If you step foot into a yoga studio, take a look inside a university dorm room, or pay a visit to a bohemian neighborhood, you are sure to see a few strings of Tibetan prayer flags. A symbol of spiritual enlightenment or international brotherhood, these prayer flags hang from awnings and sway in the breeze, indicating a certain philosophical orientation.
To those familiar with the symbolic language, the message is clear. The prayer flags signify an affiliation with Tibetan Buddhism, and those who decorate with them presumably embrace the ideals of mindfulness, tolerance, and non-violence. But how much of the Tibetan religion do Westerners really understand, and how much of it is just a case of cultural appropriation?
Buddhism in Western Society
Buddhism really began to capture the popular imagination of the West in the 1960s, thanks in large part to the Beat poets like Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In many ways, the counterculture adopted Eastern spirituality as a reaction against the rampant consumerism and self-serving mentality that pervaded post-war America.
Buddhism and Zen mediation offered an escape from the materialistic mindset of the West. Rather than the pursuit of wealth, Eastern religion focussed on inner growth and peace of mind. And as more and more Westerners grew disenchanted with the promise of unwavering economic growth and the hypocrisy of Christian fundamentalism, the exotic path to Eastern spirituality held ever greater appeal.
These were some of the factors which set the stage for the 14th Dalai Lama, who by the end of the 20th century had risen to something like rock star status in the Western world. His message of peace and love and understanding was just the right medicine for a world ill at ease. So the Dalai Lama became a best-selling author and a social media sensation.
Prayer Flags in the West
With ever-increasing popularity, the Dalai Lama was able to raise awareness about the plight of Tibet and the Buddhist monks who had been driven into exile by the Chinese communist regime. At the same time, he managed to bring Tibetan Buddhism, or at least some version of it, into the forefront of popular Western culture.
First came the “Free Tibet” t-shirts and bumper stickers, iconic symbols of grassroots organizing and international awareness, even before the era of MySpace and TedTalks. And next came the Tibetan prayer flags, more vibrant in their rainbow colors, but more subtle in their messaging.
Eventually, even younger generations unfamiliar with the political context of the Tibetan nation were hanging prayer flags in their windows and over their patios. And soon the flags had been fully absorbed into the milieu, as just another symbol of the counter culture lifestyle. Like a tie-dye t-shirt or a Bob Marley tattoo, the Tibet prayer flags signified membership in certain segment of society.
Prayer Flags in their cultural context
Long before the hipsters and bohemians started waving them from their motor homes and their frat houses, these prayer flags had a deep religious and spiritual significance in their own cultural context. The colorful fabric squares, hanging side by side, each contain a Buddhist Sutra, prayer or mantra. Traditionally, the squares were printed with wooden blocks, and to this day that same method is often still used.
In the mountains of Nepal and Tibet, the tradition dates back to at least the 11th century. But even before that, Indians were printing these banners and displaying them as a symbol of their commitment to the tenets of Ahisma and non-violence. According to legend, the practice is said to originate with the Buddha himself, whose prayers were written on flags to protect the Devas in their cosmic battle against the mythological forces of evil.
Today, these flags adorn the high mountains of the Himalayas, where elevations and spirituality achieve record heights. The flags customarily come in sets of five, each with a different color and mantra. Blue, white, red, green and yellow, the colors also signify the five elements: sky, air, fire, water and earth, respectively. Prayers vary, but typically they invoke a series of blessings, including longevity, prosperity, health and peace.
Prayer Flags in practice
In the highlands of the Himalayas, devotees hang their prayer flags far and wide. A bit like the American flag, there are certain norms regarding how, when and where the flags are displayed. It is best to hang them outdoors rather than indoors, for example, and ill-advised to hang them in the rain. These are merely recommendations for the best results, however, and not deeply held religious laws whose violation will bring eternal punishment.
Ideally, people hang their flags on sunny, windy days. The wind makes the flags wave more briskly, carrying the prayer higher and further. Over time, the wind and the elements take their toll, the colors fade, and the fabric frays. This is all part of the natural process of time, and reinforces the Buddhist notion of impermanence.
As the fabric decomposes, new flags are hung alongside them, all serving to remind us of the unrelenting passage of time. All things must pass, to quote another counter culture icon. As the flags — like people — age and die, we must replace them, setting out new prayers and intentions. And so the cycle continues.
If you choose to enhance your home, garden or yoga studio with Tibetan prayer flags, it’s important to know the story behind them. If you decide to hang them indoors, that’s ok too. But it’s always better to know the rules before you break the rules. In the end, whether you’re praying, meditating or interior decorating, it’s the intention that matters most.
If you violate the thousand-year-old traditions of northern India, you’re not likely to be punished with 144 days of bad karma, so long as you act mindfully, respectfully and in accordance with the laws of nature. (Note: Bambu Batu cannot be held accountable if for some reason your misuse of prayer flags results in bad karma.)
If you’ve enjoyed these reflections on Tibetan prayer flags, you might also enjoy some of the following articles about Buddhism and Eastern spirituality.
- The Meaning of the Mandala
- The 10,000 Things of Taoism
- Buddhist Thangka Paintings
- Bamboo Symbolism in Mythology and Folklore
PHOTO CREDIT: Frantisek Duris (Unsplash)