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Wheel of Dharma: Why Prayer Wheels May be the Ideal Buddhist Practice for Busy People; Benefits to Self and Sentient Beings: What the Teachers Say

Wheel of Dharma: Why Prayer Wheels May be the Ideal Buddhist Practice for Busy People; Benefits to Self and Sentient Beings: What the Teachers Say

“In old Tibet, everywhere you looked, you saw people, particularly older people, spinning prayer wheels from morning to night, while reciting the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra (a Tibetan prayer composed of Sanskrit power words) to relieve the misery of all beings,” — His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya in a commentary on Prayer Wheels. [1]

Lama Zopa Rinpoche with a microfilm hand-crafted prayer wheel containing millions of mantras.

Lama Zopa Rinpoche, during teachings on Prayer Wheels made a similar observation: “…When they walk around, they constantly turn the prayer wheel and recite om mani padme hum. I often used to think, ‘How does turning of the prayer wheel become Dharma practice?’ I had this question in my mind, simply because I was ignorant as to the benefits of the practice.” [2]

“Amitabha Buddha said, “Anyone who recites the six syllables while turning the Dharma wheel at the same time is equal in fortune to the Thousand Buddhas.'” — H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya

He also pointed out that Padmasambhava said, “even those lacking perseverance in their practice, who pass the time passively, will be able to attain mystic powers. Those with perseverance for reciting the mantra and turning the wheel will undoubtedly attain the tenth level.”

 

H.E. Garchen Rinpoche teaching with spinning prayer wheel in right hand (made by Shea Witsett of The Prayer Wheel Shop>>)

 

Whether you believe Prayer Wheels are a profound spiritual practice, or a miraculous one, it’s clear that prayer wheel practice is growing in popularity, not only because teachers are suggesting it, but also because it is among the simplest, yet most effective, practices for purifying negative karmas (among many other benefits.)

“Unfortunately, there’s still a lot less demand for prayer wheels than there is for guns and weapons,” said Shea Whitsett, artist at The Prayer Wheel Shop, in an interview with Buddha Weekly. [For the full interview, see this BW story>>]

[If you have a wheel, please see practice suggestions to enhance your practice at the end of this feature.]

Modern-day prayer wheels include more mantras (thanks to microfilm) and smoother spinning action (making it easier to spin “all day long.”) These hand made wheels are from Prayer Wheel Shop, made by Shea Witsett.

 

The Miraculous and the Meaningful

Although some benefits of prayer wheel practice may seem “miraculous” it is important to understand that benefits are subject to our own karmas. Most of the transformations identified in the teachings (and highlighted by His Holiness below) are due to the purifying effect of prayer wheel practice. H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya explains:

“Use of the prayer wheel is one of the easiest ways to purify past negative karma, nonvirtuous actions, defilements, and obstacles that prevent us from realizing our true self and understanding the true nature of reality. Buddha said, “One benefit is that the karma and disturbing thought obscurations that have been accumulated for beginningless rebirths are purified without effort.”

 

His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya, wearing the Sashu (formal crown/hat) at a teaching.

 

Other prayer wheel benefits, explained by His Holiness:

  • “Transforming one’s own body, speech and mind into the Body, Speech and Mind of a Buddha. One’s own body becomes like a holy place.
  • Transforming one’s home and property into a very peaceful, pleasant, holy, and precious Potala pure land or “high heavenly realm.”
  • Saving all the beings in the area around prayer wheels from rebirth in the lower realms (e.g., animal incarnation).
  • Purifying our body, speech and mind.
  • Accumulating extensive merit for oneself and all beings in the area.
  • Preventing harm from spirits and negative beings.
  • Healing sicknesses and protecting from contagious diseases and epidemics.” [1]

 

Shea Witsett (left) Tibet at Yachen Gar, a nunnery that then housed over 10,000 Buddhist nuns. Two nuns admire a prayer wheel Shea brought along. Many of these nuns were later evicted in a controversial reclamation by the Chinese government.

 

How Can a Spinning Wheel Accomplish So Much?

But how can a simple spinning wheel accomplish so much? We set out to find out, not only from teachers, but from people who make these wonderful prayer wheels. Classically, the prayer wheel practice is considered powerful because it so easily engages meditation involving all three of Body, Speech and Mind:

  • Body: physical action of the hand is required to spin the wheel
  • Speech: the millions of mantras contained in the spinning
  • Mind: engaging the mind with visualizations.

 

H.E. Garchen Rinpoche visits Galgamani Art Project in Israel (made by Shea Witsett of The Prayer Wheel Shop>>). The wheel is custom made of walnut burl with gold lettering.

 

We also interviewed two crafters of Holy Prayer Wheels: Shea Witsett, Buddhist Artist at The Prayer Wheel Shop in Oregon , and Micha Strauss of the Galgamani Art Project in Israel.

Some of their insights and their beautiful art is quoted in this feature; their full interviews can be found in two Buddha Weekly Interviews:

Prayer Wheel Benefits:

 

 

The Goals of Prayer Wheel Practice

H.H. Sakya Trizin offers a Kata to H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya (who has since, sadly, passed away.)

“The primary goal of traditional Tibetan prayer wheel practice is to relieve the miseries of all beings.” — H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya.

The most Venerable Lama Zopa, in a teaching June 1994 at Land of Medicine Buddha, went on to explain the benefits of Prayer Wheel Practice. “Because prayer wheels are so powerful in purifying negative karmas, I think it is a very good idea to use them.”

Prayer wheel meditation is a unique meditation practice that involves Mind, Body and Speech simultaneously:

  • Mind: Mindfulness of action meditation: Unlike mindfulness of breath, the practitioner remains mindful of the action of the prayer wheel, or mindfully visualizes millions of mantras radiating out from the prayer wheel in all directions, benefiting beings. This can be especially beneficial for meditators with “monkey minds” who have trouble settling the mind on observation of breath. Mantra literally means “protection of the mind.”
  • Speech: Prayer wheel practice engages the Speech with repetition of sacred Mantra — which in itself has benefits (see this BW feature on Mantras>>) http://buddhaweekly.com/science-mantras-mantras-work-without-faith-research-supports-effectiveness-sanskrit-mantra-healing-even-environmental-transformation/
  • Body: Meditation involving the body — the spinning involving the wheel (action karma.)
  • Magnification: the texts teach that if we remain mindful of the prayer wheel, we receive the benefit of our mantras multiplied by the number of mantras printed in the wheel — which can be millions.
  • Numerous other benefits, some seemingly miraculous (although tempered by our own karmic limitations — see below) and some simply helpful.

 

Shea Witsett of The Prayer Wheel Shop poses by a water-powered prayer wheel in Kham.

 

One of the author’s custom made prayer wheels, this one with Vajrayogini mantras, created by Shea Witsett at The Prayer Wheel Shop.

In other words, Prayers Wheels are popular for good reason. “Some very diligent people have been able to recite 100 million Om Mani Padme Hum’s in one lifetime,” explained H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya. “Benefiting from that merit they demonstrate achievement and calmness, gain the power to heal and help others, and have no concern about death… In Tibetan Buddhism reciting mantras is one of the most effective ways in which a person can actively create a peaceful, relaxed, and happy state of mind.” And, according to teachings, prayer wheels combined with recitation magnifies the effect millions of times — especially enhanced today with the development of microfilm prayer wheels.

Modern Enhancements on Traditional Prayer Wheels

Prayer Wheels are symbolic of the “Wheel of Dharma” — they contain Dharma text which is spun clockwise in a wheel motion. Today, prayer wheels are growing in popularity due to recommendations from notable teachers such as  H.H. the Dalai Lama, H.H. Jogdal Dagchen Sakyathere and H.E. Garchen Rinpoche. They are no longer just Mani Wheels — Prayer Wheels with thousands of Om Mani Padme Hums.

 

Meditating with prayer wheel in Kewzing Monastery, Sikkim:

Micha Strauss of the Galgamani Art Project explains: “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.” [Cited from the full interview with Micha Strauss of Galgamani Project on crafting prayer wheels found here on BW>>]

Many of the teachers — including the Dalai Lama — advocate microfilm over paper, simply because a hand prayer wheel can have millions, rather than thousands of mantras. Lama Zopa Rinpoche is enthusiastic when describing the prayer wheel at Land of Medicine Buddha filled with microfilm mantras: it “contains 11.8 billion mantras, so turning it one time is the same as having recited that many mantras.”

Micha Strauss of Galgamani Art Project demonstrates a table top prayer wheel:

 

 

Just Touching a Prayer Wheel Brings Merit

“Just touching and turning a prayer wheel brings incredible purification and accumulates unbelievable merit… The prayer wheel here at Land of Medicine Buddha contains 11.8 billion mantras, so turning one time is the same as having recited that many mantras. Turning the prayer wheel once is the same as having done many years of retreat.” — Lama Zopa Rinpoche

It’s a bold claim, and supported in the lineage teachings. This gives some hope to lay practitioners, those, unable to give up time and commitments to become a monk or nun (who can dedicate time to practice.) As Lama Zopa pointed out, you see many householders carrying around hand prayer wheels as they go about their lives in Tibet, Nepal and India, spinning constantly. H.E. Garchen Rinpoche is nearly always seen at teachings with a hand prayer wheel.

 

Spinning a traditional prayer wheel. These are typically much heavier and are filled with scrolled paper mantras.

 

Prayer Wheels to help with AIDS, Cancer and other Illnesses

Lama Zopa also recommended prayer wheel use for healing: “Anyone with a disease such as AIDS or cancer, whether or not they have any understanding of Dharma, can use the prayer wheel for meditation and healing. For example, sick people could come here to Land of Medicine Buddha for several hours every day to turn the prayer wheel and do the visualizations.

“There are two visualizations. With the first, you visualize light beams coming from the mantras in the prayer wheel, illuminating you and purifying you of all your disease and the causes of disease, your negative thoughts and the imprints of these left on your mental continuum. You then visualize the light illuminating all sentient beings and purifying all their sufferings, as well as their negative karmas and obscurations.

“With the second visualization, beams are emitted from the mantras and, like a vacuum sucking up dust, they hook all the disease and spirit harms and, most importantly, the cause of disease, the negative karmas and obscurations. All these are absorbed or sucked into the prayer wheel…

“If someone with AIDS, cancer or some other disease meditated like this and every day, for as many hours as possible, there would definitely be some effect. I know quite a few people who have completely recovered from terminal cancer through meditation. Even though the person might not know about Dharma, about reincarnation or karma; because they want to have peace of mind now and a peaceful death; because they care about having a healthy body and a healthy mind, they should use this extremely powerful and meaningful method of healing.”

 

Traditional meditation at a nunnery with traditional wheels.

 

Stabilizing Faith: the Lineage of Prayer Wheels: From Nagarjuna to Padmasambhava

Lama Zopa Rinpoche, an enthusiastic teacher of prayer wheel benefits explained the lineage of the practice teachings on Mani Wheels: “Nagarjuna gave the practice to Lion-face Dakini, who gave it to Padmasambhava, who then brought it to Tibet.” It was after learning this that the Venerable Lama developed faith in the practice.

Often the first things built at a new temple are the prayer wheels. They aren’t just there for decoration. Lama Zopa Rinpoche gave one example, during teachings at Land of Medicine Buddha:

“In 1987, when I was at Chenrezig Institute in Australia, I noticed that the place had become incredibly peaceful. It felt so serene that you wanted to be there, to live there. Chenrezig Institute had not been like that before, and I wondered why it had changed… one day near the end of my stay there, the thought came into my mind, “Oh, the change might be due to the prayer wheel—it wasn’t there before.” The prayer wheel is much smaller than the one here at Land of Medicine Buddha, but it also contains many mantras on microfilm and is very nicely made. Some time later, when I was in Brazil at the invitation of a meditation center there, a student gave me a book written by one of Tarthang Tulku’s senior disciples about his experiences when he was in charge of building stupas and prayer wheels in Tarthang Tulku’s centers. In one section he mentioned that after a prayer wheel was built, the area was completely transformed, becoming so peaceful, pleasant, and conducive to the mind.

This confirmed my belief, based on my own reasoning, that Chenrezig Institute had become so peaceful because of its new prayer wheel. Somebody else experiencing a similar effect from building the prayer wheel helped to stabilize my faith.”

 

H.E. Garchen Rinpoche with Micha Strauss during a visit to the Galgamani Art Project in Israel.

 

What is a Prayer Wheel?

Phackchock Rinpoche using a prayer whel from Galgami at a teaching.

The Tibetan Prayer Wheel could almost be thought of as iconic of Tibetan Buddhism. Although the Prayer Wheel is ubiquitous in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and India — and somewhat iconic of Tibetan Buddhism — it deserves a basic description. A lot of people don’t understand that it’s considered a “practice” complete with lineage, practice texts, teachings and lineage teachers.

The prayer wheel can also be thought of as an all-encompassing symbol: incorporating Body, Speech and Mind of the Buddha. When a Buddhist sets up an altar, they usually include a representation of the Body, Speech and Mind of Buddha. Normally this would include a Buddha Statue (Body), a Dharma Book (Speech) and a Stupa (for Mind). Interestingly, the Dharma Book is to be placed higher on the altar than the statue of the Buddha, to emphasize that the Buddha’s Words (Dharma) are the most important. From this point of view, a simple altar could consist of a single table-top prayer wheel, or a hand prayer wheel on a stand. The cavity of the prayer wheel, containing the dharma text, can be thought of as Stupa (symbolic of Mind); the mantras or sutras contained in the cavity are the Dharma text (symbolic of Speech); the actual prayer wheel, a Holy Object, together with the action used to spin the wheel represent Body.

In describing how they are made, custom Prayer Wheel artist Micha Strauss of the Galgamani Art Project explains: ” 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.”

H.E. Garchen Rinpoche: Never Seen Without The Prayer Wheel Spinning

H.E. Garchen Rinpoche examines a hand-made prayer wheel at Galgamani.

H.E. Garchen Rinpoche “is a serious prayer wheel practitioner and advocate who is almost never seen without his prayer wheel spinning,” explained Shea Whitsett, of The Prayer Wheel Shop. Lama Zopa Rinpoche is likewise a strong advocate of prayer wheel practice, as are many other teachers. Buddhists who go on pilgrimages to Holy Sites are often seen constantly spinning hand prayer wheels. More iconic than the hand prayer wheel are the giant temple wheels, which can contain billions of mantras on microfilm (or millions of mantras on paper).

What is it? At its most basic it is a spinning wheel containing millions of mantras, originally on parchment or paper rolls, but increasingly today, on microfilm. The large rows of prayer wheels at temples are almost always spinning, either via people power (people spin clockwise as they enter), or even by wind, water or fire power. There are many types of prayer wheels, today: hand prayer wheels, table-top prayer wheels, mounted prayer wheels at temples, wind-powered prayer wheels, water-powered prayer wheels, fire-powered prayer wheels, solar-powered prayer wheels. Keeping it spinning as long as possible, in a clockwise direction, sends out the benefits of the mantra to all sentient beings in all directions.

Do the Teachers Use Microfilm Prayer Wheels?

H.E. Garchen Rinpoche is rarely seen in public without his microfilm prayer wheel. Shea Whitsett, artist at the Prayer Wheel shop, has made custom prayer wheels for many notable teachers, including H.E. Garchen Rinpoche: “I’ve made prayer wheels for many well-known Buddhist teachers.”

H.E. Garchen Rinpoche with Micha Strauss.

Micha Strauss has made custom prayer wheels with microfilm mantras for some of the great Tibetan Teachers:

  • H. the Dalai Lama
  • Phakchok Rinpoche
  • Sogyal Rinpoche
  • Khenpo Kalsang Nyima Rinpoche
  • Tsoknyi Rinpoche
  • Choky Nyima Rinpoche
  • E. Garchen Rinpoche
  • Konchok Norbu Rinpoche
  • Lama Tsering Rinpoche
  • Tanpai Rinpoche
  • Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche
  • Chime Dorje Rinpoche

It would be fair to say that the custom prayer wheel, now capable of containing millions of mantras, are recommended by many notable teachers.

Hand Prayer Wheels: Take the Blessings Wherever You Go

Hand Prayer Wheels are increasing in popularity in the West as people come to understand their vast benefits. They are convenient. You can spin a handwheel while walking, talking, watching TV (although that does reduce the mindfulness aspect), sunbathing, and — of course — in formal practice. Classically, they were made with light metals and embossed with the Tibetan letters Om Mani Padme Hum. Today, in the West, they are more typically made of wood, with painted mantras — elegant, and beautiful— with ball-bearings or other mechanisms to make spinning silent and effortless. They are typically lighter and easier to spin than traditionally fabricated metal prayer wheels, allowing a retreatant or practitioner to spin for hours without fatigue.

Temple Prayer Wheel:

 

How to Practice?

One reason for the growing popularity of prayer wheels is its simplicity. Simply spin the wheel. Of course, real practice is meditation, and that requires a little more effort than a “spin.” We engage an active meditation involving all three of Mind, Body, and Speech. Practice can be seated or walking — but above all it should be mindful.

H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya recommends visualization to engage the mind:

“Spinning a prayer wheel is not a mindless exercise. Spinning the prayer wheel should be done with the proper intentions. The prayer wheel practice should be visualized as a manifestation of the Body, Speech and Mind of the Buddha. With our hands (Body) we spin and move the prayer wheel. With our speech, we recite one of the mantras in the prayer wheel (e.g. Om Mani Padme Hum). And with our mind, we engage in visualizations or recitations, using our motivation and intention to bless all beings and bring peace to our surroundings and the entire world.”

 

A Tibetan spinning a hefty traditional prayer wheel. Typically, a session would be for tens of thousands of recited mantras.

 

Another of the author’s prayer wheels, this one custom crafted by Micha Strauss and beautifully painted by Ayelet Strauss of Galgamani Art Project.

He goes on to recommend various applications and visualizations, from general “loving kindness” projection to specific focus on a problem such as war or tragedy:

  • Reciting Om Mani Padme Hum while spinning the prayer wheel. This strengthens our mind and brings the optimal intention to the spiritual practice and increases the benefits to all sentient beings.
  • Focusing your thoughts on loving-kindness, equanimity, and the benefit of others, not oneself.
  • Visualizing beams of light, bright like the sun, radiating out from the prayer wheel in all directions. The light beams destroy the negative karma and sufferings of not just humans, but all beings, including animals, hungry ghosts, hell beings, demigods and gods. All the negativity is absorbed into the prayer wheel and destroyed.
  • Focusing on a problem, like a war or tragedy, and spinning the prayer wheel to try and relieve the suffering of the people being harmed and hurt.
  • Dedicating the merit of one’s prayer wheel practice to purify the underlying cause of someone’s illness in order to promote healing.

He emphasized that when finished a practice, it is vital to dedicate the merit. This is traditional in any Buddhist practice: “The Buddha once said that undedicated merit is like a drop of water on a stone; it soon evaporates and disappears. Dedicated merit is like adding a drop of water to the ocean; it will persist for as long as the ocean exists. After turning the prayer wheel, it is beneficial to dedicate the merit of this spiritual practice for the liberation of sentient beings, the arousal of Bodhicitta (love and compassion for all beings), and the long lives and works of one’s teachers (Lamas).”

Sidebars: Making the Wheel Go Round

See our Sidebar Interviews with two exceptional crafters of customized prayer wheels:

 

A lovely painted hand made wheel from Galgamani.

 

NOTES

[1] Source: “The Power of Modern Prayer Wheels”, by His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya

[2] Source: Lamayeshe.com

 

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