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Clark Strand traces the history of malas and how this ancient practice brings peace.
TAKE UP A BUDDHIST MALA, and right away you notice how good it feels in your hands. The same is true of the prayer beads of any religious tradition. First, there is the soothing feel of the beads themselves, which only increases as they become smoother or darken with use. Then there is what they symbolize—the tangible link to an age-old tradition. Run a string of prayer beads through your hands and you are touching an ancient practice. Yours are only the most recent set of fingers to caress such beads, and others will take them up later, after you are gone.
On a more literal note, the mala is also a kind of Buddhist robe. Worn about the neck or wrist, it is, after a monk's shaved head, the most recognizable sign of Buddhist affiliation—especially for laypeople who might not otherwise be identified as such. In the beginning, in fact, prayer beads were mostly designed for the layperson's use. Monks now carry them, but if we follow the various bead traditions back far enough, we usually find that they were a way of adapting monastic discipline to the limits and demands of nonmonastic life. The Catholic "rosary," so named when travelers to India mistranslated the Sanskrit word japamala as "rose beads," is a perfect example. Its one hundred and fifty Hail Marys (completed by going through the beads three times) were a substitute for observing the monastic hours, in which all one hundred and fifty psalms were chanted. Likewise, the fifteen "mysteries," episodes from the lives of Jesus and Mary, were intended to function as a summary of the Gospel for ordinary illiterate people who were unable to read the Bible on their own. Even in the Buddhist tradition, the first prayer beads were not intended for monks' use.
According to a popular legend on the origins of Buddhist mala practice, King Vaidunya once said to the Buddha: "In recent years, disease and famine have swept my country. The people are distressed, and I worry about this night and day without interruption. Ours is a pitiful condition. The totality of the dharma is too profound and extensive for us to practice, given these circumstances. Please teach me just the main point of the dharma so that I may practice it and teach it to others."
The Buddha replied: "King, if you want to eliminate earthly desires, make a circular string of 108 bodhi seeds and, holding them always to yourself, recite, ‘I take refuge in the Buddha. I take refuge in the dharma. I take refuge in the Sangha.' Count one bead with each recitation of these three."
This is the earliest tale of Buddhist mala practice, and it was clearly intended for those who, unlike members of the Buddha's monastic assembly, could not abandon the worries of secular life. That mala beads later came to be used by the monks themselves probably testifies to their effectiveness in calming the kinds of worries that afflict us all, monk and lay alike. When questioned in an interview, even the Dalai Lama admits to being attached to his beads.