The 108 beads of the mala, or Buddhist string of prayer beads, are used to count prayers while serving as a reminder to concentrate on their meaning. These prayer beads are traditionally brown, but also come in a variety of colors that symbolize different aspects of Buddhist thought and practice.
Since no prescribed color for Buddhist prayer beads exists, there is no single accepted color scheme. Instead, the differences in color and materials are typically a result of region and denominations. For example, Tibetan Buddhists typically use wood, shell or amber beads, causing these malas to take on a brightly-colored appearance that is further highlighted by the semi-precious stones used as dividers. In contrast, Japanese Buddhist prayer beads are almost always uniformly wood and take on darker, reddish-brown colors.
Whenever possible, Buddhists seek seeds from the sacred bodhi tree -- a kind of fig tree -- to make their prayer beads. This is because Prince Siddhartha attained enlightenment and became the Buddha while sitting under the bodhi tree. This kind of bead often has a lighter brown color. Japanese Buddhists, however, are more likely to use the wood of cherry, rose or plum trees, all of which have national significance, rather than any deeper religious meaning.
According to Buddhist Mala, some Buddhists believe the choice of color also relates to the divider beads that mark breaks in prayer. These beads are typically made of gemstones that represent different Buddhist principles, as well as different chakras -- Buddhist sources of spiritual energy in the body that have corresponding colors. For example, rose quartz represents the heart chakra and also the ideal of emotional balance, while orange amber represents the stomach chakra and helps to relieve spiritual heaviness. However, these colors and their significance differ between denominations.
While plain beads from the bodhi tree are always acceptable, the kind of mantra or prayer a monk recites also affects the color of the prayer beads in some denominations, such as Tibetan Buddhism. These beads are painted or made from another material to highlight Buddhist qualities. For example, a monk may use a white mala in the recitation of mantra relating to the idea of appeasement, while mantras that relate to increasing spiritual fulfillment require malas of gold or silver.
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