Prayer Flags Explained

So, this post is a little different than most of my others, which are mostly updates on what I’ve been up to. Last week, I had to take my car in to get serviced, and got a shuttle ride home. When Phillip, the driver, got to my house and saw the long string of tattered, weathered prayer flags out front, said, “What are those?” It’s a question I get on a fairly regular basis, by everyone from new friends to door-to-door salesmen. I figured I’d send an explanation out into the world.

I first learned what these flags were in my Asian Studies class in high school, and thought they were pretty interesting. I learned more about them in a Tibetan Philosophy and Culture colloquium in college, and saw them for the first time, in the “wild,” when I was studying abroad in India in 2008. The idea behind and use of prayer flags is a very old one–predating even Buddhism in Tibet, which was brought there in the 8th century from India, coming out of the Bön tradition and, even earlier, from India. But, when most people ask, I usually say they’re “Tibetan prayer flags,” instead of just “prayer flags,” because the use of them is unique to Tibetan Buddhism. I couldn’t ever possibly understand all of the symbolism in the flags themselves–each color stands for something, each design, and, obviously, each prayer that’s printed on them. I won’t even pretend to get it all. But, the gist of it is this: the flags symbolize peace, love, and compassion for all sentient beings, and the idea is that when the wind blows upon the flags, it carries these blessings all around the world, bringing these benefits to everyone and everything. They’re hung especially often in dangerous or sacred places. Wiki says, “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’s changes and an acknowledgment that all beings are part of a greater ongoing cycle.” Sounds good to me.

When Phillip dropped me off at my house, and asked about the flags, I told him that, “Basically, the idea is that they bring blessings of love and compassion to everyone on the wind.” He seemed to like that idea. When he came back a few hours later to pick me up, he had one more question for me: “I was thinking about them today. Are they Christian? I only half-expected that one, I guess. But, hopefully my response was adequate. “Well, no, not in a strict sense. They come out of India and Tibet, so they’re based in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other older religions. But, I think that the idea of spreading blessings of love and compassion to everyone, in a form you can see every day to remind you, is pretty Christian as well, don’t you?” He agreed. We had a good car ride after that. Many old, traditional designs of the flags were lost during the cultural revolution after China invaded Tibet. But, the use of the flags today has flourished, especially internationally. In fact you drive around almost anywhere here in Fayetteville, you’ll see them outside of people’s houses. You’ll see them in dorm rooms. There’s even a huge string hanging in the outdoor gear store in town.

Here is a collection of some of my favorite images of prayer flags I’ve seen in my travels–mostly India and Nepal, with one photo from Hong Kong. (I wish I could go back to India and Nepal again, to 2008, but with the photography knowledge I’ve picked up since then. Oh well!)

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