Prayer Flags – Part 1

Prayer Flags – Part 1

Tibetan_prayer_flags,_Norbulingka_Gardens,_Norbulingka_Institute,_Sidhpur,_Dharamsala
Photo by Rahul Young (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

I have this theory that we can go through our lives never noticing a particular thing, until one day our receptor for that thing suddenly gets turned on and it jumps into our view – we begin to see it everywhere we look.  Not just the thing, but all things related to the thing!  It’s been like that for me with prayer flags – since I started exploring them, I seem to find them around every corner.  And not just the flags themselves, but the ideas they represent – peace, healing, harmony, community, balance.

Over the next few days, I’m going to be sharing some of what I’ve discovered about Prayer Flags.  Today, I’ll talk a little about their history and meaning.  Tomorrow, I’ll be back with a short video showing examples of both traditional and contemporary flags, called “gypsy prayer flags.”  On Thursday, I’m very excited to welcome my first guest to One January Day!  Kate Robertson, The Queen of Creativity, will be here to talk about her experience with healing through prayer flags.  Then, I’ll wrap it up on Friday with a video tutorial on how to make Gelli® printed prayer flags.

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Photo by NL (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Oddly enough, historians suggest the flags originated from Tibetan war flags and, when the Tibetans found Buddhism, the flags were transformed from “war icons to wind altars.” There’s an irony there that really speaks to me and a glimmer of hope – if the Tibetans can evolve from a warlike culture to a loving and peaceful one, maybe the rest of the world can too!

The flags as we know them today are meant to carry blessings for both the flag “planter” and to the community at large. They’re typically placed outside homes and spiritual places, where the wind can carry their vibrations across the countryside.

There are two types of prayer flags:

  • The horizontal flags (below), called Lung ta (which translates as “Wind Horse”) are typically square or rectangular shaped and connected along the top. They are traditionally hung on a diagonal line from high to low and in high places, such as the tops of temples and mountain passes.

    Prayer_flags_06
    Photo by Immanuel Giel (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
  • The vertical flags (below), called Darchor (“to increase life, fortune, health and wealth to all beings”) are typically a large rectangular flag, attached to a pole along the vertical edge and planted in the ground.

    Main_Shrine_of_Pemangytse_Gompa_with_prayer_flags
    Photo by Kothanda Srinivasan (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Originally the writing and images on prayer flags were painted by hand, one at a time. When woodblock printing came into fashion in China in the 15th century, flag creation became much simpler, allowing designs to be passed down from generation to generation.  Flags traditionally have a symbolic image in the center (the flags pictured below feature the wind horse) surrounded by text.

Ladakh_prayer_flag
Photo by Redtigerxyz (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The text is usually made up of invocations, prayers and mantras and the images are typical Buddhist symbols, representing different aspects of an enlightened mind: compassion, fearlessness, protection, harmony, etc.  The traditional images include important people, teachers, animals – you might also see flags featuring one of the “eight auspicious symbols”

  • The Parasol – protects against negativity
  • The Golden Fish – represents happiness and salvation from suffering
  • The Treasure Vase – fulfillment of spiritual and material wishes
  • The Lotus – a symbol of purity and spirituality
  • The Conch Shell – proclaims the teachings of the enlightened ones
  • The Endless Knot- symbolizes a meditative mind
  • The Victory Banner – symbolizes the victory of wisdom over ignorance and the overcoming of obstacles
  • The Dharma Wheel (ship’s wheel or mandala) – a symbol of spiritual and universal law
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Photo by Luca Galuzzi (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The 5 colors of the prayer flags represent the 5 basic elements:

  • yellow for earth
  • green for water
  • red for fire
  • white for air
  • blue for limitless space (or mind)
  • sometimes orange is also included – likely for healing

It’s believed that balancing these elements externally brings harmony to the environment and balancing the elements internally brings health to the body and the mind.

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If you search Etsy or Pinterest for prayer flags, you are likely to encounter many sets of “gypsy prayer flags.”  This term was probably born from the idea of “gypsies” being free-spirited and nomadic, traveling on a whim, changing course with the wind.  In terms of this project, I think that “gypsy” ideal takes the rules away – your prayer flags can have the appearance and meaning that’s important to YOU.  I like the idea of giving a nod to the traditional Tibetan customs and I’ll talk a little more about that tomorrow, but I think my favorite thing is that these can be so individual – you can truly make them your own!!  I also love the idea of the flags being sort of a “kind art” offering – less about personal gain and more about general good will.  I think most would agree that our planet needs healing more than ever!  Global warming, natural disaster, war… I don’t know if I fully believe a prayer flag can bring harmony and healing, but I certainly don’t see any risk in it and it’s sort of a benign way to make an artful offering in the world – something you can do to beautify your own space, while secretly spreading the love to the community at large!

Be sure to come back tomorrow for Part 2 of this series!

Resources

Photo Attribution:

  • Rahul Young photo – Tibetan_prayer_flags,_Norbulingka_Gardens,_Norbulingka_Institute,_Sidhpur,_Dharamsala: By http://www.flickr.com/photos/rahuljyoung/ [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
  • NL photo – Tibetan_Prayer_Flags: By NL Wikipedia User Pixar (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Immanuel Giel photo: By Immanuel Giel (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Kothanda Srinivasan: Main_Shrine_of_Pemangytse_Gompa_with_prayer_flags: By Kothanda Srinivasan [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons:
  • Redtigerxyz photo – Ladakh_prayer_flag:  By Redtigerxyz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Luca Galuzzi photo – I, Luca Galuzzi [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

2 Comments

  1. I love this informational piece. I do programming for adults in our local library system, and we’ve just planned a Prayer Flag workshop for mid-November.

    1. Oh how fun! Wish you a great turnout and lots of enthusiasm!!

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