Many places in Nepal, Tibet, and the Himalaya region, wherever prayers can meet the wind, are decorated with colorful flags. These flags are fluttering on temples, holy sites, roof-tops of houses, mountain summits. Tibetans believe that the wind that blows through them brings blessings to all sentient beings.
The prayer flags tradition originates in India where the Indian Buddhist Sutras, written on cloth, were transmitted to other parts of the world. According to a legend, the first prayer flags were battle flags where Shakyamuni Buddha had written his prayers. The idea of this type of prayer flags was brought to Tibet by buddhist monks from India.
Although, the Tibetan Bon Shamans already used similar flags even before the arrival of Buddhism. The sets of five colored flags, with each color responding to a certain element of nature, are set up in following order: blue (symbolizing sky/space), white (symbolizing air/wind), red (symbolizing fire), green (symbolizing water), yellow (symbolizing earth) from left to right. The early Tibetan prayer flags also depicted the four auspicious animals (the Four Dignities) - the Dragon (symbolizing "Water"), the Garuda (also known as Khyung, a wise eagle-like bird-deity symbolizing "Fire"), the Tiger (representing "Air"), and the Snowlion (stands for "Earth"). These animals represent sacred qualities such as confidence (Tiger), clear awareness (Snowlion), fearlessness (Garuda), and gentle power (Dragon).
The Bonpos used primary-colored plain flags in healing ceremonies, since the traditional Tibetan medicine considered the balance of the five elements to be essential to health and harmony. After Buddhism arrived in Tibet, the shaman's colored flags were integrated into Tibetan Buddhist practice. The prayer flags kept their shaman uses to bring benefits, protection, good health and blessings in special occasions.
Bon shaman, Nepal. Photo: Bruno Baumann
Different symbols and types of prayer flags
There are many symbols that frequently adorn different types of prayer flags used for various purposes. For instance, a Lungta (Windhorse) prayer flag has in the middle a horse (Ta) with three jewels (jewels symbolize the three pillars of Tibetan buddhism, the teaching - Dharma, the buddhist community - Sangha, and Buddha) on its back. The Ta symbolizes quick movement of bringing benefits, fulfilling aspirations and hopes, and transforming negative into positive. There are different versions of about twenty traditional mantras surrounding the Ta, each dedicated to a particular deity such as Avalokiteśvara (boddhisatva of compassion), Manjushri (bodhisattva of wisdom) or others. Corners of the flag have pictures or names of four powerful animals - the Dragon, the Garuda, the Tiger, and the Snowlion.
Medicine Buddha is considered to have extremely powerful form of enlightened energy, and therefore the Medicine Buddha prayer flags are used to promote healing and helping one to achieve one's goals successfully. It is also beneficial for someone who is ill or even someone who has died to offer such prayer flags for the purpose of helping that person to overcome their illness or for a good rebirth in the next life.
The prayer flags are also often decorated with the eight Buddhist auspicious symbols, also known as Ashtamangala. Each of these symbols (Conch Shell, Lotus, Dharma wheel, Parasole, Endless Knot, Pair of Golden Fishes, Vicotry Banner, Treasure Vase) represents a certain aspect of buddhist philosophy promoting the spreading and protection of buddhist teaching.
Just as life is dynamic and constantly changing, Tibetans renew their prayers for the world by placing new flags next to the old ones. This is a way to respect the changing nature of our lives and viewing all beings as part of the one great cycle of life. Since the symbols and mantras on prayer flags are sacred, they should be treated respectfully. They should not be placed on the ground or used in clothing. Old prayer flags should be burned.
It is often thought that the prayer flags carry prayers to deities. This is not so, for instead the Tibetan belief is that the wind blows the prayers and mantras to spread the compassion and good will to everywhere in space, so that all beings will benefit from them. Generally, it is believed that placing prayer flags brings good karma and benefits to the one who places them as well as to all beings. However, the most honorable way of using prayer flags, with all their auspicious religious symbols and mantras, is the idea that they are not to benefit the one who placed them, but rather it is done for the sake of others.
ABOUT THIS BLOG
Welcome! :) My name is Monika. I am interested in crystals, different cultures, and good stories. As a linguist I have always been fascinated with semiotics and symbols, and how people of different cultures interpret them.