Broken Malas Broken Superstitions

A while back someone wrote a comment to me asking about the significance of a broken skull mala. While I did address the situation in the comments I want to bring it up again because a) one of my skull malas just broke b) looking through the search information for this blog I noticed several searches regarding broken malas and c) there is way too much superstitious nonsense that goes along with Buddhist objects that needs to be done away with.

Here is a photo of my 2 skull malas. One broken, one not broken.


Here is a close up of some of the beads which are made of carved yak bone. They have such cute little faces!


In the comment that Jessica left she said her boss didn’t like her to wear the mala as it carried “heavy energy” in his estimation. And then she went on to say that her mala broke while she was in the bathroom at a meditation center and someone had told her not to take her object into the bathroom. Both of these things I would like to address along with the ownership of skull malas.

So I’ll take up the latter issue first. In India skull malas have a very long history. Both the god Shiva and the goddess Kali are often depicted wearing necklaces made of skulls. This is in keeping with their roles as destroyers. And in Hinduism destruction is not a bad thing as it provides the fertile ground for the next cycle of the universe. (kalpas)

In Buddhist terms meditation upon death or the use of the skull mala reminds one of the impermanence of life and the necessity of death. (I have talked about the necessity of death in a previous post)

Imagery of death is commonplace in Tibetan Buddhism. Here is some of the decoration at Mindroling Monastery in Dehra Dun India.

Skull Images

And the death ritual (ala Tibetan Book of the Dead) and crossing the Bardo are incredibly important parts of an individual’s life.

Death has been so mystified and sanitized in the West that even to mention it gives people pause. It is as if we (and even though I mostly live in India I am still a “firengi”) want to bury death itself.  The sanitization of death occurs both in the way  the dead bodies are disposed of and in the way the dead are remembered. The actual fact of  any death is sidestepped at every occasion.

We don’t kill our own meat or burn our loved one’s bodies or talk about the actual process of death. Funerals are all about celebrations of life. Well dressed and made up bodies are neatly ensconced in fancy boxes. Then these are buried under well-tended lawns in lovely gardens.

In India death is dealt with an a very direct and practical manner. The person’s friends and family wash the body and wrap it in a cloth. It is then carried on a wooden pallet to the cremation ground. It is set upon the woodpile and some kerosene is often added. The eldest son or other male relative then lights the funeral pyre. Everyone stands around and watches it burn for a while. Sometimes if the woodpile is not level the body can roll off and things get a little messy. There are often (at big places like Haridwar) people who act as cremation attendants (they are of a certain caste that have been traditionally in charge of these kinds of things) who will then straighten things out and continue with the ritual. After the body is burnt the ashes are thrown into the river without much ceremony. If a person dies far away from one of the holy places sometimes relatives will pack up the ashes and bring them to a holy place and dump them in the river. At Haridwar I saw a guy with a big plastic bag just dumping it into the water then throwing the bag in after and walking away like it was no big deal. Sometimes people will throw some flowers (marigolds usually) in afterwards.

It doesn’t mean that people in India didn’t care for their loved one. The wailing and drama that goes on at the time of a death can get pretty hysterical. But once the shock has passed there are things to be done and people get on with it.

Now as for this notion about “heavy energy” and that such malas are not good for beneficial practice this is simply a projection of the fear of death.  My main response to that was  “Beads in themselves, regardless of the image have no “energy”. It is whatever symbolism we choose to attach to them that bears examination.” This line of projective thinking is what propels superstition. Does a broken mirror have “energy”?  Or a black cat? Or grains of salt falling on the floor? Or shoes taken off and not aligned properly?(that’s one in North India) Or the Scottish play? And on and on these notions go. These are fables that are perpetuated by emotionally driven  ignorance. Unfortunately like perpetual memes they are contagious and often mutate. That doesn’t make them true.

The other issue has to do with the “purity” of images and not placing them in “impure” places. There is a lot of that in Hinduism. One would not put a household altar in the bathroom for example nor would one paint an image of a god on the floor to be walked upon. Again it is the same sort of issue. If one has invested one’s effort in injecting some sort of significance to objects or images then one would likely not do something that they believed was directly opposite to their initial feeling about a thing.

The problem is most people don’t realize they have made a decision, however subconsciously that something is “good” “bad” “pure””impure””sacriligious””clean””dirty” etc. etc. It is generally by rote that these things are accepted. If you ask anyone, including yourself “Why is such and such bad or good?” “Why do you do that?” “What does this mean to you?”the answer is usually vague and has never been thought out. “Well, this book said so.” “My teacher told me.” “My parents did that.” “I dunno.” This is a basic lack of  awareness of both self and one’s life.

So ideas and decisions, and the imposition of irrational decisions and thoughts on others (like Jessica’s boss expressing his unease at her choice of mala) keep on cascading along in one grand torrent of delusion. Just stop and ask once in a while. Ask yourself and ask your friends “Why?” and then rationally decide the best course of action rather than carrying on with mass delusions and group hallucinations.

And as for death. Well its the real deal. And it has to be confronted sooner or later. Why? We are all moving towards the exit sign. Some of us are a little closer to it than others but we all have to go through there. But its not such a “bad” thing once you get used to the idea. In fact it gives a whole new level of meaning to life.

To embrace life fully we must also embrace death. We must accept it’s truth and inevitability in order to live with fire in our bellies. Then, when death comes, truly we can reflect on and appreciate what a joy and marvel human life is.

Feb. 14, 2008 added note. Here is a post from Precious Metal blog that talks about how to make or restring malas if your breaks.

3 comments on “Broken Malas Broken Superstitions

  1. Thanks for sharing this. Its very wonderful post. I appreciate you making note that sometimes we don’t realize the internal labels we have given to things “good” “bad” “right” “wrong” — to be able to move past these judgments and question our thinking is really the way to freedom. Thanks again.

  2. thank you for straightening this out for me.. i myself walk a tumultous line between life and death. i consider myself a being of bountiful love and caring and one of deep seated anger and frustration. i have embraced this in myself and now after reading this i understand that it’s okay to understand this about myself.

  3. Thank you very much. I really enjoyed reading this blog.
    Keep going.
    Just follow the exit signs :-)

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