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Prayer Wheel - Every Turn is Equivalent to Chanting Once

A prayer wheel

The Prayer Wheel is also known as the Mani Wheel, the cylindrical wheel, or the Row installations at the monasteries. It is related to the eight-character mantra and the six-character mantra (the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum). According to Tibetan Buddhism, the more mantras are chanted, the more devotion to the Buddha is expressed, and the suffering of reincarnation can be freed. Therefore, in addition to orally reciting the prayers, Tibetan people put the mantras into the prayer wheels. They believe that every turn of the wheel will have the same meritorious effect as reading the sutra once, and rotating constantly represents that they are repeatedly chanting the "Om Mani Padme Hum” mantras hundreds and thousands of times.

In Tibetan areas, you can see believers,  regardless of gender, old and young, holding a prayer wheel in their hands, turning non-stop. Most Tibetans, especially the elderly, cannot recite sutras fluently, so they turn the prayer wheels instead of chanting. A prayer wheel is usually made from wood, copper, silver, gold, or other materials. The main body of the prayer wheel is cylindrical, with a shaft in the middle for rotation. In order to make the best use of this way of cultivating blessing and virtue, Tibetan people build pagodas and install prayer wheels everywhere in Tibet. They even carry a hand-held prayer wheel with them so that it is convenient to practice when they have a little free time.


The prayer wheel originated from Yungdrung Bön of Zhang Zhung. Its origin is related to the“Dharma Wheel” often mentioned in the sutra. According to the sutra and legends of the Bon religion, when Chakravarti was born in the Zhangzhung area, the Dharma wheel would present and guide the King to unify the world. Wherever the Dharma wheel spun, all evil thoughts would be destroyed by it, and all Kings of small tribes would be convinced. In order to make all sentient beings fully understand the truth, Chakravarti used different teaching ways to save sentient beings with the “Dharma Wheel". For those disciples who are born stupid, they can't even chant the Buddhist scriptures. By observing the laws of nature, Chakravarti created a method of using natural forces such as earth, water, wind, and fire to replace human beings in reciting Buddhist scripture. Therefore five types of prayer wheels emerged: water wheels, wind wheels, fire wheels, ground wheels, and handheld wheels. Later, it was introduced to Tibet and absorbed by many sects and gradually became a prayer wheel that makes significance to Tibetans.


The prayer wheel can be large or small, and the small one can be held in the hand. This kind of hand prayer wheel is also called the hand-held Mani wheel, which is made from gold, silver, copper, etc., and there are also several types of large, medium, and small. The main body of the hand prayer wheel is cylindrical, with a shaft in the middle for rotation. Not only is the cylinder engraved with the six-character mantra of Tibetan Buddhism, but the middle of the cylinder also contains a mantra. The prayer wheels are generally made exquisitely. In addition to the engraved sutra and patterns of animals, with a certain symbolic meaning, they are also painted in color, just like handicrafts. Some prayer wheels are also inlaid with corals, gems, etc., which add value beyond their religious functions. There's an ear hole next to the hand prayer wheel, and a small sinker is attached.  When the handle under the cylinder is turned, the small sinker also moves and accelerates the rotation of the prayer wheel by inertia. With the rapid rotation of the prayer wheel, the person who turns the prayer believes that his merits are also accumulating rapidly.

Prayer Wheels
A Tibetan woman is turning prayer wheels outside of Jokhang Temple.

Although the hand-held prayer wheel can turn quickly, people who believe in Tibetan Buddhism think that it is still incomparable with the Row Installations. Because the sutras outside and inside the metal cylinder on the bigger prayer wheel are much more than those on the hand prayer wheels and have a larger radius of rotation, the accumulated merits are much higher than that of a hand prayer wheel turning a circle. In this case, people specially set a fixed time to go to the monasteries and turn the entire row of prayer wheels, even though they are still keen to spin the hand prayer wheel whenever and wherever possible.

Famous Tibetan Prayer Wheels

There are various large prayer wheels in Tibetan monasteries and temples. For example, at the entrance of many monasteries, there are usually two large prayer wheels. You can see Tibetans turning the wheel vigorously. Besides, there's a row of sutra cylinders that can be rotated one by one, ranging from a few to as many as dozens, which is very spectacular during spinning.

Outside the western wall of the Potala Palace, there is a row of prayer wheels. Tibetans spin the prayer wheels clockwise with their right hands, muttering the six-character mantra - Om Mani Padme Hum.

In the Jokhang Temple, there is a circle of prayer wheels around the temple. Tibetans who come to worship here must walk in a clockwise direction and spin the wheels with their hands to make them rotate with the six-character mantra.

The largest and tallest prayer wheel in the world is the Great Prayer Wheel on the top of the mountain at Guishan Park, in Shangri-La. This kind of prayer cylinder is very large, 21 meters high, and up to two meters in diameter. The cylinder can hold all the scriptures of Tibetan Tripitaka. It is said that six strong men can rotate, and it is equivalent to reciting Buddhist holy names 1.24 million times per revolution.

Prayer Wheels in Shangri-La
Prayer Wheels in Shangri-La, the largest one in the world.

How to Use a Prayer Wheel?

The use of prayer wheels is very particular. If you travel to Tibetan areas, you must know the correct way to use a prayer wheel. It's the elementary respect for the local faith.

Hand-held posture: When holding a hand prayer wheel, your thumb must be flat and hold the handle together with the other four fingers instead of rushing up. In that posture is like pointing at the Buddha and Bodhisattva with your feet.

Rotation speed should be slow: When using a prayer wheel, please turn it slowly and steadily, and avoid turning it too quickly. People who are too impatient will feel hatred and anger easily, which violates Buddhist doctrines. It does not matter if the electric cylindrical prayer wheel makes a noise, but the hand-held prayer wheel cannot make a sound, and it is very bad if it makes a sound.

Don't turn counterclockwise: The No.1 taboo about the prayer wheel is to turn it backward. Turning it forward is to recite the scriptures once. When the turn is reversed, it will be reversed.

Placement: Although Buddhism emphasizes the inner practice, after all, the prayer wheel is a ritual item of Tibetan Buddhism. If you buy it as a souvenir, remember to place it in a quiet place.

The Significance of the Prayer Wheel

Tibetans believe that spinning such a wheel is equivalent to reciting scriptures, and it's the best way to repent of the past, purify negativities(bad karma), and accumulate merit(good karma). The merit of turning the prayer wheel increases with the number of rotations.

Prayer wheels at Kumbum Monastery
Prayer Wheels at Kumbum Monastery

Circumambulation is to walk in circles around temples and other places, or pray around a specific route, which is a religious activity of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan people usually do circumambulation around temples to spin prayer wheel and pray.

A person who makes a full circumambulation is equivalent to reciting the Tripitaka once. A person who makes two circumambulations is equivalent to chanting all the Buddhist scriptures. A person who makes three circumambulations can purify negative karmas of body, mouth and mind. Ten circumambulations can eliminate bad karma as big as Mount Meru. A person who makes a hundred circumambulations can achieve the same merit as Lord Yama. A person who makes a thousand circumambulations can clear away one’s all obstacles and have enlightenment within. A person who makes ten thousand circumambulations can free all sentient beings from the suffering of rebirth.

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