What is a mala? What is a mantra? How does this whole japa thing work anyway? Using a mala (necklace or garland of strung together beads) as a meditation tool is known as japa, or japa mala, or mantra japa or mantra meditation, particularly in Buddhist and Hindu culture. The traditional use of a mala is for the circulation of a mantra, a prayer, an intention. Nearly every religion in the world has some form of a prayer bead it works with, a common form is a Christian rosary. It is not a coincidence that prayer beads are present in almost every culture, using beads as a tool of meditation is as old as human history.
Mala or prayer beads can be made of many types of materials, wood, seeds, gemstones, bone, even plastic. Ours, and many malas in the buddhist and hindu traditions, are made from the seeds of the rudraksha (rude-rock-sha) tree. Rudrakshas have a long and sacred history, translated literally to “eyes or tears of Shiva”, there is even a university of Rudraksha in India! Each mala traditionally consists of 108 beads, or a divisor of 108.
“let your body be the lower firestick; let the mantra be the uppper.. Rub them against each other in meditation and realize the source”. Upanishads
One “round” of japa meditation is the touching of each one of the beads on your mala. Starting from the guru bead (the 109th bead on the strand, which is not part of the mantra counting, usually a large bead near the tassel) moving the mala with your thumb across your middle finger, moving each bead with each chant or statement of your mantra/prayer. Continuing all the way around the strand, bead by bead, returning back to the guru bead again. It is exceptionally helpful to have a knot between each bead, like Bali Malas. This repetitive cycle of practice can be enhanced with a mantra. A mantra is an offering, an affirmation, a prayer, a call, an opening, a request. The mantra may be spoken softly, enough for the practitioner to hear it, or it may be spoken purely within the reciter’s mind. I used to scoff at the idea of uttering a sound in my meditation, concerned with what I’d sound like, what exactly am I chanting, and what was the purpose? Until I actually tried it. Uttering out loud, offering to the universe your mantra can be transformative. The repetition of 108 at first can seem a bit mundane, boring, then around beads 37-40 a trance-like state can set in Your mantra can be a self initiated mantra (I am calm in this time of turmoil), a more universal mantra (om mani padme om), or a mantra that your teacher has ushered to you. Mantras are considered capable of creating transformation of energy / vibration into divine qualities. Mantras are used within various spiritual paths to enhance meditation or to lead to meditation. After your practice, sit in the stillness you’ve created and allow the peace to wash over you. Start, maybe silently at first, but eventually open your mouth, express yourself through your mantra and let your mala be your guide.
We will offer more on the history of Rudraksha, why 108 and why do malas have tassels in a follow up post.