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.