Blowin’ In the Wind: An Appreciation of Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Flags

Last revised: April 22, 2021.

Related Post: Boudhanath Stupa – The Heart of Nepal’s Tibetan Community

prayer flags in Kathmandu around a neighbourhood shrine

All images enlarge with a click!

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 is the string of colourful flags. I take in the scene and feel a calmness- all is right with the world.

the view from my kitchen seat- our backyard flags- a simple reminder of Nepal

“Same, same, but different” – our backyard prayer flags in the snow

flags tumbling onto the square around the Bodhnath Stupa, one of the major shrines in the Tibetan Buddhist world

Bodhnath platform, dome,  and peak

elephant guard on the north steps of the Stupa at Bodhnath

Bodhnath stupa from Stupa View Terrace and Restaurant

The flags are associated with Tibetan Buddhists; they adopted a pre-existing Bon religious tradition. On the flags which the Bon priests used, Buddhists imprinted their prayers and mantras and sutras (extended prose pieces from the holy books).

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 script which is a Tibetan adaptation of the one that Buddhist monks from India brought with them some one thousand years ago.

pilgrim at the foot of the hill leading up to Swayambhu temples

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. I 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!

dorje (thunderbolt) icon and stupa of Swayambhu

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 that the winds touch.  As a result, you’ll usually see the flags strung in high places where they can have maximum effect.

flags radiating from the crown of the stupa of Swayambhhu

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. Still, 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?

village chorten (stupa)  on the Annapurna trail near  the Marsyangdi River

Temple with a halo of flags on  the Annapurna trail

flags drape a bridge over the Marsyangdi River

the hills above Manang with one of the Annapurnas in the background

flag colours decorating the pillars of a temple near Manang

stupa at Namche Bazaar

stupas and flags at Khumjung above Namche Bazaar

stupa and flags on the way to Tengboche Monastery

flags in the hills above Dingboche

View from the top of Kala Patthar above Everest Base Camp

flags blowing on Gokyo Ri, a peak to the west of Everest

looking down on Gokyo lake and lodge below Gokyo Ri top

from Renjo La pass looking back at Mount Everest

Bodh Gaya monks under prayer flags at Bodh Gaya in northern India

a tattered string of flags drape the cairn at the Gardner Pass in Patagonia’s  Torres del Paine Park with El Glaciar Grey in the distance

prayer flags on Pico Austria in the Cordillera Real in Bolivia

prayer flags on Pico Austria in Bolivia’s  Cordillera Real

a touch of Nepal in the Christiania district in  Copenhagen, Denmark- received in an email from my wife yesterday!

Tibetan prayer flags at Mihintale near Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka

Tibetan prayer flags at Mihintale near Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka

Canadian Rockies- our Jasper site festooned with prayer flags-  base camp for our Mt. Edith Cavell summit!

front yard prayer flags in my Toronto neighbourhood

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?”

mandala- another iconic Tibetan Buddhist concept-  with the five colours of the prayer flag-not my pic but it kinda suited better than the mandala on our living room wall

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

close-up of a prayer flag- Windhorse and sutra

detail from a Tibetan Buddhist prayer flag- perhaps of Green Tara

More on Tibetan Buddhist Prayer flags

This Wikipedia article has some good background information and lots of great pix. More discussion can also be found in this article.

A visit to Youtube turns up all sorts of interesting tidbits, including this brief introduction to prayer flags.

Robert Beer. Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist SymbolsTibetan 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!


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2 Responses to Blowin’ In the Wind: An Appreciation of Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Flags

  1. Dk says:

    hello! are these images free to use?

    • true_north says:

      For personal use – absolutely! If you are going to repost them on the net, an indication of where you got them would be the correct thing to do. I just count myself fortunate to have been there to take the photos in the first place.

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