Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Prayer Wheel Controversy Engulfs Sects

Like the tabloid-style headline?

How about the lurid visual?

Sorry to disappoint you.

Actually, there is no prayer wheel controversy, nor are the sects engulfed in anything other than that which typically engulfs the sects. The analytical engines report that readers like nothing better than tabloid-style headlines, providing a whiff of scandal, and the promise of bad news.

Above: Peaceful, happy, Third World craftsmen making
prayer wheels in optimal working conditions

Sigh, sigh... sigh.

Did I have to trick you into reading this nice, peaceful little rant about various and sundry prayer wheel issues?

Has it come to this?

Up in Washington State, U.S.A., the Sakyas and those who love them are making what are described as the most powerful prayer wheels in the world: 1.3 trillion (with a "t") mantras, for USD $4,200.00, out the door. They are cool, look like something out of Myst (I guess it is the whole Pacific Northwest aesthetic), and have been duly and appropriately blessed.

The problem?

The problem is that the mantras are embedded on DVD's, and this doesn't exactly sit well with the classics:

"The letters of the mantra should face outward; the Om should connect to the life tree or bamboo shaft and then wind around it. This is the traditional practice of the learned ones. Why is this done? The tantra 'Unceasing Dharma Wheel' explains that the syllables of the root mantra should wind around like a snake, with the Om connecting to the life tree and the Hum at the end. With the abiding mantra that goes inside statues or stupas, the letters should face inward and be rolled from the end.
...No matter what size Dharma wheel one makes, if one of the inserted mantras is wound upside down it is as if all the rest were wound upside down as well. So, when you wind and pile [the mantras], do everything carefully - this is important.
Homage to the Transcendent Compassionate-Eyed One!"

This quote is helpfully provided to us by the folks who build microfilm-based wheels, and who explain that the technology of CDs and DVDs just won't fit. The code that the laser reads faces downward, and the beam shoots upward to read this code; hence, the letters of the mantra are facing downward, not outward.

Somebody needs to clean this up, because the Dalai Lama is widely quoted as stating his belief that even a computer hard-drive can be a prayer wheel. In some of the Sakya literature there seems to be an inference that Kyabje Tarthang Tulku has also signed off on this -- if so, then no problem.

"If it is not made with clear inscriptions, one will be born blind.
If wrong view is generated toward the sound of the wheel, one will be born deaf.
If one denies the value of the wheel itself (with nihilistic view), one will be born demented [or stupid].
So, if a fortunate person holds this great wheel of Dharma straight and turns it around, one with superior faculties
will achieve Buddhahood and benefit all transmigrators; one with middling faculties will attain a human life and practice the Holy Dharma; and even one with lesser faculties will also find a human life and make an effort to abandon nonvirtues and practice virtues.
This wheel of Dharma called Om Mani Padme Hum, if constructed inside a house and circumambulated will liberate the family [living in the house] from sufferings of lower rebirths, and the house itself will become like the Potala pure land.
This wheel of Dharma, Om Mani Padme Hum, if placed close to a dying person's pillow near the time of death and fervently prayed to from the depths of one's heart, will instantly [cause] one's consciousness to dissolve into the heart of the Transcendent Compassionate-Eyed One without the need for the practice of the transference of consciousness. So, free of doubt, be zealous in constructing this supreme wheel of Dharma and cherish the practice of circumambulating it and so forth.

To this wheel of Dharma, Om Mani Padme Hum, make grand offerings of the various objects of fulfillment such as light, food and so forth. By making offerings, one will become a universal king and be able to enjoy all one's wishes. Ultimately one will attain the state of the Transcendent Compassionate-Eyed One.
All those with fortune, please show, tell and spread this wheel of Dharma called Om Mani Padme Hum to others. Please spread the benefits of the wheel, for doing so is the same as preserving and spreading the Buddhadharma."

Right now, the top consumer-level, microfilm-based wheel is a wooden, tabletop number, with 2 billion (with a "b") mantras for USD $716.00, right off the showroom floor, never raced or wrecked. These have crystals on top (the New Mexico aesthetic? shouldn't it be turquoise?), and have the distinction of being featured on the cover of Lorne Ladner's book, Wheel of Great Compassion: The Practice of the Prayer Wheel In Tibetan Buddhism.

I have serious issues with microfilm-based wheels. First, the microfilm is expensive, and is being done by only one firm in the United States (which isn't all that responsive). Second, microfilm doesn't hold up very well in outdoor, high heat environments. Third, microfilm is inherently toxic. These are idiosyncratic concerns, and your mileage may vary.

Which brings us to the next issue: electric or non-electric?

Above: Water-powered prayer wheels in China.

The classics are fairly specific on this point:

Arya Chenrezig predicted to Master Ludrup Nyingpo, "In the palace of the land of Naga is the Naga King Bodhisattva, who is the owner of a profound wheel of Dharma. By hearing, seeing, touching or thinking of this wheel, one can swiftly attain liberation from the suffering of the three lower rebirths. If you go and fetch this wheel, the benefits to sentient beings will be enormous."
Consequently, Master Ludrup visited the land of Naga and said to Naga King Bodhisattva, "Oh, Naga King Bodhisattva, please pay attention to me. I have come here because Arya Cherezig prophesized that the benefits to sentient beings will be enormous if I beg from you your profound wheel of Dharma, which can liberate beings from all types of sufferings of lower rebirths just by hearing, seeing, touching or thinking of it. Kindly give it to me."

Naga King Bodhisattva replied, "This wheel of Dharma, which has the quality of quickly liberating all transmigrators from the great suffering of the three lower rebirths merely by hearing, seeing, touching or thinking of it, was kindly given to us in the past by the Buddha Mar Mezed, and has given nagas much happiness. through it many have been led to the grounds and paths of Buddhahood. This Dharma Wheel is the wheel of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hung, the essence mantra Arya Chenrezig received from the Buddhas upon request, and which represents the essence of all the qualities of body, speech, mind and actions of the Buddhas. I shall give this wheel to you. You must place it on or in earth, water, fire or wind and use it for the sake of Dharma and living beings."
The wheel was passed on to Master Nagarjuna together with its instructions for use. Master Nagarjuna brought it to India and later passed it on to the Lion-Faced Dakini. From her the lineage passed through Tilopa, Naropa, Marpa and Milarepa to Dakpo Lha Je, then to Khampa Yu Se and so on.

The probative passage is "on or in earth, water, fire or wind." Under some interpretations, electricity has been liberally viewed as falling under the category of fire. However, there is Lama Zopa's reported remark that the only people who get merit from electric wheels are the electric companies.

Above: Catch as catch can.

Now, for the last upteem centuries, the pattern has been to build bigger and bigger wheels and then trudge around them. This was good in the days before Thomas Edison, but I can promise you that if electricity had been available, somebody would have been using it to drive prayer wheels.

Above: Iron Knot Ranch, New Mexico, 24/7/365
(So very, very excellent! I rejoice!)

I disagree with Lama Zopa. With all respect, you can take the same logic he is applying to electric wheels, and apply it in all directions. The only people who get benefit from sponsoring pujas are the monks who perform them?

Might want to rethink that one.

Besides... suppose we use solar power? What is the difference between solar power, hydro power, or wind power?

The coolest electric prayer wheels in the world are the ones made in Tibet for the domestic market. You can hook these up to little solar panel and battery arrays and away they go.

Actually, the very best electric wheels in the world are the ones that used to be had through the Tibetan Aid Project, in Berkeley, California., simply because Kyabje Tarthang Rinpoche is a master of the subject of prayer wheel technology (1,600 major wheels and still counting). Unfortunately, due to staffing issues, these are no longer available.

Write to T.A.P., and either complain or volunteer!

No bad news in that. Speaking personally, I have always loved prayer wheels of all types and sizes, and my interest in the subject is without limitation. I think they should be in every household, in a prominent place, exactly as called for in the scriptures. My only regret is that we do not, as yet, have an overarching prayer wheel solution ("solution" as in the technological sense), so everybody runs off in different tangents. I am as guilty as anyone else in that regard, having "invented" a few different prayer wheels myself.

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7 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi. Thanks for your interesting post. I have a question.
Is it all mean, that i can make prayer wheel myself ?
I heard that all ritual things (and prayer wheel too) should be created by buddhist specialist. Who teached in buddhist university.

Anonymous said...


"If it [the prayer wheel] is not made with clear inscriptions, one will be born blind. If wrong view is generated toward the sound of the wheel, one will be born deaf. If one denies the value of the wheel itself (with nihilistic view), one will be born demented [or stupid]...if constructed inside a house and circumambulated will liberate the family [living in the house] from sufferings of lower rebirths...By making offerings, one will become a universal king and be able to enjoy all one's wishes."

Buddhists in the Tibetan tradition actually believe this? Seriously?!

Brad said...

We make Tibetan Prayer Wheels in Northern California according to specifications given to us by Lama Zopa.

We have 2 different wheels that we make, but we have chosen to concentrate on Mani wheels.

Brad Glasse
J Glasse Woodworks

Chuck Pettis said...

I saw your comment about DVD prayer wheels. After we made the 1.3 trillion prayer wheel in your article, we developed a line of smaller, but still powerful "Tibet Tech" prayer wheels (see www.tibettech.com)

On the FAQ page, please see H.H. Jigdal Dagchen's response to the question: "Can mantras be put onto DVDs instead of paper or microfilm? Will they still work?"
The answer is "yes." H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya says there is nothing wrong and there are "no problems" with using the DVDs in Tibet Tech prayer wheels given the care and spiritual intention that has gone into the design, construction, and consecration of the Tibet Tech prayer wheels.

What is important is the intention and our mental view of the prayer wheel’s construction and use. If we think the prayer wheel has great benefit for all beings, then it provides great benefit. H.H. Jigdal Dagchen Sakya referred to the following spiritual passage written by the Shakya monk Kunga Sangpo for the sake of students in accordance with the teaching of Acarya Shraddhakarawama.

For all phenomena that arise from a cause,
The Tathagata has taught their cause and their cessation;
This is the teaching of the Great Ascetic.

Do not perform any misdeeds at all,
Practice excellent virtue!
Completely tame the mind!
This is the doctrine of the Buddha.

Chuck Pettis
Tibet Tech Prayer Wheels

Anonymous said...

I feel some things should not be made high tech.

Christopher Seal said...

Tharthang Tulku Rinpoche has had a big electric one running at the Nyingma Institute in Berkeley for decades now.

Christopher E. said...

I love prayer wheels. I have several, including "traditional" copper, wood, brass and paper wheels, microfilm wheels, and (Hi Chuck!) a couple of TibetTech prayer wheels, including a solar/battery powered Medicine Buddha wheel. I am a HUGE fan of the "arms race" in mantra density...what an incredibly positive competition. That being said, my favorites are the ball bearing, wood microfilm wheels. The DVD based wheel requires me to clean/oil the bushing after an hour or so. The traditional ones can be noisy (especially the big hand-held) and can require a lot more physical effort. My root lama said, of the TibetTech, "This will require a LOT of pure perception for a Tibetan to use, it is so far from traditional."

That's the thing about this post, and the discussion. With pure perception, a lot seems possible :-). And for us "wheel junkies," I'm really thankful for everything from traditional to westernized. I can see why some may not like the DVD-based wheels, I sure do. But I also like the paper mantra rolls :-).