Prayer beads are used in may different religions. They are used by Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Muslims, and Catholics. The rosary is used in Catholicism to keep track of the order of prayers. The Misbaha, which is used in Islam, has 99 beads and each bead represents the 99 names of Allah. Some prayer beads do not necessarily go with any religion in particular, and they can be used in the manner you would like.
Both Buddhism and Hinduism use what is called a mala or japa mala. Buddhists and Hindus use prayer beads during meditation. Both Buddhists and Hindus say mantras, which are like prayers, during meditation. Each time the mantra is recited, you pass the bead through your fingers.
The human mind is prone to multi-tasking. Our days are very busy and so we have learned to do many things at the same time. This is helpful in daily life, but it makes it difficult for us to slow down during meditation and contemplation.
We use malas in meditation so that our brains can think about the mantra and direct our focus to the mantra, rather than thinking about what we need to do, what happened at work, etc. Also, when we concentrate on the mantra rather than having to concentrate on counting how many times we have said the mantras so far, then we can get the full benefit of the recitation.
The use of malas during meditation has another benefit as well, it helps provide a tangible connection to the world around us, and malas have a grounding effect. Sometimes during meditation it is common to have waking dreams, and the tangibility of the mala helps us stay present. The rhythms of the mantra and the meaning of the mantra are both important components of the recitation, and it is important for us to focus on those things. By focusing our mind on the mantra, we can allow our mind to stop wandering, and this helps us relax.
The Buddhist mala is normally made up of a number that is divisible by 9. Long malas commonly have 108 beads. Wrist malas are also popular in Buddhism and Hinduism. Wrist malas can have 18 or 19 beads commonly. 108 is a sacred number, it represents are the nine planets in the 12 zodiac houses, but there are other meanings as well. The number 108 has often been described as the complete or perfect number. There is also another reason for 108 beads, it is said that there are 100 beads for reciting the mantra, and 8 extra beads in case you make a mistake.
The way you hold a mala when you are meditating is an important part of your meditation. You should loosely hold the mala in one hand, and the mala should rest on your ring finger. The thumb is active, and you use the thumb to thread the beads over the palm of your hand with each mantra.
On the end of each mala there is a guru bead. This bead is commonly larger than the rest of the beads on the mala. The guru bead should not be passed over while you are meditating. If you reach the end of the mala and come to the guru bead, it is better to flip the mala to the other side and begin counting that way.
Sandalwood is a popular bead used for malas. Other popular beads include seed beads, such as bodhi seeds
and lotus seeds. Gemstone beads are common as well, especially jade, tiger eye, and amethyst beads. Malas can even be made from sterling silver, gold, crystal, etc.
There are any different types of Buddhist and Hindu mantras. Each mantra is recited with a specific purpose in mind. Many Buddhists have a specific Buddha they feel close to in some way, and there are mantras for each Buddha. Om mani padme hum is one of the most well-known Buddhist mantras, but there are many others as well. Mantras are very soothing, and can help get your mind in that relaxed state to start your meditation.
Meditating with malas makes the process of meditation much more soothing and relaxing. If you are new to meditation, or if meditating is old hat, using malas and mantras are a great way to start out, or go deeper into your practice.