Tengwa: Meaning, Origin, and Proper Use of the Prayer Beads of the Yungdrung Bön

Prayer beads are used to count the recitation of mantras or prayers within many religious traditions. They are commonly referred to as a “mala” by Western practitioners of Yungdrung Bön. The term “mala” is a Sanskrit language term meaning “garland.” However, in the Yungdrung Bön religious tradition, prayer beads are known by the Tibetan term “tengwa” [Tibetan: ‘phreng ba]. This is sometimes rendered as “trengwa” but the “r” sound is quite soft and closer to the pronunciation of “tengwa” for English speakers. In general, the Tibetan language term “tengwa” means “to be fastened, affixed or attached to” or “a sequence of anything that is connected together.” Conventionally, this could refer to a string of jewels, a sequence of stars, a string of flowers, and so on. Sometimes, it can also refer to a way of writing a sequence of letters. However, as a religious object, the meaning of “tengwa” does not merely refer to a sequence of material objects placed on a string. It is a material object used as a sacred support to continually fix or fasten the mind upon the ultimate truth rather than having the mind fastened to cyclic existence.

“In regards to the tengwa as a religious object, when establishing the inner meaning of “tengwa,” it is not merely a material object. It is an object for the mind to follow or to have a kind of attachment to. For example, it is like the attachment to a friend, or the mental attachment of a mother to her child. By depending upon the pure, material object of a tengwa, this very awareness of each ordinary mind is no longer fixated upon impure worldly things but fixed upon great liberation. It is necessary to fix or direct the mind to a skillful path.”

— Extract from The Selected Writings of Menri Lopön Trinley Nyima Rinpoché

Origin of the Tengwa

According to evidence within two of the hagiographies of Buddha Tönpa Shenrap Miwoché , the Ziji and the Zermik, the supreme teacher Tönpa Shenrap Miwo had renounced all worldly things including his authority as a prince in the royal court of Zhang Zhung. In solitude, he was practicing hardships including the three periods of fasting of birds, monkeys, and humans. His body was losing its bright complexion and it was even possible to count his joints and ribs. Around midnight, he would sleep for a brief time. He noticed that for a few days in a row, his dreams contained worldly concerns such as dreaming about his royal ministers and the dealings of the court. Therefore, at sunrise he decided to make an aspiration prayer and create something in order to support the mind in sustaining a connection with the ultimate truth rather than being attached to worldly things. He put his hands together in a mudra, looked into the vast expanse of the sky and spoke these words:

“So that the mind will not be tengwa [affixed] to worldly things, and instead be tengwa [affixed] to the ultimate truth, may there be a tree with fruit that ripens, a material substance of exceptionally good qualities for calculating a count.”

— Extract from the Zermik

Because of the Buddha’s aspiration prayer, three days later a miraculous tree appeared. The branches grew in four directions and were each four distinct colors. From the Ziji:

“The trunk was golden like a precious jewel. Above in the four directions, there were four colors: East was white, north was green, west was red, and the south was blue. The center was radiantly gold like a great, precious jewel. The fruits and flowers each ripened into colors of the associated direction.” 

Proper and Improper Types of Tengwa

From this tree, Buddha Tönpa Shenrap created the first tengwa. It is the qualities of this tree which define the proper and improper qualities of a tengwa. For example, according to both the Zermik and the ZIji, there are five kinds of proper materials used for a trengwa which relate to the practices of the Four Doors of Bön and the Fifth which is the Treasury. These five proper materials are white conch shell, crystal, raksha or rudraksha, bhotitsa or bodhi seed, and menlung which is a kind of jet.

“A tengwa of conch is for practicing the Bön door of the masters quintessential instructions, a tengwa of crystal is for the Bön door of The Bön of the Black Waters of Existence, a tengwa of raksha is for the Bön door of the White Waters of Wrathful Mantra, a tengwa of menlung is for the Bön door of The Hundred Thousand Verses that Fill the Land of Phen, and a tengwa of the inexpressible bhotitsa is for the Bön door of Flowing Upwards. This understanding is in harmony with the commentary of the great Jé Rinpoche. 

According to that, a crystal, lapis lazuli, and especially white conch tengwa is for peaceful recitation. For expansive it is gold, silver, or elephant ivory, and for powerful it is coral, copper, or red sandalwood. For wrathful recitations, it is the raksha. Bhotitsa is general for any of the four Bön doors of peaceful, expansive, powerful, or wrathful practices.”

— Extract from The Selected Writings of Menri Lopön Trinley Nyima Rinpoché

From the above quoted commentary of His Eminence Menri Lopön Trinley Nyima Rinpoché, he includes tengwa made of lapis lazuli, gold, silver, coral, copper and red sandalwood. Each detail of the tengwa is important and meaningful. Even the proper color of the tengwa string is explained within the scriptures and is according to the qualities of the miraculous tree created by the Buddha. From both the Zermik and the Ziji:

“Through the blessings of the compassionate Tönpa, gather five kinds of tree fruit and spin the fiber into a string.

Fiber of a white string goes with the east and with white conch tengwas.

Fiber of a green string goes with the north and crystal tengwas.

Fiber of a red string goes with the west and the red raksha tengwas.

Fiber of a blue string goes with the south and the menlung (jet) tengwas.

Fiber of a yellow string goes with the center and the bhotitsa tengwas.” 

However, it is not necessary to have many tengwas for different kinds of practices. The bhotitsa, or bodhi seed, tengwa can be used for any type of practice with the single exception being when practicing Cha Kengtsé. For that practice, a crystal tengwa must be used. It is important to not use a tengwa made of unacceptable materials. These materials are defined clearly within the scriptures as a tengwa made of horn or bone except elephant ivory, any type of stone except crystal, or a tengwa made from any type of tree that does not bear fruit should be avoided. It is common to find tengwa of yak bone or counting beads shaped like skulls. These are considered improper according to the Yungdrung Bön scriptures.

Tönpa Shenrap, founder of the Yungdrung Bön religious tradition who created the first tengwa

Once the proper substances have been prepared as beads, they are placed together on a string. These beads are known as the counting beads and, although their number can differ, it is most common and appropriate to have a group of 108. Some texts explain that a tengwa for peaceful practices has 100 beads, a tengwa for expansive practices has 108 beads, a tengwa for powerful practices has 50 beads and a tengwa for wrathful practices has ten beads. However, the higher and more generally accepted scriptures all explain that the tengwa should have 108 beads and that the practitioner should imagine that these beads represent the 1,008 enlightened beings.

The two ends of the string holding the 108 beads are brought together through a bead with three holes known as the “head bead.” On top of this bead, the string is threaded through a vase-shaped bead known as the “bumpa” which is a Tibetan term meaning “vase.” Together, the head bead and the bumpa are known as the “do dzin” meaning “junction holder,” or “dü dzin” meaning “knot holder.” The purpose of the do dzin is to bring together and to hold the string of the tengwa. Unacceptable shapes for the bead above the head bead include shapes of a stupa, mountain, or dorjé. The round, lower part of the do dzin, the head bead, represents the completely pure Bönku that is clear of the obscurations to wisdom. The bumpa on top of the head bead represents the ngowo nyi gyi ku, the enlightened body of essential nature.

Yungdrung Bön nun in Tibet with a conch tengwa with chu dzab attached. Photo credit: Mary Ellen McCourt

When accumulating a mantra or prayer, such as when performing the 900,000 accumulations of the preliminary practices, it is necessary to keep count of the number of recitations. This job is performed by the “ten recitation counters” known as “chu dzab.” “Chu” means “ten” and “dzab” means “recitation.” The chu dzab is made of ten small rings of gold, silver, etc. that are threaded onto a string thick enough to keep them from moving by themselves. One chu dzab is attached to each side of the tengwa and, one acts as the hundreds counter and the other acts as the thousands counter. When a complete round of the tengwa counting beads has been completed with a recitation of 108, one ring of the hundreds chu dzab is moved either up or down. Continually reciting and moving the hundreds chu dzab in this way, eventually the tenth and final ring is moved. This indicates that 1,000 recitations have been completed. At this point, one ring of the thousands chu dzab is moved. It doesn’t matter whether the rings are moved upwards or downwards, but only that is is consistent so that it can be remembered and the count is clear. According to the scriptures, the chu dzab are imagined as the workers that keep count. Even though there are 108 counting beads, a complete round of recitation is tallied as 100 recitations. This accommodates the possibility of accidentally having moved more than one bead at a time. Therefore, the practitioner can be confident that the recitations are not being over counted and any commitments regarding recitation accumulations have been fulfilled.

Meaning and Proper Use of the Tengwa

Each part of the tengwa represents the sacred. The string represents the mother of space, the principal buddha Satrik Érsang. The head bead represents the principal buddha Shenlha Ökar and the root lama. The do dzin represents the principal buddha Sangpo Bumtri. And the action of the thumb, index and middle finger that support and advance the counting beads during recitation represent the principal buddha Tönpa Shenrap. In this way, when using the tengwa it has the energy and power of the four principal buddhas of Yungdrung Bön: Satrik Érsang, Sangpo Bumtri, Shenlha Ökar, and Tönpa Shenrap. (For more information regarding these four principal buddhas, see previous article: https://ravencypresswood.com/2016/08/20/the-four-principal-enlightened-ones/ ) Their collective retinue of the 1,008 buddhas are represented by the counting beads.

The tengwa is held in the left hand over the index finger, and the thumb is used to advance the counting beads one-by-one inwards, meaning towards the body. It is not held with the right hand or with both hands. Some texts refer to holding the tengwa at the level of the heart while reciting, but others make no reference to this detail. The tengwa hand can be placed in the lap while reciting. Once each of the 108 counting beads have been advanced and the count returns to the head bead, it is not used as a counting bead and it is not passed over to begin counting with the bead on the other side. When the head bead is reached at the completion of a full round of recitation, the tengwa is reversed and the count begins again with the counting bead that completed the previous count. Otherwise, if the count continues by using the counting bead on the other side of the head bead, it is like stepping over the root lama. This is the generally accepted way to hold and use the tengwa. However, some texts do explain different ways of counting for different purposes.

“According to The Khandro Tantra, it is said that for peaceful activity, it is necessary to use the forefinger to guide the beads. For expansive activity, use the middle finger. For powerful, use the ring finger, and for wrathful activities, use the little finger to guide.” 

— Extract from The Selected Writings of Menri Lopön Trinley Nyima Rinpoché

And from Festival of Yogic Play:

“The male lineage deities of emptiness and inseparability are counted with the right hand, and the female lineage deities are counted with the left hand. When counting mantra of reversal, hold the tengwa with the left hand and with both the thumb and little finger of the right hand count outward.”

However, it is explained within the Six Tantras of Discipline, the Do Zer Mik, the Ziji, etc., only to count with the left hand and there are no explanations other than that. These texts explain that the thumb of the left hand is connected with skillful means, the index finger is connected with wisdom, and the middle finger is connected with awareness. According to the Zer Mik:

“Combining skillful means and wisdom with the support of primordial awareness, count and guide the tengwa restricted to these three fingers.”

Rotating the tengwa like this during recitation is a way of circumambulating Bön. And according to the scriptures, it is necessary to guide the counting beads in this way in order for the recitation to have purpose. When the session of recitation is complete, the tengwa is rubbed gently between the two hands and blown upon as a means to empower it with the blessings and potency of the recitation. The tengwa of realized masters is considered to be a special object imbued with blessings and extraordinary qualities because of being empowered by the mantra recitations of an extraordinary being.

The Four Principal Buddhas of Yungdrung Bön. Top left: Satrik Érsang, bottom left: Sangpo Bumtri, bottom right: Tönpa Shenrap, and Top right: Shenlha Ökar

Consecrating the Tengwa

Ritual consecration of sacred objects is known in Tibetan as rab né [rab gnas]. By consecrating sacred objects used as practice supports, defilements that might cause obstacles to practice are removed and the material object is connected with the energy and blessings of the enlightened beings. It is important to consecrate a new tengwa before using, and also after it becomes defiled in any way. It is traditional to ask for blessings and consecration for the tengwa from time-to-time from spiritual masters. The scriptures contain clear and precise instructions regarding the consecration of the tengwa.

Again from The Selected Writings of Menri Lopön Trinley Nyima Rinpoché:

“On a positive or auspicious day, put a heap of various kinds of grains on top of white cotton or cloth. On top of that, according to the scriptures, place the tengwa. Fumigate with sweet smelling incense, sang or gurgum, etc. Then, wash with cleansing water. As is taught within the Dzong Treng, below that arrange the five offerings, white things, sweet things, and a collection of wealth and clouds of offerings. Meditate upon one’s self as the yidam and set a boundary. Then, meditate upon the tengwa beads as the 108 yungdrung sempa [Sanskrit: bodhisattvas]. From that, hundreds of thousands of light rays radiate outward from the heart of those yungdrung sempa, and from that state, the collective potent energy of blessings dissolve into and purify the tengwa. The essence of the consecration for the tengwa is: OM TSANG RI THO YÉ PU TSAM HA RA KHI KHAR ZHI DRUM DU. Recite this many times. Then, recite108 each of the essence of the group of peaceful and wrathful deities. Then recite the ALI KALI, the essence of each of the yidams, and after that recite the essence of dependent arising, etc. If the conclusion of the consecration includes a recitation of auspiciousness, the positive, exalted qualities are inconceivable.”

After the prayers of auspiciousness, the hundred-syllable mantra is recited once in order to purify any mistakes or errors that might have occurred during the consecration ritual. Then the merit generated by the virtuous activity of performing the rab né is dedicated for the benefit of all migrating beings. In this way, the tengwa becomes free of any negativity and blessed with the powerful energy of the yungdrung sempa.

“We, masters and disciples, by generating the mind of the four immeasurables and because of blessing and consecrating these sacred objects, we pray that the intentions of the holy and glorious lamas will increase more and more, and may all enlightened activities flourish and spread!”

— Extract from Consecration for Prayer Flags, Sacred Images, etc.

Discipline and Commitments Regarding the Tengwa

It is important to be aware of the commitments regarding the tengwa and the proper way to treat it as a sacred object. Otherwise, it is merely an ordinary, worldly object.

“If you do not know the essence of the tengwa, then it is the same as an old lady’s necklace.” 

— Extract from the Nyen Yig 

“When reciting, don’t show off or make a display of the tengwa to others or let others hold it. Keep it near the body and don’t put it directly onto the ground or floor. Don’t decorate with it or wear it in order to be beautiful. Don’t handle a tengwa that comes from a sinful person or use a tengwa that has not been consecrated. Don’t pull the beads with the hand while pretending or putting on a display. Don’t put it underneath food or clothing, etc. It is improper to use it as a toy or a game and toss it here and there. “

— Extract from The Selected Writings of Menri Lopön Trinley Nyima Rinpoché

When not being used, the tengwa can be worn on the left wrist.

Therefore, it is important to remember the meaning and purpose of the tengwa and to treat it as an object of faith and reverence that supports the awareness and practice of ultimate enlightenment. The tengwa should never be used as an object to show off or reinforce the pride or the ego. And especially when accumulating mantra or prayers, do not let others touch or hold the tengwa. Additionally, when reciting a mantra or prayer, it is important to maintain certain disciplines in order to receive the power and blessings of what is being recited. While reciting, it is important to not engage in ordinary speech, or to eat or drink. Ideally, coughing, sneezing, yawning, and even clearing the throat are avoided or minimized as much as possible in order to not disperse the power that is being generated.

Keep the tengwa near the body on the wrist or in a pocket. If it is worn around the neck because of having to perform tasks with both hands when the tengwa might become dirty or damaged, care should be taken to be certain that it is worn in this way as a manner of protection rather than as a display. At night when going to sleep, place the tengwa on a higher, removed placed away from anything that is dirty or cluttered.

Being aware of the significance and meaning of the tengwa, and using it in the proper way, it becomes a sacred object that continually directs the focus of the mind to the spiritual path and to a way of virtue rather than allowing the mind to follow worldly and unvirtuous things.

Tibetan translation by Raven Cypress Wood

Raven Cypress Wood ©All Rights Reserved. No content, in part or in whole, is allowed to be used without direct permission from the author.

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Posted on July 24, 2021, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Wow, Raven. I can see why you have been so busy. This is so much information. This is the most detailed account of the role of a “mala” in the Yungdrung Bon tradition I’ve ever seen. Really useful. Thank you!

  2. Shirley Lavin

    Fascinating information, Raven. If accumulations have been done on an improper tengwa (my chu dwab appears to be plastic) should they be discarded?

  3. Hello  Shirley,
    Not to worry, there is no need to disregard those accumulations. However, in order to generate greater power and purpose of the accumulations in the future, it is strongly advisable to obtain a tengwa of the appropriate material.
    I hope that you and  your family are all well,

  4. keThank you Raven! Much appreciated.

  1. Pingback: Introduction to Prayer Wheels | Nine Ways

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