Before you can understand how to use prayer beads, the first question needs to be answered: What exactly are prayer beads? The word bead is a variant of the Old English noun bede, which means a prayer. For thousands of years, prayer beads have been used by the congregation of various religions such as Hindu, Buddhist, Christians, and Muslims to mark the repetitions of prayers, chants or devotions.
Some of the oldest prayer bead imagery dates back to third century BC and the earliest historical use traces the practice of prayer beads to Hindu prayers in India where Buddhists subsequently followed suit.
Buddhist prayer beads or malas are made up of 108 beads (the significance of 108 varies between the different disciplines) that are used to count the number of times a mantra is recited, the number of breaths taken while meditating, counting prostrations, or the repetitions of a Buddha’s name.
Now that we know what prayer beads are, here are the steps to follow to use prayer beads while meditating.
- The first, most important step is to select a quiet location in your home. In the quiet location find a comfortable place and position to sit comfortably with your spine straight and your eyes closed. Once you are positioned comfortably, take several deep breaths to centre and align yourself with your intention.
- Choose a mantra that you can say out loud or silently to yourself. Here are several examples of mantras that can be used; The most sacred and traditional to use are “Aum” or “Om” which loosely mean “It Is” or “To Become”. Other mantras that can be used are “El Shaddai”; “Ham-Sah”, “So Ham”; “Elohim”, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” or “I change my thoughts, I change my world.”
- When praying with your mala beads, there are not any stringent rules that need to be followed. Begin by holding your mala beads in your right hand, draped between your middle and index fingers. If you are going to use a prayer wheel as well, then it is common to hold your mala beads in the left hand and the prayer wheel in the right. Starting at the guru bead, use your thumb to count each smaller bead, pulling them towards you as you recite your mantra. You will do these 108 times until you’ve gone around your mala beads and are back at the guru bead starting point.
- If you want to continue to meditate, instead of passing over the guru bead, you can go in the reverse direction and repeat steps 2 and 3. It is often suggested to meditate a minimum of 5-10 minutes that way you are not setting your goal time too low nor too high, so you are able to maintain consistency.
There is a sensory aspect that the mind and body need stimulating when meditating. Prayer Japa mala beads are an important, intricate part of the prayer and meditation process as they fulfil that sensory aspect. Remember, that it is important to treat prayer beads, not as a fashion accessory but to respect them for what they mean spiritually.