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.