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Turning the Wheel of Dharma

Tibetan Prayer Wheel Coming to the Wood River Valley


by Tony Evans

The mantra Om Mani Padme Hum invokes the spiritual power and blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. In the words of one source “Chenrezig is the awakened nature of each being’s own mind, the love and compassion primordially present in the dharmakaya [pure transcending awareness] ... Chenrezig is within us because love and compassion are not qualities added to the mind, “but are inherent in our true nature.”

-Lama Zopa Rinpoche

My latest lesson in non-attachment came as the tickets ran out for the Dalai Lama’s 9-11 address at Wood River High School. Our family would have to seek enlightenment elsewhere, I mused, as I rode my bike past the skate-park where kids get weightless in moments of joyous singularity between body and mind above the concrete of non-being. We’d soon scramble eggs in a crowded kitchen and the wheel of Dharma would turn once more, regardless of our level of awareness on this dog-day afternoon in Hailey’s China Gardens, where pony-tailed coolies once set up laundries and opium dens or decamped from building the railroads of manifest destiny. Where nowadays most anyone can send and receive information from anywhere in the world- and where the far-flung cultures of the world can wind up on your doorstep, unannounced.

I punch up “Tibetan Prayer Wheel” and learn about Kiril Sokoloff’s gift to the Wood River Valley. About the millions of mantras of “Om Mani Padme Om” being sealed within the huge brass and copper drum of the wheel in Dharamsala India by practitioners of the Vajrayana. I think of its long journey to the West, where the secular leaders of our little valley are unsure of its significance. “Is it religious or artistic?” they ask. I am told there are “separation of church and state issues” to be addressed. The monks I encountered in the Himalayas would hardly separate church from lunch and seemed in some ways better for it.

Countless stones in the Himalayas are carved with this same mantra and placed in streams so the water flows over them, or painted on flags and coaxed by the wind into a dance between human consciousness and something more elemental. No separation between creature and creation. What did those monks in the Himalayan caves and monasteries discover about this thing called mind and of the ultimate potential of humankind? Perhaps we should we care as the Maoists continue to shoot up the trekking trails of the Annapurnas, and as terrorist bombs of extremism explode each week.

Something I read or saw in Northern India in my twenties allowed me to consider every thought and motion as a divine act. As a naïve spiritual tourist I found that by simply turning the big, gold-painted prayer wheels of Dharamsala connected me with an ancient ritual and brought all those mixed feelings and conflicting reports out of my crowded mind and broken heart, and into the physical realm from which my entire being had mysteriously issued in the first place. Intelligent choice had become exquisite torture for me until I suddenly discovered I could simply bless any experience. It was a jungle ‘out there’, only because it was a jungle ‘in here’. Instead of wondering which tail to grab the world by I gradually traded my grandiose ambitions for a more reasonable perspective on life. What little I knew of Buddhism somehow allowed this to begin.

After living a life of princely pleasures and extreme poverty, the Buddha is said to have become “awakened” or enlightened as to the universal causes of suffering. Much has been written of the “noble eight-fold path” which leads away from suffering and attachment and toward a realization of the common terms of existence which all people face. As a code of ethics it resembles many of the world’s religions. According to Rick Fields, author of How the Swans Came to the Lake: A History of Buddhism in America, it takes about 200 years for a country to acquire its own style of Buddhism. The USA has its own teachers now, but most of us will only get bits of learning with regard to Buddhism’s long history of teachings and intricate symbologies; many of which are too culturally specific to make much sense to the average American.

In the mantric tradition of Tibet, language had a sacred, even magical character. All of the teachings of the Buddha are said to be contained within these syllables: “Om Mani Padme Om”. Prayer wheels inscribed with these characters are a form of spiritual technology meant to spread blessings. But they also are emblematic of a highly evolved sense of reality based less on dogma than on hundreds of years of collective experience in the subtle realms of thought and emotion. Without some understanding of the spiritual tradition behind the Mani wheel, its turning could be only an empty ritual, just as Zen practice without some instruction is merely a sitting contest. What ties the diverse Buddhist traditions together is a focus on the here and now. Even though the present moment may seem highly over-rated at times, the basic idea behind enlightenment is that if it’s not happening now, its probably not happening at all.

Prayer Wheels are painstakingly filled with millions of written prayers which, when turned, chanted or viewed bring us closer to the mind of the Buddha and his compassion for all sentient beings. With rituals such as these, the attainment of singular purpose transcends the opposite perspectives which cause confusion in the mind. Because of this, the Buddha is often said to have discovered the ‘Middle Path” to enlightenment. Non-duality begs the question: Are there any true distinctions between religion, art, and science? Between Republicans and Democrats. Between self and other?

Tony Evans is a freelance writer and English tutor living in Hailey Idaho. He can be reached at He also leads a series of writing workshops throughout the year.