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Thread: Mala beads...

  1. #1

    Mala beads...

    Hello all,

    Are mala beads used in Zen?



  2. #2

    Re: Mala beads...

    Hi Adam,

    Here is more information than you probably need or want ...

    In Japanese Soto, we are not too much into Mala beads ("Juzu" in Japanese) as a central part of practice, although that depends on how much there has been an influence of "esoteric" or "Pure Land" or other traditions of Buddhism on the particular lineage of Soto Zen over the centuries. They do play a role in some esoteric ceremonies (if you are not yet sure what "esoteric" Buddhism is, think "Tibetan" style ... more focused on the performance of complicated ceremonies. "Pure Land" is focused on the worship of a particular Buddha, Amida, who is not unlike a Messiah figure).

    Some folks use the Mala for counting reptitions in certain chants, much as they are used in Catholic prayer. Doing so is not a central practice of Soto Zen, unless the particular priest or practitioner has incorporated other traditions ... like the Jodo (Pure Land) practice of chanting to Amida Buddha (the Chinese Chan priests you might see from time to time often wear very large Mala ...

    ... as Chan has heavily mixed with Pure Land in China and Vietnam), or certain esoteric Buddhist rituals that folks picked up along the way. I once noticed, for example, that Ven. Anzan Hoshin in Canada sometimes uses Mala, but he seem to mix various Tibetan Practices in with his Zen.

    As Buddhism moved from country to country, and culture to culture, bits of Hindu and Tantric elements were mixed into the teachings. The Juzu is one such item. Traditionally, it is an aid in chanting, serving as a counter (so you can keep your place), although a whole mess of mystical 'meanings' and powers came to be associated with the Mala beads themselves and the usual number of beads: 108 (or a divisor thereof).

    Number of beads:
    The formal nenju has 108 koshu 'children'/main beads, plus either one or two larger boshu 'parent' beads.

    [The 108 koshu represent the 108 bonnou (earthly desires, worldly & or evil passions) which the follower of the Dharma seeks to overcome.]

    There are also 'informal' nenju. These are commonly 1/4-size, having 27 koshu and one boshu parent-bead. However there are also informal nenju with 18 koshu (1/6th-size), 36 koshu (1/3rd) 54 koshu (1/2)

    For just some of the many meanings of '108'. have a gander at this. It is wonderful:

    It is an item that traveled up and down the Silk Road, and is not different from a Catholic rosary (in my understanding).

    One reason the beads are much loved is that there are more nerve endings on tips of the fingers than in any part of the body (if I recall), and thus the twirling of the beads is, well, sensual and most soothing. .Combined with the hypnotic rhythms of the chant, and you have an experience that one could lose oneself in ... literally.

    Oh, and at various times in ages past, it has been seen as kind of a magic charm against evil spirits.

    If you are in Japan today, you would see Juzu worn by many Soto priests, and used in ceremonies. Basically, over the centuries, many Tantric (esoteric) elements crept into the Zen schools too ... especially after the time of Dogen. However, some rather recent scholarship has shown that Dogen, while focused on Zazen, was not an opponent of some ritual and ceremony by any means ... he was, after all, just a Buddhist priest following many traditions ...

    Although Dogen clearly extolled zazen (both the seated posture and the samadhi it promotes) as the sine qua non of Buddhism, it would be mistaken to conclude from this that he rejected all other forms of Buddhist practice. The specific rituals that seem to be disavowed in the Bendowa passage are all prescribed for Zen monks, often in great detail, in Dogen's other writings. In Kuyo shobutsu, Dogen recommends the practice of offering incense and making worshipful prostrations before Buddha images and stupas, as prescribed in the sutras and Vinaya texts. In Raihai tokuzui he urges trainees to reverence enlightened teachers and to make offerings and prostrations to them, describing this as a practice which helps pave the way to one's own awakening. In Chiji shingi he stipulates that the vegetable garden manager in a monastery should participate together with the main body of monks in sutra chanting services (fugin), recitation services (nenju) in which buddhas' names are chanted (a form of nenbutsu practice), and other major ceremonies, and that he should burn incense and make prostrations (shoko raihai) and recite the buddhas' names in prayer morning and evening when at work in the garden. The practice of repentences (sange) is encouraged in Dogen's Kesa kudoku, in his Sanji go, and his Keisei sanshiki . Finally, in Kankin, Dogen gives detailed directions for sutra reading services (kankin) in which, as he explains, texts could be read either silently or aloud as a means of producing merit to be dedicated to any number of ends, including the satisfaction of wishes made by lay donors, or prayers on behalf of the emperor.

    History of the Soto Zen School
    by T. Griffith Foulk
    (Although, if I may say, the beads probably remain less the focus of attention in Japanese Soto than in any of the other Japanese schools such as Jodo, Nichiren, Tendai and Shingon ... not sure about Rinzai practice. Soto priests may wear them but, as far as I know, they are not used very much for particular purpose outside of such ceremonies. Some Soto priests may develop a special feeling for the Juzu, but that is there own personal feeling and philosophy. Most lay followers in all traditions and all countries would have beads and wear them for funerals and such, but most would just do so as a custom without any particular idea why or what they stand for.

    So, why do I wear beads sometimes? Good question!

    Well, why do I wear a Grateful Dead t-shirt sometimes?

    In all seriousness, it may be more a symbol for being a Buddhist in my mind than anything else, much as a Star of David for Judaism or a Cross on a chain for Christians. I do not consider them much more than that in my mind. ... more a symbol of our tradition than anything. Others may have other views..

    Gassho, Jundo

  3. #3

    Re: Mala beads...

    I wear a mala bracelet every day. I like it, and it reminds me that I carry my buddhism with me everywhere I go. It's a bit of a "secret sign" also. Most people just think it's a bracelet, but once, in an elevator, an Asian guy pointed at my mala and said, "Hey, are you Buddhist?" and I said "yes," and he said, "me too, sort of" and the door opened and we went our separate ways.

  4. #4

    Re: Mala beads...


    Thank you both for your replies. Jundo, I can't express my appreciation for all the replies that you have given me so far. I know with your wealth of information, I'll be able to advance on my path with questions answered. I'm really appreciative of this Sangha, and I feel like I'm finally part of something great. The reason why I asked about the mala beads in the first place was because I bought some at a local Buddhist store. They are really interesting to me, and I use them just to remind myself of my chosen path. I can understand what Alanla said about carrying Buddhism with you everywhere you go. I try to think of the Buddha's teachings and how they apply to most of my experiences through the day. Thanks again to you both!


  5. #5

    Re: Mala beads...

    It's a pretty universal concept, even here in the west. I used to work with some Serbs who used these little rope malas. They were Eastern Orthodox but they weren't all that religious; I think it was mostly just something they did to keep their hands busy. In (I think it was) Eastern Promises the Russian gangsters are using these little worry beads made out of cigarette lighters. My ma's Catholic so she does rosary, etc etc. I don't think there's any Eurasian culture without some version or another.

  6. #6

    Re: Mala beads...

    i wonder is there any difference or meaning to the bracelet other than the big necklace mala?
    and does the wood, size, shape, anything else matter?
    if they have insignias on them or not? or some writing?

    Gassho, Daniel.

  7. #7

    Re: Mala beads...

    Hi Dan,

    I do not know too much on that topic.

    Here is a web page that I have referred too and which seems to have much information on the topic, at least about the customs within Japan.

    China, Korea, Vietnam, Tibet, etc., certainly have their own customs.

    Gassho, Jundo
    Last edited by Jundo; 01-12-2013 at 03:09 AM.

  8. #8

    Re: Mala beads...

    i have noticed that all malas are supposed to be worn on the left hand. is there any particular reason for this?

  9. #9

    Re: Mala beads...

    Quote Originally Posted by Dojin
    i have noticed that all malas are supposed to be worn on the left hand. is there any particular reason for this?
    Hi Dan,

    I know very little about Mala (Juzu/Nenju), and am left to the internet with everyone else.

    Here are a couple of interesting facts I found ...

    {Explanation from a Pure Land temple in California] The Nenjie is always held in the left hand since the left hand represents the world of Samsara with its 108 Bonno. The right hand represents the world of Nirvana. It is through the use of the Nenju that the two utterly different worlds of Samsara and Nirvana are seen in their essential Oneness - that is to say, the bringing together of the left hand of Samsara and the right hand of Nirvana into the Oneness of the Gassho. From a Jodoshinshu point of view, one can say that the left hand of Samsara, of the 108 passions of egotism is the world of Namo, of "I, myself; me." The right hand of Nirvana is the world of Amidabutsu, the real world of Amida Buddha. The Nenju brings together these two seemingly opposite worlds into the Oneness of Namoamidabutsu; not Namo, or Amidabutsu separately, but Namoamidabutsu.

    In the Nishi Hongwanji tradition of Jodoshinshu, the Nenju encircles the hands in Gassho with the tassel or strings hanging below the two palms and the two thumbs resting lightly on the beads. There are a number of ways of holding the Nenju depending upon the sect, school, or tradition of Buddhism. The Jodo Sect of Honen Shonin for example, places the Nenju around the thumbs of the hands in Gassho. The Higashi Honganji tradition of Jodoshinshu places the Nenju around the hands in Gassho with the string or tassel end held between the thumbs and base of the index fingers. Priests of the Shingon Sect (Koyasan) use several gestures depending upon the ceremony, one of them being to drape the Nenju around the index finger of the left hand and the

    middle finger of the right hand at the Oyadama and enclosing the strand of beads between the two palms. The beads are then rubbed together producing a raffling sound. When not in use, the Nenju is held in the left hand or placed around the left wrist.
    From a big Juzu manufacturer in Japan ... and perhaps the mirror image of what was said above ...

    A rosary is rightly worn on your left wrist when you are sitting and is rightly held in your left hand when walking; the left hand represents the pure world of the Buddha, the right hand the religious world we walk in.
    also ...

    The mala is traditionally worn by Buddhist monks, nuns and lay practitioners around the left wrist. It can be worn also around the neck, but take care not to make prayers while it is worn this way. The reason for this, as told to us by a Tibetan monk, is that the purpose, or intention of jewelry is as an adornment. A malaĺs purpose is for making blessings. To use your mala, itĺs recommended to always hold it in your left hand. This may be tradition, but there are probably Tantric reasons for it that are related to energy ľ channels and chakras. ... ayer-beads
    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..

  10. #10

    Re: Mala beads...

    I think the significance of the left hand may have come over from china. Chi theory is that chi enters the left hand and exits the right.

  11. #11

    Re: Mala beads...

    An interesting "reincarnation" ( :wink: ) of an old thread.

    My Lama tells me there are 108 beads in a mala because tradition tells us there are 108 virtues to cultivate and 108 defilements to avoid
    on the path to enlightenment. I'm not sure anyone can truly trace exactly where this number originates.

    An interesting side note: The first manned space flight lasted 108 minutes - April 12, 1961 by Yuri Gagarin.

  12. #12

    Re: Mala beads...

    I, too, have a mala bracelet, which, much like Al, I wear as a symbol of my commitment to Zen.
    Since it is made of hematite beads, it also serves the purpose of alleviating some of my arthritic symptoms,
    which is why I wear it on my right wrist, as opposed to the left.


  13. #13

    Re: Mala beads...

    Well Jigme,

    Quite a long time ago I was told by a monk of the AZi and I red it in one of Deshimaru s books about Hannya Shingyo that the mysterious 108 was the result of a precise calculation: 6 senses x 3 times (past, present and future) x 2 ways of the mind ( intentional and not)x3 basic feelings ( like, dislike and indifferent take) give 108, 108 ways to go wrong

    Some other ources on the internet ill provide a similar explanation.



  14. #14

    Re: Mala beads...

    Quote Originally Posted by threethirty
    I think the significance of the left hand may have come over from china. Chi theory is that chi enters the left hand and exits the right.
    Does this affect left-handed people differently than right-handed people, I wonder?

    Left-handed Julia

  15. #15

    Re: Mala beads...

    Quote Originally Posted by murasaki
    Quote Originally Posted by threethirty
    I think the significance of the left hand may have come over from china. Chi theory is that chi enters the left hand and exits the right.
    Does this affect left-handed people differently than right-handed people, I wonder?

    Left-handed Julia

    As to the Left/Right bias, people lean different ways on this issue (pun within a pun!). Here are two threads on the topic ...which I summarize as follows. The subject was specifically the Mudra during Zazen, but it works here too:

    In the "introduction to Zazen"... Sawaki Roshi [ states that] " ... . First you should know the difference between two ways of sitting: G˘maza, the "posture that subdues demons", and kichij˘za, the "auspicious posture". Even in old texts, there is quite some confusion about the two postures. In short, the right side represents the ascending, active (yang) aspect. The left side represents the descending, passive (yin) aspect. When the right foot rests on the left thigh, that represents the ascending activity that subdues the demons (g˘maza). When the left foot rests on the right thigh, that is a descending, passive activity which is auspicious (kichij˘za).


    Personally, I think the who thing is a bunch of hogwash, based upon bits of ancient Chinese medicine and ideas of Ki, Yin Yang, traditional "left side/right side" ideas and superstitions, and the prejudice of of "right" handed folks against the "sinister" left. It is a quaint idea, nothing more.

    Several respected older Western Zen teachers were discussing the article recently, and don't see the difference between left and right. I usually favor the right, as I am right handed. It feels strange for to place the hands, for example, with the left hand on the bottom. However, I do not see any magic property in sitting one way or the other. If something feels strange about one side or the other, it is the same strangeness of a left hander trying to play tennis with a right handed grip and visa versa.




    Gassho (a gesture made left or right ... and without left or right), Jundo

  16. #16

    Re: Mala beads...

    I also wear mine as a symbol of my commitment to zen. i wear it on the left. i guess im just used to it by now. unfortunately i dont wear it very often since i cant waer anything on my hand during surgery, not even a wedding ring. maybe i should try wearing it on the right hand and see how its like. after all there is no right or wrong.

    Gassho, Dojin.

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