Recently, I was contacted by an NUS student, Ruth Y, who was writing an essay for her Religion in Society & Culture module. Her essay focuses on the significance of malas in the ritual economy and as part of social-transactions (the making, buying, selling, and disposal of them.) I thought I'd share my answers here. Enjoy!
Traditionally, in the Buddhist and Hindu religions, they are used as a meditation aid. It is basically a counting device for keeping track of mantra repetition during meditation. The mala is believed to grow in spiritual significance with use and should be treated with respect i.e. placing it on an altar or an elevated place when not in use.
I use a mala in meditation sometimes although not all the time. I also wear them sometimes as an accessory but I don't wear the one I use for meditation.
It is simply a counting device so, no.
When making malas, you can personalize them with intentions by repeating mantras while knotting the beads. But generally, no, it doesn't matter who makes it.
Do you think the transactional nature of the mala business (buying and selling) affects the integrity of its religious meaning? How do you feel it has changed your personal view of malas?
Yes, mala beads have been commercialized and it is used now as a fashion accessory. But no, I don't think adorning oneself with it has affected its 'integrity.' It is an object. It has no other meaning than the one we give it. Spiritual people who use malas for meditation give this object its meaning. At the same time, people who simply wear it as an accessory also give it its meaning (a decorative object vs. a counting device for meditation.) You can certainly meditate without using a mala.
What are your thoughts on people using malas as accessories? Would you consider such a practice cultural appropriation? (ie. for people who do not use them for prayer / meditation / religious purposes at all)
No, the world is becoming globalized. The religions, Buddhism and Hinduism, that are traditionally associated with malas teach a philosophy of tolerance and 'oneness' with the universe. In accordance to these teachings, there is no difference between a buddhist and non-buddhist; a western person and an Asian person; as we are all one consciousness. Many cultural symbols throughout history have been 'appropriated' and commercialized like the symbol of the cross or the fleur de lis; many foods that were once reserved only for kings and aristocracy are now widely available to the masses. There are many more such examples across cultures and history; the mala is no different.
photo courtesy of @esdoublelef (student from my mala making workshop)
What about using malas for meditation (eg. in contemporary, secular yoga) without subscribing to any particular religion (Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.)?
Meditation is not reserved only for buddhists and hindus. Again, the teachings of these religions propagate a universal consciousness regardless of religion.
Do you think people nowadays (such as those referred to in the past two questions) are aware of the symbolism of malas—and is it important for them to be? Has the culture been diluted?
Some are aware and some aren't. But certainly with the popularization of wearing malas as an accessory, it has helped spread awareness of a new spirituality. But again, for me, the mala is simply an object with no intrinsic symbolism. Humans give objects their meanings. There is no need to become attached to any one object.
Does a mala ever 'expire'? How should they be disposed of if one is no longer able to use them? (eg. if they break, etc.)
If they break, you can re-string it. Or get another one. Again, it is simply a tool that helps in counting repetitions of a mantra during meditation. The mala is not the important element. And neither is the mantra, in fact. Both things serve to help empty the mind of thoughts when trying to connect with a deeper conscicousness. And that is all.
Please feel free to add any other comments you might have!
Wear it, use it, enjoy it!