped string, represent the unending flow of positive qualities. When explaining the significance of the crystal mala held by the four-armed form of Avalokiteśvara,famed translator Tulku Thondup Rinpoche notes that it is held “to symbolise that Buddha’s loving-kindness never ends”. On the Vajrayāna level of teachings, the beads also come to represent the deities of a specific mandala and the syllables of a mantra (or all the mantras one recites).

The best way to create, keep and use malas in the Indo-Tibetan tradition is described in great detail in the Vajrayāna sources. A lot of these teachings are said to originate with Padmasambhava (quite appropriate, since one of his most important philosophical works is called A Mala of Views). According to these instructions, the rosary of a serious Vajrayāna practitioner becomes such an indispensable part of one’s life that it is never to be separated from the warmth of one’s body—never to be left behind. Of course, before forming such a bond with a rosary, strengthened by using it again and again on a daily basis, one would typically carefully choose a suitable one and bless it (or have it blessed), turning it into a valuable tool for one’s practice of mind training through mantra and prayer repetition.

Parts of a mala

Any Buddhist male made in accordance with the traditional instructions would have the following elements:

Counting beads. These are the beads actually used for counting; they would always number as a 108 and be of the same material. While souvenir malas would sometimes combine multiple materials in order to look ornamental, that is not common for practice-oriented malas.

Thread. While traditional sources recommend a cord woven out of 3, 5 or 9 threads and made by a young girl, most malas in this day and age are made using durable synthetic strings. The cord needs to be long enough for the beads to move around easily, but not so long that one has to struggle to reach the next bead.

Head bead / Guru Bead. This is a bead (usually larger in size) that begins and closes the loop. Since it represents the guru, one would not go over this bead while counting; instead, one is supposed to turn the mala around and continue moving in the opposite direction.The string goes through this bead towards the bumpa and the knot.

Bumpa. This little piece crowning the head bead often looks like a three-tier stupa, representing the three bodies of a Buddha; because of that, some mala-makers colloquially refer to it as a “stupa”. In some styles of mala making, the head bead and the bumpa are replaced with three guru beads following each other: white (closest to the counting beads), red, and blue (closest to the knot), also representing the three bodies of an enlightened being.

Knot. Buddhist malas do not typically use tassels, as those are not durable and do not add any practical value. Instead, the bumpa is followed by a strong knot. These are of two primary types: fixed and adjustable. Having an adjustable knot on one’s mala allows one to adjust the tightness and the distance between the counting beads. However, since it takes some of effort to learn the way to make sliding knots (see a video instruction here), people who string their own malas sometimes go for a simpler fixed version.

The following elements are added sometimes, but are not indispensable:

Dividers. These three additional beads divide the mala into four equal parts; alternatively, they can be placed at irregular intervals, such as after the first 21 beads, in the very middle of a mala and so on. Often made from another material or from beads of a larger (or smaller) size, these bring up the overall number of beads to 111. Different masters have different views on whether having dividers is good in terms of creating positive interdependence. However, one of the malas used by the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, now preserved as a precious relic, includes multiple coral dividers—some even placed right next to the guru bead in a relatively unconventional design!

Counters. There are two types of counters. One type (chu dzab) consists of ten small rings on a string, often combined with a vajra or a bell (or another auspicious symbol) at the end. Having completed one mala, one moves a small ring towards the body of the mala itself; when ten rings on one counter have been moved, one moves the first ring (representing one thousand repetitions) on the other counter, and then restarts the process. Some Himalayan practitioners have 6 or more of such counters on their mala, making the whole process a bit tricky to navigate but helping them keep track of the incredible numbers they are accumulating.

Another type of counters is made of metal and is only moved around for keep track of larger numbers. These would often be shaped as an auspicious knot, a flower, a Dharma wheel, and so on.

End beads. These are usually small decorative beads, often of the same material as the main beads, attached to the end of the mala string after the knot. On occasion, other decorative elements, such as metal flowers or even dzi beads, are added for auspiciousness or ornamentation. Plain malas might not have any of these.

Common materials for creating malas

Although a mala can be made from anything that can be fashioned into a bead, two distinct principles are often quoted as the basis for making one’s choice: that of general value and that of associated activities.

When it comes to the value of malas, Padmasambhava (as quoted by such modern-day masters as Gyatrul Rinpoche and Zurmang Rinpoche) outlines three levels. The most valuable malas, according to him, would be made from such precious materials as gold, silver, diamond and coral—due to their worldly worth, we would also feel very special about them (although walking around with a diamond mala, as Zurmang Rinpoche jokingly points out, might not be the safest option for most of us). Medium-grade rosaries are made from seeds of beneficial plants, and the least valuable rosaries (that are still perfectly good for practice) would be made from wood, clay, stone, or medicinal substances.

If one wants to choose a mala based on the activity one seeks to perform through one’s practice, a different logic is applied. Malas made of conch shells, crystal, seeds or most types of wood are appropriate for pacifying practices. Beads made from yellow and gold-coloured materials, along with apricot stones are good for expanding, or enriching. Coral, rubies, carnelian, red agate, mahogany and so on are used for magnetising, and finally, lava stone, rudraksha, bone and steel are meant for wrathful activities. Bone malas, although inexpensive and very easily accessible in Himalayan stores, are said to be exclusively meant for wrathful practices, which would normally already imply a certain level of Vajrayāna mastery already.

Certain materials are also mentioned to have the power to multiply the power of one’s mantras; among those, bodhi seeds are praised most highly, with silver, copper, rudraksha, rubies, pearls and some other materials described as having similar, though less strong, properties.

In terms of the malas most commonly used by lamas and common practitioners alike, some of the most popular materials for modern-day rosaries include the following.

Bodhi seeds. Contrary to a common misconception, these have no connection to the bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa) that the Buddha sat down under prior to attaining enlightenment. The bodhi seeds used for making malas are primarily divided into two big categories: “Indian bodhi” (often sold in Bodhgaya and other places of Buddhist pilgrimage) and “Nepali bodhi”. While Indian bodhi seeds can be inexpensively purchased in India and abroad and are perfectly good for making malas, it appears that most texts praising the benefits of bodhi malas are referring to the Nepali variety (Ziziphus budhensis), originally planted in a specific region of Nepal by Padmasambhava himself. Due to their popularity, the price for these seeds skyrocketed in the recent years and is kept high by the demand in the Chinese market. The smaller the bead, the more expensive it is, to the point where a mala with 8-9mm beads can sometimes cost up 800-1000 US dollars.

Some sellers occasionally try to pass a much cheaper type of seed, known in Nepal as raktu, for proper bodhi seeds. While somewhat similar in terms of their look, raktu seeds are extremely cheap (to the point where a whole mala can cost about 1 US dollar) and not very durable; when they dry down, a bead can easily be cracked by applying a little bit of pressure. Raktu malas often have an actual Nepali bodhi seed as the guru bead.

Lotus. In the Chinese market, these seeds are also known as “moon and stars”: they can be distinguished by a number of smaller dots (representing stars) and a small hole (representing the moon). In terms of botany, these have no connection to the actual lotus plant (or any other flower resembling lotuses, such as water lily) and are the polished seeds of rattan (Daemonorops jenkinsiana).

These seeds are relatively popular in the Kagyu tradition — the Sixteenth Karmapa used to give “moon and stars” malas as gifts on occasion — and are either dyed reddish brown or left white/beige. One should note that these seeds can also be imitated using plastic. Real rattan seeds would gradually get darker through use, while the plastic imitation would retain its original color.

Sandalwood. There are two types of sandalwood primarily used for creating malas: the aromatic white sandalwood (Santalum album), known in India as safed chandan, and the non-aromatic red sandalwood (Pterocarpus santalinus), known as rakta chandan or lal chandan. Both are used to make beautiful malas, but it is white sandalwood in particular that is popular for making debate malas commonly used in the Gelug tradition. It is because of this connection that His Holiness the Dalai Lama can often be seen using a white sandalwood rosary.

Rudraksha. Although often associated with Shiva worship and the Hindu tradition in general, rudraksha beads of different varieties (and with a different number of “faces”, or sides) are also used in Buddhism, especially in the Nyingma tradition. Some Nyingma lineages even recommend them as the primary material to use for three-year retreats—most likely because the main practices to be performed in such retreats have to do with advanced Vajrayāna techniques. That being said, such malas are not common amongst beginners and are not usually used for peaceful mantras.

Stones and minerals. Multiple types of precious, semi-precious and common stones are used for making malas. One should note these stone-based malas typically a bit heavier than malas made from seeds or wood—if the beads are large (8mm and above), the sheer weight of the mala is likely to damage the string much faster than with wood-based malas. If that happens, the mala simply needs to be restrung, ideally (as the teachings state) within 1 day.

Being the most common mineral on earth, quartz in particular is often used for making relatively inexpensive malas, including those made from transparent crystal; in India, these rosaries are known as sphatik, also commonly used by Hindu practitioners. Citrine, amethyst, rose quartz and other varieties of the same mineral are frequently used as well, along with lab-dyed and lab-grown quartz of different types. Lab-dyed quartz stones (painted and then heated so that the paint can enter the small cracks) are also frequently passed for other minerals, including peridot and jade.

Two mineral-based materials to be careful with—often serving as ornaments in the Tibetan folk culture—are turquoise and coral. With turquoise, one has to be very careful with finding genuine stones, as most modern turquoise malas are made from imitation stones (including dyed howlite and magnesite), since the reserves of genuine unadulterated turquoise in the world are dwindling. Real coral is similarly extremely expensive; one large red bead made from sea coral can cost as much as 1000 US dollars, so if a full “coral” mala is affordable, it is definitely made from other stones or imitation materials.

Two more stone-like substances that are popular in the Buddhist world are pearls (available in various colours, including pink and black) and amber. Buddhist monastics in India and Nepal are often seen using amber malas, desirable for their yellow color that is seen as auspicious for Mañjuśrī practice; however, checking whether the amber is real can be a bit tricky unless a mala is purchased with an authenticity certificate from the Baltic countries where most of the amber in this world is still found. A cheaper, younger form of amber known as copal can also sometimes be used, but even that is often imitated using tree resins or simply plastic.

At the end of the day, the material of the mala one uses depends on one’s personal inclinations; while some materials are historically praised above others, it also crucial that one’s mala sits comfortably in the hand and brings one joy. Having met many high teachers from the different Buddhist traditions of Tibet—Rinpoches, tulkus, khenpos and geshes—I have seen them use a wide variety of malas, from humble plastic to beautiful natural amber, with almost everything in between. The most common materials have always been Nepali bodhi, rudraksha, and white sandalwood.

In his book on mala creation and use, Zurmang Rinpoche also mentions that the following types of malas are to be avoided:

1. Malas forcibly taken from other practitioners.

2. Malas previously offered to the Buddha, or previously used as ornaments for Buddhist statues.

3. Malas that have less or more than 108 main counter beads.

4. Malas with damaged beads—unless one can replace them.

Blessing a mala

While many practitioners like to have their mala blessed by a lama, one is ideally also supposed to keep personally blessing one’s mala on a regular basis. Elaborate meditation practices are occasionally used for that purpose, but Lama Zopa Rinpoche would commonly advise students to simply recite the blessing mantra (OM RUCHIRA MANI PRAVARTAYA HUM PHAT) and then blow on the mala. More elaborate meditations for the same purpose are taught in different Vajrayāna cycles and would be performed by those who have an empowerment into a specific Vajrayāna system.

Secrecy and the number of malas

Some texts mention that one’s primary mala is to be kept away from other people’s eyes and only used in private daily practice or in retreat. For this reason, some Vajrayāna masters always cover their hand with a shawl while performing their recitations in public (during pujas or while giving an empowerment). Additionally, seasoned Himalayan practitioners would often have two malas: one for private practice and retreats, and another one to be used in public—for example, when circumambulating the Boudhanath stupa or the stupa in Bodhgaya.

Some practitioners would also have separate malas dedicated to different practices, as was the habit of the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.

The perfect balance between “one and many” is to be found individually, but any mala we have is meant to be treated as a spiritual tool and not something to show off lightly. A mala is also not to be put into other people’s hands, not to be passed around, and not to be played around with—which makes it very different from the Greek worry beads known as komboloi.

Using a mala

Once a mala is chosen and blessed, one starts actually using it for counting mantras or prayers.

In the absolute majority of practices, a mala, as taught by Guru Rinpoche and later generations of masters, is to be held in the left hand. Using one’s thumb, one moves the beads towards oneself, as if drawing forth blessings and positive energy.

Exceptions are only made for certain dispelling practices, such as reciting the mantra of the Lion-Faced Dakini for warding off negative influences: in that case, the mala might be held in the right hand and the beads might be pushed away. However, the left-hand rule remains true for 99% of most recitation practices performed in the Indo-Tibetan tradition: if you ever observe practitioners who are circumambulating the Boudhanath stupa while doing their recitations, the only ones using their right hand would be Westerners that are still finding their way around the Vajrayāna tradition.

Depending on the specific activity one is performing, the beads, while being held in the left hand, could be placed over one’s index finger (corresponding to peaceful activities), middle finger (enriching), ring finger (magnetising) or pinky (wrathful activities). The general position, in which the mala is held between one’s thumb and the index finger, is said to be acceptable for all activities and all practices.

As was mentioned earlier, when one reaches the guru bead, one flips the mala and starts going back, instead of stepping over the head bead. One full mala is always counted as a 100 repetitions; the additional 8 (on a mala without dividers) or 11 (when dividers are used) are not counted, representing an attempt to make up for one’s mistakes during recitation. Thus, ten full malas are recorded as a 1000 repetitions, not 1080. Additionally, when sneezing, yawning, or coughing, one is meant to move back a few beads each time, making sure the generated energy of mantras is maintained properly.

One warning that is sometimes voiced by the lamas is making sure each bead is indeed accompanied by one repetition. When getting

excited, beginner practitioners occasionally start going through their beads at a pace that is much higher than the pace of their actual recitation; I’ve personally seen people go through a full mala while performing barely just a few repetitions of their mantra! While the enthusiasm is understandable, the use of a mala is in itself a wonderful exercise in mindfulness, vigilance and carefulness— three mental factors that play a crucial role in strengthening our inner balance and ethical behaviour.

The number 108 is mysterious in its origins and often merely symbolic in its meaning, representing Dharmic auspiciousness—but the practice of training the mind we can perform with the use of our malas is very real.

A popular Tibetan folk song says “It is better to sing a song with kindness than to recite om mani padme hum with an ugly heart”—but if the recitations are helping us strengthen the beautiful qualities of our heart-mind, a mala becomes a true tool of personal and collective liberation.

Just like with Chenrezig crystal mala, our own malas can also represent a never-ending flow of loving kindness that we are extending to ourselves and to all sentient beings, knowing validly that eventually we will be able to make the overall tapestry of interdependence more auspicious for everyone involved.