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Prayer Flags

August 01, 2018

Prayer flags are colorful rectangular cloths commonly seen in the mountain ranges, peaks and suspension bridges in the Himalayas used to promote peace, compassion, strength and wisdom.

Though the flags are called prayer flags, they do not carry prayers to gods. The belief is that the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread good will and compassion into all prevailing space. Accordingly, they are thought to benefit all though there may be a special bonus to those who place them. In Buddhism, prayer flags are unique to the broader compassionate scope of Mahayana Buddhism of northern Asia rather than Theravada Buddhism practiced in Southeast Asia.

The flag colors have symbolic significance that may vary by country. In Bhutan the following are the color references: yellow-earth; red-fire; blue-space; white-water; and green-environment.

The prayers contained on a flag become a part of the universe as the images fade from exposure to the elements. As there is no permanence in life, new flags are continually mounted alongside the old. Symbolically, life's changes are welcomed in recognition of an ongoing cycle.

Prayer flags are printed from woodblocks which are carved with images and mantras. As shown below by the Bhutanese artisan in Paro, they are then covered in black ink to impart the image onto the cloth. Very seldom do you ever see a Bhutanese person who is not in native dress. The author would admit that it takes a special skill to dress oneself in this costume.

Following the ink application, the cloth is placed on the woodblock and a plant leaf is used to press the mantra into the fabric. Surprisingly, it takes far more effort than you might think but the young lady and co-founder of The Elephant Story, shown below, was quite adept at the process. If there is a special bonus to those who install prayer flags, can you imagine the merit created by making them and then placing them in an appropriate place in the Texas Hill Country?

According to traditional belief, as the symbols and mantras on prayer flags are sacred, they should be treated with respect. They should not be placed on the ground or used to decorate clothing. Moreover, if old flags are taken down, they should be burned.

The best spot to place prayer flags is near a site where compassionate messages could be of assistance and, in the author's case, it is his elephant polo practice field shown in the image below. Elephant polo players may be a bit unhinged but they do understand the sport can be dangerous and seek the best spiritual insurance coverage possible. It is clear when one's personal physician raises the question as to why his patient's feet go in different directions. Nonetheless, the wisdom portion of the prayer flag message does not resonate with the polo crowd who jump on behemoth animals to hit a small ball in a field of charging elephants.

These traditional paper-thin flags are crafted with frayed edges and loose threads meant to blow and wear in the wind.

The gradual disintegration of each flag represents the spreading and transfer of goodwill into all pervading space.
10 Flag String


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