This project simply writes the mantra, Om Mane Padme Hum, in Tibetan ("ཨོཾ་མ་ཎི་པདྨེ་ཧཱུ") repeatedly to a text file, rewriting the file completely every one hundred thousand iterations, evoking the motion of a traditional prayer wheel. This piece runs continuously unless interrupted.
I decided to create this piece when, in Bhutan, I noticed a solar-powered prayer wheel for sale. Prayer wheels, large cylindrical drums printed with mantras, generally in Tibetan, originated in Vajrayana / Tibetan Buddhism as a way for the illiterate to gain merit (being unable to read and recite the mantras themselves they could simply rotate the drums, often ringing a bell in the process). Seeing a prayer wheel that isn't actually turned by an individual, but rather simply as a result of a solar cell and a motor, made me question its purpose. Who gains merit from its actions? The purchaser, the manufacturer, the wheel itself? This problem is not just limited to this small (and kinda hokey) piece of technology. Prayer flags themselves bestow merit through flapping and motion, and prayer wheels are occasionally designed to be turned by the wind rather than any hand. I believe this functions both as a unique religious technology in and of itself, and a radical rethinking of the concept of processing information.
This is problem is made deeper when modern computation is introduced, as it is in this piece. As the mantra is written and rewritten by the computer (onto a text file named prayer-wheel.txt), it is processing the information in an entirely distinct medium from the aforementioned prayer wheels and flags. This also begs the question of the value of digital 'work,' in comparison to the normal or physical, particularly when dealing with metaphysical benefits.
The lack of visuals which accompany this piece (it is simply run from the terminal, and only produces a number of 'rotations' as output), is a direct response to the importance of visual culture, particularly bright colors and ornate, symbolic designs, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. When writing this, I tried to keep my code as sparse as possible to further this distinction. This serves to emphasize the difference between this piece and traditional prayer wheels. Additonally, the text file is entirely rewritten every 100,000 repititions of the mantra, as this number is traditionally associated with the ngöndro, or preliminary practices in Tibetan Buddhism, which general include prostrations, mantra recitations, mandala offerings, and guru yoga practices.
My hope is this piece raises questions about the value of religious work, the distinction between natural and computational processing, and the interaction between modernity and religious tradition.
Simply clone this GitHub repository, compile it from the terminal using either the included make file (and either the command 'make' or 'make prayer-wheel') or compiler of choice, and run the resulting program.
Thank you to my Dadi for introducing me to religion as a process.