Over many years, Micha and Ayelet Strauss have made personalized prayer wheels for people around the world, including H.H. the Dalai Lama and many other notable Tibetan teachers. [Micha and Ayelet also made the author’s Tara Prayer Wheel, pictured below.] Many teachers advocate prayer wheels as a good meditational practice for purifying negative karmas and other benefits [See our main story on Prayer Wheels here>>] We interviewed Micha Strauss, of the Galgamani Art Project for our larger feature on prayer wheels, but felt his answers to our questions had evolved into it’s own story.
BW: Is there a lot of demand for custom Prayer Wheels?
Micha: When we first started this journey of prayer wheel making we wanted to give customers the prayer wheel they want and not just to pick from what is available in the shop. It was important for us to offer our ability in customizing the prayer wheel. I am the wood turner so there is little room for me to be creative and that is why it is my wife Ayelet that does the “custom” jobs on our prayer wheel, be it via pyrographing (a wood burning tool) or acrylic paint. I can tell you now; almost 10 years into the process that giving many choices to customers is confusing and only a handful of them know exactly what they want. Most customers just love what is in the shop and might ask for a different color lotus or no mantra on the drum and so on, and that is why we offer custom made prayer wheels, to give the practitioner exactly what they want. finely after 7 or 8 years of crafting prayer wheels I finally had something to offer as a wood turner and made a new prayer wheel design, what I call “prayer wheel 2.0”. We will talk about this later on.
Micha Strauss demonstrates a custom Mani prayer wheel:
BW: How did you get started (in) making custom Prayer Wheels?
Micha: Back in 2008 H.E. Garchen Rinpoche came to Israel for the first time to give teachings or as he called it then, to touch the hearts of as many practitioners and to form a Karmic connection with them before he leaves his body. We both had jobs we could not leave for a week of teaching and so we could only come to the last hours on the last day. And so we did.
We sat there in the corner of the room filled with many people. We were both amazed by the prayer wheel that Rinpoche had in his hand. We had never seen a wooden prayer wheel before and right there on that spot decided to craft prayer wheels from wood, even though we both knew nothing on the subject. What followed was about 4 months of study on how to craft prayer wheels and how to turn wood, two things we knew nothing about at the time. In a different but related story, a friend had an old prayer wheel and wanted to change the paper mantra inside to microfilm. He contacted the guy who was rolling them at that time and gave him the measurements of his metal prayer wheel. This amazing guy named Jim McCann with whom we later became friends with over the years, rolled him the microfilm and sent it, but because it took Jim longer than he expected, he sent 2 rolls as a practice of generosity and for being late. So, just by “chance” we had a roll of microfilm just lying around…
So, one night while I was on guard duty I walked into the factory where I worked during the day time and crafted a wooden prayer wheel on the lathe in the tool room. I cleaned up after my turning and went home with a wooden prayer wheel! I was so overjoyed! I brought it home and we both just looked at it for a long time trying to think what we could add to it, how we could craft a different design, how we could craft more of these… we were so very happy!
Ayelet took the prayer wheel and pyrographed the Mani mantra on the drum and coated it with lacquer. We sealed it and it was ready for spinning.
We both knew right there and then, we would be prayer wheel makers, we don’t know how, but we would. We started to think how can we bring knowledge of this prayer wheel to the world? All we knew was that spinning a prayer wheel brings much merit and wipes out past karma, so we decided that we will spin this one prayer wheel we made until it would bring the good conditions to support our plan. And so, it happened. Little time passed and we started to craft prayer wheels for the practitioners of the world. Our motto was “to craft as many prayer wheels that we can while we can”
And we wanted to bring our abilities to the market place and that is how we came to the idea of “custom made” prayer wheels. Ayelet is a versatile artist that can give her abilities to our prayer wheels and so she does. That is what makes them so beautiful.
BW: Why do you create prayer wheels with a custom choice of many different mantras, not just the Om Mani Padme Hum traditionally used in wheels?
Micha: In the old days, prayer wheels had only the Mani mantra in them. After prayer wheels came to the west, practitioners started to ask for “personalized” prayer wheels according to their practice. Some felt a deeper connection to Green Tara and wanted their prayer wheels to have the Green Tara mantra in them. That made sense to us so we had a few mantras at hand. As time went by more and more customers wanted more and more mantras. There was only one company that made these rolls of microfilm in the USA and at a certain point in time they stopped making these microfilms. Another company took this mantra printing upon them and now they make microfilm with mantras, all with the supervision of Buddhist masters. We buy a reel of 2000 ft. from them and roll the mantra rolls to fit the prayer wheels ourselves.
BW: You use Microfilm instead of paper to allow many more mantras to be used. How is it created? Is that recommended by teachers?
Micha: It was first mentioned back in around 1993 or so by H.H. the Dalai Lama to incorporate technology in their prayer wheels and to work with microfilm and bearings to have a more powerful prayer wheel that spins with as little or with no effort at all.
Think of it this way, a prayer wheel has printed paper that holds let’s say 5000 mantras, so each spin sends out 5000 mantras of compassion to all beings yes? Now think of a microfilm in that same size of a prayer wheel that holds 50 million mantras… now each spin sends our 50 million Mani mantras to all beings. That was his point. As long as the printed mantra is not blurry when looked at with a microscope, all is well… the Mani mantra for instance went through 7 versions. In each one they tried to fit more mantras per page. By the 6th version it got blurry at the edges of the letters and so the 7th version was the last one where the letters were crystal clear. It is highly recommended by masters and teachers because of a different reason. Because we (me & the wife) live in Israel, many of our Israeli friends go and travel. Some go to the East and when they return they bring us prayer wheels as gifts. We open them to see what is inside… sometimes there is nothing. Sometimes there is paper with blurry ink. Sometimes there is local newspaper with cars for sale inside… teachers say if you want something authentic, go to an authentic prayer wheel maker who follows the rules and regulations of crafting prayer wheels, and the ones with microfilm inside usually are made by practitioners who take this very seriously, so you know your prayer wheel is made in the correct fashion, And of course with much love.
BW: You follow traditional Tibetan Buddhist guidelines?
Micha: Yes. The most important thing is the rolling of the mantra inside the prayer wheel. It is the heart of it and It needs to be rolled in the correct direction, in the correct tightness, over the life tree mantra and with the right mindset.
When we were asking questions on how to construct prayer wheels, we turned to prayer wheel makers and masters in different monasteries, mostly trying to figure out the right way to craft them. The first master we turned to first was Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche because he was here in Israel at the time giving teachings. he told us that most important is the mantra inside. The outside of the wheel and the way it looks is just for beauty, it means nothing to the effectiveness of the wheel. “you can put a lug nut for the counter balance weight” he said and we laughed… later that year it was Tsoknyi Rinpoche who was in Israel as well to give teachings. He said it was a very good idea to construct prayer wheels in such a country as Israel because of the need for blessings here… next was H.E. Garchen Rinpoche who told us that most important (other than the textbook on how to construct prayer wheels) is the correct mind set / mind frame. Why are you crafting prayer wheels? What is your motivation while you are engaged in the craft itself? What do you hold in your heart? What thought was in your mind? “You should always craft them with Bodhicitta in your heart & mind” he said.
We asked wooden prayer wheel makers questions as well, some answered, some not.
In the end, we felt that we were ready to construct prayer wheels and we started the journey.
BW: Have you made wheels for Buddhist teachers? If so, which ones?
Micha: Yes, many.
Too many to count now since we are around our 1300+/- prayer wheels.
Once we felt that we were ready to craft prayer wheels, that we felt that we had asked all the questions we had till that point and we could start our work, something amazing happened.
We crafted one prayer wheel, changed the design, crafted 2 more prayer wheels, changed the design again… crafted 3 prayer wheels in 3 different designs. The last one of those 3 was the design our prayer wheels had since. Once we felt good with the outcome of that design we got a Facebook message from France. Keep in mind that we did not have a website or Facebook page or anything… we were “under the radar” as far as the internet goes…
Still, this message came through and it was along these lines:
“Dear Micha & Ayelet. I have stumbled across your prayer wheels through my son’s Facebook account. I am the manager of the gift shop of Lerab Ling monastery in France where Sogyal Rinpoche resides and teaches. I wish to order a prayer wheel with the 7-line prayer inside for him as a gift. I would like you guys to craft it”
We both were in shock. How did this happen? Wow…. OK… relax…
And just like that, we started a correspondence that resulted in a beautiful prayer wheel for Sogyal Rinpoche. We did not know it at the time, but Sogyal Rinpoche is a calligrapher. He sent us the Vajra Guru mantra that he calligraphed and Ayelet copied it to the outside of the drum with her hands. First, he sent it to us for Ayelet to practice, and when she felt ready we sent it back in her handwriting to be approved. And he did. The prayer wheel was sent to France and we got an answer that Sogyal Rinpoche loved it and asked that it should remain in Lerab Ling, and that every master that comes to give teachings should spin it as a practice.
We could not fathom the Karma we both now sheared…
That opened the door and we started to get orders for prayer wheels…. I will try to list some of the masters here:
- H.H. the Dalai Lama
- E. Garchen Rinpoche
- Phakchok Rinpoche
- Sogyal Rinpoche
- Khenpo Kalsang Nyima Rinpoche
- Tsoknyi Rinpoche
- Choky Nyima Rinpoche
- Konchok Norbu Rinpoche
- Lama Tsering Rinpoche
- Tanpai Rinpoche
- Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
- Chime Dorje Rinpoche
There are many more Lamas and translators and masters who have our wheels but wished to remain private and not to be in the social media or any other media. We will respect their wishes.
BW: Can you share any fun or interesting prayer wheel stories?
Micha: Well, there are so many stories… I will think of some for you here
Ayelet’s personal prayer wheel has always been a story. Every time a customer or practitioner saw her wheel they had to have that one. No amount of explanation would help, not that we promised to make one “just” like that one, no. they had to have that one!
This kind of behavior gave Ayelet 6 different prayer wheels over time, till I made her one that she would not depart with. It is a pair of prayer wheels made for both of us. They are made from local ancient Olive hardwood. They both have the Mani and Green Tara mantras inside, and they both have a piece of paper with both mantras hand written by H.E. Garchen Rinpoche. These wheels stay with us.
We had many “prayer wheel emergencies” were we had to craft a prayer wheel overnight or within 2 days (very very fast) to be able to be sent rush delivery to a dying person who needed it now.
We had many more interesting stories but they are lost to time and memory.
But there is one last story I wish to share with you and that is the birth of our new prayer wheel design: prayer wheel 2.0
When we started this journey, I worked on a lathe intended to be used for metal machining. I just used it to turn wood. This lathe is very different from the one used for wood turning. But since we had no money to start our business with we needed to work on that machine till we collected enough money to buy a real wood turning lathe. This took some 5 years approximately. But once this new wood turning lathe arrived I went and studied wood turning at a master turner shop. He gave me some 10 lessons and I was on my way.
Sometime in those 5 years working on a metal lathe I had an idea to craft a handheld prayer wheel that is made in a way that only the drum rotates and the caps and handle are stationery. I did not know at that time how to craft such a prayer wheel but I took a pencil and a piece of paper and sketched something out. Ayelet (being who she is) kept that piece of paper somewhere…
It took me a long time to sum up the courage to work on that new lathe, but finely I started and worked on it for a while.
One day I remembered this long-time mind splinter I had about that prayer wheel design and asked Ayelet if she remembered it. She took out that old piece of paper and gave it to me. We had a good laugh and I started to craft this new prayer wheel design.
Once I was finished, I called it: prayer wheel 2.0 because the design of the prayer wheel has not been changed for thousands of years, but leave it to a Jewish Israeli Buddhist and he will come up with something!