Function of the Tibetan & Buddhist Prayer Wheel

Tibetan Buddhists spin prayer wheels as a form of prayer, to accumulate merit and wisdom.
... Goodshoot/Goodshoot/Getty Images

Buddhist prayer wheels are cylinders in various sizes made of wood, metal or stone. Inside they contain a prayer written numerous times on paper, and the same prayer is inscribed around the outside of the cylinder. Buddhists spin the wheel during prayer to acquire good karma and purify bad karma, and to help them develop compassion and wisdom.

1 Symbolism of the Wheel

The wheel, in Buddhism, represents universal law and the reflection of that law in the ethics of human beings. For Buddhists, to intimately know these laws is to know the nature of the universe and to be free. The rim of the wheel represents the cycle of birth, death and rebirth; a cycle of suffering that Buddhists strive to liberate themselves from. The hub of the wheel signifies liberation, while the spokes represent the various pathways to achieving liberation. There are generally eight spokes or more, in multiples of eight, denoting the noble eightfold path, the way to the cessation of suffering as taught by the Buddha.

2 Objects of Prayer

Tibetan Buddhists use small hand-held prayer wheels during meditation and prayer, and larger, fixed prayer wheels in Buddhist temples and at pilgrimage sites. Buddhists also place prayer wheels in the entryway to their homes, so people can turn them as they come and go. They also place wheels over the hearth, to be turned by smoke, or in the bed of a stream where the flow of the current sets them in motion. In this way the owner of the wheel, day and night, is in a constant state of prayer.

3 Spiritual Function

Buddhists, particularly within the Tibetan tradition, gain merit from reciting certain mantras. The prayer wheel is a physical manifestation of that recitation, as the turning of the wheel and the cyclical movement of the prayer inside and out is equivalent to the utterance of the human voice. The meditation involved with the quiet turning of the wheel helps Buddhists acquire wisdom and compassion. The rotation of the wheel is a metaphor for the turnings of the wheel of the dharma, a term that Buddhists use to describe the Buddha’s first teachings.

4 Om Mane Padme Hum

The prayer inscribed on the outside and inside of prayer wheels is a six-syllable mantra that is associated with the Buddha of compassion, Avalokitesvara, who is the patron deity of Tibet. Although the meaning of the mantra has several nuanced and esoteric interpretations, the literal translation is "the jewel in the lotus," or "praise to the jewel in the lotus" or, simply, the "jeweled lotus." Regardless of its literal meaning, Buddhists believe the whole of the Buddha’s teachings are contained within these six syllables.

Rachel Alexander is a cultural and political area specialist of South Asia and the Middle East. She received the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship in 2011, and again in 2012, to live in northern India and study advanced Hindi. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies from Loyola University of Chicago.