What Is the Prayer Wheel and What Does It Symbolize?

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Prayer wheels are linked to the practice of Buddhism and is a common sight in Tibet. They are cylindrical objects, which can vary in size, shape, and material.

Attached on the exterior of the prayer wheel is a written mantra, or 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. Some wheels are even large enough to be tied to a building or a temple and are turned by people holding on the wheels as they walk around clockwise.  In some cases, wind, fire, or water are also used to spin the prayer wheel.

Meaning And Symbolism of The Prayer Wheel

Types of prayer wheels
Types of Prayer Wheels

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:

  • 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.

The Prayer Wheel and Nature

Prayer wheel in hand

The Buddhist belief in the four elements of nature – earth, fire, wind, and water, are 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.

Hanging the prayer wheel combines it with the element of wind, and anyone who comes across the wind touched by the prayer wheel is immediately blessed, blowing away the punishment for their misdeeds. When placed in fire, anyone who looks at the flames or inhales the smoke will also be exonerated.  The same effect is also achieved by burying the prayer wheel in the earth or soaking it in water.

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.

FAQs About the Prayer Wheel

Prayer wheels
What is the prayer wheel used for?

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

Which type of Buddhism uses prayer wheels?

This object is typically used by Tibetan Buddhists.

What are prayer wheels made of?

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

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.

What do you do with prayer wheels?

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

How many times do you spin the prayer wheel?

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

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.

How do you turn a prayer wheel?

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

Is a prayer wheel hard to spin?

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

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.