Tag Archives: Function

2017-02 Shinnyo-en Buddhism Introductory Podcast – Prayer Beads

2017-02 Shinnyo-en Buddhism Introductory Podcast – Prayer Beads

  • Beads, Beads, and More Beads
  • The Shingon 108-bead Version
  • Symbolic Meaning
  • Practical Use
  • A Circle of Life


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Various kinds of prayer beads

Prayer beads – in some cultures called “worry beads” as having something in the hand to hold, whether another person’s hand, or a string of objects, has always brought a psychological comfort to the holder.

In buddhism, you tend to see them all over the place – people holding them in their hands, a bracelet on the wrist, a string of beads hanging from their forearm, a pile of beads on an altar, someone holding up the beads in front of the altar doing something with them in mid-air. You won’t see them worn around the neck as jewelry, nor tossed around like Mardi Gras bangles. They seem to have another purpose. What could that be?

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Shingon Buddhist prayer beads – different styles.

For further purposes of simplicity, the kinds of prayer beads I’ll be referring in this introduction will be the basic bead sets used by the Shingon esoteric sects.  The strand has 108 beads in the circle, divided in two semi-circles by a set of tassels at either end of the loop.  One tassel has an extra bead (often referred to as the Mother bead) on it.  Counting in from that extra beaded tassle, there are 7 beads, followed by a different kind of bead, followed by 14 more beads, and a different bead, then 33 more beads until the other tassel. Each tassel also has 5 beads (not counting the Mother bead) on it, with a single different bead before the fluffy or ball end of the tassel.  They can be made of many different materials, though natural ones are the most preferred (glass, wood, stone, marble, etc.)

There are two basic explanations beyond the “comforting thing to hold” idea for the purpose of the beads. One is symbolic or esoteric, representing the many different things affecting humans. In this version, the 108 beads represent human life problems and struggles.  Zen buddhism has an interesting specificity in their definition by multiplying the six senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, and mind) by the six physical sources of sense (eyes, ears, body, tongue, nose, and brain.) This results in 36 combinations, half of which are positive, and half negative impressions. Multiplying these 36 by the past, present and future positions in time in which they may occur, leads us to the 108 delusions of attachment (or things we should be apologetic for during our path to enlightenment.)

The other is a more functional or technical explanation – counting. There are many basic actions requiring repeating 3 times (bows, chants, prostrations, etc.) which are easy enough to count by yourself. But getting to 5, 7, 21, 33 or 100 times of anything, can find you spending more energy or thought trying to remember how many you just did, rather than being immersed in the action of what you’re supposed to be doing. That’s when holding the beads in one hand while incrementing one bead each time you do something, makes it easy to physically keep track of how many actions you just performed.  Simple, practical and something that won’t break your concentration or focus.

A final more psychological use is that of representation. The beads represent a reminder to be mindful of the many ways in which we as humans stray from our own paths of peace. We take care to remember that not only do we individually have all of these perceptions that lead us towards polarized emotions, but so does everyone else around us. To remember that each of us has an innate need for peace and tranquility, is to also find ways to cultivate that same awareness in others.
/* That’s it for this session. Thank you for listening. For more information feel free to e-mail me at jlui at jlui dot net, or twitter @jhlui1 With Gassho, James*/