An excerpt from a long poem of the same name (consisting of 108 “beads”) that explores the memes of beads, strings, and primal sounds.
…the rosary is an ellipsis, a knotted umbilicus. You arrive in a text as a newborn, attached by a cord to the rest of your life, which has enwombed you so far. When the cord is cut by your disoriented curiosity, you crave reconnection, sending your own tendrils into space, to string your life to this river of moments, this cascade of beads.
When I was six my great-aunt, who was a nun, gave me her rosary while she was dying. It was made of glass beads that shone dark blue against the hospital greens. Watching the nurses drift in and out, I played a game. I put the rosary on my head so that it hooked over my ears like a stethoscope. I made each nurse lean over me so that I could press the silver crucifix to their hearts, stealing boyish glances at them. I asked my great-aunt: What seems to be the trouble, young lady? And Sister laughed and coughed. And so I pressed the crucifix to her own bony chest and said Let me listen, here. And Sister laughed and coughed and cried. I pressed the crucifix again to her bony and papery chest and said Why are you sick? She died soon after, and I have been listening to the beads and through the beads ever since.
A lover gave me a Tibetan mālā for me to track the days of our lives. The beads are made from yak bone embedded with turquoise and coral harvested from the Himalayas, which were once under the sea. It is strung together with hemp string coated with beeswax. The bone holds the patina of sebum from the fingers of old monks who drank yak butter tea. Their minds consumed the bones and their bodies consumed the butter, producing bones. I prayed hard on this mālā, in a room apart from her. It broke on every anniversary. When we parted, I didn’t repair it.
Like a child on a summer’s afternoon, I twirl my great-aunt’s rosary into my yak bone rosary and so model my DNA as both an instrument of devotion and an image of my sacred transcultural and transhistorical bafflement.
Bored by theology, I worship rosarian technology in its pervasive and perverse applications: math, astronomy, physics, sexuality, linguistics, studies in time, medicine, communication theory, divination, aesthetics. The mālā is a grouping of precious points (a grouping of pressure points), a collection of ones (strings) and zeroes (beads), a symbol of lingam and yoni, an emblem of circular time. The rosary can tell a story of everything if only human recitation and interior monologue falls truly silent for just a few moments. The history of the rosary is told by these beads: a sombre truth interwoven with wondrous fiction. Or is it the other way around?
A mālā can be made from the large seeds of lotus or rudraksha, hardwoods like cherry, softwoods like sandalwood, unpolished stones then polished by fingertips, and the bones of quadrupeds. Tiger’s bones are said to turn semen to mercury. The bead should be porous, allowing for the absorption of bodily oils, pheromones, the saliva of pets, temple incense, rhythm, and thought. What the bead absorbs through handling releases as the breath of later prayers cascade over it. Whenever I speak silently, I taste the past.
The mālā is ‘rooted’ at its guru bead, a larger and more decorative bead to which the 108 are strung. It represents stability, anchorage, the counsel received by the devotee, and the teacher, the guru. One of the meanings of guru is “heavy”. The guru bead lets the mālā sink down and in. It forms a weighted reference point in the stream of mantra, a bead that is recovered after each round, a bead that represents death and the present moment simultaneously.
The string of the traditional mālā is a tightly-twisted braid of nine threads, one for each of the planets, which themselves are figured by the beads. Over the lifespan of the string, one or more of these threads will snap, and as this happens, the total length of the string will increase. Through usage, the mālā renders consciousness more expansive because it makes the string of individual identity thinner. In turn, the mālā itself expands towards a very delicate and ecstatic breaking point. What connects our days together – the shadow of death – becomes more spacious and more transparent.
Every physical detail of the mālā is saturated with meaning and functional purpose unique to the devotee who will use it. The mālā is chosen for the reciter by her teacher, and the seller of the mālā is compelled to have comprehensive knowledge of which materials and styles are appropriate for each circumstance and intention. The typical mālā-dealer of Kathmandu is running a psycho-somatic apothecary, dispensing slow-release capsules of prayer. While Western nuns may all be issued a standard-issue plastic resin rosary like a grunt receiving a rifle, Indian and Tibetan monastics will each receive a mālā that is appropriate to their physical and mental constitution, that will resonate with their natal horoscopes, and was carved or molded from materials native to their birth-place. These factors are meant to connect them uniquely to their tantric angel, their bodily integrity, or their ishta devata: that most resonant and personal image of release.
The pharmacology of mālā beads is both precise and multivalent, designed to trigger physiological, neurological, psychological, and evolutionary layers of experience in interweaving dynamism. Mantras meant to appease either benefic or malefic influences should be recited upon white beads – crystal, pearl, or mother of pearl – which purify tissues and mind. White is anabolic, lactational, mucoidal, and seminal. Mantras meant to amplify virtues, powers, or external blessings should be recited upon beads of gold, silver, or lotus seeds. These substances both radiate and blossom. Mantras to overcome obstacles are recited on wooden beads: elm, peach, rose, sandalwood. These materials grow slowly and fragrantly along the paths of least resistance. Wrathful mantras for protection and the destruction of malefic energies are to be recited on rudraksha seeds or beads of human bone.
The most highly coveted beads are made from the bones of a spiritual teacher. The smallest phalange of each finger is ideal for this purpose. In Tibet, the phalanges are harvested from charnel grounds and placed in ritual prayer-wheels filled with sand, which polishes the bone into roundness as the supplicant spins the wheel. The soft marrow of the phalange is easily pierced for stringing. So many dead teachers.
When you use a mālā of beads made from the finger-bones of your teachers, you are using your fingers to count their fingers which are keeping track of your uttering of the mantras they taught you. When they taught these mantras to you, they gestured with their fingers to mark the rhythm of holy sounds. Or they used those fingers to gently grasp a brush and write the characters of the mantra onto a tiny leaf. They wrote with one hand and continued fingering the mālā made of their teacher’s phalanges with the other. Finger to finger to finger: reading and reciting this transdimensional braille.