Akshamala the Buddhist Rosary and the Rosary around the World
Akshamala the Buddhist Rosary and the Rosary around the World, in the tradition and history of many cultures and religions, the use of special instruments as a support in man’s path to the Divine has always been of great interest, filled with a particular symbolic value. One of the most significant, popular and commonly known of such instruments is undoubtedly the ROSARY: very often associated to the solely Christian liturgy, it actually originates from Asia, where we find it painted in the frescoes of Ajanta caves, in the Maharashtra region, west-central India, dating back to the second century b. C. Considered a symbol of Hindu deities, rosaries have always been used by devotees of various religions in order to to keep track of the repeated prayers, thus acquiring a very deep and representative value. The rosary, rosarium in Latin, takes its name from the supposedly erroneous translation of the Sanskrit word japa-mala: the short A in japa, meaning prayer, is changed to a long A, transforming the meaning in rose.
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In addition to making tangible the flow of recitation – be it prayer, mantra or sutra – the rosary helps to stay focused and to direct all our attention on meditation, making us aware of what we say.
Words then, as a continuously replicated litany, pervade us, leading us into a state of mind that transcends the usual, giving us the tranquility and serenity that we always search in God, whatever it is, from which we wish to find certainty, protection and comfort.
The declamation involves our entire being: the hand counting the rosary’s beads is linked to the body, the murmuring is linked to the voice and the perception of divinity affects our mind.
Therefore, the use of rosary is not only a systematic and methodic practice, that could suggest an empty doctrinal exercise, but a powerful intermediary between man and his God, the symbol of an infinite cycle that joins earth to heaven.
The Hindu japa mala rosary – where Japa means prayer, murmuring prayers, repetition and where mala indicates a garland to recite the rosary and muttering prayers – at the beginning consisted of simple cords, regularly knotted in order to allow a smooth scrolling, while later it was made of different materials such as pearls, bones, seeds, wood; always in number of 108 beads.
Many are interpretations and meanings attributed to this figure; one of the more accurate definitions is that 108 is not a number but rather three expressions of reality:
– 1 is Brahma, the Supreme Consciousness, the Ultimate Truth
– 0 represents the Cosmos, Creation personified in the figure of Shiva, but also the spiritual state of SAMADHI, that intimate and inward union between the meditator and the object of his meditation, which inevitably leads to the purest state of the intellect, to calm, to wisdom, prerogative of both Hindus and Buddhists.
– 8 shows the creative force of Nature, seen in its most significant components, the five elements – water, earth, air, fire, ether – combined with three expressions of Being: Ahamkara, which defines the self, the individuality, the ego; Manas, the mind’s ability to have deep and analytical thinking, and Buddhi, our intellect’s faculty to possess insight and a lively and ready intelligence.
108 are the most important Hindu deities and sages; in the Vedas the number 108 identifies the Cosmos, and 108 are the shepherdesses followers and worshippers of Krishna; the Upanishads are 108, 108 are the sacred places frequented by Vishnu, Buddhist temples have 108 steps.
In the Buddhist tradition, the rosary is called Akshamala from Aksa, Sanskrit masculine noun indicating the seed of Elaeocarpus Ganitrus, commonly called rudra, combined with the term mala, rosary: hence its meaning is a rosary made up of seeds, phreng ba, tren-wa in Tibetan. Commonly called mala, its use is exclusively bound to the recitation of mantras – syllables, words and sacred phrases – written directly by the Master to his disciple.
The materials used for the creation of malas are several, often derived from natural elements such as lotus seeds, rudra, sandalwood, tulsi, holy basil, sacred bodhi tree, the Ficus religiosa, and rosewood; they can be also made of shell, bone, amber, jade and other precious stones.
These elements have specific characteristics which correspond to different properties and uses: bodhi wood possesses a peaceful and protective energy, capable of improving our mental faculties, with reference to the experience of the Buddha that received enlightenment exactly under a Ficus; lotus seeds develop the same qualities, and furthermore enhance the ability to concentrate, strengthening intellect’s knowledge and its spiritual enrichment.
Sandalwood is appreciated for its typical and unique aroma, so agreeable to the gods, able to stimulate the most intense vibrations, making our perception clear and deep, leading thus to a state of tranquility and positivity.
Bones as well have a very strong symbolic value: yak bones – the Tibetan ox – for example, are frequently used for the creation of rosaries, a reminder of impermanence of life, in the attempt to make it the most benevolent and happy.
The action of the mala can be interpreted in relation to the mantra that will be recited, in order to achieve different goals: there are therefore rosaries designed to reconcile, consisting usually of a hundred grains in crystal, pearl or mother of pearl, that help to eliminate the difficulties, illness and all the hardships of life, purifying and liberating us from tension.
Others have an effect on growth, due to the ability of the prayers to prolong our life span, our knowledge and merits: these are composed of 108 elements, traditionally in gold, silver, copper or lotus seeds, the latter material privileged given its nature, simple and economic.
There are malas created to overcome, in order to gain control over other peope’s intentions, not to obtain a personal benefit but to help and support all beings in distress; these are composed of 25 grains of ground sandalwood, mixed with flavorings and fragrances.
Moreover, we find malas consisting of sixty grains made of human bones, used to dominate and subjugate, prepared for absolutely benevolent purposes: the great compassion they express brings relief and special protection to all who need it.
In the Buddhist rosary, the number of grains is once again 108, a reference to the number of sins and lies of men, that can be overcome by chanting mantras with the rosary. In malas, beads are usually all the same, apart from one different element that indicates its beginning and end: this grain is commonly called meru, as the mythological sacred mount, and is formed by two parts, a slightly pointed upper part that represents the stupa or the Buddha, and that indicates the condition of truth, state in which the mind can freely express itself; and a rounder part, which expresses the joy given by the freedom from any kind of constraint.
The use of mala is very simple, the method of prayer is linear and continuous: mantras are recited in succession until the hand reaches the stupa, and then back.
The color of the rosary is usually associated with that of the Buddha whom the supplications are addressed to: so for Black Cape, Mahakala, or the Big Black- in Tibetan Bernagchen or Nagpo Chenpo – are used black or dark blue malas; he is the Buddhist version of Shiva, direct manifestation of the Buddha himself, exuding love and protection frees from fear his worshippers.
Another deeply revered deity is Green Tara: Tara – Dolma in Tibetan – in Sanskrit means Liberator and is considered a supernatural and enlightened being, a female entity linked to the Buddha of Compassion, and therefore joint to all events related to compassion itself, combined with the ability to grant enlightenment to every living being.
Believers pray to her by the means of a rosary made of jade, turquoise or green agate, to find comfort and protection from fears, threats and pain, being Tara the bearer of the knowledge of the tangible futility of any rivalry.
White is reserved for Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha with Loving Eyes, Chenrezig in Tibetan, image of love and compassion inherent in every bodhisattva, the One whose eyes see everything; blue is used to honor and glorify Bhaisajya Guru, in Tibetan Sangye Menla, the Medicine Buddha, who grants protection from disease, suffering and unconsciousness, leading to a condition of absolute revelation.
Juzu, or nenju, is the Japanese word for the Tibetan mala, and also in this case the meaning of the word is related to its function: it means “number of grains” and was used by the monks to count both days and prayers to the Buddha; it also expresses the concept that all the suffering that comes from 108 world’s sins can be eliminated through prayer, finally reaching a state of peace.
The Juzu is made by grains of same size, except for two bigger ones, the mother grain and the father grain: the first, called myo, is tied to three tassels and represents the mystical, the invisible; while the second, ho, tied with two tassels, represents the law as well as the tangible reality.
Both are manifestations of the two sides of life, a more subjective one, chi, and the objective one, kyo, interpreted as the reality of our existence as well as the ability to understand and interpret it wisely. The materials used to create a juzu are various, often related to the wealth of the disciple who uses it and to the house of belonging.
When worn on the wrist like a bracelet, the grains are reduced to 21.
In Japan, the sho-zuku-jio-dzu has the same function: much more complex and elaborate than the traditional mala, each religious school has its own, using it in different ways: depending on the practice, be it kano, ki-to or goma, the acolyte moves and manipulates the mala according to the rules of his doctrine.
This rosary is made up of 112 elements: 108 as the earthly duties we must fulfill and four more that symbolize the four virtues of the Buddha, i.e. the true self, eternity, purity and happiness; divided into two equal parts, it has two grains that differ from the others, called upper and lower parent.
The prayer crown is highly regarded also in Islamic culture, as well as in the other major religions.
Called tasbeeh, tespih, subhah, misbaha depending on the language or the country of origin, be it India, Persia or Egypt, it is usually constituted by 99 grains plus 1, for a total of 100 grains: in fact, for Muslims, 99 are the Beautiful Names of God that can be pronounced, Al-Isma-al-Husna, plus one more, the name of the Essence, Ismu ad-Dhat, expression that can be found only in Heaven. Finally, there may be rosaries consisting of 33 grains plus 1, in which case the prayers are repeated three times.
This type of crown, a custom certainly later than the Hindu and Buddhist ones, can be made of different materials, such as ebony and olive wood, mother of pearl, amber, coral, ivory or even glass, stones and many other materials, precious or extremely common and poor.
The elements of the islamic rosary are not consecutively inserted, but there is an empty space on the cord to move on grains easier; it partly explains the use made of it still nowadays: the Islamic rosary is not only a religious object, but also a pastime, to be scrolled to concentrate when thinking or if feeling restless; finally, in some areas, is seen as a reason for mockery among believers of different confessions.
It can be said that in Arab culture the misbaha is considered a part of the owner himself, a natural expression of his personality and character.
Originally, the tasbeeh was the means to express the noble practice of dhikr, an ancient sacred ritual followed by Muslim devotees, namely the continuous and constant remembrance of God, the incessantly repetition of His name so as to be totally pervaded by Him, in order to ward off and reject everything that is not the Lord. Closely related to Sufism, this set of formulas and prayers is recited over and over again, without interruption, in order to approach the divine through meditation and through perpetual recitation.
One of the most repeated invocations is the sura number 108, the shortest of all the Koran, said of Abundance; supplications can be recited in solitude as well as with one’s own brotherhood, into a single collective prayer that strong and solemn rises to heaven.
The Orthodox faith as well possesses an object with the same characteristics of the rosary: called by Greek believers komboloi or koboloi, a simple rope on which are strung an unknown number of grains, left loose to be moved without difficulty.
The term comes from the union of the word kombos, which in greek means knot, and the word loi, which means set of objects; another hypothesis is that the origin is the word kobas, meaning cord.
In ancient times, in fact, this type of rosaries were made of simple knotted ropes, and used by monks during their prayers; over time, however, they acquired an important symbolic value, therefore they were successively made mainly of amber, in order to underline their preciousness and worth.
They were used especially by the mystic religious of Mount Athos, reciting mainly the famous Prayer of the Heart: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, sinner.
Nowadays beautiful rosaries are rare, the ones on the market are mostly made of plastic, glass and ceramics, in fact, their true meaning has been lost and few are now the believers who use it following its original spirit: is now mostly an object used to play and pass the time; anyone who visited Greece at least once, has surely noticed that most of men usually have one, and that countless souvenir shops sell them as souvenirs to foreign tourists.
Many indeed are the objects that serve as a mean to aid and help the devotees to communicate with God; among these, the rosary is certainly the most expressive and evocative one, one of the oldest objects of faith that has often maintained its symbolic value and its mystical and deep content.
When considering the different origins, types and the various ways in which rosaries are created, it is manifest how men, in every age and culture, have shared the same desires and hopes, equally united in the aspiration to find warmth and comfort from their Lord, invoking and offering prayers to be fulfilled.