What Are Tibetan Prayer Flags? An Ancient Way to Spread Good Vibes 💫
Origins of Tibetan Prayer Flags
When the tradition of hanging prayer flags began more than 2000 years ago, Tibet was ruled by warlords who carried their own flags into battle. The native people took this as their inspiration but spun the intent on its axis when they made their own flags to honor the nature gods of Bon, their shamanistic religion.
Buddhist Prayer Flags
In the 7th century, Buddhism largely took the place of Bon, absorbing many of its characteristics including the flags, and bringing the new ideals of peace and compassion. The early prayer flags displayed both Buddhist prayers and pictures of the fierce Bon gods who they believed protected Buddha. Over the next 200 years, Buddhist monks began to print their own mantras, sutras and symbols on the flags as prayers for peace, prosperity, wisdom, and compassion to be sent out into the world with each breeze.
Carly exploring a market in Kathmandu, Nepal under a canopy of prayer flags!
What do the colors of Tibetan prayer flags mean?
Prayer flags are hung in sets of five, from left to right, with each of the five colors representing the earthly elements. The colors are more than meet the eye, and might symbolize something different than you would expect. Blue symbolizes the sky and space, white symbolizes the air and wind, red represents fire, green symbolizes water, yellow symbolizes earth, and together they represent the unity of all of the elements. For this reason, it is suggested that you do not take apart prayer flags, so you can keep all of the elements in balance.
What are the symbols on prayer flags?
The flags most commonly seen (as in the picture above) are typically hung horizontally, and are known as “Lung-ta” which translates into “Windhorse”. The central image on each flag is often of a horse with three flaming jewels on its back, representing the Tibetan Buddhist trinity. This trinity consists of Buddha, the enlightened one; Dharma, the path of Buddhist teachings; and Sangha, the Buddhist monastic community. The Windhorse is meant to evoke power, subdue evil, and act as the vehicle of enlightenment. Other prayer flags are adorned with "Guru Rinpoche" or the Precious Buddhist Guru, Tara or the Buddhist Savior and Goddess of Mercy, or "Gyaltsen Tsempo" prayer flags that symbolize new beginnings.
Our traditional prayer flags are inscribed with symbols and words that are said to carry prayers and hopes into the breeze and across the lands with the speedy help of the Lung-ta. The words on the prayer flags are a combination of mantra, sutra, and prayer. They aren’t directly translatable into English, as each mantra is an expression of an intention, energy, and the vibration of the sound. You might say that their inner meanings are beyond words.
What is a Mantra?
A mantra is a powerful word or set of words with the capacity of influencing certain dimensions of energy. It is said that the vibration of mantras can control the invisible energies that govern existence. It’s the sound and the utterance of it that is said to have those powers, even without thinking about or necessarily understanding exactly what it is you’re saying. Buddhist monks will repeat a mantra over and over as a form of meditation, and a way of sending that energy out into the world. Similarly, the prayer flags send that energy out just by being hung!
One mantra that is on most prayer flags is OM MANI PADME HUM, which is the mantra of the bodhisattva of compassion. Printed on prayer flags, this mantra sends blessings of compassion to the far corners of the world.
What is a Sutra?
Sutras are prose texts based on the words of the historical Buddha who taught in India 2500 years ago. One sutra often seen on prayer flags is the dharani. Similar to mantras, dharanis contain magical formulas that are comprised of symbolic letters and pieces of words. Read out of context, they make very little sense, but when on the flags they convey the essence of a teaching or a specific state of mind. Text on the flags beyond mantras and sutras can be classified as prayers, and they include supplications, aspirations, and positive wishes written by various masters of Buddhism throughout history. In a nutshell, the words on prayer flags are all about sharing good vibes with the world!
How to hang prayer flags respectfully?
Set your intentions and hang your prayer flags with mindful compassion and the goodwill of the world on your mind. Please do not let prayer flags touch the ground, as this is a sign of disrespect. Prayer flags may be hung indoors, but they are designed to be strung up outside where the wind will disperse their messages if you choose to do so. Today, there prayer flags hanging up all over Nepal and the rest of the world with this intention. After some time the flags will fade and fray, symbolizing the natural passing of all things. It is believed that when prayer flags fade and blow away thread by thread, the prayers become a permanent part of the universe. Every time you look at prayer flags, let them remind you to continue to send out your own prayers for peace and kindness in the world. As you do so, you will benefit from their blessings as well!
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Where do you hang your prayer flags? Share your good vibes with us 💫 @mexicaliblues