Tibetan prayer flags

Information: This article discusses the history and use of prayer flags in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. For more information on Tibetan Buddhism see Tibetan Buddhism: Key facts.

Introduction

'What we think, we become.' (Buddha)

Recently I came across a Tibetan Prayer Flag Pack in a local bookstore. The pack contains a book about the origins and history of Tibetan prayer flags, a set of inscribed prayer flags and a set of blank prayer flags and pens with which to make your own. You can see more of the set I purchased by clicking through the pictures below.

The Tibetan Prayer Flag Pack, published by Cider Mill Press Book Publishers (2006)

Prayer flags are very popular in Tibetan Buddhism. Now this might seem paradoxical to some people because prayer is often associated with the idea of communicating with a deity (or God), yet Buddhists are in fact atheists. However, in Tibetan Buddhism prayer flags are more to do with spreading a sense of goodwill, and letting people know that you wish them well.

'The Tibetan name for prayer flag is Dar Cho. "Dar" means to increase life, fortune, health and wealth. "Cho" means all sentient beings. Prayer flags are simple devices that, coupled with the natural energy of the wind, quietly harmonise the environment, impartially increasing happiness and good fortune among all living beings.' (Clark T., The Prayer Flag Tradition, www.prayerflags.com)

Origin and history

The use of pieces of primary coloured cloth by Bn priests during healing ceremonies, dates back to pre-Buddhist times in Tibet. The primary colours represented the primary elements (earth, air, fire, water, wind), and when these were arranged around a sick patient it was believed they would harmonise those elements in their body, thus balancing (or curing) their emotional and/or physical 'illness'.

Coloured cloths were also tied to rocks and trees by priests, so as to appease the gods and to bring 'balance' (or order) to nature.

When Buddhism was brought to Tibet by Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche) around 700CE, he blended the Bn and Buddhist worldviews thus giving Tibetan Buddhism many of its Bn-inspired features (a process known as syncretism). The use of prayer flags in Buddhism evolved from this union.

It is said that some of the prayers still seen on flags today were composed by the founder of Tibetan Buddhism Guru Rinpoche, in response to being asked by the King of Tibet to do something to control the forces preventing the spread of Buddhism at that time (8th Century CE).

How prayer flags are made

Initially prayer flags would have been made of cotton, dyed with natural inks, and hand painted. However, the introduction and use of wooden printing blocks from China in the 15th Century made the process of producing them easier, and also allowed for designs to be passed down to subsequent generations within families.

Nowadays flags are often found to be made using modern inks, materials and printing methods (although the designs are still relatively unchanged).

The prayer flags in the set I bought would have most likely been printed using a silk-screen method.

What is found on prayer flags

Although it is not known whether Bn priests wrote on their 'flags', Tibetan Prayer Flags are said to have Bn-influenced imagery on them. Most of the prayer flag designs were created by Buddhist masters, and as such lay people would not think of designing their own. The writing on the flags is an Indian script, and is either a mantra (a series of words or sounds, which when recited over and over again are intended to focus one's thoughts and aid concentration), or a sutra (sayings or teachings directly attributed to the Buddha) or a prayer.

The most famous (and revered) mantra in Tibetan Buddhism is Om Mani Padme Hum, which can be translated as, 'Come! Jewel in the Lotus! In my heart!'. This mantra is also associated with Avalokitesvara (the Buddha of Compassion).

Modern prayer flags may include prayers written by the Dalai Lama.

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What the colours and symbols mean

Although some variations can be found, this is the most popular interpretation of the colours on prayer flags:

 

 

 

       

Space/sky/wind

Air

Fire

Water

Earth

The five colours can also represent the five directions (north, south, east, west, center), the five meditation Buddhas (Vairocana, Akshobya, Amoghasiddhi, Ratnasambhva, Amitabha), and also the five wisdoms (the wisdom of the universal law, the wisdom of the mirror, the wisdom of equality, the wisdom of distinction and discernment, and the wisdom of accomplishing works).

As Tibetans were a largely nomadic people, the horse is a popular symbol on prayer flags and represents the idea of energy and good fortune. Horses also represent the notion of an uplifting energy, which will quickly carry prayers along on the wind.

Aside from horses one can also find images of Avalokitesvara (Chenrezig), the Bodhisattva of compassion, Stupas (which represent the Buddha's Enlightenment), the Buddha himself, medicine Buddha, Mahakala (a tamed demon who is now the fierce protector of the dharma), Padmasambhava (bringer of Buddhism to Tibet), and Tara.

Other images found on prayer flags are:

  • Animals which represent the qualities one needs to attain Enlightenment: Tiger (confidence), Lion (joy), Garuda (wisdom), Dragon (power), which are also known as the Four Dignitaries.
  • Symbols of good fortune: Parasol (protection, wealth, power), golden fishes (wisdom and being relieved of suffering), treasure vase (fulfillment and prosperity), lotus (purity), right-turning conch shell (spreading the Buddha's teaching), endless knot (connection), victory sign (knowledge, happiness, victory over ignorance and negative influences) and a wheel (the turning of the dharma).

The horse is a popular symbol on prayer flags

When, where and how to hang prayer prayer flags

Prayer flags are normally hung outside (due to the idea of the wind blowing 'prayers' around), but they can be set anywhere. Some places where prayer flags are often found are:

  • Around a home or business premises
  • In the garden
  • In any public place where people are walking by
  • Around a flagpole

Lung ta is the Tibetan word for 'Wind horse', and is also the name for prayer flags which have been hung horizontally.

Prayer flags hanging along a mountain path in Nepal (Source: Wikipedia)

Prayer flags hanging along a mountain path in Nepal (Source: Wikipedia)

Something to think about: Why do you think prayer flags have been hung along this mountain path?

It is very common to find prayer flags being hung on special occasions (E.g. At new year, when a baby is born, at weddings, at the start of a new business venture), but also during more difficult and somber times (E.g. When someone dies, at funerals, during times of war). For this reason, prayer flags can also be grouped into several categories:

  • Wind horse: To bring about good fortune and to give energy to those within the vicinity of the flag.
  • Victorious banners: To overcome obstacles and disturbances.
  • Health and longevity banners: To bring about health and long life.
  • Wish-fulfilling prayer: A prayer of protection written by Padmasambhava.
  • Praise to the 21 Taras: To spread compassionate blessings.

However, the most important thing about prayer flags is not such much where or when they are being hung, but why they are being put up:

'When raising prayer flags proper motivation is important. If they are put up with the attitude "I will benefit from doing this" – that is an ego-centered motivation and the benefits will be small and narrow. If the attitude is "May all beings everywhere receive benefit and find happiness," the virtue generated by such motivation greatly increases the power of the prayers.' (Clark T., The Prayer Flag Tradition, www.prayerflags.com)

How to dispose of old flags

Prayer flags are not meant to last forever, and will eventually disintegrate if left exposed to the elements (reminding Buddhists once again that nothing is permanent (anicca)). When they have done their job, flags can be taken down and replaced with new ones. However, the old ones should not be thrown in the rubbish, but should be burnt. This is so that their ashes might be scattered into the wind, and in doing so they will be returned to the earth in order that their blessings might be carried further.

Further reading