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The morning ritual involves freshly ground coffee and a seat at the kitchen table. Then I look outside past the thermometer and my eye catches the colours of the Japanese Maple and the contrasting spruce. And slicing right through are the colourful and vibrant flags. I take in the scene and feel a calmness- all is right with the world.
The flags are a tradition associated with Tibetan Buddhism; adapting a religious tradition already in Tibet with the Bon religion, Buddhists imprinted their prayers and mantras and sutras (extended prose pieces from the holy books) onto the flags which the Bon priests used. Five colours are used in stringing together a prayer flag: blue; white; red; green; and yellow. On the flag, you find images of iconic Buddhist figures and a text which is a Tibetan adaptation of the language that Buddhist monks from India brought with them some one thousand years ago.
As I was putting together a series of posts on my walk in Sagarmatha National Park in NE Nepal (The High Passes of Everest Trek posts), I was initially struck by how often prayer flags popped up in my photos. A moment’s thought about what it was I was framing in my viewfinder- mountain peaks; temples; stupas (chortens is the Tibetan term) and cairns on the path; – and I realized I should have even more images with flags in them!
The Tibetan belief is that the winds blow the positive energy of the prayers and chants imprinted on the flags into the world- and into all sentient beings they touch. As a result, you’ll usually see the flags strung in high places where they can have maximum effect.
What follows is a collection of my pix with prayer flags in them. Most are taken from hikes in the Annapurna and Khumbu region of Nepal, but you’ll also find flags fluttering in Patagonia, near Jasper in the Canadian Rockies, above the heads of chanting monks in Bodh Gaya in India, in the Christiania area of Copenhagen in Denmark, and in my Riverdale neighbourhood above the eastern banks of the Don River in Toronto. Perhaps those pix will become cyberspace-prayer flags whose positive energy enters the lives of all whose eyes they touch?
While my head tells me that the notion of prayers being blown off the flags by the winds and into the lives of all sentient beings is nothing but a bit of inspirational fantasy, my heart says “And what’s wrong with that?”
Each colour represents an element in the rather elaborate Tibetan Buddhist iconography and each colour has various traits associated with it. The following was culled from the internet and from Robert Beer’s Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. Let me know if you find any other good sources of info on what all of this means- I’ll add it to what is below.
Blue sky health & longevity sapphire or lapis South
White water purification Karma crystal or silver East
Red fire wish fulfillment Padmasambhava ruby West
Green air compassion Tara
Yellow earth victory Wind Horse gold North
More on Tibetan Buddhist Prayer flags
A visit to Youtube turns up all sorts of interesting tidbits, including this brief introduction to prayer flags.
Tibetan Buddhist iconography makes a colourful field of religious expression to examine in further detail; there are many scholarly studies out there to help you in your exploration.
I’ve got a paper copy of Robert Beer’s Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols which writing this post has prompted me to pull down from the bookshelf. You can read a Google preview of the book here. There is a Kindle version available at Amazon for a few dollars!