Prayer Wheels at Yumbulagang Palace. South-Western Tibet 2011© Nora de Angelli / www.noraphotos.com
A prayer wheel is a cylindrical "wheel" on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, leather or coarse cotton. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit on the outside of the wheel. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition based on the lineage texts regarding prayer wheels, spinning such a wheel will have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers.
The earliest recorded prayer wheels were written of by a Chinese pilgrim around 400 C.E. in Ladakh. The concept of the prayer wheel is a physical manifestation of the phrase "turning the wheel of Dharma," which describes the way in which the Buddha taught.
The practitioner most often spins the wheel clockwise, as the direction in which the mantras are written is that of the movement of the sun across the sky. On rare occasions, advanced Tantric practitioners such as Senge Dongma, the Lion-Faced Dakini, spin prayer wheels counterclockwise to manifest a more wrathful protective energy. As the practitioner turns the wheel, it is best to focus the mind and repeat the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra. Not only does this increase the merit earned by the wheel's use, but it is a mind-stabilization technique that trains the mind while the body is in motion.
The benefits attributed to the practice of turning the wheel are vast. Not only does it help wisdom, compassion and bodhichitta arise in the practitioner, it also enhances siddhis (spiritual powers such as clairvoyance, precognition, reading others thoughts).
Thubten Zopa Rinpoche has commented that installing a prayer wheel has the capacity to completely transform a place, which becomes "...peaceful, pleasant, and conducive to the mind." Simply touching a prayer wheel is said to bring great purification to negative karmas and obscurations.