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Keeping Track of Large Numbers

In some traditions hundreds of thousands, or even 1 million mantras are required before we can manifest or at least, access, the properties of certain deities.  Without carrying around paper and pen, how do we remember these large numbers of rounds of the mala?

You can have up to 3 devices or tallies on your mala, for keeping track of large numbers   They are thick threads that hold 10 beads or rings that are slipped down or away from the main string of beads.   One of them is for tallying hundreds, the other counts thousands and the bum (Tibetan for 100,000 or a lakh) is for tallying each ten thousand.  

When using a mala of 108 plus 3 marker beads, a japa or round of mantras totals 111.  Many practices require the accumulation of 100,000 or 111,000 mantras, so the counters enable us to tally without having to write the numbers down. 

An older kind of tally is made of a coarse double thread of thick rough yak wool or other fibre that provides enough grip so the little rings do not easily slip up or down unless they are moved with intention.  It consists of a pair of sets of little rings on a double thread, one terminating with a dorje and the other with a bell.   

We attach one on one side of the mala, and the other on the opposite side.  One can be used to count up to a thousand, and the other for tallying the thousands. To attach each one:

1.  Move all the rings down towards the little silver charm (bell or dorje).
2.  Open the loop at the other end by separating the two parts of the cord.
3.  Place that newly formed "eye" over a space you have made between the beads of your mala (by moving some beads along) so that it lies half over the mala string.
4.  Now, draw the rest of the counter (held closed by the line of the little rings) through the loop formed by your mala string and the half "eye" to form a one-step slip knot or "crow's foot".  

This makes it possible to remove and re-attach the counter dangles wherever and whenever you need to move them. 

 Home Made Counters

After you have put a charm or a smooth and decorative bead on each of the cut ends of a thick piece of yarn (to keep the counters from slipping off) string ten good-sized "jump" rings from the craft or bead store over the doubled or folded wool. 

These tallies can be easily made on a single thread by using silver or gold "lobster claw" fasteners from craft stores. These are the longer shaped spring fasteners used to attach the two ends of a necklace.  After stringing on 10 beads or rings, at the other end attach a bead or miniature ornament by means of a jump ring. 

Why all this emphasis on counting?

Once at dusk, while the 18th-century Sufi saint from Sindh, Shah Latif Bhitai (called Makhdoom Shah Baba) was sitting in a grove by the village well doing his rosary [tasbieh] practice he overheard two girls, who had come to fill their water jars. 

One asked the other, "Have you ever met [privately] with your sweetheart?" "A dozen times," her friend responded.  "How many times have you met yours?" 

The former replied, "Oh sister, do we really keep an account of the meetings with our sweetheart?" Then the girls went away, gracefully balancing the heavy jars on their heads while laughing merrily." 

Shah Latif reflected on what the last girl had said. "I, a lover of the Most Beloved, am here counting the beads of my rosary.  But even a simple village woman is so taken with her lover that she never keeps an account.  From that moment it is said he gave up the use of the mala.  

One of his famous dohali (cf. Tibetan doha) is:

Body their rosary,
Mind their beads.
Their heart is the harp,
The threads of longing sing in utter unity.
The One, the only One, is the song within.
They whose sleep is prayer,
Wake even in sleep. 

From the perspective of ultimate truth -- in Buddhism we could say, from the Mahamudra perspective -- there is no need or requirement to keep track of prayers and mantras.  However, for those who choose the tantric system, the various practices are part of a tried and true rigorous method that works on the person at many different levels.

Vajrayana (tantric Buddhism) requires that a student follow his or her lineage's traditional instructions to the letter, and this includes performing definite numbers of various activities, including the saying of prescribed numbers of mantras. 


Sindh:  The Indus Valley of north-western India -- now mainly included in Pakistan.


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