Cultural Insight: Buddhist Prayer Beads

Prayer beads or japa malas are used by both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists.

The Tibetan faithful at Jokhang Temple, Lhasa. Prayer beads are used by both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists.

The use of prayer beads, or japa malas, in both Buddhism and Hinduism speaks to a historical connection between the two faiths; however, Buddhist japa malas typically contain a lesser number of beads than the Hindu japa malas’ 108 — it is usually a divisor of 108. There many potential explanations for the significance of the number 108, however, none alone appears offers a definitive explanation.

The beads are typically made from the seeds or wood of the Bodhi tree (a.k.a. “ficus religosa” or fig tree; this is the tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment) and are typically used as counters, thereby enabling the faithful to keep track of recitations of mantras or prayers, prostrations, circumambulations and so forth.

The large bead on the strand is symbolic of the wisdom that allows one to recognize emptiness (sunyata) and the bell-shaped bead surmounting it is symbolic of “emptiness” itself (the bell is always a Buddhist symbol for emptiness; its ringing is the sound of emptiness).

A few words on Buddhist philosophy: “Emptiness” signifies that everything one encounters in life is empty of absolute identity, permanence, or an in-dwelling ‘self’ (anatta).  All things are connected and mutually dependent, in a constant state of flux, transforming and becoming (rather than self-centered and fixed).  The Buddhists believe that only when this abandonment of “self” occurs can the transcendent state of enlightenment be achieved.

How to Use Buddhist Prayer Beads

A mantra is said as each bead is spun (in turn) in a counterclockwise direction (similar to circumambulation of the stupa).

The rotation through the beads is also typically done in a counterclockwise motion beginning at the first bead after the large central bead. This large bead is used a counter, signaling that one full rotation of the beads (108 mantras) has be achieved. This process is of 108-bead cycles is repeated countless times.

AUM: Symbol, Sound and Silence

The meaning of the AUM (OM) symbol

Travelers to Buddhist and Hindu countries might find a review of AUM valuable, as it exemplifies many of the fundamental tenets of these faiths.

The AUM symbol (also spelled “Om”) consists of three curves, one semicircle, and a dot; these are symbols of each person’s self and his potential:

  • The large curve (the lower left corner of the image) symbolizes the waking state.  Perhaps it is best to think of this curve as symbolic of the ego, our outward persona, the person we think we should be, that identity that we consciously associate with the self.
  • Moving clockwise, the upper curve (upper left corner) symbolizes the unconscious state, that part of the self that is hidden to one’s consciousness, but is equally part of the self.
  • The middle curve, which extends from the center to the right side, symbolizes the dream state. This dream state, positioned vertically between the conscious and unconscious elements of the self, serves as a means to connect the two, a means for the conscious and unconscious to interact.  This is certainly what we do when we dream: the unconscious becomes conscious, affording a more complete view of the self.
  • The semicircle or crescent (upper right corner) symbolizes illusion, specifically in this case, the illusion that the self exists as a separate entity at all.  Notice that the crescent separates the dot from the other three curves.  It is this illusion that separates the individual from becoming one with his infinite self, beyond boundaries.
  • The dot signifies the infinite, absolute self, hidden from the individual by illusion; this is what the Eastern faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism consider God.  Dispelling the illusion and becoming one with this infinite self is the ultimate experience of life and the experience of the divine.

Joseph Campbell’s interpretation

One of our favorite descriptions of AUM, which touches on many of the symbols described above, can be found in Joseph Campbell’s book “The Hero with a Thousand Faces“.  Campbell breaks down each of AUM’s three phonemes, a, u and m:

  • The A representing the realm of waking experience: “cognitive of the hard gross facts of an outer universe, illuminated by the sun, and common to all”.
  • The U representing the realm of dream experience: “cognitive of the fluid, subtle forms of a private interior world, self-luminous and of one substance with the dreamer”.
  • The M representing the realm of very deep sleep: “dreamless, profoundly beautiful” (the person unified with the unconscious and the greater self).

For Campbell, the most profound element of AUM is not the sound, however, but the silence that surrounds it: “The silence surrounding the syllable is the unknown: it is called simply ‘the fourth’.  The syllable itself is God as creator-preserver-destroyer, but the silence is God Eternal, absolutely uninvolved in all the openings-and-closings of the round.”

Experience the silence!