Acquiring Merit in Lama Lands

Glimpses of the Lama Religion in Tibet and Mongolia

By: Schuyler Cammann

Originally Published in 1949

View PDF

On a series of trips through the Tibetan borderlands of West China and Northern India, some years ago, and in Inner Mongolia at the end of the war, I made a special study of the Lama religion. In its popular form this is concerned mostly with the problem of how to gain spiritual merit. In fact, I got the impression that the chief obsession of monks and laymen alike in these lama lands was the struggle for money and merit. It seemed that even the richest and the technically most sanctified never appeared to feel that they had enough of either.

A painting of innumberable figures surrouding a Buddha.
Fig. 1. Tibetan Painting Showing the Chief Deities of Lama Buddhism. (Courtesy of the Newark Museum.)

Tibetan Buddhism, or “Lamaism” is the religion of several million people in Tibet and Mongolia, West China, and Northern India. It seems on first sight to be an extraordinarily complicated faith, with its hundreds of deities, all represented by images-of which the University Museum has a notable collection. It has Buddhas and bodhisattvas, and goddesses, not to mention numerous sainted priests and monks, converted demons, and heavenly guardians. (See Fig. 1.)

Only the most highly educated of the lamas could begin to name all these deities correctly, and tell what they stood for. But paradoxically, such men would privately admit that they were not especially important, in themselves; for all of them-except perhaps the saints-are only symbols of the one Supreme being, and the form in which he is approached by the worshipper does not much matter. However, for the majority of the lamas, who are not very well educated, and for the laymen, who seldom have any schooling at all, the religion is a much more primitive thing. It is this simpler religion, Tibetan Buddhism in its everyday form, that we will consider here.

View of a lamasery in a valley.
Fig. 2. A lamsery in Little Tibet. (Photo by the writer.)

The lamas, like other Buddhists, have inherited from earlier Indian religions a belief in the transmigration of souls. The ancient Indians thought that death did not put an end to life. It only altered the form of one’s life, without breaking the chain of existence, which would go on from death to rebirth, again and again, in a constant succession of changing states, until after long ages the present universe would be overthrown. The form of rebirth, they thought, was determined by the results of a person’s actions during life, which they called karma. Good karma, or accumulated merit, the result of kindness and good deeds, would insure a favorable rebirth, while a person with bad karma as the result of evil would be reborn as an animal, or even as a hell-being.

The historical Buddha, Sakyamuni, introduced a note of hope into this rather fatalistic belief. He taught that by following a plan of life that included meditation and self-denial, it would be possible to break entirely from the endless succession of unhappy lives and attain Nirvana, a condition of eternal bliss. Later Buddhists, and especially the lamas, popularized the religion until, as usually practiced, it had very little in common with their master’s teachings.

Two men standing with a child.
Fig. 3. Two lamasery officials and a young novice. (Photo by the writer.)

They did this especially by suggesting various simple ways of performing good deeds to offset bad karma, so that when an ordinary person died, his store of merit-like good marks in Heaven-would make a favorable impression on the gods. Then the latter would grant him a better rebirth, or even help him to break from the endless round of existence and enter one of the paradises which had been substituted for the more abstract Nirvana.

In most Buddhist countries, ordinary people may help their karma by acts of kindness toward men and animals, or by making pilgrimages to sacred places. But the Tibetans, while they enjoy pilgrimages as much as picnics, have developed the whole concept of merit-getting to a very high degree, so it has become a highly organized business.

On visiting the main temple-hall in a lama monastery of any size, one of the first things we always noticed was the large Wheel of Life chart on the porch. This expressed in graphic forms and gaudy colors, so that any layman could understand, the theory of rebirth and the reasons why merit is so desirable. One of the old Buddhist traditions tells that the Buddha himself ordered such a wheel to be set up in the gateway of an Indian temple, and the custom is supposed to have been brought to Tibet with Buddhism in the seventh century. (See Figs. 4 and 5.)

Painting showing the wheel of life in six segments, a demon holds the wheel.
Fig. 4. A wheel of life painting. (Courtesy of the late Quentin Roosevelt.)

The wheel is shown clutched in the grip of Mara, the Buddhist Satan, a three-eyed bear-like ogre who symbolizes the desire to cling to worldly existence instead of wishing for eternal peace. Around its rim are shown the twelve interrelating causes why unregenerate people remain within the Wheel; while on the hub in the center are pictured a wild dove, a serpent, and a pig, each biting the tail of the next to indicate a rotary action. These latter symbolize lust, hatred, and stupidity, the three vices that keep the wheel revolving through Time, and although this choice of creatures may differ rather widely from our own ideas of animal symbolism, they are really not ill-chosen. We Occidentals always think of “the dove of peace,” but the male bird puffing out his chest and scraping his tail feathers in the dust before his intended mate is the epitome of passion. Similarly the snake by the side of a path, striking out at a casual passerby is nothing if not malicious; and lastly, the lamas reason, is not the hog’s proverbial gluttony due largely to his stupidity in not knowing what is best to eat, or when to stop eating?

The six compartments of the wheel itself show the six worlds of rebirth. The worlds of men, of demi-gods, and of gods, are on the upper half, and are considered as superior places for rebirth; while below are the worlds of animals, or hungry ghosts and of the damned creatures in Hell.

The lamas realize that such a diagram is bound to make a greater impression on the ignorant, and hence have more educational value, if it is as graphic as possible. Thus they usually represent even the superior states as not too desirable, and the lower half luridly grim.

The world of men shows scenes from the daily Life of the people in town and temple, while some more modern ones, like one I saw in the State Lamasery at Gantok in Sikkim, include amusing caricatures of Europeans and other Asiatic peoples as well. The world of the demi-gods is a trifle more luxurious, but they are pictured constantly wasting their energies by jealous efforts to invade the land of the gods, being dissatisfied with their own domain. Even in the earthly paradise at the cop of the wheel, life is not all that could be desired, as it is frequently necessary for the gods to leave their pleasures and palaces in order to repel the invaders.

Painting of the wheel of life in many segments, with an outer rim in more segments, a demon holds the wheel.
Fig. 5. A wheel of life painting showing variations. (Courtesy of the Newark Museum.)

Oy contrast, the world of animals is a place of unrelieved misery. Land and water animals are depicted attacking and eating one another, while domestic animals are often shown submitting to torture and ill-treatment at the hands of men. The fact that Buddhists believe in the possibility of being reborn as an animal makes it easy to understand why they are strict about being vegetarians. (The Tibetans and Mongols are partial exceptions, as they find that some meat in the diet is necessary in the cold climate at high altitudes.)

The hungry or tantalized ghosts in the fifth world are the spirits of people who in human life have been miserly, uncharitable, or gluttonous. They have tiny mouths too small to take in enough food, and are constantly craving water to slake their thirst, which is indicated in the pictures by tongues of flame wreathing out from every orifice. The damned live in the lase compartment at the bottom of the wheel, where there are sixteen hells, eight hot and eight cold. Both types seem very vivid to the Tibetans and Mongols, who each year muse experience in their ordinary life the extremes of temperature. There are punishments to fit every crime. Liars, slanderers and gossips, for example, are pictured with vastly enlarged tongues which are continually being plowed over by active little demons driving reams of oxen; while butchers must undergo especially unpleasant treatment to atone for what they have done to helpless cattle. The more philosophic lamas will sometimes say that these tortures are not to be considered as actual, but are only the morbid creations of the individual’s own morbid thoughts, an infernal nightmare in the conscience. However, most lamas and practically all laymen believe that they really exist. Is it any wonder, then, that they are so anxious to gain merit to help chem escape all this?

Fortunately, none of these existences, not even the pains of Hell are thought to be permanent; and in this respect Buddhism is less severe than the many forms of Christianity which preach eternal damnation. For Chenrezig, the Lord of Mercy, is ever on hand to rescue lost souls and help them to a favorable rebirth. Frequent prayers to Chenrezig are also considered more effective than any other form of merit-gaining to help people to break from the wheel entirely. For this reason, he is usually pictured outside the wheel with the Buddha, who is shown pointing to mankind the way to salvation which he found for himself. (See Figs. 4 and 7.)

A carved prayer hweel with chain pull, on a handle.
Fig. 6. A hand prayer-wheel. (Photo by Reuben Goldberg.)
Image Number: 30379

The common, six-syllable prayer to Chenrezig, “Om mani padme hum,” is merely a repetition of his title, the Jewel in the Lotus. As such it is really more of a mystic formula or spell, than a prayer in our usual sense of the word. Educated lamas give various reasons to explain its use and value. One explanation is that the phrase is the essence of all happiness, prosperity, and knowledge, and the great means of deliverance, because each syllable shuts off a world of rebirth. Other lama authorities say that it is repeated in the hope of gaining an entrance to the Western Paradise, presided over by Chenrezig’s spiritual father, the Buddha of Boundless Light. For, what father, they ask, can resist the pleas of chose who have been continually praising his favored son? In any case, these are all merely rationalizations of a time-honored magic charm that has become associated with Chenrezig.

The commonest way to gain merit, then is by simply reciting the prayer to the Lord of Mercy. Passing the Tibetan pack trains, day or night, we always heard some of the muleteers droning monotonously in their deep bass voices, repeating the sacred phrase as they slipped through their fingers the worn beads of their rosaries. There is an easier method than that, though, a mechanical shortcut that must be familiar to anyone who has read about Tibet. This is the device of a spinning prayer wheel. In its simplest form, this is a cylindrical box of copper, silver, or bone, inside of which is a long roll of coarse paper, printed with a seemingly endless succession of Om-mani-padme-hums, revolving around a thin metal shaft set into a wooden handle. A small weight at the end of a cord or chain attached to one side of the container gives the wheel enough momentum after a couple of swings for it to continue spinning by itself for many revolutions. It must spin clockwise to be effective, as the words then theoretically pass before the eyes of the holder, even though they are unseen within the box, and each revolution counts in merit as though one had said or read many hundred prayers. Spun the wrong way, it is not only unlucky but subtracts from previously acquired merit-unless one belongs to the pre-Buddhist Bon religion, whose followers like to be different. (See Fig. 6.)

While the prayer wheels of the poorer people are usually severely plain, the better examples have written, in raised Sanskrit letters, around the outer cylinder, the six syllables that are repeated so many times inside. Some of the finest are often stamped or carved with elaborate figures, or even set with bits of coral and turquoise, the favorite stones of the Tibetans.

A statue of a seated buddha with hands together praying, wearing an elaborate crown.
Fig. 7. An image of Chenrezig. (Photo by Reuben Goldberg.)

Travellers whirl these prayer wheels as they stride along the mountain roads, or as they sit precariously atop the bulky loads on their pack-animals, and elderly people absent-mindedly twirl them as they stroll around to gossip in the evenings. No one can get enough merit. It may seem strange that when foreign travelers or explorers ask the people who are using these wheels-even lamas-what the prayer inside means, the majority frankly admit they don’t know, or else they merely simper with embarrassment and evade answering. The prayer wheel for them is merely a merit machine, and they never stop to question its workings.

For merchants or studious lamas who spend a good deal of their time seated at writing tables, there are stationary prayer wheels, shaped like a miniature Chinese pavilion, with an elaborate base and an upcurved roof. (See Fig. 8.) Through the open sides one, can see the prayer cylinder, which in this case is fastened to a slender axle that juts above the lid. A simple twist of the fingers can set this rapidly in motion like a child’s top. Since this form takes even less effort and concentration than the type on the handle, it is very popular with elderly people in second childhood.

Since the revolutions of a small wheel can accumulate so much merit, it seems perfectly logical to the lamas to assume that larger ones would produce even more, in proportion to their size. Consequently, many lamaseries have, either on the outer porch of the main temple, or in a special building of its own, an enormous prayer barrel. These are arranged to revolve on a strong vertical axle of metal, with a metal bar as a handle projecting at one side. Some of these contain thousands of prayer pages.

I saw one of these prayer-barrels in a West China lamasery near Likiang, that was eight feet high and four in diameter, yet so delicately balanced that it turned easily with only a slight pressure on the bar-handle. It was very gaudy, painted bright red with the six syllables of the prayer, in old Sanskrit letters, in other colors around the sides, and had a silken canopy hanging over it. As I stood in the small building examining it, a shifty-looking young novice-monk came in, pushed it around once with the minimum of effort, and left with the satisfied expression of a Boy Scout who has done his good deed for the day.

A prayer wheel in the shape of a house, the wheel can be viewed through the windows.
Fig. 8. A table prayer-wheel. (Photo by Reuben Goldberg.)

While travelling in Ladakh (Little Tibet), I noticed that both lamaseries and family homes often had prayer wheels ingeniously rigged to labor-saving devices, so they could revolve by themselves and only had to be looked at once in a while to make sure that the axles were not wearing out too rapidly. In fact the only signs of mass-production methods I saw in the whole culture were these, for speeding up the never-ending process of manufacturing merit.

The most common agencies for merit-storing in its “industrial” phase are wind and water. Atop one Ladakhi farmhouse, among fluttering prayer flags-in themselves purveyors of merit, I saw a row of ingenious little devices, each consisting of a pinwheel made of leather, with cup-shaped vanes, attached to one end of an axle, with a leather-bound prayer-cylinder on the other. Some were spinning madly in a strong wind that roared across the valley from the neighboring peaks, while a couple with damaged vanes revolved half-heartedly, scarcely doing their share in earning merit for the person who had set them up.

In the same district, Hemis monastery has a large prayer barrel set vertically on a heavy wooden shaft provided with paddles below, so as to make the type of water wheel found in Oriental rice mills. The barrel is kept constantly in motion by a small mountain stream that rushes down the slope behind the main temple and has been deflected through a channel into the building. As the water strikes the paddles, the heavy barrel revolves with a great clanking and groaning of timbers, grinding out prayers at a tremendous pace for the whole monastic community.

In the Nepalese lamasery at Darjeeling, in Northern India, I found a still more novel method of saying prayers vicariously. Before the main altar they had a large butter lamp, more than a foot in diameter, which was supposed to burn with an undying flame like a vigil light in a Catholic church. Suspended over this, like a giant lampshade, was a paper cylinder of about the same diameter. This was inscribed with a thousand repetitions of the ever-present Om-mani-padme-hum, and as the warm air from the melting butter rose, it passed out through thin slits between pinwheel-like vanes at the enclosed top of the cylinder, causing the whole thing to keep revolving slowly as long as the lamp remained lit.

A stupa admist hills, people walking around it.
Fig. 9. A Tibetan stupa built over a gate. (Photo by the writer.)

But, what might be called the simple handicraft method of merit-storing has by no means died out. Daily in the lamaseries, rows of monks sit cross-legged on low benches, reading off pages of the Tibetan Buddhist scriptures in deep bass voices. This is also to gain merit for the entire community. However, as their principal holy book, the Kangyur, is usually printed in one hundred and eight bulky volumes, and its scarcely less sacred commentary, the Tangyur, is in two hundred and five more, it would take years for one monk to read “book” all the way through. Thus there must be a division of labor. Each moderately literate man in the monastic community takes a sheaf of pages-they are not bound together, but merely stacked between board covers-and reads his own set. The droning din is frightful, as all read their separate pages aloud at the same time; but in this way a lamasery of the larger type, which may have several hundred monks in residence, can get through both books in a comparatively short time.

Except for the highest lamas, who have undergone a rigorous training from the time their parents presented them to the Church in boyhood, few monks know or care about the meaning of the words they read. They merely pronounce the sounds as recorded in the thirty-odd syllables of the Tibetan alphabet. As intellect plays no part in most of the reading, it is not surprising to find that some of the larger prayer barrels mentioned above, including a number I have seen in Mongolia, contain many volumes of the scriptures, which are cheerfully assumed as having been “read” with each revolution of the barrel. A famous one in the lamasery at Labrang in Northwest China, fills a building two stories high and contains complete sets of both the Kangyur and the Tangyur, making scripture-reading an easy job even for the illiterate.

In the monasteries, the making of paintings and images, or the copying of holy books, are all considered as specialized ways of gaining merit. Some of the simpler images are merely stamped out of clay with brass molds. But the metal ones, which often display considerable artistic refinement (as shown in Fig. 7.) are not made by amateurs. After serving a long apprenticeship under a master sculptor, a monk may devote his entire life to this.

A lama with a prayer wheel on one shoulder, a disciple carring books on his back.
Fig. 10. Traveling lama swinging prayer-wheel, while disciple carries books.

When a new lamasery is being decorated, or the frescoes renewed in an old one, the master painter sketches the details on the wall in charcoal, often using a previously prepared cartoon. Meanwhile his apprentices grind and mix paints, fill in the simpler outlines, and later do the backgrounds. Throughout the painting process, a chorus of monks chant the passage of the holy book that refers to the subject of the painting, so the artist will be sure to keep in the proper religious mood, and at the same time avoid omitting any details mentioned in the original text. In this way they also take their part in this particular act of merit.

There are a number of ways in which the laymen, too, can gain merit in big doses. In all Buddhist countries, as in Christian ones, the well-to-do can gain merit in Heaven and prestige with their fellow men by donating money or goods to the Church, either for charity or to be used toward building holy structures. In Tibet, the latter are temples, monasteries, or stupas. A stupa is a bottle-shaped tower built to contain the ashes or other relics of holy monks, prominent princes of the Church, or saints. The first of these repositories were traditionally made in Northern India to preserve the relics of the historical Buddha, and became important centers of pilgrimage. When this institution was brought to Tibet, where the stupas are called chorten, the architecture was slightly altered to make a distinctive Tibetan style that is now found all over Tibet and in the more settled districts of Mongolia. (See Figs. 9 and 11.)

In ancient India they also had a rite for acquiring merit called pradakshina. This consisted of merely walking around a temple, shrine, or stupa, “in the direction of the sun”-we would say clockwise. (This, you will remember was the direction in which the prayer wheels have to turn in order to be effective). The custom was carried to Tibet with the introduction of Buddhism, and in time, the Tibetans came to believe that by merely passing a stupa on the left, merit could be acquired with much less trouble.

A line of stupas in the midst of the mountains.
Fig. 1.. Chortens on the way to Leh. (Photos by the writer.)

Accordingly, chortens and “mani-piles” (little heaps of scone slabs each carved with Om-mani-padme-hum by seekers after merit) were placed in the middle of all roads leading to lamaseries or important towns, so that travellers would inevitably pass them, and in passing acquire grace. Passing on the wrong side is considered, like spinning a prayer wheel backwards, as a dangerous thing liable to undo a great deal of hard-earned merit. But there is small chance of this. Even the pack animals are trained to pass sacred monuments on the left, and if a man should ever absent-mindedly forget, his mount would automatically take him the proper way.

The mani-stone custom is carried to extremes near large centers of trade and pilgrimage, such as Leh, in Little Tibet. On entering that city from the southeast, I had to skirt one mani-wall over three-quarters of a mile long, with a huge chorten at each end. The top of the wall was covered with thousands of slate slabs, each carved to show the familiar prayer, or a sacred symbol, in bold relief. The mere production of these must have taken many years of many peoples’ time, but the net result was worth it by Tibetan standards, as the amount of merit to be gained by merely passing it would be beyond human calculation.

By far the most efficient method of merit-storing that I ever found, though, was in a lamasery near Likiang, on the Chinese-Tibetan border. Here several of the most approved methods could be practised at one and the same time. The main temple was surrounded by an enclosed passage way, in which a hundred leather-bound prayer cylinders were set into the inner wall, each containing a volume of the Kangyur (one version of which has only one hundred volumes). As the monks walked around the passage repeating their prayers, they would automatically be performing the rite of pradakshina in encircling the holy building. At the same time their shoulders, grazing the leather cylinders, would set them in motion and keep them revolving, thereby “reading” the scriptures. There was barely room to swing a hand prayer wheel, but some monks found this possible, too. In short, with all the merit thus accumulated, the whole community must have felt quite assured of being able to break the chain of rebirths, to free themselves from the Wheel of Existence.

Cite This Article

Cammann, Schuyler. "Acquiring Merit in Lama Lands." Museum Bulletin XIV, no. 2 (August, 1949): 2-17. Accessed May 29, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/bulletin/3130/


This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.