by Linda Heaphy

prayer wheels at swayambunath
Large prayer wheels at Swayambunath, Nepal.
Photo credit: Markus Koljonen (Dilaudid)

A prayer wheel is a Buddhist device consisting of a cylindrical wheel on a spindle, in which a scroll is placed with a mantra (prayer) written hundreds or sometimes thousands of times.  The wheel is spun in a clockwise direction (based on the movement of the sun across the sky), allowing with each revolution the accumulation of as much merit as if each of the mantra inscriptions were read aloud separately. The more prayers a wheel holds, the more powerful it is considered to be. Turning the prayer wheels also assists to dissipate negative energy, or bad karma.

Traditionally, Tibetans and Nepalis use prayer wheels to accumulate merit and good karma for themselves, however any excess merit that an individual may gather during a session of use is freely given to all other sentient beings. 

prayer wheel in use in nepal
A prayer wheel in use by a Tibetan lady in the temple at Bodanath, Nepal.
Photo credit: Kashgar

A prayer wheel should be held almost upright and spun smoothly and slowly; greater benefit is achieved if its mantra is recited simultaneously as the wheel is turned. While concentrating on the mantra being recited while turning the prayer wheel has greater benefit and helps to focus the mind in a meditative state, it is believed by Buddhists that even an insect will gain merit for its next life by flying in the shadow of a prayer wheel, and simply touching a prayer wheel will assist to purify a negative karma.

The historical use of prayer wheels is poorly known. Wikipedia states that prayer wheels were first mentioned in written records around 400 C.E. by Chinese pilgrims inLadakh. A prayer wheel is the physical manifestation of the phrase "turning the wheel ofDharma," which describes the way in which theBuddha taught.

Different mantras to different buddhas, bodhisattvas and gods may be written upon prayer wheels. A very common mantra today is Om Mani Padme Hum, meaning Hail, Jewel in the Lotus. This is the mantra of the compassionate Buddha, Avalokitsvara, of whom the Dali Lama is an incarnation. 

A standing prayer wheel. Photo credit: Kashgar

References and Further Reading 1998 "All about the ... Prayer Wheel". Accessed 4 May 2017

Wikipedia. Prayer Wheel. Accessed 4 May 2017

A small hand held prayer wheel for personal use. Photo credit: Kashgar


Linda Heaphy
Linda Heaphy

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