Wisdom and Compassion Prayer Beads
c. 37 x 6 x 1 inches
Coldworked beer bottles, electrical wire
The beads spell “Wisdom Compassion” in binary code. Brown glass = 0, green glass = 1 (blue glass signifies break between words.)
I worked as a graphic designer for the Tibetan Buddhist book publisher Snow Lion for 18 years. Being able to be with Tibetans (who had grown up in India) and the many other spiritually-minded people I came to know was just flat-out cool. We were kind of a large extended family.
In addition to publishing books on Tibetan Buddhism (which was the Dalai Lama’s idea), Snow Lion sold all kinds of Tibet-related stuff—paintings, statues, ritual items, jewelry, cards, calendars, T-shirts, etc. I was the art director and designer of a quarterly magazine/catalog, and a few years after digital cameras came out, the job of photographing new items for the catalog (and website) became something else I did. Consequently, I got to spend a fair amount of time being with and looking closely at Tibetan Buddhist prayer beads. Called “malas”, some are made with beads of precious stone such as amethyst, jade, or lapis lazuli, while others are pearl, wood, glass, seed, nut, and even bone (the latter being particularly good for being reminded of impermanence….) There are large malas for hanging around one’s neck and small ones for putting around the wrist.
Some Buddhist teachers have pointed out that while it might be nice having a beautiful mala, what one does with the thinking and feeling parts of the praying/meditating is what is really important. While I don’t use malas during meditation and am not, as one of my ex-co-workers once described it, “a card-carrying Buddhist”, during my many years at Snow Lion I found some things I liked and felt made sense. One of these is the meaning of the chant/prayer “Om Mani Padme Hum”. Here’s how it’s explained by the Dalai Lama: “Mani, meaning jewel, symbolizes the factors of method:….(the) intention to become enlightened, compassion, and love….The two syllables, padme, meaning lotus, symbolize wisdom….Purity must be achieved by an indivisible unity of method and wisdom, symbolized by the final syllable hum, which indicates indivisibility.” In Western Tibetan Buddhism this way of thinking is sometimes distilled down to the phrase “Wisdom and Compassion”.
Reality puts these to the test, where they are often difficult to do—and that’s when the concepts can be particularly valuable.