Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Wheels

Spinning Mantras

These small works of art found at a Beehive sale are Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheels, most likely made somewhere in the Himalayan mountain range. They have spinning parts but are not toys, they are devotional tools used by spiritual leaders, monks, nuns and ordinary people alike.

Both this hand-held brass version and the painted, stand-mounted carved version are smaller than most, so they may have been made for tourists. A 3rd, broken wheel shows the hollow interior. Prayer wheels are found in Tibet and places with expatriate Tibetan populations. Due to strife between Tibet and neighboring China which culminated in China annexing Tibet in 1951, many Tibetans fled across the borders to settle in neighboring Nepal and India, where Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama now lives in exile. In the U.S. there are communities of Tibetan Americans in Portland and Seattle, and in California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and New York.

Prayer wheels are hollow cylinders made of metal, wood, stone, or leather mounted on a spindle. The exterior is decorated with a mantra (devotional chant) written in Ranjana or Tibetan script. “Om mani padme hum” is the most common but there are many others. “Om mani padme hum” references the Jewel in the Lotus, an embodiment of complex religious ideas. The hollow interior holds a central “life tree” core around which is wrapped a long paper or velum scroll also inscribed with a repeating sacred text. As with the exterior of the wheel, these can vary. The wheels work when they are spun. The hand-held versions have small counter- weights on chains (here, a solid brass conch shell) which helps keep the wheel rotating while the larger, fixed-mount wheels are given a good push by people as they pass by.

Reciting mantras is to purify and spiritually strengthen the practitioner and then spread that energy outward to benefit all living things. If there are 500 mantras written on the scroll inside a single wheel, then each spin is equal to reciting that mantra 500 times. Therefore a devout practitioner can generate millions of mantras, spreading good out into the world. However the use of the wheel is intended to supplement rather than replace other devotional practices. The prayer wheel can be used while praying at home, or while walking through holy sites. These large, architecturally mounted prayer wheels are at the holy site of Swayambhunath in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Prayer wheels have also been found in unexpected places. This is the coat of arms of New Zealander Sir Edmund Hillary. He, along with Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay were the first humans to summit Mount Everest, highest peak in the world, in 1953. The two men remained lifelong friends and Hillary returned to Nepal many times, both as a climber and to help build schools, airports and hospitals.

When Sir Hilary was knighted by Queen Elizabeth he chose the prayer wheel for his coat of arms to honor the people of the Himalayas. He was made an honorary Nepalese citizen and the Indian Government awarded him its second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan. Tenzing received the Star of Nepal and there is a small, high-altitude airport in Lukla, Nepal, called the Tenzing-Hillary Airport. Sir Edmund’s son Peter Hillary and Tenzing’s son, Jamling Tenzing Norgay climbed Mount Everest in 2002 in honor of the 50th anniversary of their fathers’ achievement. If you’d like to explore further, visit QBO.