The prayer wheel is used by Buddhists in the Himalayan region, where it provides a simple way for devotees to symbolically recite sacred texts, or sutras, or call upon certain deities without actually reading the texts. Inside the cylinder of the wheel is a sacred text or secret formula, or mantra, written or printed on paper or animal skin. The most common mantra is “Om mani padme hum”, or “Praise to the Jewel in the Lotus” addressed to Avalokiteshvara, a bodhisattva, or compassionate being who has vowed to postpone his own enlightenment or nirvana in order to save others first. Suspended from the cylinder is a chain with a weight on its end, which helps the wheel to turn as the user rotates his or her wrist. I have had two prayer wheels for many years, neither of which is particularly valuable, but to me they are fascinating objects, ingenious in design and beautiful in the hope they offer to the illiterate who cannot read the prayers themselves, but can spin them instead.
Today, I gave one of them to a friend who I rarely see but whom I associate closely with some of the most meaningful moments I had working as a curator at Pacific Asia Museum. Veronica is a Japanese print dealer with a remarkable knowledge of her material. On several occasions she has patiently explained to me certain artists’ techniques and how to tell the age of a print, and she shared her knowledge of Japanese prints with others at a few programs I organized at the museum. But although we met through Japanese art, it was through her Tibetan Buddhist practice that we really became friends. She has long been passionately active in a local Buddhist community, or sangha, that was once led by Lama Chodak Gyatso, a dynamic and warm teacher in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. An inspiration to many Buddhist followers, Lama Gyatso launched a project to build a large, three-dimensional mandala for peace. Veronica approached me about displaying the mandala at the museum, and despite some difficulties with scheduling and a particularly fierce political battle in which I was embroiled at the museum, Veronica was a strong and supportive ally, and ultimately we were able to include it at the center of an exhibition and share it with thousands of people. The effect the mandala had on a wide range of museum visitors was wonderful to witness, and it ushered in a more peaceful phase at the museum. It has been nearly 14 years since we worked together on the mandala project and since then, our lives have only intersected occasionally, like today at the LA Art Show, but we still have a bond of mutual respect and affection. I felt it again today. Before I had a chance to give her the prayer wheel, she handed me a beautiful book on Japanese prints – a gift to me. To me, Veronica, with her deep knowledge and her kind, generous nature, embodies the Buddhist principles of wisdom and compassion, the qualities necessary to attain the spiritual enlightenment that so many Buddhists pray for using prayer wheels.