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Use of a Mala
Mantras are often repeated hundreds or even thousands of times. The mala is used so that one can think about the meaning of the mantra as it is chanted rather than thinking about counting the repetitions. Each time the mantra is repeated, the fingers move to the next bead.
If more than 108 repetitions are to be done, then grains of rice are counted out before the chanting begins and one grain is placed in a bowl for each 108 repetitions. Each time a full mala of repetitions has been completed, one grain of rice is removed from the bowl.
The 109th bead on a mala is called the sumeru or guru bead. Counting should always begin with a bead next to the sumeru. In the Hindu tradition, if more than one mala of repetitions is to be done, one changes directions when reaching the sumeru rather than crossing it. The sumeru thus becomes the static point on the mala.
Many believe that when one uses a mala many times in this way, it takes on the energy of the mantra that is being chanted. For this reason it is common to chant only one particular mantra with a particular mala.
Malas are also used in many forms of Mahayana Buddhism, often with a lesser number of beads (usually a divisor of 108). In Pure Land Buddhism, for instance, 27 beads rosaries are common. In China such rosaries are named "Shu-Zu"; in Japan, "Juzu". In Tibetan Buddhism, often larger malas are used of for example 111 beads: when counting, they calculate one mala as 100 mantras, and the 11 extra are taken as extra to compensate for errors.
Hindu tradition holds that the correct way to use a mala is with the right hand, with the thumb flicking one bead to the next, and with the mala draped over the middle finger. The index finger was considered rude, and so was also considered bad to use it with a mala. Buddhism, however, explained that there was no sense in this, and so taught that it was perfectly acceptable to use the mala in the left hand with any fingers. In Tibetan Buddhism (tantra), depending on the practice, there may be preferred ways of holding the mala (left or right hand, rolling the beads over the index or any of the other fingers etc..
History of the Mala
The name of the rosary, which has obvious similarities to the mala, is said to have come from japa mala. When Roman explorers came into India and encountered the mala, they heard jap mala instead of japa mala. Jap means "rose", and the mala was carried back to the Roman Empire as rosarium, and into English as rosary.
A wide variety of materials are used to make mala beads. Some Tibetan Buddhist traditions call for the use of bone (animal, most commonly yak) or sometimes human, the bones of past Lamas being the most valueable. Others use wood or seeds from the Bodhi tree. Semi-precious stones such as carnelian and amethyst may be used, as well. The most common and least expensive material is sandalwood. In Buddhist Tantra or Vajrayana, materials and colors of the beads can relate to a specific practice.
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