Prayer flags are colorful panels or rectangular cloths often found strung along mountain ridges and peaks high in the Himalayas to bless the surrounding countryside or for other purposes. Unknown in other branches of Buddhism, prayer flags are believed to have originated with Bön, which predated Buddhism in Tibet. Traditionally they are woodblock printed with texts and images.
The Indian Buddhist Sutras, discourses attributed to the Buddha, written on cloth in India, were traditionally distributed to other regions of the world. These sutras, written on banners, were the origin of prayer flags. Legend ascribes the origin of the prayer flag to the Shakyamuni Buddha, whose prayers were written on battle flags used by the devas against their adversaries, the asuras. The legend may have given the Indian bhikku a reason for carrying the heavenly banner as a way of signifying his commitment to ahimsa. This knowledge was carried into Tibet by 800 CE, and the actual flags were introduced no later than 1040 CE, where they were further modified.
Traditionally, prayer flags come in sets of five, one in each of five colors. The five colors represent the elements, and the Five Pure Lights and are arranged from left to right in a specific order. Different elements are associated with different colors for specific traditions, purposes and sadhana:
- Blue (symbolizing sky/space)
- White (symbolizing air/wind)
- Red (symbolizing fire)
- Green (symbolizing water)
- Yellow (symbolizing earth)
The center of a prayer flag traditionally features a powerful or strong horse bearing three flaming jewels on its back. The Ta is a symbol of speed and the transformation of bad fortune to good fortune. The three flaming jewels symbolize the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, the three cornerstones of Tibetan philosophical tradition.
Surrounding the Ta are various versions of approximately 20 traditional mantras, each dedicated to a particular deity. In Tibetan, deities are not so much gods as aspects of the divine which are manifest in each part of the whole universe, including individual humans. These writings include mantras from three of the great Buddhist Bodhisattvas. In addition to mantras, prayers for the long life and good fortune of the person who mounts the flags are often included.
Traditionally, prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. The flags do not carry prayers to gods, a common misconception, rather the Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space. Therefore, prayer flags are thought to bring benefit to all.
By hanging flags in high places the Wind Horse will carry the blessings depicted on the flags to all beings. As wind passes over the surface of the flags which are sensitive to the slightest movement of the wind, the air is purified and sanctified by the Mantras.
The prayers of a flag become a permanent part of the universe as the images fade from exposure to the elements. Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, Tibetans renew their hopes for the world by continually mounting new flags alongside the old. This act symbolizes a welcoming of life changes and an acknowledgment that all beings are part of a greater ongoing cycle.
Some believe that if the flags are hung on inauspicious astrological dates, they may bring negative results for as long as they are flying. The best times to put up new prayer flags are in the mornings on sunny, windy days.
Sets of five coloured flags should be put in the order: blue, white, red, green, yellow from left to right. The colours represent the Five Buddha Families and the five elements. The origin of Prayer flag colors may be traced to an ancient tradition of Tibet where shamans used primary colored plain flags in healing ceremonies. According to Traditional Tibetan medicine, health and harmony are produced through the balance of the five elements. Old prayer flags are replaced with new ones annually on the Tibetan New Year.
Because the symbols and mantras on prayer flags are sacred, they should be treated with respect. They should not be placed on the ground or used in clothing. Old prayer flags should be burned.
During the Cultural Revolution, prayer flags were discouraged but not entirely eliminated. Many traditional designs may have been lost. Currently, different styles of prayer flags can be seen all across the Tibetan region. Most of the traditional prayer flags today are made in Nepal and India by Tibetan refugees or by Nepali Buddhists. The flags are also manufactured in Bhutan for local use.