Tibetan prayer wheels combine devotion and technological inventiveness to release into the world the beneficial intentions of the thousands of mantras contained within. According to one story of their origin, the philosopher Nagarjuna obtained the prayer wheel from the king of the serpentine beings known as Nagas, who in turn received them from the Buddha Dipamkara. The Naga king described the prayer wheel as the “profound Dharma wheel that can liberate sentient beings from all the suffering of the 3 lower realms by merely seeing, hearing, remembering, or touching.” One historical precursor of prayer wheels is Tibetan ritual texts (sadhanas) that instruct practitioners to visualize wheels or rotating strings of mantras. Ideally, someone spinning a prayer wheel should have pure intentions of body, speech, and mind and perform appropriate visualizations. The benefits range from stopping disease and hailstorms, to accomplishing liberation for all sentient beings.
Prayer wheels are some of the most ingenious Tibetan technological inventions. Within the wheel are rolls of papers inscribed with mantras and prayers, which encapsulate the essence of the teaching and are repeated thousands of times. These are essential parts of the prayer wheel, enabling one to release the prayers by turning the prayer wheel. The prayer wheel is rotated clockwise, so the writing on the inside, which begins at the center, is released in the proper order of its reading. Most prayer wheels in Tibet are turned by hand, but some harness the power of the elements. Innovation continues to the present day in solar-powered prayer wheels, electronic prayer wheels hosted on hard drives, websites, and even smartphone apps.
This prayer wheel is unusual because it harnesses the power of wind to spread the mantras contained inside. It was mounted on the top of a prince’s house in Batang, in the Kham region of eastern Tibet. Connected to the cylinder containing mantras, 4 scoops are mounted on an axle to catch the wind, reminiscent of Western weather vanes. The wheel can spin without direct human intervention, which raises the question whether it is accompanied by the same intentionality as a handheld prayer wheel. The original intentions of the creator, as well those of the buddhas and bodhisattvas believed to have originally transmitted the mantras, are still considered essential to the benefits the wheel brings about.
See this Art of the Week in the exhibition The Power of Intention: Reinventing the (Prayer) Wheel!