The Hermitage: Setting the Prayer Wheel in Motion
As we slowly circle round, turning the wheel, it is within ourselves that prayers are awakened—within our hearts that aspiration is fired up. The turning of the wheel reminds us of our responsibility. With each turn, each clank of the bell signalling one revolution, the wheel is whispering to us: "compassion, compassion, compassion…om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, reach out to others, give of oneself for others…" reminding us what a human being's authentic duty and responsibility is. Thus the Prayer Wheel teaches us.
Through the efforts and patronage of the Dharma Fellowship, we now have a beautiful Prayer Wheel at the Hermitage. And what a wonderful wheel this truly is.
The idea of the Prayer Wheel comes directly from Tibetan spiritual tradition—it is a symbol of our prayers and aspirations for peace and compassion toward all beings. When turning the wheel, we focus on these aspirations—we turn the inner wheel of the heart as we dwell with thoughts of love, compassion and prayer for the sake of others.
Some Western Misunderstandings About Prayer Wheels
Some westerners, imagine that these wheels are simply devices intended to mechanically "say prayers" on someone's behalf. The Tibetologist L.A. Waddell spoke in very derogatory terms about what he called the "Prayer Machines" which, as he indeed correctly described it, "are revolved everywhere in Tibet, in the hand, and as great barrels turned by hand or water or wind." Coming from an imperial Anglican background, tainted by nineteenth century materialism, he thought the whole "Prayer Machine" thing quite superstitious.
The fact is, a Prayer Wheel is one of those great symbolic forms that are able to inspire us, in our inner spiritual endeavour, to higher states of compassionate feeling and idealism. To make a prayer wheel involves the labour and efforts of many people and that effort becomes embodied, so to speak, in the wheel, as it is constructed. There is the work of putting together and setting up the barrel, the artistry of painting it, making it into an object of religious beauty. Then there is the effort of producing thousands, even millions of prayers, with which the wheel must be filled. No empty space is left at all. The wheel is thoroughly stuffed tight with Mani-prayers. The result is an object representing the labour, aspiration and energy of many people, symbolizing heartfelt compassion for sentient beings.
The aspirations that go into the construction of such a wheel are prayers for a better world. Turning the wheel makes our aspirations tangible.
Seeing the Prayer Wheel Turning is a Constant Reminder
To produce our wheel, Denman Island artist Sudassi Gardner worked with great skill at designing and painting the outside of the barrel. Into this painting she incorporated scenes reminding us of the blue sky, the forest and the wild life of the Hermitage itself, as well as the radiance of the Buddhas and saints. In a band around the wheel she painted the Tibetan mantra Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra that speaks of the Jewel (mani) of the Enlightened-mind of Compassion residing in the unfolding Lotus (padme) of our hearts. The leaves of that lotus are painted at the base of the wheel. The mani-mantra symbolizing compassion and love was written in both Tibetan and English letters on the wheel.
A million mantras went inside the wheel. Yes, a million printed mantras! Om Mani Padme Hum… on and on, over and over again! These mantras were compiled in collections bound by yellow cloth. Relics and sacred items also were added to our prayers. Thus the wheel developed into a symbol of our wishes for a better world. An aspiration for peace. A prayer for the end of suffering and the happiness of all sentient beings.
What the Prayer Wheel Teaches Us
But it is not good enough just to aspire or pray for peace and the betterment of sentient beings. As a symbol of compassion, the wheel teaches us that we have to go out and actively engage in fulfilling those aspirations. To make the world a better place means participating in actively working to improve conditions on this planet. This is something that anyone can do on what ever scale is appropriate. If it means just talking to one's neighbour with more kindness, or assisting an elderly person in need—if it means actively working against the suppression of human rights, or feeding the hungry and caring for the sick—regardless of whether what we do is small in scale or big, it is all a case of bettering the lives of others according to our ability.
If the wheel were but a mechanical device, capable of saying our prayers for us, then we could leave it to do all this work of making the world a better place on its own. But it is not like that. As we slowly circle round, turning the wheel, it is within ourselves that prayers are awakened—it is within our hearts that aspiration is fired up. The turning of the wheel reminds us of our responsibility. With each turn, with each clank of the bell signalling one revolution, the wheel is whispering to us: "compassion, compassion, compassion…om mani padme hum, om mani padme hum, reach out to others, give of oneself for others…" reminding us what a human being's authentic duty and responsibility is. Thus the Prayer Wheel teaches us.
The History of Prayer Wheels
The famous Buddhist saint Nagarjuna, a great scholar at Nalanda University often referred to as a "second Buddha", is said to have been inspired by Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, to devise the first great Mani Prayer Wheel constructed in India.
During the early founding of the Dharma in Tibet, Nagarjuna's teaching on the Prayer Wheel was introduced by the renowned Yogi-master Padmasambhava, so as to instil in the population a sense of compassionate responsibility toward all sentient beings and their fellow humans. The Prayer Wheel proved to be a profound teaching device. The recorded words of the Master Padmasambhava concerning the first wheel erected thanks to the patronage of the King of Tibet, were:
Since the innate Buddha-nature, the Enlightened-mind (bodhicitta) within the core of the heart of every living being is intrinsically a mind of pure love, what the great teacher Padmasambhava was saying here, is that spiritual Enlightenment can be attained through direct compassion and genuine caring for others.
When you really think about it, how could it be otherwise? No one can become one with all if their heart remains closed to the pain of other beings. Caring for our fellow beings, sharing their grief and joys, exchanging self for others, developing overwhelming compassion and love—this itself is the fundamental path of Enlightenment.
Therefore we must constantly check the motivations for our practice. Is it that "I" want Enlightenment, "I" want to be spiritual superior, "I" want to be possessed of divine qualities, such as wisdom, knowing, bliss and happiness? Selfishly motivated religion does not gain Enlightenment.
Thus the Lotus Sutra states: "What the prayer wheel teaches us is superior to other teachings [in that it causes us to think of the needs of others]. One who does not get this instruction is like a blind man striving to see. Therefore, extend more effort toward the practice of the Mani Wheel."
In the words of Karma Pakshi (1203-1287), the 2nd great Karmapa (see Kagyu Tradition), "Those who have been touched by the breeze of the turning Wheel, or touched by the shade that the Wheel casts, in that the Wheel inspires them with compassion for others, will be set thereby on the true path of Liberation. Whatever evil deeds committed by them will thus be wiped away. The blessings of untold numbers of Buddhas and saints will come to fruition in them. Their wealth of virtue shall be developed quite effortlessly."
If Mani Prayer Wheels are constructed and placed where people come to see them, and if their genuine meaning enters the consciousness of the population, then the idea of the Wheel—the compassionate duty of every being to make the world a better place for others—will spread and flourish.
The Construction of a Giant Mani Prayer Wheel in Nepal
Venerable Bardok Chusang Rinpoche, who performed the elaborate blessing ceremony for the Prayer Wheel at the Hermitage, also wishes to construct a large Prayer Wheel at Chusang Monastery near Boudha Nath, in Nepal. His intention has been to inspire the people there to live together in greater harmony, helping one another, and of course to put down their weapons and live in peace. However, so far this project has not been possible due to lack of funds. Rinpoche therefore puts forth the following statement, which has been translated from the Tibetan language:
Two patrons donated the necessary funds to construct the wheel and print all the prayers for our little Mani Prayer Wheel at the Hermitage. If you feel inspired by this, then please consider being a patron of Chusang Rinpoche's project to build a large Prayer Wheel in Nepal. For more information about becoming a patron, please contact us.
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