Prayer Wheels

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on February 15, 2016.)

Prayer wheels at Guangren Temple, Xi'an

The tradition I have most thoroughly studied is Han Buddhism, which is practiced throughout the area of China that has historically been occupied by the majority Han ethnicity. There are actually two other Buddhist traditions found in China: the Theravada (similar to that found in South Asia) and the Tibetan.

On my second templing trip, I visited the ancient Guangren Temple in Xi'an, which honors (among others) Princess Wencheng, Emperor Taizong's niece, who married the leader of Tibet in the Tang Dynasty.

There, as in the several Tibetan-style temples I've visited since (the most famous, perhaps, being Yonghe Gong, Beijing's "Lama Temple") I encountered what appeared to be a series of barrels mounted on spindles.

On closer inspection, I saw six characters in an Indian-looking script embossed around the sides of the "barrels." These are prayer wheels, inscribed with the syllables pronounced (in Sanskrit) Om Mani Padme Hum.

This unusual prayer can be translated, "Hail! The Jewel in the Lotus." But this still does not give us the meaning, as there is a wide variety of interpretations. Others say that, as a mantra, it is not the meaning that is important at all, but the actual sound of the syllables being chanted.

Anyway, the purpose of printing them on a wheel is simple: it is believed that one turn of the wheel is equivalent to one recitation of the prayer. That is why temple visitors are often seen walking down the row of wheels, vigorously spinning them. Usually, hand-held wheels are available for purchase in the temple, so the devotee can continue the practice wherever he or she is.

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