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What Is the Prayer Wheel and What Does It Symbolize?

As you walk through the rugged natural landscapes of Nepal or Tibet, you’ll notice the cylinders, some large and painted in many colors, others small and shiny bronze, that locals and tourists alike carefully spin in a clockwise direction. You can even get small souvenir prayer wheels and spin them at any time.

These are the prayer wheels, said to bring good luck to those who spin them the right way. You shouldn’t walk past without spinning one if you see it, as that would be bad luck. But where did this practice originate? And what does it symbolize?

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What Is a Prayer Wheel?

Tibetan Buddhism 8 Auspicious Sign Om Mantra Craved Wooden Copper Hanging Prayer Wheel Nepal
Large prayer wheel for homes or businesses. See this here.

Prayer wheels come from Buddhism and are a common sight in Tibet and northern Nepal. These are cylindrical in shape, and are often made of metal, wood, or leather. Attached on the exterior of the prayer wheel are sacred symbols and mantras, a string of words believed to have spiritual or religious significance.  By spinning the wheel, the power of the mantra is activated.

For Tibetan Buddhists, the mantra often used for prayer wheels is the mantra of Avalokiteshvara Om mani padme hum, which translates in English to Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus. Lotus, in this context refers to Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion.

Prayers wheels come in different sizes – some are so small they can fit in your hand hand, while others are quite large and are hung in temples or along roads for travelers to spin. Some wheels are so large they’re tied to a building or a temple and are turned by people holding on the wheel as they walk around clockwise.  In some cases, the energy of wind, fire, or water are harnessed and used to spin the prayer wheel.

Meaning And Symbolism of The Prayer Wheel

Tibetan Hand Held Buddhist Spinning Prayer Wheel
Small portable prayer wheel. See this here.

Though also practiced in other Buddhist countries like Nepal and Mongolia, the use of prayer wheels is more deeply embedded in Tibetan culture. Tibetans believe that the wheels, also called “Mani” wheels, are multipliers of blessings and represents the Wheel of the Dharma, or the cosmic law. It is the rule set by the Buddha, and thus is a representation of spiritual practices. The wheel symbolizes the following aspects:

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  • Purification – It is said that turning a wheel that contains one thousand mantras is equivalent to gaining the blessings of chanting a thousand mantras, but at a much shorter time.  Thus, it aids in the cleansing of negative karma, and helps to push people forward in the path of enlightenment.
  • Sign of Rank – While prayer wheels are commonly used by Tibetans regardless of their financial capability, the size of the wheel can be used to indicate their social status as it is usually only the upper-class families or those belonging to a monastery who are able to use larger prayer wheels.
  • Symbol of Faith – Prayer wheels are to Tibetan Buddhist what rosaries are to Christian communities. Devotees spin the wheel with deep faith, with the idea that it assists in sending out prayers through the repeated use of mantras.  
  • To Give Relief – It is believed that the purpose of the prayer wheel is to heal people of their spiritual illnesses. As the wheel turns, the prayers and blessings enclosed in the mantra attached to it is sent out and shared with the world. The more turns one makes, the more blessings are released and spread out.
  • Healing Through Visualization – While not backed by science, the power of faith can sometimes be more effective, especially where medicine and technology have failed. Many Buddhists believe that prayer wheels can heal the body through visualization and self-actualization.
  • Power In Numbers – As it is believed to multiply the effect of prayers through the numbers attached to it, the prayer wheel has also come to represent the power of intention, particularly when done by groups of people together. As people turn the wheel and are bound towards a shared desire of spiritual cleansing and enlightenment, they become empowered by their common goal.

How It Aligns with the Four Elements

Prayer wheel in hand

The Buddhist belief in the four elements of nature – earth, fire, wind, and water, is also related to the prayer wheel.  Depending on how it is used, the prayer wheel works with a specific element to spread the benefit of cleansing and healing to the rest of the world.

For example, if you hang the prayer wheel, it aligns with the element of wind. Anyone who comes across the air touched by the prayer wheel is immediately blessed and all the punishment for their misdeeds will blow away. Or if the prayer wheel is placed together with fire, anyone who looks at the flames or inhales the smoke will also be blessed. In this way, the benefits of the prayer wheel can be spread easily.

Proper Use of The Prayer Wheel

The prayer wheel can be used together with daily mantra recitations, turning it clockwise during the spiritual practices such as Chenrezi or the Heart Sutra. 

While the actual turning of the prayer wheel does not require much strength, it is important to note that it must be done with the proper mindset and meditation. 

It is believed that every turn of the prayer wheel is equivalent to receiving divine assistance from the Meditational Deities, Dakinis, and Dharma Protectors. Devotees do not turn the wheel anytime the Lama is speaking or teaching.

Benefits of Using the Prayer Wheel

benefits of prayer wheels

Those who use the prayer wheel claim that it gives them many benefits. Some of these include:

  • The opportunity to give and receive blessings
  • To have your wishes granted
  • To have your spiritual prayers answered
  • To help you atone for your sins and avoiding karmic retribution
  • Protect you from evil spirits
  • Turning the wheel is also believed to help with enlightenment and will lead you to a better life after reincarnation. The more turns of the wheel is equivalent to more blessings from the Buddha.

It’s thought that the power of faith can also heal diseases not only of the spirit, but also of the body.  As you turn the prayer wheel, picture in your mind the image of light beams emanating from the prayer wheel, particularly from the mantras attached to it. 

Then imagine the light beams going through your body and cleansing it of all impurities before moving outwards to cleans the rest of the world.

Benefits of prayer wheels

FAQs About the Prayer Wheel

1. What is the prayer wheel used for?

Prayer wheels are used in meditation practices, often mainly to collect good karma.

2. Which type of Buddhism uses prayer wheels?

This object is typically used by Tibetan Buddhists.

3. What are prayer wheels made of?

Prayer wheels can be made of a variety of materials, including metal, stone, leather, wood, or even cotton.

4. What is depicted on the prayer wheel?

Apart from the mantra, sometimes other Buddhist symbols can be found on prayer wheels. This includes symbols of the Ashtamangala.

5. What do you do with prayer wheels?

Devotees spin the wheel, activating the power of the mantra in the process.

6. How many times do you spin the prayer wheel?

Worshippers sometimes spin the wheel for hours as the engage in their meditation practices.

7. What’s inside a prayer wheel?

Prayer wheels typically have tightly rolled mantras printed on sheets of paper. These are typically wrapped around the central axis. Large prayer wheels often house thousands of printed mantras.

8. How do you turn a prayer wheel?

Always turn a prayer wheel clockwise with great concentration and attention.

9. Is a prayer wheel hard to spin?

No, these objects are easy to spin and can be done by anyone.

10. Why spin a prayer wheel?

Spinning a prayer wheel is considered to be the equivalent of reciting prayers orally. It’s simply faster and more convenient, while gathering the same amount of merit or good karma.

Wrapping Up

Regardless of your religious upbringing or your choice of worship, it cannot be denied that the power of faith transcends the boundaries set by language, country, and race. 

As a Buddhist practice, the prayer wheel not just represents the teachings of the Buddha, but also represents the human capacity to repent and atone for sins, as well as the desire of wanting to be blessed and to be a blessing to others.

Affiliate Disclosures
Dani Rhys
Dani Rhys

Dani Rhys has worked as a writer and editor for over 15 years. She holds a Masters degree in Linguistics and Education, and has also studied Political Science, Ancient History and Literature. She has a wide range of interests ranging from ancient cultures and mythology to Harry Potter and gardening. She works as the chief editor of Symbol Sage but also takes the time to write on topics that interest her.