Sunday, January 11, 2009

Prayer Wheels

The capacity of the human mind to misapprehend and misunderstand seems to be almost infinite. And sometimes the results are startling. Take prayer wheels for instance. How did this (now I want to be culturally sensitive here) ‘interesting’ practice begin? On many occasions the Buddha said that it is good to listen to the Dhamma. For example in the famous Mangala Sutta he said 'listening to the Dhamma from time to time, this is the greatest blessing' (Sn.265). Given my observation above this was a mistake on the part of the Buddha. What he should have said was ‘Listening to the Dhamma, paying attention to it and understanding it, is the highest blessing’ because it wasn’t long before people came to believe that not listening to the Dhamma, but merely hearing it, not understanding it but just having the sound of the words go in one’s ears, was a blessing. When books came into use and the sutras were committed to writing the logical next step was believing that writing out the sutras, or even paying someone else to write them, was to receive a blessing. Mahayana sutras are replete with exhortations like this one, ‘Anyone who listens to, writes out, has written out, bows to, worships, sings the praises of, sees, has faith in, honors, respects or enshrines in a stupa this sutra will accumulate merit as countless as the sands of the Ganges.’ In the 23rd chapter of the Saddharmapundrika Sutra it says, ‘If anyone copies this sutra or pays homage to it with flowers, incense, garlands, perfume, sandal powder, unguents…oil lamps, the merit he earns will be incalculable.’ Nothing about reading it. Now a common way of paying respect to someone or something in ancient India was to walk around them or it – a temple, a stupa, a statue, etc. In time the practice developed of making merit by walking around libraries containing copies of the scriptures. By the 10th or 11th century some of the great monastic libraries of India had book cases that turned on a pivot, apparently so that their books could be more easily reached. Pilgrims to these monasteries would visit the libraries and walk around or sometimes turn the book cases as a meritorious act. You can probably see where this is going. The Wikipedia article on the subject says that the first reference to prayer wheels is in the account of a Chinese pilgrim to Ladakh in the 4th century. Mmm! I know of no such pilgrim visiting Ladakh at that time and I don’t think the region was Buddhist then either. However, we do know that by the 6th century Vietnamese, Chinese and even Japanese temples had octagonal wooden structures containing copies of the scriptures which later were turned for the purpose of ‘making merit.’ One of these things, called a rinzo, can still be seen (and turned) at the great Kannon Temple in Kamakura. Another version of the same thing is the disks (jizo wheels) sometimes found on Japanese tombstones which are turned to ‘pray’ for the person buried beneath. But of course the most well-known outcome of this chain of just slightly off-centre ideas, misunderstandings and conceptual corner-cutting, is the Tibetan prayer wheels or mani chos kor. There are/were many different types of these. The picture shows a huge one people would actually get in and turn treadmill-style.
There have always been those who read, understood and tried to apply what the scriptures say as indeed there are today too, but the majority have always preferred the easy option, and in Tibet this meant turning a cylinder containing pages from the scriptures. And the final step in the process? Well, it can be a bit of a bother turning a prayer wheel all day. Throughout those countries and regions where Tibetan Buddhism prevails you’ll find prayer wheels turned by wind, water, heat and nowadays, by electricity. Gives new meaning to the phrase ‘saying prayers in a mechanical fashion.' You can even buy prayer wheel earrings which you can turn as you fiddle with your ear lobes when you’re bored. Well, it’s been a long and interesting journey from the Buddha’s original intention. Perhaps it time we went all the way back.

13 comments:

Vasile Andreica said...

Congrats for a brilliant insight into the silly religious mind. Sadhu, sadhu.

indigoblue said...

The human mind is indeed ingenious when it comes to inventing ways to avoid any real effort and understanding. The easy way out, turning a wheel in this case, is always the most attractive one it seems.
With Metta

yamizi said...

At least to my understanding, copying and paying homage to a Sutra may not necessary be taken by its literal meaning. It can also be meant that using one's own thoughts, speech and action to the apply the teachings in the sutra into life.

lzblue said...

Bhante,

The image
Huge-Wooden-Prayer-Wheel-at-Ladakh
is truly amusing and a musing.

Transient and Permanent said...

Doesn't this seems a little harsh? Virtually everyone in the scenarios you described would have been illiterate and therefore unable to access the teachings in anything approaching what you would consider a meaningful way. In that case, what exactly do you think this huge mass of illiterate people should've done--ignored the sutras as useless to themselves? By promoting devotion to the sutras the monks and nuns managed to instill deep faith in the teachings they contained, such that laypeople sponsored their creation and dissemination, thus ensuring the preservation and propagation of those teachings for the small minority of sangha-members who were able to read, understand, and explain them. It probably isn't an exaggeration to say that without the money offered to sponsor sutra copying and similar activities you decry here, Buddhism wouldn't exist in many of the places it does--it might well be totally extinct, in fact. Let's not forget that it is the ordained sangha that has often promoted these practices to the faithful laity, not the silly laity somehow misunderstanding and forcing popular practices onto the monks.

Konchog said...

The Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien did indeed visit Ladakh in 400CE, and described its thriving Buddhist culture. I don't see what's gained by criticizing anyone's efforts at making merit of any kind. I'm reminded of the story of the pig that inadvertently repaired a crack in a stupa with the mud on his rump, and this served as the merit to become Shakyamuni's last disciple.

Joe said...

totally agree bhante; if more buddhist follow and practice the buddha's earlier teachings...rather than be bogged down with dogmas and hearsay...maybe the buddha's intention to make his teachings look like a confusing array of "buffet spread" but yet didnt particularly say which "dish" is the best make people confused...

yamizi said...

Joe,

So can I say that Buddhism in yours and Bhante's perspective would be only reserve for people who are literate and well-learned?

Even a literate person may not have necessary understood what the scriptures are trying to imply.

I may not have agree to all the sutra-praying-rituals that this entry had mentioned, but bear in mind that there are still a handful of aged and illiterate; and another big group of people who are literate but probably no idea what the scriptures are about.

I would have agree more with TNP and Konchog, that these are just various skillful means that brings out the devotion from a lay people. Not everyone has the same capacities to read, listen, write, comprehend, etc.

If all of the above fails, at least have something to inspire the faith that this person will have in the Noble Triplegem.

Or of course, you or Bhante is trying to mean that to be a disciple of the Noble Triplegem,it is strictly confine to a scholar, historian or even a linguist.

Joe said...

hi yamizi

i think you got me wrong bro; wat i feel is the buddha's dharma though universal and applicable to all homosapiens (let alone sentient beings); NOT everyone has the "karmic affliation" to listen or practice it; i used to think that we should force-thoat the dharma to all non-buddhist/free thinkers but these days...i personally feel one has to have the "karmic affliation" to be in contact to the buddha's dharma...notice how ever we try to "drum" some sense to our friends; some just cant digest it; interestingly enough...if you observe insects and birds/animals at the monastry....though they can understand...they already have that karmic-link...maybe their next life.they will be reborn humans to listen to it. whereas a PHD-educated pastor; no matter how much you try...he will still stick to his one omnipotent creator....

Shravasti Dhammika said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Transient and Permanent, illiteracy does not or should not preclude people from knowing, thinking about and understanding the Dhamma, if the monks (who usually were literate) teach it to them. And indeed it seems at least during the first centuries of Buddhism many illiterate lay disciples did know the Dhamma well. My post is not a disparagement of making merit but a reminder that merit is not enough, that it should not be a substitute for a good solid knowledge and understanding of the Dhamma, which it often is. I do agree with you that it has generally been the monks who have encouraged merit-making rituals and practices. But I think that the Dhamma would have gone further into, not just the hearts but also the minds, of people if the monks had encouraged Dhamma study as much as they encouraged merit-making. This is what the Buddha hoped for in his lay disciples, 'I shall not pass into final Nirvana until the lay-men and lay-women are accomplished and well-trained, learned and erudite, knowers of the Dhamma, living by Dhamma and walking the path of Dhamma, not until they pass on to others what they have received from their Teacher and teach it, proclaim it, establish it, explain it, promote it and clarify it, not until they are able to use it to refute false teachings and impart this wondrous Dhamma' (D.II,105). This goes some way beyond turning prayer wheels or any other ritualized merit-making behaviour. The strength of the Dhamma in any country is not, or should not be judged by the number of stupas, statues or squares of gold leaf on statues, but by the depth of peoples commitment to know and practice the Dhamma.
Dear K
I had a look at my Fa-hsien (I always have a copy handy. He is one of my heroes) hoping that my memory had not failed me. It's happening more frequently nowadays. Fa-hsien mentions leaving Nagarahara (in Afghanistan), crossing the 'snowy mountains' presumably in Af again, arriving in Pit'u, according to Beal Rohi in Af again, and then coming to Mathura, south of Delhi. There is therefore, no mention of him going to Ladakh and I can find no mention of prayer wheels. The only other Chinese monk who visited this part of the world during the 4th cent was Sun Yun and he did not go to Ladakh or mention prayer wheels either. Good old Hiuen Tsiang (6th cent) got as far as Kulu and briefly described the area beyond there but makes not mention of prayer wheels or even Buddhism there. If my memory serves me right, the wonderful image of Maitreya at Mulbekh is amongst the oldest evidence of Buddhism in Ladakh and it dates from around the 7th century. To all my readers, if I've failed to read all this carefully enough or if there are accounts of other pilgrims to Ladakh at around this time that I do not know of, please let us know. And if I'm right perhaps someone could correct the Wikipedia entry on prayer wheels.

Terrance said...

Dear Bhante,

Thanks to your 1st picture, I now know what I was turning in Kamakura. I thought it was some kind of wooden lantern at that time ! Haha!

thisisthatis said...

Venerable,

Thank you for putting prayer wheels into historical perspective. It's good to know the history behind traditions and other things, and your post points out the subtle ways in which things change over centuries.

I imagine this treatment can be applied to many other aspects of contemporary practice.

In this case, however, it seems there is a strong attachment to rites and rituals as a means to spiritual progress. Isn't that one of the ten fetters?

Anjali