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Mala Beads

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An Interesting, Very Human History

Over two thousand years’ worth of Buddhist bling is currently on display at the Rubin Museum of Art, showcased in the cleverly-titled exhibit “Count Your Blessings: The Art of Prayer Beads in Asia.”

Perfect timing, as I have recently taken up chanting a simple mantra and made my own strand of beads, hoping to be transported into the new millennial version of a meditative state. In other words, I’ll settle for simply giving my monkey mind a “time-out.” I had some questions, not least of which was why 108 beads? Where did this tradition originate, and do we meditate today for the same reasons as in ancient Vedic times?

All these ponderings and more are answered in this boutique gallery at the base of the museum’s grand spiral staircase. The exhibit is wifi-enabled for handheld devices, but I stuck with the audio handset available at the front desk, and entered a world of both stunningly intricate craftsmanship and surprising insights regarding the original purposes of beads, mantras, and meditation.

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The birth of prayer beads is still a bit obscure (and contested), but leads back to ancient Indian Vedic tradition with its reverence for sound. Recitation of the sounds represented by Sanskrit letters became known as a “garland of sounds.” (50 letters of the Sanskrit alphabet repeated twice plus 8 letters representing the sections of the alphabet equals 108). Buddhists took up the practice centuries after establishing their religious tradition, and it also showed up in Islamic and Christian cultures.

According to Buddhist lore, a king was overwhelmed by worldly obligations and could not focus on his spiritual practice. Buddha advised him to string 108 seeds of a soapberry tree, and while holding the mala, chant “Buddha, Dharma, Sangha” while sliding one seed at a time. By the 1,000th time, his mind had become focused. Right there I realize what might be part of my problem with regard to focus (never mind enlightenment--I’m taking one step at a time). I only do this once a day, and only for one round.

In the Buddhist framework, accumulation of merit is created through recitations. Highly personal items, the prayer beads reflect their owners’ tastes and devotion. They were also exchanged as gifts between Buddhist masters and their rulers and aristocracy, as well as by wealthy lay practitioners to their teachers. Court fashion-influenced and wealth-conscious Chinese as well as Indian yogis of yore used the beads as status symbols.

While the Chinese were enamored of wrapping the ornate and colorful strands around their wrists for ornamentation as well as reminders of spiritual belonging (calling to mind Madonna and her henna tattoos), the yogis flaunted theirs as symbols of advanced stages of practice. Tibetans had their beads blessed by monks or famous spiritual masters. Only did Thailand offer something that seems non-ego related; beads were borrowedand returned without, I imagine, adverse effects or bad karma.

This was all very eye-opening. The notion of status playing such a large role on the ancient road to enlightenment was news to me. While the idea of accumulation of merit seems less like spiritual evolution and more like scoring Buddhist Brownie points, I do recognize that repetition and/or recitations has an extremely valid role in meditative practice. Knowing the meaning of the mantra and practicing with full attention to the sound is believed to bring one closer to the Divine.

I wander past the showcases and view the many prayer bead malas. The various cultural influences dictate whether the beads are short strands or long, simple or intricate, with a large guru bead, separator beads, and counters of contrasting texture and size to help keep track of the repetitions. Tassels and other personal embellishments add symbolic meaning and function. The beads themselves range in materials from Bodhi seed, peach pits, snake vertebrae, ivory, amber, agate, coral,

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carnelian, all the way to human bones. The materials are believed to impact their effectiveness, with iron beads increasing the power fivefold, Lotus seeds 10,000 times, and, understandably if you are Buddhist, Bodhi seeds offering incalculable results. I just might have to rethink my plastic white beads leftover from that craft project.

Conveyed in this collection are symbolic meaning as well as ritual complexity involved with reasons to meditate, bringing to life a backstory that fleshed out my simplistic assumptions. Chanting was sometimes done for peaceful reasons such as purification, penance, and divination, with crystal or mother of pearl being the bead material of choice, but could also be directed toward achieving power or expansion. Wrathful aims were addressed with black materials such as soapberry seeds, as well as the human cranium. I guess I’ll continue to seek a calm focus with my own symbolism and ritual ascribed to my homemade mala.

At the end, the scales had fallen from my eyes. This dazzling array of ornamental and spiritual baubles, bangles, and beads reflects the fact that our all-too-human traits as well as our spiritual aspirations continue to be collected on a resilient thread that winds far back through history. Even if we can’t resist the urge to ornament our bodies or occasionally think bad thoughts, it is reassuring to know that we still seek to be one with the universe. Perhaps we haven’t fallen too far from the Bodhi tree, after all.

The exhibit has been extended through June 9, 2014. For more information, click here

--Sharon Watts, to see more of Sharon's writing, click here

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