Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann recently traveled to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. His second dispatch follows. Click to read his first dispatch.
Permit me to begin with a disclaimer: I am not a Buddhist, and my understanding of Buddhist concepts is superficial. What follows is my understanding of various Mahayana Buddhist activities as practiced in Bhutan, but I’m aware that, as with most religions, there are many interpretations and varying practices of religious ritual and understanding of symbolism. If I’ve gotten something wrong, or am describing an interpretation that you disagree with, please feel free to add any corrections of fact or additional interpretations in the comments below.
I’ve observed that prayer wheels and prayer flags are common features in Himalayan Buddhist societies, but nowhere are they more ubiquitous than in Bhutan.
The concept of religious “merit” is very important in these societies, and merit can be obtained in several ways.
For example, prayer, or visitations and donations to temples, or selfless action, speech and deeds all accrue merit, but an efficient way is to spin a prayer wheel or string prayer flags. (View a slideshow from Arnie's visit to Bhutan by clicking here or on the photos.)
A prayer wheel is typically a metal cylinder containing a wound scroll upon which the prayer “Om mani padme hum” (“Behold the jewel in the lotus”) is written repeatedly.
You can say the prayer aloud, but if you spin a prayer wheel, with each revolution you’ll get merit for every repetition of the prayer, for as many times as it is written.
The wheels may be attached to handles, and twirled as one walks along, or can be mounted on a spindle. The fixed ones are frequently placed in a row, by the dozens, in recesses running the length of interior and exterior walls of temples, positioned at a height that makes it easy for a person walking along the walls to give each a spin as he or she passes.
Some wheels are enormous — several yards high with a diameter of four feet or more — that have grips attached so one can revolve them by walking around them in a circle.
(The wheels are always spun clockwise — any artifact, monument or building associated with religion is likewise circumvented in a clockwise direction.)
Most villages we passed had a very large wheel in the town square, and the big ones often have a stick protruding from the top to ring a mounted bell with each revolution. (The bell reminds passersby of temples, and Buddha. Through this outreach to others, even more merit is obtained.)
Bhutan is very keen on sustainability — sustainable energy policy, sustainable tourism programs — and has, for centuries, also practiced sustainable prayer.
Large prayer wheels are hooked up to simple turbines to capture the power of streams, which spin the wheels, often quite quickly, as the water flows beneath.
Many cars we passed had small, solar powered prayer wheels mounted and spinning on their dashboards.
Likewise, wind power is put to good use to flutter prayer flags, colorful squares of easily-weathered cloth with prayers printed upon them. We saw thousands of them, lining every bridge, strung from houses or temples, between trees and across narrow valleys and wide rivers (shot across with arrows, we were told — archery is the national sport of Bhutan).
Some were simply put up vertically, on high poles. They are a lovely, atmospheric addition to Bhutan’s already stunning scenery.
Our guide, Mr. Nado, is a practicing Buddhist who did his best to explain the complex religion to my family as we visited many temples. (He did note, “The more you learn, the more confusing it gets.”)
My two sons listened carefully, and each reacted according to his temperament. My energetic 8-year-old, who is curious about the spiritual, embraced it all, earnestly imitating Mr. Nado’s respectful activities in the temples.
He chose a small prayer wheel as a souvenir, and spinning it seemed to relax him in situations when I would have normally expected to see him fidget.
His 10-year-old brother is of a more practical nature, but after whispering to me that he didn’t really believe in the religion, he nonetheless couldn’t pass a prayer wheel without giving it a spin and also imitated Mr. Nado’s rituals in the temples.
At first I thought my older son was, pragmatically, hedging his bets about merit, but I came to see that his affection for Mr. Nado led him to behave in a way that he believed was an appropriate show of respect for Mr. Nado’s beliefs.
As for my wife and me, our respect for Mr. Nado also led to a deeper interest in his religion. We also spun prayer wheels — it’s fun and meditative, regardless of belief — and we became especially appreciative of a people and culture that nurtured a deepening sense of respectfulness and calm in our sons.