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Volume 4  No 4

The Dharma in Blossom


The Buddhist chanting-beads is perhaps as symbolic of Buddhism as the yellow saffron-coloured robe donned by Buddhist monks. However, it is little known that Buddha devised it as an instrument to help us eradicate our wild illusory thoughts, purify our mind and attain enlightenment. This article explains the basis for the 108 beads that make up a string of chanting-beads, and how each of these represents a distress that we encounter in our daily life.


A tree whose bark is used to exorcise evil spirits

There once was a king who was very busy with the affairs of the state. He became distressed. One day he approached Buddha and asked, "Oh Buddha! Your teachings are indeed very good, but I have been too busy to attend your talks. Please, tell me how I can get rid of my many worries." Buddha replied, "You can string together 108 black Mu-huan[1] seeds to make a string of beads, and use it to recite the name of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha." In those days, before soap was introduced, a mixture of soap-berry and the seeds of the mu-huan tree was used for washing clothes. The bark of the mu-huan tree was also used to ward away evil spirits. That was the reason for Buddha to recommend mu-huan seeds. Following Buddha's advice, the king found his peace of mind. He was very happy, and devoted a major effort to promote this practice. He also encouraged the queen and members of his court to use the chanting-beads and recite the name of the Buddha. It works for many people and soon chanting-beads became widespread. This is the origin of the chanting-beads.

In those days, chanting was not limited to reciting the name of Amitabha Buddha. It is only in the recent decades that this practice became popular. This was due to the promotion of the Pure Land Sect method of cultivation that encourages one to recite Amitabha Buddha. In reality it is equally good to recite sincerely Avalokitesvara (Kuan-Yin) Bodhisattva, Ksitigarbha (Ti-Zhang) Bodhisattva or indeed any Buddha or Bodhisattva. These chanting-beads are called the enlightenment chanting-beads because, as an instrument used in the recital, it can help to eliminate our wild illusory thoughts, purify our mind and help us attain enlightenment. They may be made from various materials including plants, stones, pearl, agate, and glass.

The following explains the reason behind the 108 beads: All human beings have 6 sense roots (sense-organs). These are the eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind. The 6 roots encounter the 6 external senses - form or sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and perception. These in turn produce 6 sense-consciousness. These are eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind-consciousness. The sum of 6 roots, 6 external sense fields and 6 sense- consciousness is 18. Our daily activities, whether good or evil, revolve around these 18 distresses. The 18 Hells stem from these 6 roots, 6 external sense fields and 6 sense- consciousness. Heaven also stems from the 6 roots. However, even heaven is not the ultimate attainment. When the retributions of the negative karma committed through the aeons of their many past lives present themselves, heavenly beings may be reborn in the Hell Realm. Therefore we need to recite the names of the Buddha's so that we can be liberated from the transmigrating in the Six Realms.

The 6 roots, 6 external sense fields and 6 sense-consciousness, in relation to the three periods, namely, the past, present and future, and all the distresses associated with them; the distresses of yesterday, today, tomorrow, last year, this year and next year; result in a total of 54 distresses. Such distresses consist of both the ideal and the real. For example, a person thinks of committing a robbery. It only becomes real when the crime is committed. If we wish to build a school then that is just an idea, it only becomes real when it is erected. Therefore, all matters consist of both the ideal and the real, thereby resulting in a total of 108 distresses. Every single day human beings live within these 108 worries. If people concentrate in reciting the name of the Buddha with a string of chanting-beads, and without being distracted by the 18 realms of senses (6 roots, 6 external sense fields and 6 sense-consciousness), these distresses will be transformed into enlightenment. This is the principle of the 108 beads. The practice of using chanting-beads continues to the present day.

With regards to reciting the names of the Buddha's, it does not matter if we recite Amitabha Buddha or Avalokitesvara (Kuan-Yin) Bodhisattva. We should not be attached to reciting just Amitabha Buddha because the chanting-beads is not a speciality of the Amitabha Buddha. We can recite the names of all the Buddha's and Bodhisattva's of the ten directions of the cosmos and of the three periods.


Copyright 2002.Jen Chen Buddhism Centre