In all Buddhist cultures, monks and lay practitioners use Mala Beads in prayer or rosaries. In Sanskrit they are known as mala or Japa mala beads. The beads are usually round, but in some cases, they are carved in the form of human skulls, a reminder of the impermanence of life. Traditionally, Buddhist rosaries have 108 beads, representing the 108 human passions, or one mala counts as 100 mantras, and the 8 extra are meant to be dedicated to all sentient beings (the practice as a whole is dedicated at its end as well). Some smaller Chinese rosaries have 18 beads, one for each lohan. In Pure Land Buddhism, for instance, 27 bead malas are common In China such malas are named "Shu-Zhu" (É”Äì in Japan, "Juzu". These shorter malas are sometimes called 'prostration rosaries', because they are easier to hold when enumerating repeated prostrations.
Even the beads that fasten the string together have a meaning: they symbolize the three jewels of Buddhism: the Buddha, the dharma (his teachings), and the Buddhist community. The string passing through the beads stands for the power of all the Buddhas that runs through everything
Usage of Beads
Mantras are often repeated hundreds or even thousands of times. The mala is used so that one can think about the meaning of the mantra as it is chanted rather than thinking about counting the repetitions. One mantra is usually said for every bead, turning the thumb clockwise around each bead, though some traditions or practices may call for counterclockwise or specific finger usage. When arriving at the head bead, one turns the mala around and then goes back in the same direction. This makes using the mala easier as the beads will not be so tight on the string when you use them. Many believe that when one uses a mala many times in this way, it takes on the energy of the mantra that is being chanted. For this reason it is common to chant only one particular mantra with a particular mala.
Monks often give bead necklaces as gifts. In Chinese, they are called ügfozhu.üh The Shaolin Monks prefer the larger size beads.
A wide variety of materials are used to make mala beads. In Hinduism, Vaishnavas generally use the Japamaala of Tulsi beads. The Shaivites use that of Rudraksha beads. Some Tibetan Buddhist traditions call for the use of bone (animal, most commonly yak) or sometimes human, the bones of past Lamas being the most valuable. Others use wood or seeds from the Bodhi tree (Buddha was enlightened under a Bodhi tree) or seeds of the Lotus plant. Semi-precious stones such as carnelian and amethyst may be used, as well. In Buddhist Tantra or Vajrayana, materials and colors of the beads can relate to a specific practice.
The most common material for making beads is sandalwood. For those who believe in therapeutic herbs, sandlewood is reputed to have the following qualities. Effects: Warming, Relaxing, Aroma: Base note, Scent: Woody, Sweet, Exotic. Properties: Anti-inflammatory, Antiseptic, Antispasmodic, Aphrodisiac, Diuretic, Sedative