Prayer Flags of Tibetan Buddhism
When travelling in Tibet, you will see colorful flags everywhere fluttering in the wind- sometimes waving gently, sometimes raging. They are Tibetan prayer flags which are inscribed with auspicious symbols, invocations, prayers, and mantras. The Tibetan word for prayer flag is Dar Cho. “Dar” means to increase life, fortune, health and wealth. “Cho” means all sentient beings. Prayer flags are simple devices that, coupled with the natural energy of the wind, quietly harmonize the environment, impartially increasing happiness and good fortune among all living beings.
In Tibet, the tradition of hanging flags began more than 2000 years ago. Prayer flags are said to bring happiness, long life and prosperity to the flag planter and those in the vicinity. Tibetan people plant prayer flags to honor the nature gods of Bon. They used colors of the five elements: blue for sky or space; white for air or clouds; red for fire; green for water and yellow for earth. They hung the flags outside their homes, over mountain passes and rivers and other places of spiritual practice for the wind to carry the beneficent vibrations across the countryside.
When Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century, it brought the ideals of peace and compassion. Within the next century Buddhism largely took the place of Bon, while absorbing many of its characteristics including the flags The early flags contained 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 mantras and symbols on the flags as blessings to be sent out to the world with each breeze. Thus they became known Prayer Flags.
Dharma prints bear traditional Buddhist symbols, protectors and enlightened beings. As the Buddhist spiritual approach is non-theistic, the elements of Tantric iconography do not stand for external beings, but represent aspects of enlightened mind i.e. compassion, perfect action, fearlessness, etc. Displayed with respect, Dharma prints impart a feeling of harmony and bring to mind the precious teachings.
The prayer flag tradition is ancient, dating back thousands of years in India and to the shamanistic Bon tradition of pre-Buddhist Tibet. Bonpo priests used solid colored cloth flags, perhaps with their magical symbols, to balance the elements both internally and externally. The 5 colors of prayer flags represent the 5 basic elements: yellow-earth, green-ater, red-fire, white-air, blue-space. Balancing these elements externally brings harmony to the environment. Balancing the elements internally brings health to the body and the mind.
Buddhists added their own texts to increase the power of the flags. There are ancient symbols, prayers and mantras for generating compassion, health, wish fulfillment, and for overcoming diseases, natural disasters and other obstacles. In this present dark-age disharmony reigns and the elements are way out of balance. The earth needs healing like never before. Prayer flags moving in the wind generate a natural positive energy. Acting on a spiritual level the emanating vibrations protect from harm and bring harmony to everything touched by the wind.
History of Tibetan prayer flags
According to some lamas prayer flags date back thousands of years to the Bon tradition of preBuddhist Tibet. Shamanistic Bonpo priests used primary colored plain cloth flags in healing ceremonies. Each color corresponded to a different primary element - earth, water, fire, air and space – the fundamental building blocks of both our physical bodies and of our environment. According to Eastern medicine health and harmony are produced through the balance of the 5 elements. Properly arranging colored flags around a sick patient harmonized the elements in his body helping to produce a state of physical and mental health.
Colored flags were also used to help appease the local gods and spirits of the mountains, valleys, lakes and streams. These elemental beings, when provoked were thought to cause natural disasters and disease. Balancing the outer elements and propitiating the elemental spirits with rituals and offerings was the Bonpo way of pacifying nature and invoking the blessings of the gods.
It is not known whether or not the Bonpos ever wrote words on their flags. The preBuddhist religions of Tibet were oral traditions; writing was apparently limited to government bookkeeping. On the other hand the very word, “bonpo,” means “one who recites magical formulas” Even if no writing was added to the plain strips of cloth it is likely that the Bonpos painted sacred symbols on them. Some symbols seen on Buddhist prayer flags today undoubtedly have Bonpo origins, their meaning now enhanced with the deep significance of Vajrayana Buddhist philosophy.
From the first millennium AD Buddhism gradually assimilated into the Tibetan way of life reaching great zeal in the ninth century when the religious King of Tibet invited the powerful Indian meditation master, Guru Padmasambhava, to come and control the forces then impeding the spread of Buddhism. Guru Rinpoche, as he is popularly known, bound the local Tibetan spirits by oath and transformed them into forces compatible with the spread of Buddhism. Some to the prayers seen on flags today were composed by Guru Rinpoche to pacify the spirits that cause disease and natural disasters.
Originally the writing and images on prayer flags were painted by hand, one at a time. Woodblocks, carefully carved in mirror image relief, were introduced from China in the 15th century. This invention made it possible to reproduce identical prints of the same design. Traditional designs could then be easily passed down from generation to generation.
Famous Buddhist masters created most prayer flag designs. Lay craftsmen make copies of the designs but would never think of actually creating a new design. There are relatively few basic designs for a continuous tradition that goes back over a thousand years. Aside from new designs no real innovations to the printing process have occurred in the past 500 years. Most prayer flags imported to the West today are woodblock printed. Some shops are now starting to produce prints made from zinc faced blocks that can be etched photographically resulting in finer detail than the hand carved woodblock. Natural stone ground pigments have been replaced by printing inks, usually having a kerosene base.
Most of the companies in the west prefer to use silkscreen printing techniques as wood carving is a time consuming skill requiring lengthy apprenticeship.
When the Chinese took over Tibet they destroyed much of everything having to do with Tibetan culture and religion. Prayer flags were discouraged but not entirely eliminated. We will never know how many traditional designs have been lost forever since the turmoil of China’s cultural revolution. Because cloth and paper prints deteriorate so quickly the best way to preserve the ancient designs is by saving the woodblocks. Woodblocks, often weighing several pounds, were too heavy for the refugees to lug over the Himalayas and woodblocks no doubt made wonderful firewood for Chinese troops. Most of the traditional prayer flags today are made in Nepal and India by Tibetan refugees or by Nepali Buddhists from the Tibetan border regions.