Malas are probably one of my favourite magickal tools, they walk a line between practical and transcendent; they are devotional, developmental, chargeable, and portable. Plus if you’re fashion forward they can be used as accessories, unfortunately the colours and materials of my malas have more to do with their purpose than looking good. So I’m sure most of the time I’m committing some fashion faux pas, does this mala make my Yesod look big?
What are malas? Mala means garland in Sanskrit, in Tibetan they’re called phreng ba (Wylie) and simply put they’re a string of beads often worn as a necklace or bracelet, or carried in a pouch. A brief disclaimer, I’m speaking from my training and education but different lamas and sects have different views and rules on malas, if you’ve heard something else, I’m not saying they’re wrong, just different. Traditionally a mala has 108 beads, but 54, 36, 27, and 21 bead malas are relatively common, though I have no real use or understanding of the smaller malas, only having training in the use of the 108 bead malas.
Some traditions believe that every X number of beads has to be of a noticeably different size so you can keep track by feel, I’ve never been taught that and frankly haven’t found a need for it. At the end of the mala, where the string comes back upon itself there are three beads of a different size or colour, that are connected to the side of the mala. These are called the guru beads or the gem beads, as they represent the triple gem of the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings), and the Sangha (community). Sometimes there is a single bead in which case it represents your lama, and that contains the triple gem as through lama devotion do you gain access to the triple gem.
While cotton, wool, and other natural materials are traditional for malas, for practical reasons I restring all my malas onto an elastic cord and I commonly see them on nylon, metal thread, and more. There are three main materials the beads are made from: wood/seeds, bone, and crystal. Some traditions heavily emphasize that the beads must be sandalwood (they probably mean acacia and that’s a translation error), or bodhi seeds, or rudraksa beads. I’ve found that with wood/seeds that material doesn’t seem to make much of a difference and my lama never stressed one over the other. Bone malas were traditionally made from human skulls, giving them more of a flat disc than a round bead, but now almost all bone malas are made out of yak bone. Crystal malas have become popular but I can’t find much on how traditional they are, but one of the lamas I studied with briefly suggested that quartz malas are the best we can use as their “molecular makeup” will change with our use. While I don’t believe that, I can see quartz doing a great job at holding onto what we put into it, but I’ve never had an issue with wood holding the “charge.” Again my lama doesn’t stress materials much one way or the other. With cross-pollination with the West crystal malas are now being believed to pick up all sorts of powers based on what they are made from. Rose quartz resonates with compassionate practices, onyx and garnet with wrathful practices, amber with healing, etc. I don’t discount the idea but it isn’t that traditional and I like wood malas just fine.
So how are malas used? Most commonly and obviously a mala is a counting device. You use a mala to keep track of how many times you’ve said a mantra, recited a name, or performed a prostration or other action. Every time you complete a mala you count yourself as having completed 100 repetitions, there are 108 beads but eight are there assuming you’ll make mistakes several times.
Using the mala for mantra/names is the most common use (sometimes called japamala other times japamala is just used to refer to a mala) and there are many reasons, benefits, and effects for doing this. Different schools, different thoughts, but I was taught that for every syllable in a name or mantra that you have to recite it 100,000 times. Om Mani Padma Hum is a quick little 600,000 recitations while Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Soha is 1,700,000. (This grows exponentially as not only does every syllable add in another 100,000 recitations, but that extra syllable has to be said an extra 100,000 times. 3.6 million syllables with Om Mani Padma Hum and 28.9 million with Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Soha. This means in this case three times as many syllables in a mantra equal eight times as much work).
Aside from anything mystical and internal this is a brilliant act of devotion. More than anything if you say the name or mantra associated with a particular figure hundreds of thousands of times, it will get their attention and it will serve as a show of your devotion to them. A practical side to malas as a mantra counter is simply timing, it is an easy way of making sure you devote a certain amount of time to a mantra without setting an alarm. The last major practical facet of a mala is use in meditation, this applies in many ways, but the most “mundane” of them is simply that if you cannot focus on a broad thought verbally and mentally reciting a mantra over a mala brings the mind to something concrete forcing out other thoughts. Using a mala while reciting and visualizing a mala brings body, speech, and mind into harmony.
Of course aside from the practical stuff there is a lot of stuff associated with malas (and mantras) that are far more fun. The most obvious is siddhis, which means attainment or accomplishment (and many other things), which are believed to be granted by reciting vast amounts of mantras. Siddhis can be understood as blessings and abilities, they range from mythic and powerful (shape-changing, instant travel) to more magickal and mundane siddhis (long life, protection from spirits, ability to read minds, health). Related to this there are various rituals and spells that require the recitation of mantras to complete. Again this is where malas as counters are useful.
What is interesting (though a point of dispute) is reciting a mantra over a mala has an extra benefit. A siddhi is a personal thing, it is a part of you, but a mala with hundreds of thousands of mantra recitations over it also has that siddhi or an imprint of it. Perhaps it is not as “powerful” but the same effect seems to radiate from a completed mala. This means a completed mala both serves as a tool of personal development and becomes a magickal tool in its own right. It can be given as a gift, kept as a “connection” to the siddhi, or the siddhi-energy (for lack of knowing a better term) can also be transferred into another item. I’ve used the last to make blessed pendants before and it has proven to be a very efficacious method.
Of course there are many examples in Buddhist and Hindu magick where the recitation of thousands of mantras are used in order to enchant a specific end. I wouldn’t presume to limit this to Buddhist and Hindu systems, similar patterns of recitation can be used for other works. I’ve had a few Angels request that I dedicate a mala to them, as I have done with various Buddhist figures, which greatly increased my collection of malas as shown above. So there is a use outside of Buddhism, I have my devotional malas for some of the Angels I work with and used them as counters for various rituals.
If you don’t use a mala, I recommend them, they’re relatively cheap (unless you buy bone or stone), they’re practical, and easy to keep with you.