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A little over five years ago, I was at a popular meditation center looking at the Buddhist mala beads for sale in their shop. My dad had bought me my first mala, made from rudraksha seeds from a meditation center we visited together some time before (I still have that mala today). I had seen beautiful mala necklaces worn by my peers, wrapped around the wrist of monastics, and online. As I stood there looking at these pieces that ran $200 and up, I said to a friend that I could make those malas myself for much cheaper. I bought some cheap recycled wood beads, some string, and a few tassels. Over the past five years, we have learned a lot about malas, the materials we use, and how helpful they can be in our practice.
What are Mala Beads?
Malas are strands of beads worn around the neck or wrist that are a part of many spiritual traditions. The word mala is Sanskrit, and translates simply to “garland.” Malas are often called Buddhist prayer beads, japa malas, meditation beads, or simply Buddhist necklaces. Whatever you call them, it is important to know what they are, where they come from, how they may help you, and a little bit about our experience in making them. They can be fashionable these days, but there is more than just a pretty face here.
Buddhist Mala Bead History
Mala beads have a rich history. Malas date back to around the 8th century BCE, when they were in the Indian subcontinent by Hindu meditators. Malas were typically made of fragrant woods such as sandalwood or rosewood. Rudraksha malas can also be traced back thousands of years. In the Hindu traditions, the garlands were used as a method of tracking the repetition of mantras. Mantras are used as a form of practicing concentration, and some mantras are prayer to deities. This is why they are sometimes called Buddhist prayer beads. The use of these strung beads became popular, traveling throughout the region and eventually taking hold with the Buddha’s followers as well.
As with many of the Buddhist practices we know today, malas traveled across the world, encountered new places, and changed with the cultures of the land. Malas became popular in China, Japan, Burma, Nepal, and Tibet. With each new culture, malas changed slightly. Malas from different countries are often distinguishable from one another in their material, tassel, guru bead, spacers, and symbology. Although they are traditionally used for counting mantras, people wear necklaces and bracelets in order to carry their practice with them. As people wear them, they eventually began to be made from prettier gemstones. This is common in the West today; we often see malas made from beautiful gemstones and woods.
Mala Bead Meaning and Use Today
Today, it seems malas are mostly a fashionable item. There’s nothing wrong with this, but we do think it’s important to know the history of the item so many of us are wearing and what it actually means. Malas are generally strung with 108 beads. The number 108 is considered sacred in dharmic religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, and there are many theories for this. One of the most common Buddhist theories is that we experience 108 feelings. This is reached by the 6 sense spheres (seeing, tasting, smelling, touching, hearing, and thinking) multiplied by vedana (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral), multiplied by location (internal or external), multiplied by time (present, future, or past). In essence, there are only 108 basic “feeling” experiences we can have. For example, we may have had an unpleasant thought internally when we overslept yesterday.
One of a malas primary purposes is counting. Traditionally, people counted mantras. Mantra recititation is a common practice in many Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Practicioners pick a mantra and repeat it 108 times (or a multiple of 108) as a form of intention-setting and a concentration practice. If mantras and chanting are not your thing, you can use a mala to count the breath or phrases of metta or compassion. We often do this ourselves. We start with the pendant or tassel, and take a mindful breath with each bead. Maybe you go around the mala once or twice, but it allows you the opportunity to meditate without a timer.
Made from 108 beads, malas sometimes have spacer beads, as ours often do. Spacers serve as a break or indicator in counting. On the mala to the right, you can see the black agate beads serving as the spacers. Placed between every 27 beads, the spacers break the mala up into four equal portions. Like the one pictured, malas are often made from 8mm beads, which string together at the perfect wearable length for many people.
People hang their malas on their neck or wrap them around their wrists. They are often worn as a fashion item, but this is also a tradition that is thousands of years old. Some Buddhist traditions hold that the Buddha himself instructed his followers to use and wear malas, specifically the laypeople (not monks). Carrying the mala with us allows us to remember our practice, serving as a reminder of our deeper intentions. When we notice the mala on the skin, we are reminded of our intentions to cultivate mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom.
Types of Buddhist Mala Beads
Many people believe that certain materials contain certain energies, powers, or intentions. These beliefs also date back many years and come from various traditions. One of the most common materials is rudraksha seed. Rudraksha is a Sanskrit word meaning Shiva’s tears, and has been used for over 2,000 years to make malas in India. The seeds are believed to be symbols of Shiva’s tears, and encourage compassion when worn.
Labradorite, a more modern mala material, is a gemstone that comes from Canada. Because of its iridescent appearance, the Inuit people of Canada believed that labradorite fell from the mysterious Aurora Borealis. Labradorite was used as a stone of magic and spirituality, and this tradition has carried into modern culture. Labradorite is believed to be a stone of self-discovery and tuning into the depths of our world. These are just two examples of meanings behind the materials used in malas.
As in the labradorite piece pictured to the right, malas are sometimes made to be worn around the wrist. Wrist malas are just another way to bring our practice to our everyday life. Just like a mala necklace, these pieces may be used for counting. In recent decades, wrist malas have become increasingly popular.
Making a Mala
Here at One Mind Dharma, we have had the pleasure of making malas for a little over five years. Making a mala is quite meditative. If you ever have the chance, we highly recommend trying it yourself. Many malas are strung on cotton or silk as is traditional. We tried this, but prefer stringing the malas on a flexible wire that is 49 strands woven together. This creates a mala that is strong and can withstand use in daily life. We wear our malas every day, hiking, working, and playing with our pets, and want our jewelry to be usable in all circumstances. We have gone through many different stringing materials, and found this wire to be most effective.
One Mind Dharma is proud to purchase materials from small suppliers that support fair compensation and working conditions. We do not use beads that are sold by a big corporation that enslaves its workers. This costs us a bit more, but we prefer not to support that harmful behavior. We also take pride in buying beads that are not dyed. Yes, dyed or enhanced beads are often prettier, but there are several problems with this. First, the dying and enhancement process is generally very bad for the environment and done by the larger companies out there. Also, dyed beads eventually lose their color, leaking onto your skin or clothing. And finally, our experience is that our planet produces some truly beautiful material all by itself. It’s our job to find it for you.
We start by stringing the mala from the opposite end of the tassel or pendant. We string the beads, spacers, pendant or tassel, and crimp the top with Sterling Silver crimping beads. These beads are strong, and the finished product can generally withstand over 20 lbs of pressure. When we make our malas, we do so in silence and use it as a practice. We put our full attention and care into each piece, knowing the experience of owning a mala and how beautiful it can be. We take pride in the meditation beads we create, and also find great joy in knowing that it will one day bring somebody some ease and happiness.
Mala Beads for Sale
If you’ve never own a set of Buddhist prayer beads, you can use the coupon code DHAMMA in the One Mind Dharma shop for 10% off your first order. If you want help picking out a mala, finding something that fits your budget, or building a custom mala with an intention or price in mind, don’t hesitate to contact us! You’re always welcome to email us at [email protected] and we will happily help you. When you buy a mala from us, you can know that you’re supporting people who truly care about your practice and experience. We care about the materials used, who we support with our own money, and appreciate the support we are continually shown by our many repeat customers. You can always visit our About Us page to learn more about who you are supporting. Furthermore, we guarantee our malas. If it EVER breaks (even if it was totally your fault), we are happy to pay to ship it back here and fix it for you! Impermanence is part of life. Things break, and we can work with that.