Category Archives: Tibetan arts and crafts

How to use a Tibetan mala or Tibetan prayer beads

We are often asked how to use a Tibetan mala or Tibetan prayer beads. We hope this blog post will answer some common questions about Tibetan malas.

Through the Tibetan Nuns Project online store, we sell long malas and wrist malas made and blessed by Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery.

What are Buddhist prayer beads?

Malas or Tibetan Buddhsit prayer beads are similar to other prayer beads used in various world religions. Some people have called the mala a Buddhist rosary, but in Tibetan, a mala is called a threngwa (Tibetan  ཕྲེང་བ). Mala is a Sanskrit word meaning “garland”. Malas are used to keep track while one recites, chants, or mentally repeats 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 and are usually repeated many times.

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A Tibetan Buddhist nun performs the Mandala Mudra with her mala (Buddhist prayer beads). Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam

How are malas used?

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 summit or head bead is called the guru bead or a sumeru. In Tibetan Buddhism, one mala constitutes 100 recitations of a mantra. There are 8 additional recitations done to ensure proper concentration.

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.

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A long Tibetan mala from the Tibetan Nuns Project collection showing the guru bead. The guru bead has three stringing holes and here also has 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.

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.

How do you hold and use a mala or prayer beads?

The mala is held with gentleness and respect, generally in the left hand. 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. Count one bead for each recitation of the mantra. 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.

Why is the number 108 sacred?

The number 108 is sacred in many Eastern religions including Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism. In Tibetan Buddhism malas or rosaries are usually 108 beads plus the guru bead, reflecting the words of the Buddha called in Tibetan the Kangyur in 108 volumes.

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.

Choosing a Mala

You don’t have to be a Buddhist to wear a mala. The Tibetan Nuns Project has different kinds of long malas, each hand strung, knotted, and blessed by nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute near Dharamsala in India. They are made from materials such as semiprecious stones, sandalwood, and bone and they range in price from $15 to $45.

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Assorted Tibetan Buddhist bone malas from the Tibetan Nuns Project

Long malas can be worn as a necklace or wrapped around your wrist. By purchasing these malas, you help provide the nuns with food, shelter, education, and health care – something you can feel great about every time you use your mala.

Our online store also has many types of wrist malas too, ranging in price from $11 to $22, and also made and blessed by the nuns at Dolma Ling. The wrist malas are approximately 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter and strung on elastic to fit most wrists.

Types of Malas

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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 types of malas and their special properties:

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”.

Pearl signifies faith, charity, and innocence. It enhances personal integrity, provides focus, and is used to increase fertility and ease childbirth.

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.

Visit our online store.

Buying Mala Beads

The nuns buy from local Indian or Tibetan vendors for their beads. The beads are then hand strung and knotted into mala form. Once complete, the malas are then blessed by the nuns. We try to keep our prices reasonable so that our prayer beads can be accessed by everyone.

Tibetan calligraphy and the Tibetan language

Tibet has its own language, including a unique alphabet and various written forms. Tibetan calligraphy is beautiful and there are numerous Tibetan writing styles. This blog post showcases some of them.

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery in India take part in the annual Tibetan calligraphy competition. Photo courtesy of the Nuns’ Media Team.

The Tibetan alphabet has 30 characters or letters and four vowels.  Like English, it is written from left to right in horizontal lines. The origins of Tibetan as a written language date back to the 7th century AD and the reign of King Songtsen Gampo. One of the king’s ministers, Thonmi Sambhota, is credited with creating the Tibetan alphabet. He and other scholars were sent by the king to India to study the art of writing with the aim of making the Buddhist teachings available to Tibetans.

Buddhism plays a central role in Tibetan culture. This is true for Tibetan writing as well. Many examples of Tibetan calligraphy come from religious texts. Most Tibetan scribes or experts in Tibetan calligraphy come from monastic backgrounds.

Here is a video of Tibetan Buddhist nuns practicing Tibetan calligraphy. Can’t see the video? Click here.

Traditionally, Tibetan nuns did not have access to the same level of education as monks. Now Tibetan nuns, such as those studying at the nunneries supported by the Tibetan Nuns Project, have the opportunity to learn their own written language and various forms of Tibetan calligraphy. This is groundbreaking because many of the nuns who escaped from Tibet and arrived in exile in India were completely illiterate on their arrival. Most of them couldn’t even write their names.

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Tibetan Buddhist nuns writing on a chalkboard. The form of Tibetan script they are using is called Tsukring. Photo courtesy of Olivier Adam.

Tibetan Calligraphy

Tibetan writing may be broadly divided into two types, “headed” called Uchen and “headless” called Umeh. These two forms of Tibetan script correspond roughly to printed and cursive writing.

Uchen (U-chen)

The most common script for Tibetan writing and the one used in printed books because of its clarity is called Uchen (དབུ་ཅན།). Uchen means “with head” and this form of Tibetan writing is basically printing.

The Uchen form of Tibetan writing has heavy horizontal lines (heads) and tapering vertical lines. For Tibetan students of all ages this is the the most basic form of both handwriting and calligraphy. Students, including the Tibetan Buddhist nuns, must master this form of writing before moving on to other styles.

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A Tibetan Buddhist nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute writes a calligraphy exam. She is using Uchen (དབུ་ཅན།), the headed writing which is the same style of Tibetan script used in printed books for its clarity. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

Unlike English, there is not a distinction in the Tibetan alphabet between capital letters and lowercase letters. There is only the one letter form in the printed form Uchen which is more like block printing. In fact, the Uchen form of Tibetan writing is used for wood block prints and on Tibetan prayer flags.

Umeh (Umê)

Another form of Tibetan writing is called Umeh (དབུ་མེད།) or “headless” form and this encompasses a range of different styles. Umeh is essentially cursive writing in various forms that may be used for inscriptions, formal letters, and correspondence. It looks quite different to Uchen because of the lack of the horizontal lines (heads) on top of the letters.

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Nuns are taught and examined on Tibetan language and Tibetan calligraphy. In this exam paper, a Tibetan Buddhist nun demonstrates her skill and knowledge of Drutsa, a form of “headless” cursive writing that is used for formal purposes. Photo by the Nuns’ Media Team.

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Here are the words “Free Tibet” written in 4 styles of Tibetan calligraphy. The top is in Uchen, the printed form, followed by Tsukring, Paytsik, and Drutsa. At the bottom is the artist’s signature in Chuyig style. Photo and calligraphy by Tashi Mannox, Wikicommons.

There are many forms of Umeh writing, including:

  • Drutsa འབྲུ་ཚ། An artistic form of Tibetan calligraphy that is used for official documents and titles. With its long, tapered descending lines, Drutsa is both formal and more “flamboyant” that some other scripts.
  • Chuyig འཁྱུག་ཡིག། (also spelled Kyug’yig or Gyuk yig) means “fast letters” or “flowing script”. This form of cursive writing is used in day-to-day life for things such as informal handwritten notes and personal letters.
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This example of Tibetan calligraphy was pinned to a classroom bulletin board at Shugsep Nunnery. It was written by a nun in the Drutsa style of Tibetan writing. It says, “Even if one is not highly learned, if your handwriting is elegant like the shape of a fish, others will think you are highly learned, and therefore it is easy to write what you think and feel!”

Tibetan Butter Sculpture

The art of making sculptures out of butter has been practiced for over 400 years by monks in the monasteries in Tibet. This highly revered artistic tradition is now being preserved by monks and nuns in living in India as refugees.

Tibetan nuns making butter sculptures for Losar

Tibetan nuns decorate a traditional offering box for Tibetan New Year or Losar with colorful butter sculptures.

Butter sculptures can be huge and impressive or tiny and intricate. They are used as offerings or as part of elaborate rituals and celebrations, particularly during Losar, Tibetan New Year.

Tibetan butter sculpture

A nun at Dolma Ling Nunnery in India makes an elaborate colored flower out of butter.

It is the practice in Buddhism to offer flowers as a tribute to Buddha statues on altars. However, in winter when no fresh flowers can be found, flowers sculpted from butter are made as an offering.

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Elaborate and colorful butter sculptures of flowers and Buddhist sacred symbols decorate an offering table for Losar or Tibetan New Year. These sculptures were made by the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery in northern India. In the lower left, you can see a sheep or ram made of butter.

Butter has always been highly valued in Tibetan culture. Its availability and its malleable quality in the cold climate of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas made it an ideal material for sculpting.

Tibetan butter sculpture sheep or ram

A Tibetan Buddhist nun creates a sheep out of butter as she learns the ancient art of making Tibetan butter sculptures.

Making butter sculptures requires painstaking skill, learned from an excellent teacher and through years of practice. Like the famous Tibetan sand mandalas, butter sculptures are a unique Tibetan sacred art that is handed down from teacher to student.

The increasing shortage of well-trained and skilled butter sculptors in Tibet means that it is crucial that in India the nuns learn this religious art as part of their course of studies in order to keep it from dying out.

Tibetan nuns at Dolma Ling learning how to make butter sculpture

Tibetan nuns at Dolma Ling learning how to make butter sculpture

At Dolma Ling Nunnery and Institute in India, nuns have been learning how to make butter sculptures from their excellent teacher Gen. Karma-la. He carefully takes them through all the steps and the significance of each butter sculpture technique. He says the nuns make excellent students, with their keen sense of color and design, their nimble fingers, and their endless patience.

The Need for a Butter Sculpture Workshop

Creating butter sculptures in the hot climate of India is, as you can imagine, problematic. The workshop room must be cool and have access to cold water in which to lay the butter and cool the nuns’ fingers.

Until now, the nuns at Dolma Ling Nunnery have been using a makeshift space at the nunnery that gets very hot. They are only able to make sculptures during the very coldest months. Now a suitable space has been located in the nunnery that, with renovations, will be ideal.

materials for Tibetan butter sculpture

Rounds of butter, dyes, and other tools for making butter sculpture are laid out in preparation for making butter sculptures for Tibetan New Year at Dolma Ling Nunnery.

The Tibetan Nuns Project is raising funds to help create a butter sculpture workshop at Dolma Ling Nunnery. The total cost of the project is US $2,500, but at the time of posting this blog $500 dollars had been raised, so only $2,000 is needed to fully fund the workshop.

To support the creation of the butter sculpture workshop you can:

  1. Make a gift online at https://tnp.org/butter-sculpture-workshop/
  2. Call our office at 1-206-652-8901
  3. Mail a check to:
    The Tibetan Nuns Project
    815 Seattle Boulevard South #216
    Seattle, WA 98134 USA

Thank you for your help in preserving this ancient art that, with the occupation of Tibet, is so under threat.