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Many years ago—well before children—DH and I took a bicycle trip up the Himalayan mountains to Ladakh, in far northern India. It was there we first encountered prayer flags. Several generations of flags would be wound around rocks or between trees, a welcome burst of color in an otherwise fairly stark mountain region. I think that's probably all I thought about them at the time: that they were colorful.
And then seven years ago, a friend brought a gift of prayer flags to the house. She explained that the intention was for wind to blow prayers of peace and happiness (printed on the flags themselves) out into the world. This knowledge made me a little happier each time I walked outside and saw the wind catching the flags. It was even okay to watch them slowly tatter and break down into shreds; the friend had explained that this would happen as the prayers spread.
This winter the flags finally blew down and it seemed a good time to put up another set. A conversation arose on twitter and some us—friends who have never met in person—decided to hang them together. Would this maximize the effect of the flags? It would at very least give us one more connection to each other.
Sam hung hers in the morning:
Mine in the afternoon:
Karen's went up the next day:
A few more people noticed and commented, which made me think about some friends who are Tibetan Buddhists. One of them, who prefers to go by her initials, agreed to write about prayer flags for this blog. I apologize for the long introduction but hope you will keep reading, because I love all that she has learned and shared. Thank you, ZYP. I'm honored to have this as my very first guest post.
When I agreed to write about Tibetan prayer flags I discovered that flags were a specialized field of interest. Vexillology, I learned, is the scholarly study of flags.
I know about the symbolism of Buddhist prayer flags, but I was curious about how they came into use historically. As I began researching the history of flags on the internet I became increasingly vexed by the lack of clear historical references about my topic. I wondered if ‘vex’ and ‘vexillology’ share a historical root.
‘Vex’ is an old word still used to communicate irritation, difficulty and puzzlement. It comes from the Latin root ‘vexare’ - to agitate, or to harry.
Vexillology has its root in the Latin word ‘velum’ - “a sail.” Vexillum, then, is the ancient Latin for flag and banner.
People have used flags as a method of communication since ancient history. Flags in ancient times were not like the cloth flags we see hoisted or hung on straight poles in modern times. Flags throughout history could come in various shapes and materials. They were made of animal skins, wood or metal before cloth became the standard. Flags could be referred to in other terms such as: standards, banners, pennons, pennants, jacks and vexillum.
The history of flags is dominated by militaristic associations. The earliest referenced example of the modern use and style of flags comes from the Ancient Greeks. They painted symbols on their shields to show tribal loyalty or battle unit.
The oldest reference I could find about the use of a flag is set in ancient Persia several hundred years BCE. The story is about a blacksmith named Koah who inspired his fellow Persians to overthrow the tyranny of their ruler. Koah reared a banner made of his leather blacksmithing apron to arouse and unite his followers. The banner grew in size as people adorned the apron with embroidery and gems. People people believed the banner held a superstitious power. The fate of the Persian kingdom was believed to be connected to this banner as the kingdom warred with neighboring states. When the banner was finally captured by an opposing army, it was thoroughly destroyed.1
I find it interesting that flags were mainly used for military purposes throughout much of ancient history. That association explains the gradual development of rigid rules and protocols for flags. It is as though flags represent the spirit and power of entire peoples. Desecrating a flag was serious business in ancient history and it is still serious business today. And that brings me back to the idea that vex and vexillum could be connected - at least experientially. Wherever banners of conflict fly, difficulty seems to follow.
In contrast, flags took a different path in the Himalayan Plateau during the course of history. To be sure, flags were used for military purposes in ancient Tibet, but they were also used for peaceful gatherings of the nomadic tribes. Eventually followers of Tibet’s oldest spiritual tradition, Bon, used flags in rituals for luck, happiness, healing, and protection. Tibetan Buddhism adopted the ritual of prayer flags and infused it with its own symbolism. But the aspiration remained a wish for good fortune, health, wealth, long-life, the power of accomplishment, and all good things.
Buddhism entered Tibet from India around 200 CE. It spread slowly in the first century but then began to flourish. As Indian Buddhism was adopted into Tibetan culture, the traditional Bon religion and Buddhism influenced each other. Today Bon and Tibetan Buddhism share some basic symbols and rituals, and the differences between others can be subtle. According to both traditions prayer flags are imbued with the power of the symbols printed on them. Both traditions consider the wind as a magnificent horse upon which blessings ride. Some people call prayer flags Lung-ta, or Windhorse. Lung refers to the body’s subtle inner energy, or wind. Ta means horse. Windhorse. Traditional language refers to prayer flags as Dar-chen or Dar-ding. Dar means flag. Dar-ding are long strings of flags flown horizontally between buildings or trees. Dar-chen are narrow flags flown from poles.
Most of the traditional symbols and prayers still used today were designed by great Buddhist and Bon teachers back through history. The flags were hand painted at first, but the designs were eventually carved into wood blocks for printing. Today, the traditional wood block designs have been converted to allow silk screen printing. This is the most common method of making prayer flags in the West. Unlike military, state or national flags, prayer flags are left to flutter in the open until they fray and fade. They can be hung anywhere a breeze might catch the cloth.
Traditional flags are strung in a series of 5 colors: yellow, green, red, white and blue. It does not matter if yellow is first or last as long as they are in this sequence. The colors are symbolic of the 5 elements that are the most subtle expression of physical existence and activity according to Buddhist philosophy. Each element has unique qualities that interact with each other element. Yellow symbolizes the earth element, green symbolizes the water element, red symbolizes the fire element, white symbolizes the air element, and blue symbolizes the space element.
The elements are sequentially more refined or more substantial depending on the direction they move. The sequence of the flags and elements can symbolize bringing something good into existence if the movement is from space to earth. In the other direction, the sequence can symbolize that suffering dissolves into the space element. The space element is another meaning of Lung. Within the space element all things are pure.
Prayer flags also contain images of mystical animals and other beings that convey meaning and activity. The symbol of the mystical Windhorse is on one of the most popular images found on prayer flags. Its symbolism conveys the idea that the desired result will be achieved quickly.
Some flags contain Tibetan prayers or short teachings on them. Some flags have sequences of syllables that have great spiritual meaning all wrapped up in symbolic language. These are called awareness spells, or mantra. I think of mantra as being like a coin purse you can keep in your pocket, but when you open it, you know the wealth of the entire universe is in there.
The colors alone give prayer flags meaning. The elements are further enriched with other symbols and words to give them specific powers and focus. Finally, the ritual of raising the flag involves being in the right frame of mind. From this perspective, raising the Windhorse becomes internal as one aligns one’s energy and aspiration and extends that wish as a prayer to help all beings. The flag gathers all of this energy and it is sent out freely on the wind to benefit everyone and everything everywhere.
1Source: G.H.Preble. The Symbols, Standards, Flags, and Banners of Ancient and Modern Nations. Referenced by: Pier Paolo Lugli, 8 June 1999 here.