Mala beads don't seem to be (widely, at least) used in the Theravada (although I seem to vaguely remember reading something once, on this forum I think, about Thai monks in one monastery using them, although they were kinda made fun of by the monks of other temples haha Can't be sure because I can't find the reference now, d'oh...) I should think because of the 7th precept (which of course specifically uses the word 'mala.')
In any case, just recently I have started using them in conjunction with the breath, to help settle me down before meditation. Moving the a bead on the in-breath for about half a round, then moving the bead on the out-breath. When I feel more settled then putting down the mala and going into the mental counting.
The reason I like it is because it engages the sense of touch, a physical, tangible reminder, which helps maintain interest. Also, like walking meditation, I think it helps me ease my mind into the meditation. From my limited experience of the practice so far, anyway.
Earlier I was listening to a podcast and I was just moving the beads and watching my breath as well. It's just a physical reminder, helping keep an underlying awareness of the breath. My thinking is the mala beads are like the mental counting, except I don't think I could number count my breaths and listen to something at the same time.
Maybe some people would think it's too much of a jungle to experience breath, move beads and listen at the same time?
I don't suppose anyone has ever heard a teacher (in this branch of Buddhism) mention or proscribe practice with malas?
Has anyone tried this practice? advantages/disadvantages?
N.B. Also think malas can be a reminder of practice, if you always have them on your person, if one feel the need for a reminder of practice like that. Could also just be another subtle ego thing, "look at me looking all spiritual with my paraphernalia"
hehe so that would be something to look out for