Sunday, August 15, 2010

Malas: Tibetan Prayer Beads

Garuda Trading, in Cornwall, has these beads from Wu Tai Shan.

In Lieutenant-Colonel Laurence Austine Waddell's 1895 book The Buddhism of Tibet, or Lamaism, he makes mention of the manufacture of prayer beads at Wu Tai Shan, in China, for sale to the Tibetan market. He writes, "These beads are manufactured wholesale by machinery at the temple... ."

Indeed, it has been ever thus. The beads are made in something called a "bead mill." The material is drilled, cut into cubes, the corners are roughed off, and then these blanks are placed in circular mills which gradually machine them to size. They then put them in polishing drums, not unlike the polishing drums used to make Tibetan medicine. Even today, if you go to Wu Tai Shan (looking for Manjushri), you will pass by thousands of prayer beads for sale, made from every substance under the sun.

Lt. Col. Waddell's book, in 1895, was the first Western resource on the topic

So, like everything else, prayer beads are a fun subject with which to occupy your attention from time to time, and they have spawned their own body of myth and lore that is diverting to consider. The Dalai Lama's official website used to have a nice article on the subject, but I see they have taken it down in favor of more political content.

Recently, in another medium, a friend of mine noted that lapis-lazuli beads are used for the Medicine Buddha mantra, so this naturally sparked some interest in which material goes with which mantras.

I cannot pretend to any authority in this matter, so I will just pass along what I have heard. I will leave it to you to conduct your own inquiries.

I have heard that red sandalwood is favored for Hayagriva. Coral is also used for Hayagriva, as it is for Padmasambhava, and by some people for Vajrayogini, Red Tara,  Kurukulle and so forth. Actually, red carnelians are the best for Kurukulle, but you don't often see these done nicely. The coral sets are very expensive: the good ones start at around $2,500 and go up from there. I think $3,000 is the average going price these days. I know an Indian coral dealer in Southern California, and I asked her if these prices were legitimate. She said that the coral fancied by the Tibetans is inferior to other sorts which are less expensive, but since fashion is fashion, the prices are reasonable.

For Manjushri, and certain of the deities associated with wealth, one sees beads of amber, hessonite, which is a kind of honey-colored garnet, topaz, and tiger's eye. It is widely reported that the Dalai Lama uses a tiger's eye mala, and indeed he has one. Actually, he has many different malas. The last time I saw him (2009), he had a simple bodhi seed mala. In any event, tiger's eye is just a chatoyant chalcedony, and the very best kind is a sort of blue and gold. The common ones are brown. The reddish ones are heat treated.

Tarthang Rinpoche's mala is made of goldstone. He acquired it in India, just before he came to America. Goldstone is actually octahedral crystals of copper dispersed in glass, using a process invented in the seventeenth century, in Venice. 

For Tara, many people fancy turquoise, malachite, or even jade. For White Tara, you can choose pearls, which are also sometimes suitable for Chenrezig. Some people prefer white conch for Chenrezig. However, Chenrezig's thoroughly well-established mala is always of crystal. The lead crystal ones are usually inexpensive. The rock crystal ones can be very expensive. For the Medicine Buddha, there is lapis, as we have mentioned, but there is also aquamarine (blue beryl), and blue quartz (dumortierite quartz).

In Waddell's book, he states, "There is no rosary formed of finger-bones, as has been sometimes stated." Actually, there are. The fingers of great Yamantaka practitioners were sometimes made into disc-like beads. These are so rare as to be almost non-existent. You also find them of skull bone, and so forth. Naturally, these are associated with wrathful deities. You often find rudraksha used for this purpose as well. Sometimes, snake spines are used for particular rituals.

Lotus seeds are good for White Mahakala, as are bodhi seeds or even six-lobed rudraksha. You can also use ivory, although a good quality, pre-ban ivory mala will cost in the range of $500 these days.

There is an enormous body of superstition associated with malas, and you can get some of the flavor of this by clicking here. Sort of a "step on a crack and you'll break Mother's back" level of superstition. However, the properties and powers of the various minerals and materials are not superstition; rather, these are rooted in Vedic expression, thousands of years old, codifying the wisdom of highly enlightened beings.

Many Tibetan malas have counters of silver, or even gold. These tend to get in the way, so usually you only see lay people use these.

In most of the prisons in Tibet, malas are not allowed, so the prisoners make them of knotted bits of string. If these are found, punishment often ensues. Therefore, a method of using the fingers is preferred. You visualize each finger as being divided into four sections. Starting with your right thumb, you count across both hands and back again. This gives you a count of eighty. Next, you count across both hands and back, but this time only count one for each finger, not four. This brings you up to one hundred.

This is very, very "handy" to know, if you are on a three-year retreat and the mala breaks.

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17 reader comments:

Malcolm Smith said...

"Recently, in another medium, a friend of mine noted that lapis-lazuli beads are used for the Medicine Buddha mantra."

This is based on a bit of a misconception. Vaidurya (of which there are a few varieties, including cat's eye) has been identified as several different gems, including beryl (which seems in fact to be a European corruption of the word "vaidurya").

However, Lapis Lazuli has never been vaidurya -- it is actually another gem stone called "mu men" in Tibetan.

So what then is this vaidurya sngon po or blue Vaidurya? It is in fact the star sapphire (as distinct from sapphire (indranila) --at least, this is how vaidurya sngon po is identified in Tibetan Medicine.

However, lapis beads are much cheaper than sapphire. As for myself, I stick with bodhiseed malas since they are the general purpose mala and may be used universally.


TENPA said...

Malcolm, wasn't it Barry Clark who identified this as aquamarine, i.e. blue beryl?

As pertains to Asia, Star sapphire is basically a Sri Lankan stone whereas aquamarine is littered all over the place. Sapphire basic is just a blue corundum, same as ruby is a red corundum, and much more common.

The gem medicines are filtering into Tibetan medicine from two directions, west and south. Beryl comes from the Greek, beryllos.

Anonymous said...

I was informed by a traslator of Tibetan Medical texts that the stone should be a 'blue sapphire'. In the texts I think it mentions the quality should be clear and translucent i.e. allows the light to pass through it. Lapis is opaque, so it does not have this quality.

Joseph Feinstein said...

I've always been told plain bodhi seeds are the best.

Anonymous said...

In the book 'Generating the Deity' by Gyatrul Rinpoche, he tells us that Bodhiseed is the best type of mala for ALL types of mantra recitation. This is also an instruction from Guru Rinpoche.It is important to note that Bodhiseed is not from the Bodhi Tree (Ficus Religiosa).

I often see practitioners reciting peaceful mantras such as Om Mani Peme Hung on bone beads. This is a big NO NO!! Bone should only be used for wrathful practices. If in doubt use Bodhiseed!

Malcolm Smith said...

Hi Tenpa:

Whatever Barry Clark may think, the late Khenpo Troru Tsenam clearly identifies this gem as Star Sapphire.

Beryl is too pale to match the color of Vaidurya sngon po.

Aquamarine is another mineral identified as a type of "ma rgad" i.e. emerald (which is in fact a kind of beryl) specifically called "nila marakati".

My source for these precise identifications is the 'khrungs dpe dri med shel gyi me long (the standard materia medica used these days in all schools of Tibetan medicine both inside and outside of Tibet) as well as Khenpo Tsenam's Drang srong shal lung.

Malcolm Smith said...

"I was informed by a traslator of Tibetan Medical texts that the stone should be a 'blue sapphire'."

Yes, this is true. But the actual stone is not just a blue sapphire, but is a star sapphire, according to the sources I mentioned above.

However, when translating these texts, I usually just go with bkue sapphire (Indranila) since star sapphire is a little too specific. But when dealing with the precise identifications, you will find that these days in Tibetan Medicine, star sapphire is the indicated gem for Vaidurya sngon po.

[Disclaimer, I am a Doctor of Tibetan Medicine and a translator of Tibetan Medical Texts].

TENPA said...

Hello, Malcolm...

Reference to Gawe Dorje's "Crystal Mirror" duly noted.

Just a little query on the internal logic, though. When Desi Rinpoche is writing of the "Blue Beryl" he is presumably referring to a star sapphire, no? So, when he is writing of the "White Beryl" he is referring to what? And of his history, "Mirror of Beryl," what then? These are to be regarded as literary references, as distinct from precise identifications of a mineral?

Malcolm Smith said...

Hi Tenpa:

White sapphire, mirror of sapphire and so on. Gawe Dorje's book mentions that Vaidurya is not only blue, but red, white, agate-colored etc. Wiki states "Transparent specimens are used as gems, called ruby if red, while all other colors are called sapphire."

Also De'umar Geshe, Tenzin Phuntsok's Shel phreng notes that in his day, 18th century, Vaidurya was usually sourced from a river in Shri Lanka called the Phavali Ganga (Must be the Mahaweli Ganga), consistent with your observation above about star sapphires and Shri Lanka.

Given all these factors I am perfectly satisfied that the attributions of beryl, lapis and so on to Vaidurya are incorrect and that the proper attribution is Sapphire.


TENPA said...

Hello Malcolm:

That note on the sourcing is indeed of considerable interest. While we are on that subject, if you ever get the chance to acquire this work, by all means do so: Huda, Samar Najm Abul (Trans.), Azhar al Afkar fi Djawahir al Ahdjar ("Best Thoughts on the Best of Stones"). This is a work from around 1230 - 1250, that in comparison to contemporary Tibetan works, throws an interesting sidelight on the identification of gem medicines.

Based on that sourcing reference, I am just about convinced now that we are indeed speaking of one of the proverbial three "tells" of the old 5th Special Forces (star sapphire, Porsche motorcar, and a divorce).

Anonymous said...

I heard that Jigme Lingpa revealed a text on the benefits of gemstones. Has this been translated into English?

NTZ said...

If not from the bodhi tree, then what is bodhi seed from?

And, do the color of the tassels have any significance?

Homohabilis said...

Manzanita (see Wikipedia) is a totem plant in the mountain West, especially California. At Tassajara Zen Mountain Center monastery the manzanitas grow very large seeds, bigger than any I've seen elsewhere, and just the right size for mala beads, round and hard. In the 1970s when I was there, students commonly made malas of them, which seemed to me a great way of connecting the Dharma to this continent; I gathered several hundred seeds, laboriously drilled them and made several malas (Japanese: juzu) myself.

TENPA said...

I like that!

Hamish said...

The 'bodhi' seed is from a tree related to the rudraksha, the real bodhi tree, ficus religiosa, is actually a type of fig, and the seed pods resemble a tiny, dried up fig, with very tiny seeds inside. If anyone knows the scientific name of the 'bodhi' seed tree, would love to know it.
Also am very curious as to what a 'moon and stars' or 'lotus root' mala is actually made from. I recently got a wrist mala made from unshaped beads of this material and they resemble small knuckle bones. Can't be a lotus root, they are fibrous and full of holes.

Anonymous said...

Just started in researching the Tibetan culture. The Beads and Tibetan singing bowls seem to be the prayer items of choice for the locals. Pretty interesting stuff.

CLM said...


I've been looking for the actual botanical source of "bodhi" seeds, too. I know the name can be used for several plants, which makes the search difficult. For example, in China malas made from soapberry trees are called bodhi seeds.

I've been told Moon and star beads, often sold as lotus, lotus root, are actually rattan wood. I've seen them labeled as such but in different shapes.