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Tabo Monastery June 2022

Prayer wheels and the Buddhist monasteries across the Himalayas

All across Buddhist monasteries in the world are the prayer wheels that are a symbol of great devotion for all. A number of these monasteries are located in the Himalayas in India, Tibet, China, Nepal and Bhutan. A cylindrical wheel on a spindle – the prayer wheels are either made of metal, wood, stone, leather or rough cotton. 

It has a mantra written on the outside in Tibetan or Ranjana script which is frequently Om Mani Padme Hum. The Sanskrit six-syllable mantra which is associated with the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshwara. Other mantras can also be used like dakinis which are female goddesses, spirits or demons or protectors or the ashtamangalas which are eight hopeful symbols. 

At the base of the prayer wheel or mani wheel is the life tree made of either metal, wool or cotton wrapped by mantras written or wrapped around it. These can be thousands or millions of them depending on the size of the prayer wheel. 

As per Tibetan Buddhist culture, the prayer wheels when turned lead to the same merit as orally chanting the mantras. The first prayer wheel was seen in Tibet and China around the fourth century. It was turned by the wind. 

The idea of the prayer wheel is the bodily description of moving the wheel of Dharma which is much like how the Buddha used to teach. A number of historians feel that the revolving Chinese bookcases were inspiration for the prayer wheels. Tibetan experts state that Indian Buddhist thinker, Nagarjuna may have been the one to start the use of the prayer wheel.

Some other Buddhist experts say that Indian experts Naropa and Tilopa who were monks as well as Tibetan teachers Marpa and Milarepa used to teach how to use prayer wheels. Some even say Tsongkapa invented the prayer wheel. 

It was to be used by illiterate people who were unable to read and recite the mantras. Turning a prayer wheel would be their prayer. Another view is that the prayer wheels are like the chakras of the body and turning them was like rotating the prayers around the head and heart of one’s body. It was like a tantric and yogic practice. 

Mandala from Dirang monastery

Prayer wheels are good karma, to put an end to bad karma and collect wisdom as per some Tibetan texts. The prayer wheels helped visualise the prayers when turned clockwise which is the direction of the sun in the sky. There are some rare prayer wheels which are turned counterclockwise – those are of the lion-faced dakini – Senge Dongma which draws the angry protective force. 

The wheel has to be tuned slowly and meaningfully and not in anger or rage. The mind has to be noble and seeking to gain knowledge. It can help one to gain spiritual gifts when one turns a prayer wheel. The prayer wheel turning for Buddhists is a practice and they dedicate all the merit they earn to help all. Om Ah Hum is what is repeated thrice to end a session of prayer wheel meditation and prayer.

There are a number of prayer wheels but mainly there are human powered or powered by the elements. The human powered prayer wheels are hand held made of a shell, having a string that is used. The larger wheels are human size and counting is done by a bell. There are row installations of prayer wheels which are seen mostly in monasteries.

tawang Monastery monks

The water prayer wheel uses water to move the wheel and ensure that blessed water enters the rivers, seas and oceans around the world. A few are seen in Bhutan of this type. The fire prayer wheel is powered by heat from a candle or an electric light. The light purifies and ends all the negatives. Such ones are found in Nepal. The wind prayer wheel is moved by the wind and it makes all the negatives go away. These are seen in Tibet. 

There are also electric prayer wheels which are powered by electricity and motors. These even have light and sound in some cases. The electric prayer wheels move all through the day, night and all through the year. These are sold across Tibet and seen in many monasteries there. 

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