A prayer wheel is a cylindrical object on a spindle made from metal, wood, stone, leather, or coarse cotton. Traditionally, the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum is written in Sanskrit externally on the wheel. Sometimes Dakinis, Protectors, and very often the eight auspicious symbols known as Ashtamangala are depicted. According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, spinning such a wheel will have much the same meritorious effect as orally reciting the prayers.
It is said that prayer wheels are used to accumulate wisdom and merit, and to purify negativities such as bad karma. The idea of spinning mantras comes from numerous Tantric practices where the Tantric practitioner visualizes mantras revolving around the meridian chakras such as the heart and crown. Therefore, prayer wheels are a visual aid for developing one’s capacity for these types of Tantric visualizations.
The spiritual method for those practicing with a prayer wheel is very specific. The practitioner most often spins the wheel clockwise, for the direction the mantras are written is that of the movement of the sun across the sky. Before, during and after the practitioner turns the wheel, it is best to focus the mind and repeat the Om Mani Padme Hum mantra, as this increases the merit earned by the wheel’s use. However, it is said that even turning it while distracted has benefits and merits, and that even insects that cross a prayer wheel’s shadow will gain some benefit.
Some prayer wheels are powered by electric motors. Thardo Khorlo, as these electric wheels are sometimes known, contain one thousand copies of the mantra Om Mani Padme Hum and many copies of other mantras. The Thardo Khorlo can be accompanied by lights and music if one so chooses. However, Lama Zopa Rinpoche has said, “The merit of turning an electric prayer wheel goes to the electric company. This is why I prefer practitioners to use their own right energy to turn a prayer wheel”.
The Dalai Lama has commented that animations on websites work just as well as other prayer wheels. As the animated image turns, waves of compassion emanate in all directions to the surrounding area. Some have suggested that the spinning of a hard drive at several thousand rotations per minute can act in similar function to a prayer wheel by saving an image of Om mani padme hum or other mantras on a local computer or server.