Here is piece I wrote for folks in our Sangha who were taking on the One Million Nembutsu practice. It contains suggestions for using a mala. I hope it helps. Ananda
Thank you for joining me on this one million Nembutsu pilgrimage. There are lot’s of different types of pilgrimages. Most are familiar with the exterior pilgrimages that involve travel to far flung destinations.
Our year long pilgrimage is an inner pilgrimage towards the Buddha. We ill be traveling along the path of the Nembutsu. Like a physical pilgrimage, our journey will involve both hardship and periods of overwhelming joy. There will be times when you want to stop saying the Nembutsu and give up. At other times you will wish that the Nembutsu never ends.
Like with any pilgrimage, it is good to start off prepared. Of course, there is no preparing for the true pilgrimage, but at least you can try to ensure that you have enough clothes to wear and dependable guide.
To start this pilgrimage, our supplies will be simple. You will want to have a mala (nenju) with 108 beads plus a “guru” bead where the threads come together in a knot on the mala. You might also want to have a smaller wrist mala of 27 beads. Four rounds of the smaller mala equals one full mala.
When using the mala it is good to train yourself to always move to the next bead on the same syllable. Personally, I move on the “Na” or first syllable of the Nembutsu. You, however, may decide that you prefer moving with the “Bu” or last syllable. The main thing is to be consistent. This consistency will prevent you from zoning out and losing you count on the mala.
When using the mala, you begin with one of the beads next to the “guru” bead. As you recite the Nembutsu, you move around the mala, one bead at a time, until you reach the bead on the other side of the “guru” bead from where you started. At this point you do not count the guru bead or cross the guru bead. Instead, you turn around and continue counting back down the mala. So you never actually make a full circuit of the mala. The need to stop and turn around will help jar you back into attention if I have drifted off into some reverie or train of thought.
Other useful items to have on your pilgrimage: A method for counting your accumulated recitations. You could jot them down in a journal or on the calendar or as little hash marks in a notebook. I have found a mechanical counter the most useful. Mine can count up to 9999. I use it to track each time I count a full mala. When it roles back over to 0000 I know that I have recited 1 million malas.
Sometimes, you will not have your counter with you so you will need another means for tracking the accumulation of recitations. As mentioned before, you can just make little notations in a notebook and add them to your totals later. Also, you can count them on your fingers. If you start with your finger tips you can count up to 16 on one hand. That is the four finger tips and the 3 sets of joints in the fingers. You count using the thumb on the same hand.
You can also buy bead counters to go on your mala. I have never gotten in the habit of using them, but I know practitioners — especially in the Vajrayana — that have used these reliably.
The main thing is to come up with a system that works for you and stick with it.
Finally, you will want to choose a good “route” for your pilgrimage. Where and when will say the Nembutsu each day? As we all know, habits can be our friend. So figure out your daily Nembutsu habit? This is very important. Getting to the end of your day, exhausted, and realizing that you have not recited a single Nembutsu can be dispiriting. After several days, it is downright defeating!
I suggest that you try to have a few minutes at the beginning of your day and right before you go to bed. If possible, try to get a mala of Nembutsu in during the middle of your day. If you plan to say the Nembutsu during your commute, don’t multi-task. Turn off the radio and just say the Nembutsu.
I am really looking forward to making this pilgrimage with you. Do reach out to me with any questions or issues that arise.
Namo Amida Bu!