To Bead or Not to Bead

Does the fashion craze for so-called Buddhist 'power beads' strip them of their power?

Proselytizing is avoided by most Buddhists; it is considered not part of the Buddha way. "The sensible man does not feel proud because of revelations he experiences nor because of thoughts that come to him," the Buddha said in one of his early teachings. Buddhist teachers by and large keep quiet, waiting for the students to find them.

Likewise, I keep my own thoughts and revelations generally to myself. I have never wanted to wear my Buddhism on my sleeve. But for the past five years I have been wearing a mala on my wrist.

Mala is Sanskrit for "garland," and my mala is a bracelet of beads. Tibetan and Zen Buddhists will often be seen wearing these bracelets--a Buddhist rosary of sorts, prayer beads used to count repetitions of a mantra. Buddhist malas typically have 108 beads, though mine has less.

I first saw a mala worn when I encountered His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his entourage during a 1996 visit to Bloomington, Indiana. His Holiness' humility and compassion moved me that day, and I made it a point to seek out some of these mala beads for myself. I never believed that they held any mystical power or would make me a better person, but thought having these beads on my wrist might serve as a subtle but effective daily reminder of what I wanted to remember--have a little humility, practice compassion, take a breath, be in the moment.

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I thought having these beads on my wrist might serve as a subtle but effective daily reminder of what I wanted to remember--have a little humility, practice compassion, take a breath, be in the moment

Though this was a mere five years ago, it took me some months to find a mala for my wrist. Only by chance, on a trip to New York City, did I finally find the beads for sale in a small Tibetan artifact store, on an obscure street below Greenwich Village. The simple dark wooden beads were from Tibet, the store clerk promised me, but the origin was really not so important. I was simply buying a reminder, not a totem or holy relic.

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