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Prayer Wheels of Tibet

Spinning each prayer wheel as she passes

Prayer wheels spinning... small ones that look like hand bells,

long staffs topped by beautifully embossed metal cylinders, large drums spun by devotees as they walked the path alongside these beautiful wheels. I was so unfamiliar with all of this, anxious to understand, and hoped to gain wisdom of the peace that appeared to be created.

Walking the streets of Lhasa, Tibet was a feast for the senses as I witnessed the colorful prayer flags, the traditional dress, the market stalls stacked with yak butter, and people filling the streets.

As I observed the large numbers of Tibetans spinning some type of wheel on a stick and others quietly shifting the beads on what appeared to be a type of rosary as they walked, I began to learn about the spirituality of the Tibetan Buddhists.

As more time was spent journeying alongside them on the paths around the Potala Palace and the Jokhang Temple where they walked clockwise, spinning wheels, shifting beads, and some prostrating themselves periodically I could see their intensity and focus.

Prostrating himself on the ground about every 20 feet all the way around the Potala Palace

The Buddhist prayer wheel, a common site throughout Tibet, is a cylindrical drum on some type of spindle.

The locals and the pilgrims walk around the sacred sites completing a “kora” or clockwise walk around these sites, each step a part of their journey to enlightenment.

Many spin a prayer wheel as they continue clockwise along the path. A scroll with a mantra written hundreds or sometimes thousands of times is carefully wound inside of each prayer wheel. As the wheel rotates clockwise, it counts as if the individual has recited the mantra with each revolution. The beads were used to count each time they recited the mantra.

The most common mantra used in Tibet is Om Mani Padme Hum. We purchased a small prayer wheel from a vendor in the market area alongside Jokhang Temple. In my simple tourist fashion, I wanted a simple meaning of the phrase, and learned that was not to be had. I tried to ask the gentleman what it meant and his look at me was kind, but clearly spoke something like “poor naive tourist”.

Our prayer wheel we purchased outside of Jokhang Temple

I realized that it was not so much a language barrier that prevented him from giving me a meaning, as it was that I might as well have asked him to give me a quick recipe for world peace in a sentence or two. Despite (or perhaps because of) its omnipresence and religious significance to the Buddhists, there is not a translation that easily conveys the meaning and depth of this mantra. The simplest translation is something like jewel of the lotus, but its true meaning and purpose resonates far deeper.

Repetition of any mantra is a tool to focus the mind away from disturbing thoughts and emotions; to empty and open the mind to greater purpose. The Om Mani Padme Hum, with its six syllables relates to the six realms or perfections - Generosity, Ethical Self-Discipline, Patience, Diligence, Renunciation, and Wisdom. Each of these moves the person away from negative disturbances such as pride, envy, greed, and hostility and toward a compassionate state of being. My apologies to true students and scholars of Buddhism for my efforts to distill a vast history of meaning and practice that is far, far beyond my untrained understanding, into a couple of paragraphs.


All I know is that the world today could use more prayer wheels and I have some clockwise spinning to do.


Lotus Blossoms

Large prayer wheels at Sera Monastery

Potala Palace home of the Dalai Lama before exile

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World needs more prayer wheels!

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