Also called recitation beads, chanting beads, count-ing beads, or mantra beads, Buddhist beads are carried by practitioners while reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha or chanting mantras. They also represent mer-it, Buddha nature, compassion, goodness, auspicious-ness, perfection, and the Buddha mind. Besides acting as a reminder to not do unwholesome things, they are also a proper form of adornment.
Buddhist beads can be made to be worn as a bracelet, carried in the hand, or worn as a necklace. The sutras recommend various numbers of beads per string, including 108, 54, 42, and 21 beads. The beads themselves are made of such materials as bodhi seeds, crystal, sandalwood, carnelian, amber, gold, silver, and pearl.
When reciting, the beads are held in the hand, and starting with the bead next to the mother bead (the largest bead of the set), the practitioner carefully slides one bead aside with a pinching motion for each recitation of Amitabha Buddha’s name, a Buddhist scrip-ture, or mantra. Divider beads, if they are present, are not counted, and when the mother bead is reached once again one rarely goes past it, but instead reverses direction. In wearing Buddhist beads, practitioners are mainly reminding themselves to always keep up the practice of reciting Amitabha Buddha’s name diligently, and further practice Buddhism in daily life.
There is not a person who is untouched by the eight suf-ferings of this Saha world. Even if you live in a mansion and feast on delicacies, you cannot escape the suffering that comes from birth, sickness, old age, and death. That is why many wise practitioners use me for chanting. I help them to single-mindedly focus attention on their recitation. Through this practice, when cultivators die, they are able to go to the Western Pure Land of Ultimate Bliss.
The way we Buddhist beads are made is quite unusual. Some people go to the seashore to pick up coral to make us. Many jewelry stores sell Buddha beads made from precious materials, such as pearls, agate, amber and crystal. Some people use naturally-grown bodhi seeds. These are round like the moon and the surface of the seeds seems to contain countless tiny stars.
Using Buddha beads has many benefits. Originally, practitioners used me to count the number of times they recited the Buddha’s name. Many devotees would chant the Buddha’s name up to twenty thousand times a day. Through chanting the Buddha’s name, they felt calm, peaceful, and in control of their wandering mind. They would count one bead for each recitation. When a practitioner would complete the daily chanting, there would be a sense of accomplishment, and I would receive a grateful smile. If the daily practice was missed because of laziness or forgetfulness, when the practitioner saw me, I would be a reminder of their negligence!
I feel sad when I see how many people misuse me. Due to ignorance, they think that, by displaying prayer beads draped around their necks or holding them in their hands, they will be seen as very pious. These people cast me aside most of the time, but when visitors come to call, they bring me out and start chanting. Not even chanting is free from the sanctimoniousness of the Saha world.
Long ago, the lower ranking monastics were not even allowed to openly hold me in their hands or wear me around their necks. I wondered about this. Why couldn’t all monastics freely use Bud-dha beads when chanting? Now, thank goodness, everyone is equal in the Dharma.
Some lay people like to wear prayer beads around their necks and on their wrists to show that they are Buddhists. Consequently, many buy beads as gifts to give to other Buddhists. It’s a lot like the way people give moon cakes as gifts during the Moon Festival.8 I am truly honored to be given as a gift.
People do have different opinions about me, though. Some consider me old fashioned because I am so often used by elderly people. This view reflects a lack of understanding. Often young people don’t pay much attention to me until they start to grow old. That’s when they really get interested in me.
Traditionally the abbot of the monastery wears a beautiful string of Buddha beads around his neck. Sometimes the monastics who only perform funeral services will also buy beautiful beads, but they don’t actually use me as an aid for chanting. Instead, they use me as jewelry or decoration, trying to make themselves look superior. It’s not good for Buddhism when I’m misused.
People tend to assume that those holding Buddha beads are good people because of my long history. I have a reputation for keeping good company. Sometimes this is a big mistake. Appearances can be deceiving! I remember one occasion when a monastic and I were traveling on a train. One of the passengers had stolen a lot of money from another passenger. When the police came through the train to investigate, the thief had a clever idea. He quickly grabbed me from the monastic, closed his eyes, and started moving his lips. The police officer passed us by. He must have thought to himself, that fellow sitting and chanting next to the monk must be a Buddhist, too... he wouldn’t steal from another person... he couldn’t be the suspect... I’ll leave him alone. It’s very hard for people to see the falseness of those who misuse me. Thinking about what happened on the train really makes me worry deeply about my reputation. Misuses of me must stop!
I take great displeasure in one kind of person. He holds me in his hand when chanting the Buddha’s name, which is fine with me, but what does bother me, is when he keeps moving me with his fingers and talking with other people at the same time. I really don’t understand this. Does he wish me to count his sentences while he talks to other people? I implore you to protect my noble calling by not misusing me.
I remember one occasion that was quite humorous. A layper-son, Mr. Liu, was coming to meet with the abbot. He had a string of prayer beads around his neck. As Mr. Liu approached the monastery gate, he suddenly held his hand out in front of his chest. He started walking around pompously as if he were an actor on the stage of a Chinese opera. People laughed at him. While the scene was quite comical, I was also embarrassed for him. How could he study Buddhism and act so strangely at the same time?
Sincerely, I wish to speak to all of you who are Buddhist cultivators. Chanting the name of the Buddha has to come from your heart. Whether or not you use me is unimportant. Cultivation has to be a part of your daily life. I’m sure you can see that using beads for decoration or jewelry, putting on pompous airs, and moving your lips pretending to recite the Buddha’s name are not examples of true cultivation.
Sincere Buddhism practitioners! Please save me! Do not let me be just an ornament anymore. I only want to be a tool to help people purify their minds on the path to enlightenment.
Digging a well when thirsty
shows lack of forethought;
being conceited and rude
leads to few helpful opportunities;
observing without moving forward
increases shame and affliction;
having no sense of conscience brings
misfortune upon a house.
Venerable Master Hsing Yun grants voices to the objects of daily monastic life to tell their stories in this collection of first-person narratives.
Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva (Chi:Guanyin) has been a source of inspiration and devotion for Mahayana Buddhists and non-Buddhists in Asia for centuries.
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