Buddhism: Fluttering Flags and Floating Blessings

The flags fluttered gaily, hymns written over them floated, carefully picked by the wind, the spiritual vibrations (of hymns) blended with the natural energy (of wind) touched mortal sentient, uplifted their merits and fortunes and the message of peace and happiness was delivered far and wide. Welcome to the Buddhist land of Sikkim.

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It started with the birth of Siddarth. He was prophesied to be a great Saint or an Emperor. His parents made their choice and tried to keep him away from sufferings to ensure him of taking the path of becoming a Great Emperor, than being an ascetic living on alms. The destiny had chosen another path for him. He realized early that life is full of sorrows. In his pursuit for the purpose of life, he followed the path of severe penance and fasting for several years, but soon felt its futility. After attaining enlightenment and becoming Buddha, he suggested middle path in his sermons. He urged mankind to stay away from both, the worldly pleasures and the practices of useless penances.

His doctrine was based on four holy truths, Life is full of sorrows; the real cause of these sufferings and re-births are our desires; end of these sufferings is only possible through breaking the snare of cyclic existence; the best way to break the cyclic existence is by following a rightful living. He suggested an eight-fold path of correct living: right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration, right intentions and right views. Buddha emphasized that anyone can start following these path at any point of time in his life and after much striving in this direction anyone can even achieve Nirvana. It was with this belief he converted ferocious and ruthless killer Angulimal and brought him back to the path of righteousness.

Buddha emphasized that the ultimate goal of a soul is enlightenment and this journey begins with the accumulations of punyas, the good merits. According to Mahayana sect of Buddhism, the accumulation of punyas is possible through positive actions, even positive thoughts add to it.

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Erecting flag poles with prayer mantras is considered one of such positive actions. The remarkable facet of this skillful act of faith is that it is not about making offerings and seeking blessings only for oneself, but for all touched by its positive vibrations. The mantras and prayers written over the flags are believed to bring longevity and good-luck along with peace, strength, health, wealth and happiness.

The origin of the concept of prayer flags dates thousands of years back to the pre-Buddhist shamanistic Bon religion of Tibet. Tibet is a vast and sparsely populated country with people living far from each others in small groups, separated by arid and deserted land. They are often subjected to harsh climatic conditions, extreme cold winters, sudden violent storms, and the penetrating chilling winds. These harsh climatic conditions, over which human beings have little control, prepared fertile ground for Bon religion to flourish. Bon religion thrived on superstitions, human-fear and magic.

In such an environment, Buddhism was introduced in Tibet in 7th century AD by two wives of Great Tibetan ruler – Songsten Gampo, the first ruler to unify Tibet. One of the two wives was Chinese and the other was a Nepali. It almost established a protocol as throughout centuries Tibet is influenced both by Chinese and Indo-Nepali culture.

In an environment where most of the Tibetans were nomadic, illiterate and superstitious, Buddhism was bound to face hostile population that was too fearful to understand Buddhism and its profound teachings and theories. And so like all new religions, Buddhism also had to accommodate the existing practices of its new followers to make them feel comfortable and at ease. The Bon priests used to hoist flags made of plain clothes in primary colors as part of their healing ceremonies. Buddhism in Tibet adopted them with the modifications that the plain clothes were replaced with flags with sacred mantras. Tibetan Buddhism is known as Lamaism and it is a combination of both Buddhism and the original Bon beliefs. Buddhism in Sikkim is heavily influenced by Buddhism in Tibet.

In areas influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, the prayer flags can be seen hoisted both in horizontal and vertical directions. The horizontal flags are known as Lung-ta – the wind-horse and the vertical flags are known as Dhar-Shing – referring to the flag poles. The process of erecting flags is known as Dhar-Char. Dhar refers to increasing life-span through promotion of peace, strength, health and wealth and Char means putting up or uplifting.

Lung-Ta: Horizontal Buddhist Prayer Flags

Lung-Ta: Horizontal Buddhist Prayer Flags

The horizontal flags are normally square in shape and are hung from their edges on crisscrossing ropes or strings. Vertically erected flags have the rectangular piece of cloth and are generally found near monasteries, stupas and even on high passes. The flags erected on high passes also benefit the deceased and liberate the departed.

Horizontal and Vertical Prayer Flags in Sangla Kanda, Himachal

Horizontal and Vertical Prayer Flags in Sangla Kanda, Himachal

On a vertically erected flag, three distinct segments can be noticed, a sword like tip, a wheel below it and of course the flag with the printed holy syllables. These three components represent strength, wisdom and compassion, three distinct qualities considered must for the spiritual growth of a person. The sword represents wisdom, with its sharp edge representing a sharp mind that cut through the web of ignorance, ego, anger and greed. Wheel represents the power to subdue negative forces and thoughts, and the cloth with scared syllables represented compassion.

The prayer flags are generally seen in the set of five colors white, yellow, red, green and blue representing the five basic elements of oriental philosophy earth, water, fire, sky and wind; blue represents sky, yellow represents earth, white symbolizes wind, red represents fire and green represents water. The flags are always arranged in a particular order, for example on an ascending terrain yellow is placed at the bottom (earth) and the blue is placed on the top (sky). When the flags are arranged horizontally, the order of color is from left to right, blue being on the leftmost position followed by white, red, green and yellow at the rightmost position.

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The acts of faith always have well-defined rules and regulations. Similarly, the prayer flags can only be hoisted on auspicious day and time, raising them on inauspicious occasions may results in negative energies, effect of which can be seen till the flags worn out or are destroyed by natural forces. We human beings always carry our beliefs and conception. So, even when Buddha tried to dispel these notions of ignorance and blind-faiths, we retained them in one or other form and over the time we even managed to merge them with the teachings of the enlightened ones. I am hereby posting the link of a beautiful poem by Harvivansh Rai Bachhan recited by Amitabh Bachhan that reflects similar thoughts.

It is considered holy to recite prayers on seeing the prayer flags. I consider it a way to create positive energies. In my opinion, it is the effect of such positive thoughts and energies that we feel so calm and light while visiting holy places. Most of us throw away any negativity crossing our mind at that point of time and this positivity resonates.

With this article, I am hoisting another form of a prayer flag with all the good wishes to all living beings. May we always strive to become better human beings and strive to lead a righteous path for our living!

Prayer Flags everywhere, Sangla, Himachal

Prayer Flags everywhere, Sangla, Himachal

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