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  • Karl Thunemann

How Mala Beads Girdled my Globe

Mala beads are my newest meditating passion. I concoct numerous ways to explain how I arrived at them.

The simplest explanation is that I discovered them soon after I resolved that—as the keeper of a blog about meditation—I ought to be reading other such blogs. Not viewing them as competitors but as part of a community I wished to join. So I soon found the Daily Meditation blog, in time to catch a lengthy post explaining what mala beads are and how to use them. This post also complained about the decreasing availability of these beads, citing dwindling Amazon entries. I immediately decided NOT to buy on Amazon, although I am a frequent customer. If malas truly embody the spirit, I wanted a necklace fashioned by artists working in their native tradition.

So I randomly proceeded to It is owned by a Michigan family, which employs artisans in India and Nepal, working in Tibetan traditions. Oblivious to the company’s offer of customer service, I bought a bone mala necklace, carved from water buffalo skulls. Talk about karma! Later I would discover that a principal attribute of bone or wooden malas is that they put the user in touch with the quality of impermanence. I have been using these beads almost daily for about six months; I often feel as if the tide of impermanence in my life is rising like the Mississippi River at peak flood.

Mala necklaces have 108 beads. The instruction was to go around the circuit one by one, gripping each bead between thumb and middle finger while repeating my mantra. (You are supposed to keep the index finger out of this interaction, because it introduces the ego.) Of course I adopted “om”: for me it evokes Ganesha, the elephant-headed Hindu god; its humming sound is said to activate the vagus nerves, which connect the brain and heart, and it does not engage language—calling one’s mind to continue returning to the beads themselves.

These beads have an anomalous quality. Each is distinct, but I do not feel as if I am coming to recognize them as individuals. Perhaps you could undertake this task if you were in your 30s, but at my age I am content to regard them as interchangeable. And I do not have to count: 104 beads are of bone, three are ceramic, and the last, a carved object with a tassel—the Buddha bead—marks both beginning and end.

images from the Dharma Shop

And this is what makes them anomalous. On one hand, they are humble, inexpensive, so unlike beads made of semi-precious stone. And yet they once were part of a large breathing mammal. Sometimes as I slowly pass the beads between my warm fingers and thumbs, I imagine that the process is summoning their creatures of origin. I feel in touch with cultures that believe every object has a soul. There is a network that feels almost palpable—the creatures that left these bones, the artisan who fashioned the beads, me, and the necklace itself, endowed with a soul that persists as long as it remains intact. And perhaps, if one is attending, a godhead.

I know these thoughts must be regarded as an illusion, but they have power. I prompt myself to return to the work—moving beads, breathing, repeating my mantra. But an illusion may not be open and shut. It speaks in a sincere voice.

This meditation also seems vulnerable to other tangents. In the midst of it, I may have a vision of someone in pain. And I react with a single bead—a solitary breath and mantra—by taking in that sorrow with my in-breath, and exhaling love and kindness toward that person or entity. I recognize this as a visit from another form of meditation I am trying to learn. Not straying from the path, but a sort of guest appearance that deserves my attention.

Unlike other meditations, such as TM and walking the labyrinth, sitting with mala beads has not transformed my universe. But I try to do it every day, and the effect is almost always the same. It lightens my mood and enables me to take on tasks I have been putting off.

Meditating with mala beads is manageable. It does not take forever. Usually I navigate the full circle in anything from 18 to 27 minutes. Once, for some reason I raced through it in about nine minutes. I recognized it as too fast and counseled myself to slow down, but still it raced on. It wouldn’t be slowed. This remains a mystery.

And sometimes Miss Otis joins me. You must remember her. She helps bear the burden of my mild cognitive impairment. I get lost within the mala meditation. I will be holding a bead, and I am not certain whether I have recited my mantra, or the bead is just waiting for me to do so. In a split second, I completely lose my place in the sequence. I cannot be sure what has been done or left undone. Miss Otis herself seems nonplused by these lapses. The only solution—for both of us—is to utilize a breath to inhale this anxiety and to exhale compassion.

I have tried to trace the origins of mala meditation, and as near as I can tell it arose among Buddhists in India during the eighth century. Neighboring cultures could recognize a good thing when they saw it—and molded the beads to their own needs. Eventually the practice arrived in Europe and emerged as the rosary of the Roman Catholic Church.

I knew of the rosary long before I knew of mala beads, though it seemed shrouded in mystery. About 30 years ago, as a hospice volunteer I began to be involved with Catholics whose spirituality and commitment to right action were inspiring. But they were not there to proselytize. Later I told a young evangelistic Protestant that I would consider becoming a Catholic if they were willing to negotiate with me on a dozen points. Really? he asked. And what are those points? I made a list, coming up with 14 issues. I sent it to my young friend by email. Happily, he never got back to me, and I have lost the list. That loss is cause for gratitude, as it might reek of arrogance.

Early one evening when I was out for a walk at our cooperative, I noticed a number of people streaming across campus toward one of the buildings. They seemed full of joy and anticipation. I asked a friend what they might be about, and she said they are Catholics, and they gather once a week in a member’s apartment to do the rosary. This led me to do some reading about the rosary, and I have noticed on various TV dramas that priests advise supplicants to do so many “Our Fathers” and “Hail Mary’s” to be absolved from their sins. Both are part of the rosary, which can vary in size. I read on a Catholic website that meditation is an important part of the rosary—a significant crossover.

But I do not see myself coming to view meditation as tantamount to confession. I do hope to be forgiven; it is a crucial part of my Loving-Kindness practice. And I look less to God than to my heart and the human community for that mercy. (Naturally, I will keep a few lower-case gods in reserve!) And while I hope to be discerning, may I hold a place in my heart for all those who have helped make counting and focusing on beads to cleanse our souls and make sense of our collective spiritual traditions.

BLOGGER’S NOTE: Further comment on this subject appears in Karl’s Keyboard No. 15, posted December 2, 2020


What is the meaning behind the number 108?

Why are there 108 beads and why are there 108 repetitions? Different disciplines and cultures give different meaning and significance to the number 108, across a wide range of scientific, religious and philosophical beliefs. Here are some of the most interesting ones:

· According to some Vedic teaching institutions like Arsha Vidya Gurukul, Sanskrit alphabet has 54 letters, each letter having the feminine and masculine aspect – Shakti and Shiva. The total number is 108.

· Chakras are the focal points in our subtle bodies, where energy lines intersect. The Heart Chakra is formed out of 108 energy lines that are converging at its spot.

· The number 108 is also known as a ‘Harshad’ number, which means that it can be divided by the sum of its digits. In Sanskrit language, harshad means ‘great joy’.

· As separate numbers, it is believed that 1 stands for higher Truth, 0 for spiritual completeness and 8 for eternity.

--From the blog at


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