Of Brahmanic origin, it is found particularly in Indo-Tibetan Buddhisms and Sino-Japanese, but also under other forms and names among Christians, under the term "rosary" or "chaplet", and among Muslims under that of "sabha" or "misbaha".
Having become fashionable in the West, it is not uncommon to see it wrapped around the wrist of some like a jewel. Others wear it to protect themselves from bad influences. But fundamentally, the vocation of the mala remains no less religious. Like the abacus, the main use of the mala is to count practices that must be performed a large number of times, such as mantra recitations, prostrations, invocations of Buddhas, etc. Their goal: to accumulate merits in view of better rebirths and to purify the “three doors” which are the body, the word and the spirit. The practitioner then uses the mala to concentrate on the meaning of the mantra, of the recitation, any visualizations to be made, etc., without having to worry about keeping in mind the count of the recitations performed.
Most malas have 108 grains, symbolizing the 108 types of illusions, the 108 names of Shakyamuni Buddha, the 108 ordeals he underwent to attain enlightenment. Symbolic number, 108 expresses the Universe, the greater than itself (the number 1 represents unity, the 0 means nothingness or emptiness, and the number 8 illustrates infinity or eternity). There is usually a 109th bead, larger than the others, called the "head bead" or "guru bead", surmounted by a small cone from which the ends of the thread emerge. The head ball symbolizes the knowledge of emptiness, the small cone emptiness itself.
The mala is a door to the mysteries, interior and exterior mixed, without the need for the slightest intermediary.
Beads can be made of different materials: seeds (for example from the Bodhi tree, under which the Buddha attained Enlightenment), wood, precious stones, glass, bone, etc. Some texts suggest the use of specific materials according to the practices envisaged: glass, crystal or mother-of-pearl beads to soothe or purify; gold or silver grains for practices intended to increase wealth; red coral, hematite or turquoise for power practices…
We see it, under simple and stripped exteriors, the mala is an object unordinary. Beyond the hypnotic possibility of repetition, it is a door to the mysteries, interior and exterior mixed together, without the need for the slightest intermediary. Baudelaire evoked it with his words in his diaries when he wrote “The rosary is a medium, a vehicle; it is prayer made available to all.