by Victoria Dombronski
Michel’s Adventures with Tibetan Human Cranium Prayer Beads
Mala’s story begins with a traveling student, Michel, who finds a circle of beads on a dirt path while studying abroad in Tibet. Michel began to analyze the beads as he carefully manipulated them in his hands. Are these bone? It certainly looks like it. Did this ritual object really all start with the death of a Tibetan, and successively their bones? Since Tibetan prayer beads are called Malas, the student named his beads, naturally, Mala.
But who is Mala? Just as Michel began to wonder about the beads, the largest bead on the rosary, which was shaped like a head, began to speak! Michel had read some Tibetan literature that certainly had fantastical qualities, but he did not think he would have an experience such as this one! Walking along the path, the bead would sporadically choose when it wanted to speak, but for now, Michel stayed quiet, listened carefully, and found that he was learning a lot. Mala is an eastern rosary used to keep track of mantras, and is part of a rich history in the use of prayer beads. Almost every Tibetan has a Mala, and certainly cares for and uses it often. Prayer beads have been in use since 8th century India and derive from the Hindu religion. This influence later caught on in Tibet, Japan, Korea, and China. Mala is made up of 108 beads, which can be traced back to the 108 beads used in Hinduism called rudraksha beads. These beads were made out of seeds from a specific tree only found on the island of Java located in Indonesia. Wooden beads from a basil shrub were also seen and also found in 108 sections. (“Prayer Beads: A Cultural Experience”).This special number has carried forth and now a few explanations are attributed to its specificity. The number 108 is a multiple of both 9 and 12, and from Hindu these corresponds to the twelve houses of the zodiac as well as the 9 planets. Interestingly enough, it is also a multiple of four and twenty seven, which link to the “four quarters of the moon in each of the twenty seven lunar mansions or constellations.” (Beer, 215) The mantras may be recited in rounds of 100 recitations, and the extra 8 allow room for error both in the recitation itself and miscounts along the way. It is also said that this number signifies the amount of impurities that must be made up for in order to achieve nirvana. Beads revolve around the notion of merit. If you recite more mantras, you are accumulating more merit that will benefit both your current life as well as future lives. You can even go so far as to say you are affecting your family’s karma and those that are close to you. This idea of merit is also seen in the acts of circumambulations and prostrations for the same reason. All are ways to get closer to enlightenment by accumulating merit and good karma. (“Count Your Blessings”)
Why else is Mala so important? She also serves as a tool of meditation and concentration to quiet the mind. By having something tactile in hand, it creates a sense of focus and purpose. According to Stuart Walker, partaking in a somewhat “thoughtless” habit such as fingering the prayer beads, it allows the individual to establish a deeper purpose with the beads which signify them as “above the mundane.” It also allows an “instrument of synthesis-an aid in bringing together the inner and outer-or physical and spiritual (26).” Walker also notes that prayer beads can be looked at as lucky charms, or a talisman, a touchstone, or a means of identification. It is familiar to many cultures and individuals who perhaps have no religious or spiritual affiliation, to have objects that they find special enough to take with them for good luck at certain important moments in their lives. Prayer beads can serve as this object bringing good energy and luck. Additionally, what Walker means by touchstone is a souvenir of sorts that brings to mind sentiments of faith and remembering what is “true and meaningful (27).” In terms of identifying with objects, prayer beads allow the individual to express their devotion to Buddhism, many times by wearing their beads. Being that prayer beads are decorative and have aesthetic appeal, they can also be considered a type of jewelry. Michel started to observe the people around him and the possible ways in which they wore their Malas. Some indeed wore them around their wrists like a bracelet, around their neck like a necklace, or just held securely in their hand.
Taking a turn in his wandering journey towards the center of Lhasa, Michel spotted a man carving beads to be made into a Mala. Michel observed the pair in his hand while observing the differing characteristics he spotted in the man’s little workshop. The Tibetan man so kindly offered to demonstrate the creation process of this beloved ritual item. Michel put the beads carefully in his pocket and marveled at the mans workshop and attention to the task at hand. The connection between all of the beads were made possible by a String material. This was generally made from silk, however sometimes human hair was used as well. (Mala:Buddhist Rosary Beads) This string can also be seen as a way to spearhead through the 108 worldly passions. Technically and traditionally speaking, between three and nine strands should be strung by a virgin girl who is in the tantric lineage of a certain Buddhist family, but of course this is not absolutely necessary (Beer, 215). If you use 3 strands, it is representative of the The Three Jewels, however if you use nine strands, it corresponds with Vajradhara and the eight bodhisattvas. It was not recommended to use just one strand, as it could easily break. (215) He then pointed out the significance of the largest bead in the rosary called the Guru bead. He had many options for which kinds of beads to use, and these materials could additionally corresponded to different rites. For example, for peaceful rites of appeasing the material could range anywhere from crystal, to moonstone, lotus seed, pearl, mother of pearl, ivory, or conch shell. Furthermore, if you wanted beads for drawing objects or people into your “sphere of influence” for power, you would choose from the materials of carnelian, red sandalwood, or red coral. In the case of wrathful rites of forceful activity, as you often see for use towards wrathful deities, the materials of choice would be rudraksha seeds, iron, lead, human, or animal bone (215). Michel took note of the bone reference and wanted to learn more about what made the bone so special later on. Perhaps he would ask the Guru bead if it started to talk again.
The kind man proceeded to explain the significance of color. He expressed that blue for example would represent qualities such as ascension, infinity, and purity, whereas green would signify harmony, vigor, and action. Similarly, black would represent darkness and hate, while white represents learning and longevity. Red is life force, blood, and fire and yellow is rootedness and earth. (“Color Symbolism in Buddhism”) Thinking back to the beads he found, Michel now understood perhaps why the creator of that bead set would choose green and red for the eyes and nose of the face on the Guru Bead. The red perhaps would create a strong and sacred life force, whereas the green would add harmony. Finding this very interesting, Michel listened and watched intently as the man chose different beads to string on to this soon to be Mala. He explained how normally the Mala would be split into four sections, and a colored bead would be placed for every 27 beads. This would mean that you would find a colored bead at the marks of 27, 54, and 81, until you reached the Guru Bead. It is also frequent that you see a colored bead at the points of 10 and 21, or 10 on either side of the Guru Bead, where a tassel will be placed. These tassels are used in mantra counting to help keep track, and are made of gold, copper, or silver with a small vajra or bell at the end. (Beer, 216) It is important to not go past the Guru bead when you get to it, but rather to switch and return back the other way. If you do, it is considered disrespectful to the Buddha or your master. Watching this process felt almost meditative for Michel, as this man was so present in the task at hand and carefully and consciously strung on each bead. Michel could see the appeal in creating your own Mala. By personalizing it and creating a deeper connection with this ritual object, perhaps it would bring deeper value in ones life. Deciding to leave the man to continue his bead making, Michel politely thanked him for allowing him to observe, and went on his way.
After having such a unique and fortunate experience with the construction of prayer beads, another thought suddenly entered Michel’s mind and he swiftly grew anxious. Weren’t prayer beads made with Bone only suppose to be held and possessed by certain individuals? He pulled out the beads from his pocket and looked at the Guru Bead thinking it would start talking again, but this time, he did not have such luck. Thinking back to lectures he had heard, the rules started to become clearer regarding bone use, but to be sure, Michel asked a monk calmly strolling by. Upon showing the monk the beads, he took them in his hands and touched them carefully. He told Michel they were made of human cranium, and technically should only be seen and held by those who have been properly initiated into Buddhist practice. (“Count Your Blessings”) Michel began to feel uncomfortable and had the urge to try and speak out to explain himself, however, wanting to show complete respect towards the monk, Michel consciously followed suit with Tibetan tradition and he stayed calm and respectful towards the master. The monk proceeded to explain the significance of using human bone to Michel. He remembered before how bone was used against wrathful deities, but here the monk also informed him that where this bone comes from is also very important. For example, for the most potent tantric power, one would want bone from someone who was executed or murdered. In other means, one would want skull from a large, violent accident victim for a medium amount of magical strength. If you have a human cranium from a child who died just before puberty, or, interestingly enough, who was born from a couple engaging in mischievous sexual misconduct or incest, it is considered the most potent. It is understood that the bones carry energy and spirit, and the life of that individual is still contained in the bones. Due to this powerful quality, the bones can be highly useful for rituals. (“Tibetan Skull Cap”) Michel was not sure how he was feeling about these beads, but this did not matter as the monk then gave him instruction to take them to a local monastery and return them. If someone was looking for them, as beads can be very personal objects of possession, they would hopefully find them there. Thinking in this light in relation to his own life, he thought how upset he would be if he lost his lucky silver coin given to him by his grandfather.
Obediently, after thanking the monk, Michel headed towards the monastery in the center of Lhasa. Michel looked down at these beads in a new light, and the Guru Bead began to speak again. Being that he overhead the conversation between Michel and the monk on the subject of bones, he started to talk about where else he could find bone in Tibetan art. It is very possible to see wrathful deities holding prayer beads made of skull in paintings. There is also great use of skull caps! Michel was feeling a bit uneasy about skullcaps, but listened intently to what the Guru bead said. Skull caps can be used as a means to make sacrifices to wrathful deities, and many times are decorated with copper or brass. They may be filled with liquor as part of the libation in honor of the gods (Laufer, 9).
Arriving at the monastery, Michel, a little bedazzled from what magical experience he had just gone through, handed the human cranium beads back to a monk who would put them aside for safe keeping until their owner came for them. The Guru Bead quickly said to Michel to be sure to keep one final note in mind regarding the skulls; they represent a constant reminder of the idea of impermanence. (“Tibetan Skull Cap”) Michel left the monastery feeling like he had experienced something extroadinary, and would stay present and mindful for the rest of his time studying in Tibet. For that matter, maybe what he really needed to take away from Tibet was to stay aware of impermanence in all of his life. He was young and embracing the joy of learning at university, but often times forgot to fully embrace it. Every aspect of his life, from school, to family and friends and hobbies, could be more meaningful. If he treated everyone and every act in his life with more consciousness in the present moment, maybe he too would look and feel as wholesome and grounded as the Tibetans he encountered that day. He would engage himself fully in every moment, and remember this Tibetan influence that impacted him so greatly when he went back to France. Tibet was not as isolated as he had once thought, and their essence now permeated his life. Who knew what would come of picking up a lost Mala on the side of a dirt road?
Beer, Robert. “Auspicious Symbols.” The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. Boston: 2003. 215-217.
“Color Symbolism in Buddhism.” Religion Facts. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Dec 2013. .
“Count Your Blessings.” The Rubin Museum . The Rubin Museum, n.d. Web. 2 Dec 2013. <http://prayerbeads.rma2.org/exhibition/>.
Laufer, Berthold. Use of Human Skulls and Bones in Tibet. Chicago: Field Museum of Natural History, 1923. Web.
“Mala: Buddhist Rosary Beads.” Religion Facts. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Dec 2013. <http://www.religionfacts.com/buddhism/things/mala.htm>.
“Prayer Beads: A Cultural Experience.” Museum of Anthropology. University of Missouri, 2 Dec. 2013. Web. 2 Dec 2013. <http://anthromuseum.missouri.edu/minigalleries/prayerbeads/intro.shtml>.
“Tibetan Skull Cap.” Religion Facts. Religion Facts, n.d. Web. 2 Dec 2013. .
Walker, Stuart. “Object Lessons: Enduring Artifacts and Sustainable Solutions.”Design Issues MIT Press. 22.1 (2006): 20-28. Print. <http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/074793606775247763>.