The Buddhist Rosary.
As in many other religious traditions, Buddhists of all schools use rosaries for prayer and meditation. The name of these rosaries is "mala" in Sanskrit and "juzu" in Japanese. "Mala" translates to "garlands" or "roses", and have been used by Buddhists since the time of the Buddha himself. An early example of it's use is by a king who converted to Buddhism was told by the Buddha to thread 108 beads onto a string and use it daily to chant Buddha, Dharma, Sangha" as part of his practice. These have now become popular things for vaguely 'new age' shops to sell, often coming in the guise of 'power beads'. Whether this is another manifestation of the commercialisation of religions, leading to a 'spiritual supermarket' or a valid way to get people more interested in other spiritual traditions is something I won’t get into. Any how.
The number 108, frequently occurring in Buddhism as a holy number, and represents many things, for example there are 108 states of desire/defilements to be overcome to achieve enlightenment. There are 108 beads in the full size mala, with a larger bead closing the loop. This bead is called the 'guru bead', and is not used for counting. The guru bead has a bell like bead between the guru bead and a longish tassel. These symbolise various concepts, the guru bead representing the teacher, the bell shaped bead can be taken to represent emptiness (or shunyata - an important concept in Mahayana Buddhism, as can be seen in the Mahaprajna Paramita Hridaya Sutra) and the tassel to represent a lotus flower, ie enlightenment. The juzu beads that are used in Japanese Buddhist sects can frequently have two tassels, one representing the Dharma (teachings) and another representing the Buddha. Sometimes a further tassel is present, representing the Sangha (holy community of monks). A red or crimson cord threads through all the beads, and represents the lineage of teachings from the Buddha. They are made from all kinds of material, the most popular being sandalwood, glass or seeds of the Bodhi tree (Ficus religiosa - the same species as the one that the Buddha attained His enlightenment under). Modern "power beads" are made out of all kinds of plastic of different colours, each with different 'powers' - allegedly. Frequently, a 'spacer' bead is placed between certain bead - there are usually 3 in a full size mala with spacers. These may be different colour beads or semi-precious stones. I have three pieces of turquoise in mine, representing the Bodhisattva Tara.
These beads are used to count: recitations of Sutras, or portions of Sutras; prayers; praisings of the Buddha, Dharma and/or Sangha; breaths during meditation; dharanis; or mantras. The most frequently used is the mantra "Om Mani Padme Hum", meaning "hail to the jewel in the lotus". This is a mantra that is associated with the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion.
The way in which they are used has a few variations. They are held usually in the right hand, and starting at one of the beads next to the guru bead, moving each bead in turn between the thumb and middle finger. The index or ring finger might be used as well. When the guru bead is reached, the mala is 'flipped around' and the counting begins in the opposite direction. The guru bead is not counted across, as it's seen as being symbolic of the teacher - you wouldn't step over your spiritual teacher, would you? Not all malas have 108 beads, however, but may be a smaller division of 108:
- 9 beads where 12 repetitions equal one complete round.
- 12 beads where 9 repetitions equal one complete round.
- 18 beads where 6 repetitions equal one complete round.
- 27 beads where 4 repetitions equal one complete round.
- 36 beads where 3 repetitions equal one complete round.
- 54 beads where 2 repetitions equal one complete round.
The smaller ones are usually worn around the wrist when they're not being used, and the full size one around the neck. The larger ones may be worn on the wrist, when they are wrapped around it around 3 or 4 times. The Dalai Lama and Shaolin monks are examples of people I've seen wearing them this way. These beads can bring a great deal of comfort to the wearer just by holding them, and you will often see Buddhists wearing them all the time, as a symbol of their faith.