“The mala represents the destined connection with the Enlightened Beings. The mala string represents the 84,000 doors of Bön. The head bead represents the principal teacher. The counting beads represent the Six Subduing Shen, the six enlightened Shen who tame the six realms of cyclic existence.” ~from The Advice of Lishu Taring
The mala is called treng wa in Tibetan. It consists of one hundred eight counting beads and one larger main bead, often referred to as the ‘head bead’ or the ‘lama bead’. Malas can have spacer beads which are not counted during recitation of a mantra but are used for decorative purposes or to lengthen the mala and enable it to fit onto an individual’s wrist. Various kinds of counters are often added to the mala so that the practitioner can keep track of the mantra recitations. Malas can be made from various materials. Traditionally, many of these materials were symbolic. For example, tantric practitioners would often use malas made of bone to represent impermanence.
Before a mala is used, the practitioner will have it consecrated by a lama. This blesses it and also removes any contamination that the materials might carry with them that could be an obstacle to obtaining the benefit of the recitations performed using the mala. Although there are one hundred eight beads, one complete round of recitations is counted as one hundred. In this way, if any beads have accidentally been skipped during the recitation, they are accounted for with the ‘additional’ eight beads. Many practices require a commitment to recite a minimum of one hundred thousand repetitions of a mantra. Therefore, these ‘extra’ beads ensure that the commitment has been fulfilled. In general, during recitation, the practitioner is not allowed to eat, drink, talk, sneeze, spit or cough. These activities expel or diminish the power that is being generated. Once the session of mantra recitation is complete, the mala is rubbed gently between the hands and blown upon by the practitioner. In this way, the mala becomes further empowered and blessed by the mantras that have been recited.
The mala is a sacred object and should not be worn as though it is a kind of jewelry. It should be kept clean and not be handled by others. By wearing the mala on the wrist or carrying it in a pocket on the body, it acts as a form of protection. The mala is also sometimes used for divination or healing purposes. Lamas will sometimes give away their mala intact, or one bead at a time. Because of the power of the lama’s practice and recitation, this gift is a great blessing.