Legend has it that these cords can bring good luck or offer some kind of protection. In the traditional practice the Lama ties a knot in the cord, blows a mantra into it, and makes a blessing. They say this allows you to take your teacher with you, even after they are long gone.

By Daniel Scharpenburg

Legend has it that Buddhist cords can bring good luck or offer some kind of protection.

In the traditional practice a Lama ties a knot in the cord, blows a mantra into it, and makes a blessing. They say this allows you to take your teacher with you, even after they are long gone. Many religious traditions have this kind of process, where a teacher imbues an object with spiritual energy and blessings.

But, what do these strings mean?

They are sometimes called blessing cords and sometimes called protection cords. They are used in several Buddhist lineages, most often in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism, but you can find them in other places once in a while.

I’ve had a few different strings on my wrist over the years. I took Refuge Vows with Lama Chuck Stanford at the Rime Center in 2009.

We sat upstairs in the upstairs shrine room for two hours. It was summertime and hot—it would be a few more years before the Rime Center would get air conditioning. Suffering in the heat was an added bonus to the ceremony. I hadn’t really been going to the Rime Center long enough to make friends or even acquaintances, really, but I wanted to take refuge vows anyway. I had been studying and practicing Buddhism on my own for years before I first set foot in a Buddhist temple.

The lama, an old caucasian man, sat on a cushion facing us. He was wearing maroon robes with a shawl draped over himself. He must have been uncomfortable in the heat because he had a handkerchief like my dad used to carry and every once in a while he would wipe sweat off his forehead. Behind him there was a table with various Buddhist statues and such.

We did some special bows, some chanting and some meditation. We were given little cards with our new Buddhist names (chosen at random) and then we were given little red strings.

I tied it around my wrist. This was the moment I ‘officially’ became a Buddhist. I had a membership card and everything.

This is a traditional ancient practice, it’s been part of some sects of Buddhism for a long time. It’s different now though. It used to be that people would wear strings for a while and they’d rot off and fall away. Now, strings are made of synthetic fiber. They could last for a very long time.

I do let them fall apart when they start to. I guess they’re like anything else, they’re with us for a while, and then they’re gone. Sometimes it takes a short time, sometimes it takes a long time. As of this writing I have one red one that looks worn and one that still looks nice. The picture above was taken when I had a yellow one too. We’re not supposed to be attached to keeping these forever. As I said above, in ancient times they would just fall off after a few weeks or, at best, months.

I’ve had three red ones. I received one when I took Refuge Vows, another when I took Bodhisattva Vows, and yet another when I took Pratimoksha, lay ordination, vows.

I was given a yellow one by Lama Lena Feral, and it was blessed by her teacher Wangdor Rinpoche—a famous Vajrayana Buddhist teacher from Tibet who held several lineages. I had a black one that was given to me by Younge Khachab Rinpoche. He gave a teaching called the Black Hayagriva Empowerment and handed out black strings. That one fell apart the quickest.

These cords are blessed and given by teachers on important occasions, for example when one takes vows. Taking vows is a part of most branches of Buddhism, but taking vows doesn’t always involve receiving a string. One can also be given a string when one does an important retreat or receives teachings from a well known teacher, especially teachings that are thought of as secret and important. I was given a yellow string because I received teachings from Lama Lena. I was given a black string because I was given what was said to be a special teaching by Younge Khachab Rinpoche.

Now, I’ll be honest and tell you, I don’t believe these strings provide any sort of protection or good luck. I’m skeptical of such things, and a little surprised that so many people seem to believe strongly in them.

But I do think they serve a purpose.

They can be a reminder.

I have strings and they remind me that I’m a Buddhist. They remind me to help others when I can and to try to embody basic goodness. They remind me to try to be mindful and act as a Bodhisattva. The strings remind me that the path isn’t limited to when I’m in a temple or when I’m on the cushion, because mindfulness and compassion are important in all aspects of life.

The strings on my wrist are with me all the time and that’s important because I’m on the Buddhist path all the time.


Photo: (provided by author)

Editor Dana Gornall