Thursday, December 16, 2010

Travel TidBits: The Tradition of Prayer Flags in Buddhism

There are few things more beautiful than colorful prayer flags fluttering in the wind- sometimes waving gently, sometimes raging; a dance of shadow and light. According to Buddhist believe, there is perhaps no simpler way to create good merit in this troubled world than to put prayer flags up for the benefit of other living beings. Prayer flags are not just pretty pieces of colored cloth with funny writing on them. The ancient Buddhist prayers, mantras and powerful symbols displayed on them produce a spiritual vibration that is activated and carried by the wind across the countryside. All beings that are touched by the wind are uplifted and a little happier. The silent prayers are blessings spoken on the breath of nature. Just as a drop of water can permeate the ocean, prayers dissolved in the wind extend to fill all of space.

For over a thousand years people of Buddhist traditions dating back to ancient Tibet, China, Persia and India, have been making and hanging prayer flags. Squares of cloth in blue, white, red, green and yellow are printed onto and sewn on a cord in groups of five, always in the same color order. The meaning of the five colors differs depending of what text you read but according to the Nyingma School (Ancient Ones) the colors correspond to the 5 elements:

Blue for space
White for air
Red for fire
Green for water
Yellow for earth.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, the five colors of prayer flags also represent the 5 Buddha families and the 5 Wisdoms and aspects of the enlightened mind.

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.

Buddhists believe that hanging prayer flags with intention releases positive, energized wishes out to the world on the wind. Loving-Kindness, Peace, Compassion and Wisdom are the themes. It is a sign of respect to keep Prayer Flags off of the ground or floor. The cloth frays and the printed images fade as they are released to the wind and the heavens. When they are well worn they are often burned, to release the last expression of prayer. It is also common to see old, tattered prayer flags side by side with new ones, left to the elements.
If you enjoyed reading about the Buddhist Traditions, you might want to explore traveling to Bhutan. Check out: 'Bhutan - Festival and Photo Tour with Meggi' by clicking on the link or tab on the menu bar above.