Choice of a mala can be based simply upon a personal preference for a particular color or type of stone, wood or seed. The type of meditation practice being performed, though, is often the basis for selection. The durability of wooden or seed malas makes them the primary choice for prostration practice, since stone is subject to breakage. Choice is very commonly based upon its association with the qualities and iconography of a particular meditational deity. As choice of a mala is contemplated, a brief explanation of the Buddhist view that informs the iconography may be of interest.
The figures of various buddhas and deities do not stand for external beings, but rather represent aspects of transmuted ego. Ego, in the Buddhist sense of the word, is the pervasive confusion or ignorance that grasps upon and uses these energies in a self-centered way and causes great suffering for ourselves and others. The point of mediation practice is to relinquish the grip of ego though a process of identification with a particular principle of awakened compassionate energy, which is inherent in each of us and is symbolized by the various deities.
This iconography in Tibetan Buddhism is inspired by the mandala principle of the five Buddha families: vajra, ratna, padma, karma, and buddha. According to these teachings, these five basic energies pervade everything. Each energy is associated with an ordinary emotion that can be transmuted into an aspect of awakened mind. The buddha families are also associated with colors, elements, directions, seasons, that is, with any aspect of the phenomenal world. The great contemporary meditation master, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche said that what wisdom sees is the mandala of the buddhas.
The Five Buddha Families
In the mandala principle vajra is blue and located in the east, ratna is yellow and in the south, padma is red and in the west, karma is green and in the north and buddha is white and located in the center. In some Tibetan teachings, however, the colors of vajra and buddha are reversed.
Vajra is associated with the element water and the emotion of anger. Anger, like turbulent water, clouds vision and understanding. When the energy of anger is released from the grip of ego, it is transmuted into brilliance and lucidity, the Mirrorlike Wisdom. Like the winter and the dawn, the quality of this energy is sharp and crystalline. The particular symbol of this buddha family is the vajra, the thunderbolt of indestructible wakefulness. The Buddha of the East is Akshobhya, the “unshakable.” He is blue in color. One hand is in the earth-touching mudra echoing the gesture of the historical Buddha when he achieved complete awakening – “the earth is my witness.” Any blue stone, but particularly lapis, is associated with this energy.
Ratna energy when constricted by neurosis manifests as pride or arrogance and when it is unhindered manifests as the Wisdom of Equanimity. Ratna is connected with the earth element. The energy of ratna is one of self-existing richness and abundance. Because one is rich already, one’s energy can be expansive and generous. The ratna family is symbolized by a jewel, the wish-fulfilling gem that fulfills all desires. Ratnasambhava is the Buddha of the ratna family. He is the “jewel born.” Any of the yellow/orange tones of stone: tiger-eye, carnelian, amber and gold, express this energy.
Padma is associated with the spring, fire and passion. When the energy of passion is liberated it expresses itself into the aspect of compassion known as Discriminating Wisdom. It is a wisdom that sees everything so clearly that no confusion arises about what to accept or reject. The symbol of padma is the lotus, and red Amitabha is the Buddha. Rose quartz, rhodonite, carnelian all reflect the padma quality.
The karma family is connected to the wind and the summer season. Jealousy and paranoia are the primary karma family neuroses. Unencumbered karma energy expresses itself as All Accomplishing Wisdom. This family is symbolized either by a sword or a double-vajra, (visvavajra), both of which denote the fulfillment of all actions. The Buddha of this family is Amoghasiddha, green in color with hands in the gesture of fearlessness. Green stones, aventurine, malachite, turquoise (considered “green” in Tibet) and jade, all convey the quality of the karma family.
Buddha is the element space that includes and pervades all the other energies. The energy manifests neurotically as ignorance, a deliberate ignoring of reality. This energy when transmuted becomes All-Pervasive Wisdom symbolized by the wheel of dharma. Vairocana, the “radiant,” is the pure origin of consciousness. He is white and resides in the center of the mandala. Pearls, mother of pearl and crystal manifest the clear and pure nature of space.
The five buddhas (the dhyani buddhas) are the lords of the mandala from which all other buddhas and bodhisattvas evolve. The action of these buddha families manifest in the phenomenal world as space and the four karmas or four compassionate actions: pacifying, enriching, magnetizing and destroying. These are the four ways to overcome the blindness of ignorance, to wake up, and to be able to act in a way that is both appropriate and beneficial.
The rich symbology of the mandala principle and how compassionate energy manifests is expressed in every iconographic detail of the various bodhisattvas and meditational deities. By tuning into the qualities of these energies through visualizations and recitation of mantras, these qualities are discovered within oneself. Choice of a mala can, therefore, be made as a means to further tune in to the quality expressed in a given practice or an aspect of oneself to be enhanced.
Crystal, pearl or mother of pearl is an obvious choice for the practice of Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig), the bodhisattva of compassion. His is perhaps the best known of all mantras: the six-syllable Om mani padme hum. This mantra is written on prayer wheels and prayer flags, chiseled onto stones, and murmured by countless tongues. Avalokiteshvara is considered to be the protector of Tibet and the Dalai Lama, the embodiment and emanation of this compassionate energy. In the common four-armed form of Avalokiteshvara, he is white. Two hands are in the anjali or supplicating mudra, one hand holds a lotus and the other holds a mala described variously as either pearl or crystal.