Rosaries for prayers are a very common item of religious artefacts in Bhutan and Bhutanese people profusely use rosaries to say prayers and recite mantras. Known as chyem (ཕྱེངམ་) in Dzongkha and trhengwa (ཕྲེང་བ་), religious texts explain that the term originally refers to yearning in the mind. The rosary is used to inculcate in the mind a yearning for the blessings of the Buddhas and yidam deities. As a fundamental religious implement, there are many tantric texts which discuss the raw materials, size, shape, number of beads, mode of use and significance of the different rosaries.
Rosaries are made of a wide range of materials including crystal, shell, pearl, precious stones, gold, silver, copper, various types of wood, seeds, ivory, and bones of animals. Different materials are said to be good for different purposes such as shells and crystal being good for health and longevity prayers while gold and silver are considered powerful for mantras and prayers to attain magnetising power. The tantric sources discussing the types and use of rosaries often recommend different materials for the four types of pacifying, intensifying, subjugating and terrifying activities. Materials such as crystal, pearl, white beryl, seeds of Bodhi and other light and soft materials are said to be good for pacifying activities.
For intensifying activities, rosaries made from yellow materials such a gold, silver, copper, lotus seeds and fruits and wood are recommended while red coloured raw materials such as red sandal, ruby, copper are recommended for the subjugating activities. Rosaries from dark coloured raw materials such as rudrārakṣa and dark wood, and from bones and teeth of various animals are recommended for terrifying activities. Some materials such as Bodhi seeds, gold, ivory, jade and zee stones are said to be good for rosaries of all purposes.
According to the text entitled Padma’s Explanation of Rosaries, the rosaries made from earth are said to be good for pacifying activities, from stones for intensifying activities, from medicinal plants for subjugating activities and from bones for terrifying activities. Similarly, white rosaries are recommended for pacifying activities, yellow for intensifying, red for subjugating, dark for terrifying activities and multi-coloured rosaries for a mixture of the activities. Materials for rosaries are also classified according to the Buddha families. The Bodhi seeds are best for the Tathāgata family, lotus seeds for the Padma family and rudrārakṣa for Vajra family. Precious metals are considered the best raw material, seeds the medium and wood, stones and medicinal compounds as basic raw materials.
Depending on the raw materials and the purpose of using the rosary, the beads on a rosary come in different sizes. While most are the original size of the seeds, shells, etc. the size of beads in some are made according to the use they are put to. For example, beads for pacifying purposes should be the size of a tooth while those for terrifying activities can be as big as a big toe. The beads, once they are properly prepared, are put on the string to make the rosary. The most common and universally accepted number of beads in a rosary is 108. However, for pacifying purposes, according Vajraḍākatantra, one must have 100 beads, for intensifying activities 108, for subjugating activities 25, and for terrifying activities 60 beads. For practices of accomplishing the power of mantras, 50 beads are recommended in a rosary. Other tantras give slightly different numbers of beads in rosary, and lamas suggest that one use the number recommended by the tantra for practices associated with it.
As for the type of rosaries one must avoid, the Explanation of Rosary in the Gathering of Intents explains that one must eschew rosaries made from horns and leg bones, rosaries held by people who committed heinous crimes, broke tantric precepts, or are untouchables, windows, etc., rosaries which are discarded by others, lost and found, offered to the shrines, used as ornaments, and rosaries with broken strings, incomplete number, bad colour, bead which are not uniform, beads of different materials mixed together, beads desecrated by others, eaten by worms and rodents, burnt by fire, broken or worn out, and rosaries which are not appealing to the person who uses it. Such rosaries which are not suitable for the practitioner may be destroyed by fire or water or given away to others who may find it useful.
The rosary has a primary bead known as dozin (མདོ་འཛིན་), which is larger than the rest of the beads. This main bead should be white in colour and round in shape for pacifying activities, yellow with knots or in the shape of stupa for intensifying activities, semi-circular or flat with red colour for subjugating activities and triangular and edgy in dark colour for terrifying activities. The preferred string for the rosary is golden threads or thread spun by a virtuous, beautiful, intelligent and gentle maiden. White woollen string is recommended for pacifying activities, yellow cotton thread for intensifying, red silk thread for subjugating and dark threads made from skin for terrifying activities.
Once a rosary is made and consecrated, it should be held close to oneself, often hidden from the view of the other people. The rosary should not be left on the ground, used as an ornament or to hit other. It should not be shared with others or used for doing divination. If it breaks, it should be mended within a day. While using the rosary, for pacifying activities one must hold it at one’s heart and pull it over one’s index finger gently. For intensifying activities, one must place the hand at the navel and pull it over the middle finger, for subjugating activities, close to the groin and pull it over the ring finger and for terrifying activities one must place it over the knees and pull it over the little finger. While pulling the beads, one must visualize one’s hand to be the union of vajra and lotus – the symbol of wisdom and compassion – and the thumb to be a hook. As one pulls the beads with the thumb, one must think of pulling the blessings from the enlightened beingss.
Rosaries are said play an important role in tantric Buddhist practice, particularly in reminding one of the deity and practice. Having the rosary helps people remember their Buddhist practice and the mantras and prayers they are supposed to be reciting. On a higher level, the sacred rosary acts as a channel of spiritual blessings from the enlightened deity. However, to most people, the most important role rosaries play is in recording the number of recitations they have done. Bhutanese Buddhists recite prayers numerous times and they record the number using rosaries. Thus, it is common to find small rings of silver called chugzhi (བཅུ་ཤད་) attached to the rosary in order to record numbers above a hundred and as high as a billion.
Rosaries are an important religious artefact in Bhutan. People spend large amounts of money to acquire good rosaries, and some rosaries are passed down as family heirloom. Rosaries used by holy persons are cherished as important religious relics and often referred to as thugdam (ཐུགས་དམ་) or heart practice because the rosary is used to carry out such personal heartfelt practice. Yet serious practitioners would argue that the physical chain of beads on a string is only the external rosary, but the internal rosary is the chain of verbal recitation, the secret rosary the chain of conscious mindful inhalation and exhalation, and the ultimate rosary the continuum of meditative awareness of emptiness and compassion. One must start with the rosary of determination in the beginning (ཐོག་མར་བརྩོན་འགྲུས་ཕྲེང་བ་), endure with the rosary of undistracted focus in the middle (བར་དུ་གཡེང་མེད་ཕྲེང་བ་) and secure with the rosary of stabilisation in the end (མཐའ་མར་གཏན་བཞག་ཕྲེང་བ་).
Karma Phuntsho is a social thinker and worker, the President of the Loden Foundation and the author of many books and articles including The History of Bhutan.