Introduction to Prayer Wheels

Yungdrung Bön prayers wheels in Mustang. Photo credit: Unknown

Prayer wheels are prevalent in both the Yungdrung Bön and Buddhist religious traditions. In general, they consist of prayers and mantra rolled around a central pillar that is enabled to rotate freely in order to activate the prayers and mantra. Among his prolific writings, the modern-day scholar and saint, Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen Rinpoche, provides us with a general description of prayer wheels and their benefits. He begins by establishing that there are five kinds of wheels with prayer wheels falling into the category of wheels that are turned.

“In general there are five kinds of wheels: (1) the wheel of cyclic existence, (2) the wheel of a buddha’s words [commonly called the wheel of dharma], (3) the wheel of meditation, (4) the wheel of protection that is fastened (a.k.a. a sung khor or protection amulet that contains a deity mandala which is folded, attached to a string, and worn around the neck), (5) and wheels that are turned.”

– Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen Rinpoche

And,

“There are five kinds of wheels that are turned: (1) wheels turned by fire, (2) wheels turned by water, (3) wheels turned by air, (4) wheels turned by the earth, and (5) wheels turned with the hand.”

Prayer wheels that are turned by fire are quite common. Rolls of prayers and mantra are properly prepared and placed inside a cylinder that is positioned above a butter lamp or candle. The rising heat from the flame provides the energy needed to turn the cylinder. By necessity, these prayer wheels are often small and light. In modern times, small prayer wheels have been created that are turned by energy generated from a solar panel. Prayer wheels that are turned by water are also common. They are placed above rivers and streams with the central pillar extending below the roll of prayers and into the moving water. Attached to the bottom of the central pillar are rotating blades or wheels of various designs that turn with the force of the water. Depending upon the strength of the water, these type of prayer wheels can be quite large. They are always placed within a so-called “prayer wheel house” that provides protection for the printed prayers and mantra from the natural elements. Wheels that are turned by the air are another common type of prayer wheel. Families will often place many of these types of prayer wheels around the home for blessing and protection. These wheels are relatively small, and lightweight blades are placed at the top or bottom of the prayer wheel in order to catch the wind and cause the prayer wheel to rotate. Although Shardza Rinpoche mentions prayer wheels that are turned by the earth in his essay, I have been unable to find an example of this, and the Tibetans that I spoke with had never seen or heard of them.

Left: A prayer wheel turned by water. Right: a prayer wheel turned by fire.

Prayer wheels that are turned with the hand are generally of three types: (1) those that are carried in the hand and turned, (2) those that are fixed in placed, often in a row of multiple prayer wheels on a circumambulation circuit, which are turned by small handles at the bottom of the wheel, and (3) single prayer wheels that are fixed in place that are quite large and heavy which are turned by ropes or large handles attached at the bottom. Prayer wheels are never turned by touching the actual cylinder or cloth containing the prayers and mantra as this would be improper. Therefore, all prayer wheels have a means of rotating the cylinder that avoids the necessity of having to touch the roll of sacred text.

Nuns at the large prayer wheel at Triten Norbutse Monastery. Photo credit: Raven Cypress Wood

Important Points When Creating a Prayer Wheel

Shardza Rinpoche mentions a few important points when creating prayer wheels of any kind. In general, the size and type of prayer wheel determines the size and amount of paper needed for writing the prayers and mantra. Once that is determined, the prayers and mantra are written according to the wish of the sponsor such as prayers of longevity and auspiciousness, prayers in praise of enlightened beings such as Sherab Jamma or Tönpa Shenrap, and/or mantra such as the three essence mantra, and so on. Shardza Rinpoche advises writing these prayers and mantra with ink made from the red-colored mineral tsal. However, they can also be written with regular red, blue, or black ink. In modern times, these prayers and mantra are often typed into a computer and printed onto paper. Regardless of the ink used, every prayer and mantra must be complete with nothing omitted or added. They are written as many times as possible within the given space of the paper. However, everything is written in its proper order such as beginning with preliminary prayers, then the main prayers, and concluding with prayers of auspiciousness and dedication of the generated merit. Mantra are written without the tseg, or dot, between the syllables as this is believed to make the written form more powerful as well as providing space to increase the total number written. Mantra is also written or printed onto the outer mantric cloth that will cover the paper. Everything is wrapped around a sok shing [Tibetan: srog shing]. This is like the central channel of the prayer wheel and it is empowered with the mantric syllables of enlightened body, speech, mind, quality, and action. In that way, it becomes a proper vessel for enlightened energy and blessings.

The mantric cloth is laid out. Because a Yungdrung Bön prayer wheel is rotated counter-clockwise, all of the prayers and mantra face inward towards the sok shing and rolling begins from the end and moves toward the beginning of the mantric cloth. Buddhists prayer wheels are rotated clockwise and so the prayers and mantra face outward. Therefore, the sok shing is placed at the end of the cloth and/or roll of paper and mendrup is added. Shardza Rinpoche also suggests adding the powder of precious jewels. While being sure to keep track of the top of the prayers, the rolling begins. Everything is rolled tightly so that it is very secure. Once the rolling is complete, it is tied or taped in place. Shardza Rinpoche advises writing a head letter with the syllable OM on the outside of the mantric cloth in order to know the correct orientation of the roll. Then, according to Shardza Rinpoche,

“Then, it wears a dress of brocade. After that, perform the consecration and blessings of outer, inner, and secret praise and make the aspiration,  ‘Having turned this wheel for the benefit of all sentient beings, may I obtain perfect Buddhahood within a single body of a single lifetime!’  Turn the wheel with the determination of considering the welfare of all sentient beings.”

Once the prayer wheel is dressed with brocade or cloth of the five elements, it is ready to be installed according to its particular type. If they are installed in the environment, they should be protected. If they are used as a handwheel, the handle is generally held with the right hand because the tengwa, or prayer mala, has to be held with the left hand. (For more information about using a tengwa, see previous post: https://ravencypresswood.com/2021/07/24/tengwa-meaning-origin-and-proper-use-of-the-prayer-beads-of-the-yungdrung-bon/) In this way, a practitioner can turn the prayer wheel and recite mantra simultaneously. A handheld prayer wheel should always be kept clean, not placed directly on the ground, or put onto shelves or tables along with other ordinary objects. In the words of Shardza Rinpoche:

“Don’t put it on a table with other implements or ruin it with incense smoke. In the evening at bedtime, having put it in an elevated place, perform prostrations. Again in the the morning, prostrate, go for refuge, and grasp the handle like it is a precious wish-fulfilling jewel.”

Yangtön Lama Tashi turning a handheld prayer wheel. Photo credit: Unknown

Benefits of Turning a Prayer Wheel

Turn a prayer wheel with faith and trust in the objects of refuge, generate the mind of enlightenment and a pure view, make aspiration prayers for oneself and other sentient beings, and dedicate the merit of the virtuous activity. In this way, turning a prayer wheel even a single time has great benefit. According to the scriptures, if a prayer wheel is turned with pure intentions, it is like reading the entire Kangyur simultaneously. Again, from the words of Shardza Rinpoche:

“As it is said in the chapter on benefits, by generating the mind (of enlightenment) and having the pure view and intention of benefiting others while turning a prayer wheel, there is no way to measure that merit, just like there is no way to count the grains of soil in a field.”

If a prayer wheel is turned from the state of compassion, all defilements from the five heinous acts that have immediate result ,* etc. will be purified and the degeneration of commitments regarding secret mantra vows, and vows of individual liberation will be purified. According to the sacred texts, if a prayer wheel is turned 108 times daily without decreasing, it will purify all defilements and negativities from the body in a single day. Similarly, if it is turned 1,008 times, it will purify the defilements and negativities of both body and speech. If it is turned 10,000 times, all the defilements and negativities of body, speech, and mind will be purified. If it is turned continually, Buddhahood will be attained within a single lifetime, and in the future the individual will turn the wheel of the enlightened ones’ teachings.

Turning a prayer wheel delights the buddhas and their spiritual heirs, the bodhisattvas, and it inspires the virtuous gods to act as advocates. When any kind of spirits that tend toward negativity are encountered, the spirits are powerless to cause harm. And when seen by others, having produced virtuous aspirations, the one who practices turning a prayer wheel will complete the accumulation of merit even in the mindstream of others. In the future, they will hold the teachings of the enlightened ones. If a someone regularly turns a prayer wheel, they will reach the ultimate years of their lifespan. In this way, the virtue and benefits of creating and turning prayers wheels is immeasurable.

*The five heinous acts that have an immediate result (1) killing one’s mother, (2) killing one’s father, (3) killing a saint, (4) purposefully damaging an image of an enlightened being, and (5) causing division within the spiritual community. The ten non-virtuous activities are: (1) killing,(2) taking what is not given,(3) impure and/or harmful sexual behavior, (4) lying, (5) slander, (6) harsh words, (7) idle, meaningless talk, (8) envy, (9) malicious thoughts, and (10) wrong views.

Tibetan translation by Raven Cypress Wood

Raven Cypress Wood ©All Rights Reserved. No content, in part or in whole, is allowed to be used without direct permission from the author.

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Posted on October 16, 2021, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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