Count Your Blessings:
The Art of Prayer Beads in Asia

On view August 2, 2013 - July 24, 2014

This exhibition highlights the enduring use of and shared and unique approaches toward prayer beads in the Buddhist traditions of Asia. Prayer beads aid in personal devotional practices directly related to recitation. These objects have different names in different traditions and are fashioned in diverse forms that yield an aesthetic variety and ritual complexity celebrated in this exhibition.

Whether created with ordinary or precious materials, prayer beads have sophisticated and intricate arrangements and structures rooted in symbolic meaning and ritual. The overarching Buddhist framework for their use is the concept of the accumulation of merit. The beads help keep track of chanted recitations—the more recitations, the more merit accrued—and are thought to take on the amassed power of the practice. In the context of Tantric Buddhism, the physical form of the prayer beads is symbolically linked to the specific characteristics of the practice for which they are used, such as pacification, expansion, power, and wrath. Purification, penance, and divination are the other common ritual applications of prayer beads. These traditional uses continue today in parallel with new secular uses that developed outside of the beads’ original cultural context.and are part of our contemporary appreciation of their aesthetics and symbolism.

The large strand of beads suspended in the gallery is a shop sign that once hung outside of a prayer beads shop in Kyoto.

Shop Sign (Kanban); Japan; 20th century; wood; Collection of Anne Breckenridge Dorsey


Alice S. Kandell
Anne Breckenridge Dorsey
Mingei International Museum
Robert Del Bontà