Malas, Mantras, and Buddhist Meditation

A Teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal

Question: Can you explain the proper use of a mala?

Answer: A mala has 108 beads, representing the 108 volumes taught by Buddha. Of the great texts, there are 333 volumes, 108 from teachings Buddha gave himself: the kangyur. The other 225 are the commentaries by arhats: the tangyur. When copies of the texts are stored, they are wrapped in saffron cloth with brocade hanging.

A mala is mainly used for recitation of mantras and prayers. Buddhist ritual practice, or sadhana, requires meditation, visualization, and recitation. You recite mantras, visualize deities, and meditate, combining a cultivation of compassion with an elimination of the sense of I. First, you generate a feeling of compassion. Then, with your mind saturated with compassion, you meditate on emptiness. The mind rests not on nothingness, but emptiness. That type of practice is called sadhana.

A mala is used in this particular practice, the union of shamata and vipassana meditation, of tranquil, abiding mind with analytic insight. You visualize Buddha, or a fully enlightened being; you hold the image as a real Buddha, not a statue or picture of Buddha.

When you are doing this practice for someone who has died, evoke the clear image of Buddha. Hold that image for a few minutes, then recite the mantra, Om muni muni maha muni yeh soha. While reciting the mantra, the image may become hazy or cloudy, but if that happens just continue to recite the mantra.

You recite the mantra 21 times, holding the mala in your right hand, your right thumb on top of a bead, moving on each bead in a clockwise motion. Many objects, such as the mala, bells, drums, or mudras (hand gestures), are used to assist the quality of spiritual focus. When you are doing this, if nothing happens inside, it's a drama, monkey play, no use at all.

A mala should be used to enhance spiritual practice, not as a fashion statement. Tibetans may carry a mala at all times to remind themselves they are practitioners. When you are getting angry, that reminder may make you pull back. No need to call 911 because you avoid the fire of anger. After use for many years, the mala carries spiritual energy. High lamas may use a mala to heal physical or psychological problems of others.

Question: Is there a difference between prayer and meditation?

Answer: You should not separate prayer from meditation. We pray when we are able to bring up positive feelings, so there's not much difference between prayer and meditation.


According to Tibetan Buddhism, meditation is more than just emptying the mind of thoughts. According to Tibetan Buddhism, meditation, rather than emptying the mind, purifies the mind. It is a mental technique to purify the stains of the mind. In meditation we bring our mind into an unusual state in which there is an unusual focus or alertness. That means meditation is not a means to numbing the mind or blocking the mind. Rather, meditation is a means to stop the mind from the ordinary process of thoughts and allow the mind to return to its essential nature and be exposed to actual reality, rather than its habitual impositions on realty.

This technique is called shamata, which means tranquil-abiding or calm-abiding or one-pointed or single-pointed meditation. It's a narrowing of the mind.

Vipassana, on the other hand, is an expansion of the mind, a 360-degree awareness. When you are sitting in Vipassana meditation, your mind is in the process of filtering, like a water filter. That adds stability because your mind is cleaner. You remove the dirt, or stains of the mind, which are conceptual ideas, thoughts, and emotions. All are habitual tendencies of the mind.

Ordinarily, the mind is focused on the past, on employing past experiences. Something happens between two people, who both get angry; a month goes by and one person sees the other and sees that person with the past experience in mind. That is why it's so difficult to forgive. An inability to see the person anew, to experience "freshness" is a consequence of holding onto the past.

In shamata meditation, a filtering takes place. Conceptual thoughts and ideas, the habitual tendency of seeing through the memories of past experiences or through applying generic images of an object are challenged. In general, we recognize an object as a cup or a glass because it matches our generic image of cup or glass. As long as your mind does that, your mind is not qualified to understand reality. You're only ready when you stop conceptual thinking and stop imposing the generic image.

This is why it's almost impossible to train in vipassana meditation without mastering shamata meditation first. Shamata meditation is an unusually alert state of mind without the usual thought processes or ideation. At the same time, the mind is completely unbiased, perfectly skillful, with an unusual or distinct quality of knowing without thoughts. Without training your mind in shamata, it's difficult to improve the quality of your spiritual life.

It isn't possible to speed up spiritual development or realization. When meditating, you focus on the object of meditation: Buddha, a sound, your breath, light, a mantric seed syllable, or an object of beauty. While you're concentrating on that object, you will frequently lose your single-pointed focus. Your mind chases other objects, or your mind becomes blank. When your mind engages in a chase, usually your mind is wandering back to its usual concerns, thoughts, or fears. Or your mind entertains itself by engaging in sensory experiences. Or your mind ruminates on the past. Or your mind goes blank. This happens all the time.

So it becomes very important to understand this process of losing focus when you are trying to meditate. You need to know when you lose focus and how you lose focus. At first, when you are meditating, you won't know when you lose your single-pointed focus. Five minutes ago? Ten minutes ago? You'll just suddenly realize, "Oh, I was supposed to be meditating!" You won't know how this happened, what caused you to lose your focus. It's important to understand the process before it happens. That's because the main element of shamata meditation is mindfulness. Without the ingredient of mindfulness, shamata meditation has no taste.

To be successful at shamata meditation, you must practice mindfulness, introspection, and retrospection. Some of us might think if this is the case, we must have three independent minds, one for meditation, one for mindfulness, and one for introspection. That is wrong. Mindfulness, introspection, and retrospection are all part of the meditating mind itself.


Mindfulness is the capacity or ability or force of the meditating mind itself to sustain an image by the means of resting in the present moment. Mindfulness allows the meditating mind to sustain the object of meditation from start to finish. This is accomplished by being in, and staying in, the present moment. The capacity of the meditating mind itself prevents the mind from doing three things: thinking of the past, thinking of the future, and making an effort to change the present. This ability of the meditating mind is called "jeley."

Retrospection and introspection

Retrospection and introspection are also part of the meditating mind. Retrospection or introspection oversees the actual quality of the mediating mind itself. It's like a spy overseeing whether you are about to lose the object of meditation. At the same time that this overseer is alert to whether you will lose the object of meditation, it's also aware, before you lose the object of meditation, of what would actually cause you to lose the object of meditation.

Once the meditator realizes, with the help of introspection, what is about to happen, the meditator can apply appropriate techniques to prevent the distraction - without breaking away from the meditative state.

Once you lose the object of meditation or once you attempt to bring back the object of meditation, your meditation is broken. This is a hindrance to improving the quality of meditation. You can analyze, after you finish your meditation, how your stability, clarity and focus are affected. But while you are in meditation, you must stay in the meditative or non-conceptual mind. You will recognize what is happening not with your conceptual mind but with a deep "Oh, that is what that crazy monk told us."

Question: If you're struggling with mindfulness, how can you anticipate and prevent losing it?

Answer: You must cultivate mindfulness, retrospection, and introspection side by side. They must develop together. Initially, the best way to learn is to look back from time to time and watch the mind itself; see what mindfulness really means, what retrospection means, and determine how important they are to meditation itself.

In the texts mindfulness is described as stronger than introspection. Mindfulness will take you to a stage capable of single-pointed focus for longer periods of time. At first you will only hold single-pointed focus for a few minutes without thinking. Introspection and retrospection are monitoring methods, overlooking, and they come later.

In the beginning, mindfulness is the most important. And in the beginning, it is so weak, there is almost no time between the object of meditation coming and going, coming and going. Once you can keep focused for a little longer and your mind can rest from the activity of bringing up then losing the object of meditation, then introspection and retrospection become very important. Before that, forget about it.

Once you are able to hold the object of meditation clearly and your mind gets a little rest, retrospection will come. Then you can see what happens to the mind when conceptual thoughts come back, when the mind is disturbed or polluted or corrupted. When your inappropriate responses stop, when the mismatch of expectations and reality stops, then anger and frustration calm down.

Mind essential nature

Then you can experience the mind's essential nature, which is pure awareness. The mind is no longer exaggerating, no longer making things and events negative and wanting others to share in the negative effects of our own mind. Then you will understand how important meditation is, and you will be inspired to go on. With experience in meditation, you will be able to go in deep and come back to shore. You will learn your way into and out of meditation. When you go into a meditative state, your bad thoughts will diminish, like waves coming in from the ocean and going back out. If you don't know how to go in and come out step-by-step, you may come out disoriented. That's because if you really go into a meditative state, it takes a little while to return to normal activity. But you will be calmer afterward, better able to deal skillfully with situations.

Your spiritual progress must come from experience in meditation and experiences post-meditation. If you leave these two stages separate, one in the East, one in the West, this won't work. The post-meditative experience must accord with the meditation, and the meditation must assist post-meditative life.

Then, we begin to fully understand how the mind functions, what the mind makes, how the mind projects onto the physical world. And we see how this affects our experiences, good and bad, and how our feelings interfere with the rest of the world.

Sounds good, huh?

Notes from a teaching by Geshe Dakpa Topgyal in Columbia, South Carolina, September 1, 2001.