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1st December 2000

Designing Cultural Rosaries and Meaning Malas
to Sustain Associations within the Pattern that Connects

-- / --

Proposed 'cultural rosary' or 'meaning mala'
Framing the design challenge
Design specifics
Content and function
-- Ethical injunctions | Sustainability initiatives | Physical survival kits | Cultural survival kit
-- Conflict resolution and dialogue kits | Psychotherapeutic reminders | Spiritual discipline guides
-- Know-how mnemonic devices | Conference summarizers | Design of a new being | Money beads
-- Organizational learning | System holders
Complex examples of cultural rosaries
'Activating' the significance of the cultural rosary
Computer-related issues


There are any number of insightful documents on what ought to be done at every level of society. These tend to be lengthy and thus highlight the challenge of memorability -- length is ultimately counter-productive. It is difficult to comprehend and retain an integrative pattern of insights -- whatever the degree of support offered by computer technology. In addition whatever is offered tends to be as much an instrument of conceptual exhaustion -- rather than offering the possibility of recreation and empowerment of the individual, hopefully to be entrained by any new thinking.

This note explores the possibility of designing 'cultural rosaries' (or 'meaning malas') to hold associations forming patterns of supportive insight. As simple physical devices, they can be used as mnemonic instruments to reinforce insights that allow the individual (or group) to reframe comprehension of any context. They offer a constant reminder of other ways of thinking -- and alternative opportunities for acting.

Part of the title derives from Gregory Bateson's insight: "The pattern which connects is a meta-pattern. It is a pattern of patterns. It is that meta-pattern which defines the vast generalization that, indeed, it is patterns which connect.". And it is in this from this perspective that he warns: "Break the pattern which connects the items of learning and you necessarily destroy all quality." (1979, pp. 8-11).

In many ways this note is an encouragement to a do-it-yourself approach to the design of such rosaries or malas. It offers pointers to historical parallels, as well as evoking possibilities to be explored.


In a society characterized by information overload, and in which many creative people have new insights to offer, how are such insights to be integrated by the individual hoping to benefit from them?

One challenge is how to 'pack' insights into a form that can be freely explored, rather than having to be learnt as a task or an obligation. Because part of the difficulty is that many of the insights on offer are proposed as preferable to other insights that are thereby implicitly denigrated, a way needs to be found to enable recipients of such insights to navigate between them -- without being trapped inadvertently by any of them.

Another challenge is how to avoid clustering insights into a system of classification that is itself perceived as an alienating imposition.

A further challenge is how to enhance the 'deliverability' of any such device, especially to those who may have limited resources. In this sense a device that can be made with the simplest materials has much to recommend it -- especially if the process allows for a high degree of craftsmanship, for those who appreciate this.

Proposed 'cultural rosary' or 'meaning mala'

A circle of beads, forming a necklace or rosary (mala), is a common artefact in many cultures. It is used for decorative purpose as well as being used by religious groups, notably as prayer counters -- possibly following a rhythm. But it is also used in the form of 'worry beads' in some cultures. The religious form, common in both East and West, is used as a mnemonic device to order a series of prayers or meditational mantras ( In Buddhism the beads represent the number of mental conditions or sinful desires that one must overcome to reach enlightenment or nirvana. The word 'bead' itself has an interfaith origin. It is purportedly derived both from the Sanskrit buddh, which refers to self-realization, and also from the Saxon verb bidden, to pray.

Suppose however that each bead (distinctively shaped, coloured or marked) was associated with a particular insight, rather than the traditional devotional 'prayer'. Some are already used in this way.

The insight might be peculiar to the individual, or of importance to fruitful ways of thinking in response to the environmental challenges of the individual or a group. In other words the insights chosen could be idiosyncratic and personal, or selected from those on offer (and widely agreed upon) in society. They might indeed be associated with injunctions on how to act, but they might equally be chosen for their cultural associations. Just as people may surround themselves with a library of books, a set of pictures, or a collection of music recordings, in this way they would provide themselves with a highly portable reminding device for insights that they find important to their lives. Some people collect symbolic figures for amulets, somewhat to this end.

The device is simple and its variations could be numerous with the help of aesthetic flair. More challenging however is to increase the organizing and associative power of the device to sustain the pattern that connects and holds meaning in a person's life -- or in that of a group.

Clearly some would choose to obtain ready-made forms of cultural rosary, with the associations of each bead carefully defined. Many groups might choose to provide such devices for adherents to their worldview. The rosaries of the Catholic Church are of this type. Others might choose to build their own in the light of insights that they consider important. Some might select them on purely aesthetic criteria. But there are other intermediary approaches that may extend the value of such devices.

Framing the design challenge

This note endeavours to avoid an 'exhaustive' exploration of the possibilities. So in considering further design options, it is useful to offer some associations to catalyze further reflection. The design challenge might borrow features from:

A strong inspiration towards use of beads to hold cultural insights comes from Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game (1943) that has impelled many to construct emulations on the web (search 'Glass Bead Game resources'). Charles Cameron, in considering this possibility, notes: 'Rosaries are meditative devices which use beads to represent a series of prayers on a sequence of ...mysteries....By analogy, the Glass Bead Game is an abacus of prayer... More specifically, it is a stringing together of ideas drawn from the whole range of human culture, within a formal meditative structure, to engender in its players, Hesse tells us, a state 'virtually equivalent to worship', a 'direct route into the interior of the cosmic mystery" (

There is a need to distance the proposed cultural rosary from some of the widely publicized faith-specific associations of its use, notably within the Catholic Church where it has been closely linked with devotion to Mary. In its present form, the rosary was developed in Carthusian monasteries in the 14th and 15th centuries. It consisted of the Scriptural verses of the Hail Mary with 50, then 150, little "inserts" (clausulae) added after the name of Jesus. The clausulae became the "mysteries" and were divided into three sets of fifty each. Finally, the clausulae or mysteries were reduced to the present 15 mysteries:

Part of the current traditon has it that 29 'roses' are associated with the rosary ( However this Catholic tradition continues to be subject to reinterpretation. Many authors have taken the 1973 suggestion of the American bishops and proposed new mysteries for the rosary, for example:

A number of web sites assist in the design of 'memory beads' or bracelets. One traditional use is by the Iroquois who had no writing system and depended upon the spoken word to pass down their history, traditions, and rituals. As an aid to memory, the Iroquois used shells and shell beads. The Europeans called the beads, whether as bracelets or belts, wampum. All wampum belts function similarly. Each instance, or each belt, represents a particular speech event -- a single talk, or a particular council meeting, or a specific treaty. From native perspective, the beads carry the information, or the speakers' words. Variables are: an array of beads; bead color; bead size and shape; belt width (number of strands); belt length, and, possibly, geometric figures. Acting on these variables are these methods: record speakers' words; prompt messenger's memory; prompt reciprocal exchange. (

Frances Yates discusses (The Art of Memory, 1966) the historical use of memory palaces, gardens and theatres to provide structured surfaces on which insights could be imprinted. The work of one practitioner, Raymond Lull, is partially available on the web ( The practice of building memory palaces -- in which loci were made available for the placement of remarkable imagery that would stimulate one's memory -- did not, however, become completely discontinued after the sixteenth century but became marginalized to the Neoplatonist movement, which adopted its mnemonics for the purpose of enhancing the Hermetic philosopher's magical grasp over nature ( This would be one reason for the modern neopagan interest in symbolic necklaces.

Design specifics

Several design dimensions might be considered:

Content and function

As with meditation and prayer beads, the purpose of the cultural rosary is primarily for personal use as a mnemonic device -- as cultural jogging trails through which to jog the memory, possibly in a social setting. Justification for such use is explored in the literature on mnemonic devices.

Possible uses might be clustered as follows:

Relationship of 64 I Ching heaxagrams

Complex examples of cultural rosaries

It is not immediately obvious from web sources the degree to which distinct insights are attached to beads, as opposed to its use as a counting device for a single repeated prayer -- possibly chanted. In fact, tradition has it that the rosary was instituted for illiterate lay people to enable them to repeat a single prayer, in contrast to recitation of all 150 psalms by monks. Clearly reflection on many individual mysteries (Christianity), virtues, hindrances (Buddhism), or the names of Allah (Islam) or Ganesh (Hinduism) implies a higher degree of memory. But relatively little is indicated in web resources concerning how any of these weave together to constitute a larger pattern of meaning rather than a simple sequence (whatever its implications as a spiritual discipline). This is the challenge in many areas of society, namely the contrast between 'cognitive tunnel vision' imposed on the uninitiated and the challenge of more integrative comprehension.

In searching for examples to present, the criterion has been richness of interaction across any circumferential sequence, as well as feasibility of construction:

More generally, all coherent sets of concepts can be considered as potentially encodable onto mnemonic devices such as the proposed cultural rosary or meaning mala. The intriguing question is whether the concepts can be understood as constituting a system of links that integrates the set in a manner that is other than a sequential checklist (Judge, 1979). In other words does the set have a higher degree of ordering and can it be reflected in the distinctions given to individual beads and groups of beads and how they may be understood as related? The I Ching diagram illustrates the potential complexities of such linkages.

'Activating' the significance of the cultural rosary

The rosary or mala can of course be used purely as a memory tool -- and a form of 'qualitative counting'. The question is how to render it more 'active', just as the abacus can be used for mathematical operations. Can it be more than a reminder -- with the risk of decaying into a memento?

In Catholic usage, the rosary is made up of two things: mental prayer and vocal prayer.Mental prayer is none other than meditation of the chief mysteries of the life, death and glory of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Mother. Vocal prayer consists in saying fifteen decades of the Hail Mary, each decade headed by an Our Father, while at the same time meditating on and contemplating the fifteen principal virtues which Jesus and Mary practised in the fifteen mysteries of the Holy Rosary.

Those who use strings of beads for prayer or meditation would consider such use more than sufficient.

Hermann Hesse alluded to the possibility of using beads in a game and there are a number of web efforts (of highly variable quality) to give form to this. There are also related discussion lists. The purpose here, however, is to focus on simpler mnemonic devices -- although some of the game insights may indeed be relevant.

Three other possibilities come to mind:

In considering opportunities for encouraging popular use of any 'cultural rosary', it should be recognized that there is already much enthusiasm for the non-linear, associational value of related devices (as is evident from the web). The challenge is more how to distinguish what mnemonic role a cultural rosary could perform that would enhance integrative understanding in ways not already explored by devotional, magical and game-oriented constitutencies, or by those marketing particular products.

Computer-related issues

Although the emphasis in this proposal is in favour of a very low tech approach with a very high cultural content, the possible interface with high tech approaches should not be ignored (notably in the light of the many web experiments):


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