Many of us have probably seen the Tibetan prayer flags millions of times in pictures, movies, documentaries or even in person if you have been in Tibet, Nepal, “the Little Tibet” in North India or any place around the Himalayas. But do we know the real meaning of them, or why they use them for?
Today I am going to put a few Tibetan Flags on my balcony, together with my teacher in Tibetan Medicine, Dr. Tsultrim Kalsang. But what does this symbolize? Where does this tradition come from? And what is the proper way of doing it? Let me start from the beginning…
ORIGINS OF THE TIBETAN PLAYER FLAG
There are many stories about the origin of the Tibetan player flags, but I am going to tell you only one of them, the one that makes more sense to me. But this does not mean that it has to be the real one, nor the wrong one, only the past knows the truth.
In 800 C.E. (current era) Buddhism was first introduced to Tibet by Padmasambhava. Before that, most Tibetans followed the Bon religion, a shamanistic practice. Then because Buddhism was mixed with the Bon tradition, sacred mantras and iconographies were painted onto the Bon’s flags. This is basically the origin of the Tibetan prayer flags: a synthesis of the Bon’s elemental flags and the Indian Buddhist’s dharma.
THE PLAYER FLAGS AND THEIR SYMBOLS
Tibetan prayer flags can be divided into many different types (two dozen), but the more common ones are the Lung- ta. Many people think that the word lung-ta means prayer flag, but it is not correct. Lung-ta literally means “Horse of Wind”, (“Lung” means Wind and “Ta” means Horse).
The wind horse, usually in the form of a picture, normally is at the center of the flag and holds the “Wish fulfilling Jewel of Enlightenment”. It represents good fortune, the uplifting life force energies and opportunities that make things go well.
The outside corners of the flag are always guarded by the four great animals; the garuda, dragon, tiger and snow lion. They represent the qualities and attitudes that are developed on the spiritual path to enlightenment. Garuda (wisdom), Dragon (gentle power) Snow Lion (fearless joy), and the Tiger (confidence).
The texts on the flags differ; usually a collection of various mantras or a short sutra. The Victory Banner Sutra (Gyaltsen Semo) is the most popular one, and is used to overcome obstacles and disturbances.
COLORS: THE FIVE ELEMENTS
Tibetan Medicine believes that the entire universe is composed by the five great elements. Every single atom, cell, or anything visible as well as invisible to the human eye, consists of these five elements. In our physical world these manifest as earth, water, fire, air and space. But on a spiritual level these basic energies correspond to the 5 Buddha Families and the 5 Wisdoms.
Prayer flagsreflect this comprehensive system through color; each of the 5 colors relates to an element and an aspect of an enlightened mind. The order of the colors in the flag is always the same: yellow, green, red, white and blue. In the vertical flags the yellow goes at the bottom and the blue at the top, and in the horizontal one´s the order, from left to right or from right to left does not matter.
According to the Nyingma School the color element correspondence is:
- Blue – space
- White – air or wind
- Red – fire
- Green – water
- Yellow – earth
The New Translation Schools switch the colors for air and water but keep the order of the colors the same.
USE AND SYMBOLISM
The Tibetan word for prayer flag is Dar cho. “Dar” means to increase life, fortune, health and wealth and “Cho” means all sentient beings. This means that the flag in contact with the natural energy of the wind impartially increase the life, fortune, health and wealth among all living beings.
Originally, flag ceremonies were intended to provide benefit in this life, but as they gradually became more imbued with religious meaning, they came to be associated with benefit in future lives and the achievement of spiritual as opposed to material success. Although the actual ceremonies and rituals have changed very little, the significance or content of the rituals has gradually evolved a spiritual element through a mixture of Bon and Buddhist symbolism.
Wandering pilgrims carry strings of flags with them to adorn the sacred sites that they visit and also as protection against harm when traveling. That is why also many Sherpa’s before climbing the Himalayas, put some flags, burn some incense and sing some mantras.
Today, we are putting the Tibetan Praying Flags in the honor of all the neighbors of Dharamsala, in the honor of all the Tibetan doctors who work hard to keep alive an ancient tradition, in the honor of all of you, and in the honor of Massage Around the World, to staying healthy working on the spreading, preservation and promotion of traditional medicines and massages.
Blessings from Dharamsala, Little Tibet,
Massage Around the World