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Why do Tibetans Give White Scarves or Kataks?

Tibetans give white scarves or kataks on many occasions. This blog post answers common questions about this beautiful and ancient practice.

What is the meaning of the Tibetan scarf or katak?

A katak is a traditional Tibetan ceremonial scarf offered as a sign of respect, gratitude, or greeting. The Tibetan word is ཁ་བཏགས་ and in English it is also spelled khata or khatak.

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns offer kataks to nuns who have just graduated with their Geshema degrees, a degree roughly equivalent to a PhD. Offering a katak is a sign of respect. Photo by the Dolma Ling Media Nuns

Kataks are offered for many occasions including births, weddings, funerals, graduations, and the arrival or departure of guests. When given to a guest it symbolizes welcome and to a person departing it conveys wishes for a safe journey.

It is also a Tibetan practice to put kataks over thangka paintings, statues, altars, as well as photos of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and reincarnated lamas or rinpoches. Bringing a katak when visiting a temple, shrine, guru, or teacher shows gratitude for the kindness of your teacher and the gems of their teachings.

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A Tibetan Buddhist nun offers a katak to a portrait of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the holy city of Bodh Gaya. Photo by Olivier Adam

With its many uses, a Tibetan katak is akin to flower garlands or leis common in Hawaii and Polynesia which are given as a sign of peace, love, honor, or friendship. Leis, like kataks, are also offered to visiting dignitaries, graduates, and loved ones who are departing on a journey.

Kataks are used in Tibet and throughout the Tibetan diaspora as well as across many Himalayan communities with strong ties to Tibet and its culture, including Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh.

How Do You Offer a Katak?

To prepare for offering a katak, fold it lengthwise into a double layer. This represents interdependence. Next, fold the scarf into seven folds and roll the remainder over the folded part into a loose roll, unfurling it before you offer it. It is helpful to have two people to stretch out the katak and do the folding and rolling together. Traditionally, Tibetans then carefully tuck the katak into the upper portion of their chubas (traditional Tibetan clothing) ready for offering.

Graduating nuns at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute surrounded by mountains of kataks at their graduation ceremony on October 2022.

Graduating nuns at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute are surrounded by mountains of kataks at their graduation ceremony on October 2022.

When you are offering a katak to a Buddhist teacher, lama, elder, or dignitary, you should hold the scarf in both hands. The folded section of the katak should face towards you and the open edges should face the teacher or elder, representing your open pure heart.

While holding the katak in both hands, join your palms together in respect and bring your folded hands above your head or to your forehead and make a reverent bow, bending 90 degrees at the waist. When you are presenting a katak to a Buddhist teacher, unlike with arriving or departing guests, you do not put the katak over the neck of the person being honored. The teacher or lama will receive the katak and then, as a blessing, will usually return it to you the giver by placing it over the your own neck.

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Nuns at Dolma Ling offer kataks at the altar during Losar, Tibetan New Year. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Tibetans consider a katak to be a very important gift. For instance, is traditional to offer a katak to a Buddhist teacher after the last session of a teaching often with dana, a monetary offering in an envelope. You should always treat kataks with respect. Never let them touch the floor or ground.

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At a party in their honor, the senior nuns at Geden Choeling Nunnery are draped with kataks, the traditional ceremonial white scarves offered by Tibetans.

The Colors and Patterns of Kataks

The most common color of a katak is white. White is a symbol of purity, auspiciousness, sincerity, kindness, and justice. Ivory kataks are also very common.

The ends of a katak have fringes or tassels. The ashi katak is the most commonly used type. It is simpler and has a single layer of tassels. Nangzö kataks, like the ones sold in the Tibetan Nuns Project online store, are much longer, wider, and have a double layer of tassels. Nangzö kataks are generally reserved for very important occasions, such as the enthronement of high lamas or for diplomatic occasions.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave this explanation of the traditional Tibetan white scarf when he presented a katak to the Mayor of Vilnius. He said, “I want to explain the significance of this scarf. I usually describe the colour white meaning warm-heartedness, honest and true. The smooth texture of the scarf represents your non-violent behavior. If possible try to help others, if not at least don’t harm them.”

Tibetan prayer scarves, kataks, khata, colors of the five elements

The Tibetan Nuns Project online store sells special long silk kataks blessed by Tibetan Buddhist nuns. Each katak has mantras and the eight auspicious Buddhist symbols woven into the fabric.

Kataks also come in colors representing the five elements, as with Tibetan prayer flags. Blue symbolizes the sky and space, white symbolizes the air and wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth.

The Meaning of the 8 Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism

Each of the kataks sold in the Tibetan Nuns Project online store has mantras and the eight auspicious symbols of Buddhism woven into the pattern. These 8 symbols represent the offerings made to the Buddha when he attained enlightenment. Their meanings are deep but here is the basic meaning of each symbol.

eight auspicious symbols in Buddhism from Wikicommons

Eight Auspicious Signs of Buddhism: (From top, left to right): The precious parasol or umbrella, the pair of golden fish, the white conch shell, the vase of great treasures, lotus, the eternal or infinite knot, the victory banner, and the dharma wheel. Hall of Fame, Leh Source: Wikicommons.

The Precious Parasol represents protection from suffering. All take refuge in the dharma under the auspiciousness of the parasol.
The Two Golden Fish symbolize living beings who practice the dharma in a state of fearlessness without danger of drowning in the ocean of suffering or samsara.
The Vase of Great Treasures symbolizes health, long life, wisdom and prosperity. It also symbolizes the Buddha’s infinite quality of teaching the dharma: no matter how many teachings he shared, the treasure never lessened.
The Lotus Flower has its roots in the mud but its flower lies immaculate above the water and thus it represents the primordial purity of body, speech, and mind, floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire.
The White Conch Shell represents the deep and beautiful sound of the dharma reaching far and wide, awakening beings from the slumber of ignorance.
The Eternal Knot signifies both cause and effect and the union of compassion and wisdom.
The Victory Banner represents the Buddha’s victory over the four māras, or hindrances in the path of enlightenment: pride, desire, disturbing emotions, and the fear of death.
The Eight-Spoked Dharma Wheel represents the eight-fold path of virtuous actions directed towards enlightenment.

How to Use and Choose a Tibetan Mala

Malas are Tibetan Buddhist prayer beads used in spiritual and meditation practice. We hope this blog post will answer some common questions such as how to use a mala, the meaning and power of the different stones, and how to choose a mala for your own practice.

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A Tibetan Buddhist nun performs the complex Mandala Offering Mudra with her Tibetan mala. This sacred hand gesture acts as a symbolic offering of the entire universe for the benefit of all sentient beings. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

The Tibetan Nuns Project sells both long malas and wrist malas through our online store. The malas come in a wide range of semiprecious stones and other materials and they are made and blessed by Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute. The sale of these malas helps support nuns at seven nunneries in northern India.

What is a Tibetan Mala?

Malas are similar to other prayer beads used in various world religions. Some people call the mala a Buddhist rosary, but in Tibetan a mala is called a threngwa (Tibetan  ཕྲེང་བ). Mala is a Sanskrit word meaning “garland”.

You use a mala to keep track while reciting, chanting, or mentally repeating a mantra or the name or names of a deity. Malas are used as a tool to keep count of mantra repetitions. Mantras are spiritual syllables or prayers usually repeated many times.

How do you use a Tibetan mala?

Malas are used to help focus one’s awareness and concentration during spiritual practice. Long malas, as opposed to the shorter wrist malas, have 108 beads. The number 108 is sacred in many Eastern religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. In Tibetan Buddhism long malas usually have 108 beads plus the guru bead, reflecting the 108 volumes of the words of the Buddha, called the Kangyur in Tibetan.

How to Use a Tibetan mala

A Tibetan Buddhist nun recites mantras with her mala. She holds it in her left hand and uses her thumb to move each bead over her index finger. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Hold your mala with gentleness and respect. To use your mala, hold it with your left hand and begin to recite from the guru bead, clockwise around the mala, using your thumb to move the beads. The summit or head bead is called the guru bead or a sumeru. Count one bead for each recitation of the mantra such as Om Mani Padme Hum. The first bead is held between the index finger and thumb, and with each recitation of the mantra move your thumb to pull another bead in place over the index finger.

Once you have completed a full circuit of the mala and reached the guru bead again, you reverse direction by flipping your mala. Then you continue again in reverse order. Most people believe that you do not cross over the guru bead as a sign of respect towards one’s spiritual teachers.

What is the meaning of a guru bead?

In Tibetan Buddhism, people traditionally use malas with 108 counting beads and a special, three-holed, finishing bead called a “guru” bead or “Buddha” bead. Often the 108-bead malas have additional marker beads that may or may not be counted and that divide the mala into quadrants, constituting 108 counting beads all together.

How to use a mala, what is a mala, Tibetan mala, guru bead

A long Tibetan mala from the Tibetan Nuns Project collection showing the guru bead. The guru bead has three stringing holes and a smaller tower-shaped bead that holds the ends of the string.

The guru bead represents the relationship between the student and the guru or spiritual teacher. To use the mala, you start counting from the bead next to the guru bead. When you reach the guru bead again, it signifies the end of one round in the cycle of mantras.

How to care for your mala

Malas are sacred objects believed to be charged with the energy of the deity. They should be treated with great reverence.

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An elderly nun at Geden Choeling Nunnery in Dharamsala, India gently holds her Tibetan mala. Photo courtesy of Brian Harris

As with all sacred objects, such as books and other spiritual instruments, one should keep malas off the ground. If your mala accidentally lands on the ground, you should touch it to the crown of your head and recite the sacred syllables Om Ah Hum, three times.

The mala should not be worn while bathing, or allowed to get wet, as this may weaken the cord on which the mala beads are strung. It is best to remove your mala before going to sleep so that you do not accidentally stress the cord and break it.

The nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute also make and sell mala bags so that malas can be carefully protected.

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A selection of mala bags made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery. Our online store has a wide range of bags made from different fabrics and in different colors.

How to Choose a Mala

People often ask if it is OK to wear mala beads. You don’t have to be a Buddhist to wear or use a mala. Malas are powerful tools for meditation and you can wear a mala to remind yourself of your intention to have a calm mind, body, and spirit and to benefit others.

The Tibetan Nuns Project has many different kinds of long malas, each hand strung, knotted, and blessed by nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute near Dharamsala in northern India. The nuns make malas from semiprecious stones, wood, and bone beads. Long malas range in price from $10 to $45.

Tibetan malas, how to use a Tibetan mala, what is a mala, mala

Assorted wood and seed malas from the Tibetan Nuns Project. Sandalwood and rosewood have been over-harvested so to conserve these species the malas we sell are a symbolic representation of these woods.

You can wear your long mala around your neck as a necklace or wrapped around your wrist. By purchasing these malas, you help provide the nuns with food, shelter, education, and health care. This is something you can feel great about every time you use your mala!

Our online store also has many types of wrist malas, ranging in price from $14 to $26, and also blessed by the Dolma Ling nuns. The wrist malas are approximately 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter and strung on elastic to fit most wrists.

Different Types of Malas

mala, Tibetan mala, prayer beads, Tibetan prayer beads, how to use a mala, Tibetan Nuns Project, Tibetan Buddhist malas, guru bead, We hope this blog post will answer some common questions such as how to use a mala, the meaning and power of the different stones, and how to choose a mala for your own practice.

Our online store sells dozens of types of wrist and long malas, made of wood, bone, and semi-precious stones like amethyst, garnet, jade, and lapis.

Here’s a list of some of the types of malas and their special properties. You can see the full range here.:

Amethyst is the stone of spirituality and contentment. It balances the energy of one’s intellectual, emotional, and physical bodies.

Garnet enhances internal fire and brings about creative power. It is helpful during feelings of abandonment and brings freshness to one’s life.

Granite helps with balance in relationships, fosters cooperative efforts and facilitates diplomacy. It helps increase wealth while allowing the recipient to remain modest.

Jade assists in dream analysis and grants the user a long and fruitful life. It helps with the transition from this body to the spiritual world.

Lapis provides objectivity, clarity, and mental endurance during times of realizing emotions. It also helps with creativity, organization, and with easing depression.

Malachite creates an unobstructed path leading to a desired goal and helps the user accept responsibility for actions and circumstances.

Moonstone fosters balance, introspection, and reflection. It helps deal with emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual changes, and helps in recognizing “ups and downs”.

Quartz amplifies body and thought energy. It also brings the energy of the stars to the body.

Rose quartz creates harmony and self-love during chaotic situations. It is the stone of gentle love and brings peace to relationships.

Sandstone builds and strengthens relationships and/or groups. It provides insight into deceit and encourages truth.

Tiger eye brings about clarity when dealing with scattered intellectual fragments. This stone is practical and grounding.

Turquoise heals the spirit with soothing energy and provides peace-of-mind. It holds both spiritual and protective properties, and balances the male and female aspects of one’s character.

You can support the Tibetan Buddhist nuns by purchasing a mala here. Thank you!

Tibetan incense handmade by Buddhist nuns

Tibetan incense is an important part of Tibetan culture and is used as an offering and for purification, meditation, healing, and relaxation.

Tibetan incense being made by hand by nuns. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop

The nuns at Kopan Nunnery in Nepal make traditional, Tibetan-style stick incense. Income from the sales helps support the nunnery and, when purchased through the Tibetan Nuns Project, also helps support seven Tibetan Buddhist nunneries in India. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop.

The pleasing aroma of burning incense helps to calm one’s restless mind and helps meditators to focus on the breath.

Tibetan incense, inspiration incense

Our newest type of Tibetan incense available in the Tibetan Nuns Project online store. Inspiration incense is made by nuns at Kopan Nunnery and combines lemongrass, white sandalwood, and traditional Tibetan medicinal and aromatic ingredients.

Authentic Tibetan incense originates either from a traditional monastery or from a Tibetan medical institution. The formulations or recipes for incense may be many centuries old and follow a particular lineage which can be traced back to the originator.

The incense sold through the Tibetan Nuns Project online store is made in Nepal by the Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Khachoe Ghakyil Nunnery. The nunnery, also known as Kopan Nunnery, is located in the Kathmandu Valley and is home to about 360 nuns.

The various types of incense sold by the Tibetan Nuns Project are of the highest quality, using only pure natural ingredients such as high-altitude plants and woods with proven healing properties.

Nuns at Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery in Nepal making incense. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop

Nuns at Khachoe Ghakyil Ling Nunnery in Nepal making Tibetan incense. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop.

Types of Tibetan Incense Sold in Support of Nuns

All Tibetan incense sold through the Tibetan Nuns Project online store is all-natural and handmade by Tibetan Buddhist nuns in Nepal. Your purchase help to support over 700 Tibetan Buddhist nuns at seven nunneries in India, as well as the nuns at Kopan Nunnery who make the incense.

nun making incense, Photo courtesy of DharmaShop

A Tibetan Buddhist nun at Kopan Nunnery extrudes incense into lengths or coils. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop.

Inspiration – Lemongrass and white sandalwood are combined with traditional Tibetan medicinal and aromatic ingredients including Dhupi, Kaulo, and Sil Timur. It comes in a sustainable lokta (daphne) paper box with a small terracotta incense burner and list of ingredients. The style of the incense burner may vary. Each box includes approximately 30 sticks of incense measuring about 5 inches long.

Rhododendron Forest – The ingredients for this very special incense come from trees and herbs in the high mountains of the Solu Khumbu area. The scent is uplifting and refreshing, like a breath of fresh air from the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas.

Tibetan Nuns Project Incense – Contains a very clean, slightly sweet sandalwood and jasmine, with a hint of nutmeg. A great choice if you are new to Tibetan incense. The scent is a mixture of high-altitude plants and woods with proven healing properties. It invokes the special powers of Medicine Buddha to bring healing of body and mind. (Temporarily out of stock due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

Lotus Blossom – The intensely fresh fragrance of this incense is freshly gathered juniper leaves and berries mixed with cedarwood and sandalwood. Its invigorating scent clears and uplifts the mind. (Temporarily out of stock due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

 Incense workshop at Kopan Nunnery. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop

The workroom at Kopan Nunnery where nuns make traditional Tibetan incense. Photo courtesy of DharmaShop.

How the Tibetan Nuns Project Calendar is Created

Each year, the Tibetan Nuns Project sells a wall calendar through our online store. Our 2020 Tibetan Nuns Project calendar is available for order now.

How the Tibetan Nuns Project Calendar is Created

We started the calendar about 20 years ago as a fundraising and friend-raising tool to help support over 800 Tibetan Buddhist nuns at seven nunneries in northern India.

selection of old Tibetan Nuns Project charity calendars

A selection of some of the early Tibetan Nuns Project charity calendars from 2002 to 2008. The Tibetan Nuns Project wall calendar is now full color and uses photos taken by the nuns themselves.

In the past, we used photographs generously provided by volunteer photographers. Recently,  we have only used photographs taken by the nuns themselves. These photographs provide an intimate insight into the daily lives and religious and cultural practices of the nuns.

Each summer, the nunneries that we support send a selection of photos for possible inclusion in the next year’s calendar. Once all the photos are gathered together a final selection is made.  We try to balance the images, choosing at least one photograph from each nunnery and selecting photographs that are windows into the nuns’ lives.

photo from the Tibetan Nuns Project 2020 calendar

In this photo from the 2020 calendar, two nuns at Shugsep Nunnery and Institute play the gyaling, a traditional Tibetan woodwind instrument. The photo was taken by a nun at Shugsep and is an illustration of how the annual calendar provides an intimate insight into the daily lives and religious and cultural practices of the nuns.

Each photo is captioned and paired with inspirational quotations from renowned Tibetan Buddhist teachers, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and others

“Each summer at our Seattle office, it’s really exciting to open up emails from India and see the photos sent by the nunneries for possible inclusion in the calendar,” says Lisa Farmer, Executive Director of the Tibetan Nuns Project.

“In the past, there were challenges with photo quality. Now, thanks to our Media Equipment Project donors, each of the nunneries has a digital camera and the nuns received training on how to use them. We’re looking forward to sharing more photos with supporters, especially from the remote nunneries that didn’t have this capacity until now,” says Lisa.

The Tibetan Calendar vs. the Gregorian Calendar

The Tibetan Nuns Project calendar also includes the dates of the Tibetan lunar calendar, as well as special ritual days, Tibetan holidays, and the full and new moons.

Each year, as we assemble the selection of photos for the calendar, the astrologers at the Tibetan Medical and Astrological Institute in Dharamsala, India supply us with the dates for the year’s Tibetan Buddhist holidays and holy days.

The Tibetan calendar is thousands of years old and is different from the Gregorian calendar, which is the international standard used almost everywhere in the world for civil purposes.

Tibetan Nuns Project camera and media training for nuns

Here’s another image that will be in the 2020 Tibetan Nuns Project calendar and shows nuns receiving camera training from a volunteer Tibetan photographer. Now all 7 nunneries have cameras thanks to Media Equipment donors.

While the Gregorian calendar is a purely solar calendar, the Tibetan calendar (Tibetan: ལོ་ཐོ, Wylie: lo-tho) is a lunisolar calendar. This means that the Tibetan year is composed of either 12 or 13 lunar months, each beginning and ending with a new moon. A thirteenth month is added every two or three years so that an average Tibetan year is equal to the solar year.

In the traditional Tibetan calendar, each year is associated with an animal, an element, and a number. This year, 2019, is the year of the Earth Pig, 2146, according to the Tibetan calendar. Next year, starting at Tibetan New Year or Losar on February 24, 2020, it will be the year of the Iron Mouse, 2147.

The animals in the Tibetan calendar are somewhat similar to those in the Chinese zodiac and are in the following order: Mouse, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Bird, Dog, and Boar. The five elements are in this order: Wood, Fire, Earth, Iron, and Water.

front and back covers of the 2020 Tibetan Nuns Project charity calendarA Unique Charity Calendar

The proceeds from the sale of the Tibetan Nuns Project calendar are used to support over 700 Tibetan Buddhist nuns and seven nunneries in India.

Thank you for buying our 2020 Tibetan Nuns Project calendar and helping the nuns!

You can order your 2020 Calendar here.