How To Use a Mala—This Meditator’s Views
Many people haven’t heard of malas, and many are just starting to hear the term. A mala is a set of Buddhist or Hindu prayer beads with a set number that’s symbolic in many ways.
A person who practices meditation with a mala will usually use it to count prayers, mantras, or breaths. That’s the traditional use, but of course, in these eclectic days when we’re all inspired by each other and trying new things, many people use them as spiritual jewelry and sometimes combine this with crystal energy work. This is can lead people into a deep spiritual practice.
Prayer and mantra practice brings us face to face with the divine. Just by contemplating Buddhas and other deities, we awaken their energy in ourselves, receiving blessing and overcoming negative karma. Mantras bring their energy deep into our psyches.
Another way I think of malas and mantra recitation is as a way to focus, come back to center, and recharge. I set an intention (that all beings may be happy and free from suffering), and then say the mantra I’m trying to “accumulate” a certain number of. While I repeat the mantra, I hold the prayer beads in my left hand, usually by my heart to bring the energy of the mantra into my heart—but often I hold my hand in my lap, which is fine, too. I try to rest my mind and not get “caught up” in how many mantras I say—the mala will keep track and I can relax fully. At the end, I dedicate my practice to the well being of all sentient beings. All of them, big and little, seen and unseen, easy and not easy to get along with—it doesn’t matter.
Many people visualize a particular holy image as they say the matching mantra.
One of the most loved and well known is Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion embodied in human form by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. In Buddhist images, Avalokiteshvara is shown with many hands, sometimes even 1000, which shows that he has many ways to help beings.
While contemplating him, the mantra is Om Mani Padme Hung, pronounced Ohm Mahnee Paymay Hoom.
Other mantras you can search and enjoy are the 100-syllable mantra for purification and healing, the Tara mantras, and the Vajra Guru mantra of Guru Rinpoche. There’s also a mantra of the Medicine Buddha! Many of these mantras are recorded and available on the web, and they’re beautiful! The Vajra Guru mantra is available from ZamAmerica’s bookstore online (http://zamamerica.stores.yahoo.net/) on a beautifully chanted CD.
Prayer and mantra repetition with or without a mala is a great way to relax, come closer to our “true nature”, and feel the presence of benevolent, holy beings. You don’t have to sign up or be an expert, although learning from a teacher or attending a teaching, seminar, or retreat is a really good idea.
Many malas have special beads at certain places like 7, 9, 21, 27, and 56 to let the user know when to stop repeating if they’ve decided to only say that many mantras. A full mala is 108 beads, but many will have 3, 5, or 7 marker beads to make 111 beads total. These numbers differ according to what discipline or tradition you follow. There are also 21-bead wrist malas, 27-bead pocket malas, and half malas with 54 beads. Malas can be used to count the many prostrations which many Tibetan Buddhists practitice.
Wearing a mala isn’t acceptable in some Buddhist traditions, yet in many others it is fine.
It’s more common to wear malas in yoga traditions. The main thing, I think, is to treat it like an object with a sacred use—gently and with respect.
Whether you choose to wear it or not, keeping it close in a mala bag throughout the day is a great way to remember your practice. Padmasambhava, or Guru Rinpoche, the Tibetan “second Buddha”, said to keep it close and warm at all times! Wearing a wrist mala is another way. And finally, tucked away in your pocket, a 27 or 54-bead mala can help you stay calm, peaceful, and positive when things get rough at work or in daily life. Just remember your positive intentions whenever you touch it.
For more information about using a mantra, I recommend The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. This easy-to-find, wonderful book talks about mantras in the chapter on meditation (chapter 5) and also in the Appendix.
I hope this helps inspire you to use a mala. It is truly a wonderful spiritual tool that becomes a close friend during practice.