Buddhist prayer beads, also known as malas, are traditionally composed of 108 beads – a number steeped in profound significance within the realm of Buddhism. A ubiquitous aspect of Buddhist spiritual practices, these prayer beads serve a multitude of functions, but their central purpose remains the facilitation of meditation.
This article delves into the reasons why Buddhist prayer beads typically consist of 108 beads and the rich symbolic undertones of this seemingly mundane numeral.
The number 108 holds a distinguished place in Buddhist philosophy. To fully appreciate its significance, we must examine its relevance in various contexts including astronomy, mathematics, and spirituality, thereby shedding light on the profound nexus between Buddhist prayer beads and the number 108.
1. Astronomical meaning
Astrological observations have often underscored the number 108. Ancient astronomers noted that the average distance from the Earth to the Sun is approximately 108 times the sun’s diameter. Similarly, the average distance from the Earth to the Moon is about 108 times the moon’s diameter. Thus, this number represents the delicate celestial balance that governs life on Earth.
2. Mathematical importance
From a mathematical perspective, the number 108 holds a special place as well. It is a Harshad number, a term derived from Sanskrit meaning “joy-giver”. A Harshad number is divisible by the sum of its digits. In the case of 108, 1+0+8 equals 9, and 108 is divisible by 9. This divisibility is symbolic of the interconnectivity and interdependence of the universe, a concept that closely aligns with Buddhist teachings.
3. Spiritual and philosophical associations
The number 108 is deeply embedded in Buddhist spiritual teachings and symbolism. For instance, it is believed there are 108 defilements or earthly temptations that individuals must overcome to attain spiritual enlightenment. These defilements are further categorized into six senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and consciousness), multiplied by three reactions (positive, negative, or indifference), then multiplied by two conditions (internal or external), multiplied by three time periods (past, present, future). This calculation results in the number 108 (6x3x2x3).
In addition, 108 is believed to represent the path to enlightenment: the 1 symbolizes singular truth or the oneness of the universe, 0 symbolizes emptiness or completeness in spiritual practice, and 8 symbolizes infinity or eternity, and the Eightfold Path.
The number of beads on a Buddhist prayer bead string is not arbitrary but deeply entrenched in a mixture of science, mathematics and philosophy. The use of 108 beads in malas amplifies the spiritual significance of Buddhist practices and enhances their symbolic potency. Whether viewed through the lens of astronomical observation, mathematical symbolism, or Buddhist doctrine, the 108 beads serve to constantly remind practitioners of the interconnected nature of the universe and the path to spiritual enlightenment.
In understanding the profound significance of the number 108, one can truly appreciate the depth and intricacy of Buddhist practices and philosophies. By meditating with malas, practitioners are navigating their way through a microcosm of the universe, bead by bead, and prayer by prayer, towards the ultimate goal of spiritual enlightenment.