Wednesday, February 05, 2020

Prayer Wheels Came from Where?



It’s such a pleasure to read the essays of Rasé Konchok Gyatso, each one devoted to a subject even more interesting than the last. Now is one of those times I wish I had paid more frequent attention to modern writings, although I refuse to regret all those years I was caught up in the 12th century. Hell, I still am. Anyway, here is my aim today: I just want to draw attention to a brave attempt to ascertain the time and place of origins of what the world knows as Prayer Wheels.

The Prayer Wheel, to call it by its popular-in-English but imprecise name, is one of the objects most associated with Tibetans, a kind of cultural marker of Tibetan-ness, in fact one of the best known such markers. As Rasé starts out his essay (I’m paraphrasing or summarizing in the following paragraph): 

Nowadays one of the special things that marks those who have faith in Tibetan Buddhism is the hand-held Mani Wheel and the more general category of Mani Wheel. There are nowadays, he tells us, even electrically powered Mani Wheels of various sizes, and they are often to be seen in Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and areas of China. As possible sources for the earliest history of the object, he turns first to a “table of contents” of Ka-tshal Monastery, which lists one owned by Emperor Songtsen the Wise. He then mentions a story of one brought to Tibet by the Chinese princess Wenching Kongjo, and a Chinese Wheel of the Jowo (Jo-'khor Rgya-nag-ma) kept as one of the chief objects of veneration in Beru Monastery in Nangchen. Then he quotes at some length from a text devoted precisely to the subject, Talk of Immortal Joy: Precepts of All the Victors.* This text with no authorship statement attributes the same origins to the Wheel as is ordinarily given for the Perfection of Wisdom, which is to say that Nâgârjuna brought it to India from the land of the nâgas presumed to be in the ocean’s depths. It then followed the main trunk of the early Kagyu lineage, through Naropa, Marpa, Milarepa and so on. The Talk text says if you want to know more on the subject, look at the works of Karma Pakshi (1204 or 1206-1283 CE).

(*I supply the link to the cursive manuscript of which he speaks at TBRC. I think the printer named in the colophon as Rgyal-sras Rin-chen-rnam-rgyal is likely to be the one and the same as well-known printer Lha-btsun Rin-chen-rnam-rgyal [1473‑1557 CE], although this could benefit from further verification. On 2nd thought, he can't possibly be the Lha-btsun, because it says he was printing on the orders of Dwa-ching Ba-dur, this title, when used on its own, can be nothing except a way of speaking about Khangchenné Sönam Gyelpo, ruling Regent of Tibet until he was murdered by his ministers in 1727 CE. This is very likely some version of the Tibetan text that underlies the translation in Ladner et al., pp. 63-75. See its closing words on p. 75: “[This was written] by Rinchen Nampar Gyalwa in response to the inquiry of Tedai Chingwadur.”)

But then all of a sudden on p. 1383, all this purported evidence starts to lose air. In all the biographies of the early Kagyü masters, he says, and in all the works associated with them, not once does a Wheel make an appearance. It is true that if you inspect the works of Karma Pakshi, you do find out how four Skygoers revealed to him in a dream a melody for the Mani recitation. This initiated the practice of singing it rather than just reciting it, but it has no implications at all for the use of Wheels. Another fascinating and difficult work of the same author — recently studied by Matthew Kapstein* — does mention the turning of wheels, but there is no way this could refer to the Wheels as we know them.
(*See Kapstein’s work listed below. A side issue: If it is so that Tibetans did not do the Wheel turning practice in pre-Mongol times, then it does cast a shadow on Lynne White Jr's idea that the ball-and-chain governor would have been brought to Italy from Tibet via Central Asian slaves in the later days of the Mongol period of Eurasian domination. What would seem to be the case instead  is that both Italians and Tibetans were beneficiaries of a technology that some third party invented. )

The Rasé essay goes on to discuss the Mani Kambum evidence associating the practice with Emperor Songtsen (1st half of 7th century). He finds that when it speaks of the benefits of reciting the Mani, it intends just recitation, not Wheel turning, and likewise one finds no positive evidence in works of Nyangral (1124-1192) and Guru Chöwang (1212-1270). Rasé then concludes that there is absolutely no indication of the existence of the Wheel turning practice in the 14th century or before. To be clear, he isn’t ready to say exactly when or by whom the practice was first done, and finds it sufficient to be a little vague about dates if that’s the best we can do. I agree with that, too. I might not be so convinced that the large Wheels arrived first, and hand-held Wheels later, although I think I can see the logic of believing so, since the latter involves a technological innovation: the ball-and-chain governor.*
(*And, I might add, the early Huayen Chinese temples with their revolving libraries better compare to the large Wheels than to the hand-held ones. For one thing they lack the ball-and-chain governor. Oh, and the Chinese examples weren’t round cylinders, they were octagonal. I have a lot to say about octagons, but I’ll hold off on this for now.)

Then he goes on to some of these later works, including early 19th century works by Gungthangpa and Sengchen Lama already studied over three decades ago,* but newly indicating sources in works by Kagyü authors of the late 15th through early 17th centuries.
(*The footnote got too long, so I moved it to the end.)
It would be the more interesting part of the blog, but for the time being I will stick to the historical question of origins and avoid commenting on the past and contemporary significance of Wheel revolving practices, although the learned Rasé does go into this issue. He believes most people would benefit more if they would do more serious reading, study and reflection on the Buddhist texts and ideas, and less spinning. 

Once as I was traveling in the northern India I stopped in one of those travelers’ cafés for a much-needed tea, I happened to sit across from a young Britisher holding and turning what has to be the largest hand-held wheel I’ve ever seen. It had a huge cylindrical drum and a handle so long you could rest the end of it on the ground even when spinning in a standing position. It did make me curious, so I got into a conversation with him about it. By the time it was done I had the impression he was sincerely involved in the practice, and not just having a bit of fun. Not simply appropriating inappropriately, as we might be more likely to conclude when faced with things of this sort nowadays.

Today our most cosmopolitan convert Buddhists, as well as many young born-Buddhists, attracted as they are to the more cerebral science-like or philosophical types of Buddhism — or targeting what they regard as more profound meditations — almost instinctively disdain the practice. Or, even if they imagine it may be some good to some people some of the time, would never think of engaging in it themselves. People who see the Wheels turning might think it’s superficial when the problem is they are only seeing the surfaces of things. I think Rasé would agree with me that the practice has little or no value if it is in fact done mechanically. It ought to be part of a more general practice that includes actual (not virtual, digital, or mechanical) mantra recitation  and the visualization of divine forms of enlightened wisdom. But then as far as I think I can tell, it always is. So, no problem, is there? Do you see any?






At the Library, on a Cloudy Day

M. Kapstein, “The Dialectic of Eternal Heaven: A Tibetan Defense of Mongol Imperial Religion,” contained in: Matthew T. Kapstein and R. Jackson, eds., Mahāmudrā and the Kagyü Tradition, International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies (Andiast 2011), pp. 259-316. 
If you would like to try your hand at this or sharpen your skills, try to find the 2nd Black Hat Karmapa’s work in TBRC. To do this it may help you to know that it bears the title Dam pa'i chos 'dul ba'i gling bzhi [~gleng gzhi] na gos dmar can gyi yul nas 'ongs pa'i mkhas pa yang dag phyi rol nyid bzhugs gsungs te / de la sha na pa'i gos can 'jam dpal dmar po la sogs pa'i tshan 'brug tsam du tha snyad 'dogs shing ngo bo cig la / mthong tshul tha dad pa 'di lta ste / mo gho ding ri'i sgra tshad. Well, on second thought, follow my advice and just search for the last six syllables.

Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), China Illustrata

I’m not entirely sure of it, but this work first published in 1667 may be the first ever illustration of a Tibetan Prayer Wheel. A little difficult to make out, you may have to take a second look at p. 60 of Charles van Tuyl’s English translation from the Latin, as published by Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies (Bloomington 1987), on the first page of Part II, Chapter 4. A "Tartar Kalmak Lama,” whatever that is supposed to mean, indicates with his right hand an immobile Wheel on a cubic pedestal below himself. Look closely and you will see that the cylinder is a little too elongated, but the handle is clearly visible, and off to its right you can see the ball-and-chain governor is straight, but angled awkwardly at around 3 o’clock. It looks as if it may have been held in the hand of the figure in the original sketch, but the illustrator took the liberty of portraying it separately. In any case, this visual European evidence doesn’t help us move back the dating of the hand-held Wheel.

L. Ladner, et al.Wheel of Great Compassion: The Practice of the Prayer Wheel in Tibetan Buddhism, Wisdom Publications (Boston 2001).

H. Loveday, “La bibliothèque tournante en Chine: Quelques remarques sur son rôle et son évolution,” T'oung Pao, 2nd series vol. 86, nos. 4-5 (2000), pp. 225-279. 
Loveday believes the building of these revolving libraries in monastery temples was very popular in China between the 11th and 13th centuries. Although only two examples have survived from those early times, we do have clear descriptions of them starting in the 11th. There is more literature on the subject of revolving libraries in China, so I only offer this as a sample, a recent sample. For visuals, try searching the internet for the words "revolving repository" or "revolving library" using the quote marks, and perhaps narrow down your search by adding China or Buddhist.

Ma-'Khor-lo'i Phan-yonSee it here
Apart form a partial translation in outline/summary form included in this essay by His Holiness Jigdal Dagchen Sakya entitled The Use and Benefits of Prayer Wheels, I’m not sure if anyone has made use of this text, printed at a Drigung site in Tibet in woodblock form in around mid-20th century. No author is immediately evident. Even if there is a tertön named near the end, he’s only tertön of a brief appended prayer, not of the work proper. Seeing that it hasn’t been completely translated as far as I can tell, I posted my own translation at Tiblical website. I translated this many years ago, and have only now dusted it off and polished it ever so slightly.

D. Martin, “On the Origin and Significance of ‘Prayer Wheels’ According to Two Nineteenth-Century Tibetan Literary Sources,” The Journal of the Tibet Society, vol. 7 (1987), pp. 13-29. Try to get the PDF by tapping twice on the title.

Rasé Konchok Gyatso (Ra-se Dkon-mchog-rgya-mtsho), “Ma-i ’Khor-lo dang Lag-’khor Rigs-kyi Byung-tshul Dpyad-gleng,” contained in the same author's Bod Rig-pa’i Dpyad-rtsom Brgya dang Brgyad-cu-ma, Bod Rang-skyong Ljongs Dpe-skrun Do-dam Khru’u (Lhasa 2016), at pp. 1381-1390.

G. Schopen, “A Note on the ‘Technology of Prayer’ and a Reference to a Revolving Bookcase in an Eleventh-Century Indian Inscription,” contained in: Gregory Schopen, Figments and Fragments of Mahâyâna Buddhism in India, University of Hawai’i Press (Honolulu 2005), pp. 345-349. 
I might point out that if the Tibetan practice as such did not exist in the 11th century, then it might cast doubt on the interpretation of this Indian inscription as an instance of it. But then again, I believe Huayen temples in quite early times, let’s say in the 7th century, and in areas not impossibly far from the Tibetan plateau, did have revolving scriptural bookracks. To this Chinese Buddhist evidence of revolving holy texts our contemporary essayists including Rasé could have given more attention (see the Loveday, listed above).




For your more dedicated Tibeto-logicians, some further complications about sources

For the two compositions by Gungtangpa and Sengchen, both done at the behest of Mongolian disciples, see Martin, listed above, noting that translations of both texts appear in Ladner et al., pp. 53-61, 77-79. Left unnoticed in both Martin and Rasé's essays is yet a 3rd early 19th-century composition, one by the Fourth Panchen Lama (1781/2‑1853/4 CE) translated in Ladner et al., pp. 41-51, and the Kumbum printing of this text can be found here. It could not be immediately located in a listing of titles in the 4th Panchen Lama’s works, although it might have been included in his miscellany (gsung thor-bu), something I haven’t checked yetLadner et al., pp. 81-84, also has a briefer work by a Mongolian Lama of Urga: Kyai-rdor Mkhan-po Ngag-dbang-mkhas-grub (1779-1837 CE)on the benefits of turning Wheels. For its Tibetan text, try here.



Illustration from Alphabetum Tibetanum (1762), courtesy of
New York Public Library Digital Collections
If you require a brief introduction to the book itself,
look here.

Additives may be good for you (May 5, 2020):

I learned from an article by Fabio Rambelli I just read that revolving scripture repositories, “normally octagonal,” existed in Japan, too. Although documentation is not available for several more centuries, the Chinese figure credited with their invention was Fu Xi (497-569 CE), aka Fu Dashi. They were brought to Japan by Zen monks in the late 14th century. One of the oldest ones that still exists in Japan, built in 1408, contains a printed edition of the scriptures from Yuan period Hangzhou. This information goes along with a lot of theoretical reflections about culturally differing attitudes toward automation and automatons that often made me think of that old blog about “Dampa’s Droids.” I did wonder how the shakuhachi flute could enter into this kind of discussion (I never heard that Indians, Buddhist or otherwise, ever classified musical instruments as a kind of yantra), but then found myself convinced. Just search the internet for “Dharma Devices, Non-Hermeneutical Libraries, and Robot-Monks: Prayer Machines in Japanese Buddhism,” Journal of Asian Humanities at Kyushu University, vol. 3 (2018), pp. 57-75.  Most of the information I mentioned could also be found, in shorter form, in Rambelli’s book, Buddhist Materiality: A Cultural History of Objects in Japanese Buddhism, Stanford University Press (Stanford 2007), pp. 106-107, in case you have this book or can locate the pages in Kugel Books. And while you are there, see if you can go here.

8 comments:

  1. The quality of the illustrations (and of the translation, in passing) of Van Tuyl’s edition of Kircher is not great, see the original (scans are online) instead. The image is also out of sync with the text with respect to the original: beneath the image comes the explanatory text found on the end of page 62. On page 63 we find a mention of the wheel: “Figure IV shows an instrument. It is a prayer wheel on a stick, which is whirled around by the heathen congregation while the lamas pray.”

    I have a hunch that Waddell talks about this somewhere as well.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dear JB,
    Good hunch! Waddell does have what looks like a guess-timation for the time of earliest evidence. I found it here, in footnote 3 on page 149 of Waddell's book Buddhism of Tibet or Lamaism:

    Rockhill, in The Land of the Lâmas, London 1891, page 326, notes that Wilhelm de Rubruk, writing in the second half of the thirteenth century A.D. (Soc. de Geog. de Paris, IV., page 283) states regarding the Buddhist Monks of Karakorum : “Habent etiam quocumque vadunt semper in manibus quandam testem centum vel ducentorum nucleorum sicut nos portamus paternoster et dicunt semper hec verba on man baccam, hoc est Deus, tu nosti, secundum quod quidam corum interpretatus est michi, et totiens exspectat, remunerationem a Deo quotiens hoc dicendo memoratur.”

    Checking the source in Rockhill's book, I see that what he says is the "earliest mention" concerns the Mani prayer only, not of the wheel. Still, in his quote from Wm. of Rubruck (travels dating 1253-1255), you can't help getting the feeling that what those Karakorum monks in Mongolia had "semper in manibus" would have to be the Hand Wheel even if it isn't explicit. (Rockhill's inconclusive discussion of the Wheel and its origins comes much later, on p. 334 of his book, where he does say it is "unquestionably old.")
    Thanks for your valuable input, JB. A mid-13th century source attesting to the Hand Wheel would make a difference to the dating question, for sure. More analysis is much to be desired.
    Yours,
    D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. PPS:
      On 2nd thought, I guess what the monks had "semper in manibus" would have been rosaries. I guess Paternoster in this case doesn't mean the prayer, but the rosary used to count them off. So, no, I don't think Rubruck proves anything about Wheels.

      Delete
  3. PS: For the online editions of China Illustrata of which JB spoke, try here:
    https://htext.stanford.edu/content/kircher/china/kircher.pdf
    and if you can manage Latin here:
    https://archive.org/details/BIUSante_00988

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Dan: Waddell's "Lamaism in Sikkim" has a mention, but no historical details. Here's another book specifically on the subject, which I haven't read, but which might contain further pointers: https://archive.org/details/thebuddhistprayi00simpuoft/page/n6/mode/2up

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh yes, the Wm. Simpson book, I know it. It was written in those golden days of rampant comparativism (as people would call it nowadays), just after Frazer's Golden Bough, with the result that so little of it is about the Tibetan Wheel despite its promising title, as you can see anyway by just looking at the TOC. I just checked, and see that Goobledeguk Books doesn't have a searchable copy of it ("no preview" it says), so I guess we won't be able to quickly locate anything in it, to think we might have to actually read it... Oh my.
    Your
    D

    ReplyDelete
  6. Fret not Dan, the Internet Archive provides machine-readable formats (and even OCR scans most of the time): click on "full text" on the right hand panel, and away you go.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Well, you're right, JB. If the PDFs aren't already OCRed, they are at least OCRable. And then searchable, assuming good OCRing took place. So many possibilities, so little time!

    ReplyDelete

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