Understanding Spiritual Traditions
The magic of spiritual tradition is that it emerges from many different cultures with many different meanings.
I believe one way to avoid cultural appropriation is to do the research, learn the customs, understand and practice traditions with reverence.
Also, remember that most of the traditions we practice in yoga, meditation, and spiritual practice have been passed down through generations by word of mouth and ceremony. Each time it gets changed and tweaked a little to become unique to the experience and the person. You have the same power to honor tradition and create your own.
We’ve all seen photos of tattered prayer flags of multi-colors flapping in the wind. I don’t know about you, but it stirs my soul to see them.
The first prayer flag I bought was from a cute boutique with a special saying on it—beautiful fabric and a little pricey. I had never owned a prayer flag. I saw this and pined for it for a few weeks before returning to splurging on it. I brought it home, hung it up in my backyard and admired it every time I went outside. It was getting dingy, the seams were fraying, and the weather was changing. I didn’t want it to get ruined over the fall and winter, so I put it in my gardening shed for the season. I had no idea it was supposed to get dingy and dissolve. That, in fact, is the whole point.
Here’s what I’ve learned about Tibetan Prayer flags since.
Tibetan prayer flags have a long and rich history in Tibetan culture, dating back over a thousand years. The tradition of hanging prayer flags is rooted in Buddhist philosophy, which holds that the wind can carry the prayers and mantras written on the flags to all beings, thus promoting peace, compassion, and goodwill.
The earliest prayer flags in Tibet were likely made of animal skins or wood, with the prayers and mantras inscribed or painted on them. Over time, using paper, cloth, and other materials became more common, as did hanging them outdoors.
I even found a case in Japan of a temple that created wooden prayer flags. They would hang them for a time and then burn them in a fire ceremony (we’ll talk more about fire ceremonies in future blogs – be sure to subscribe to my email list to get updates)
When a prayer flag starts to dissolve, it is considered a sign that the prayers and intentions carried by the flag have been released into the environment and that their effects have been spread throughout the surrounding area.
It is also believed that when a prayer flag dissolves, it is a sign that the person who hung the flag has accumulated good karma and is being blessed by the divine. Others believe that it is a sign that the prayers and wishes that were made when the flag was hung have been fulfilled.
The dissolution of a prayer flag can also be seen as a reminder of the impermanence of all things in life, including our thoughts, emotions, and physical forms. It reminds us to let go of attachments and cultivate a sense of impermanence and openness in our lives.
The dissolution of a prayer flag is considered a positive and auspicious event in Tibetan Buddhism, as it signifies the fulfillment of the prayers and intentions tied to the flag.
Symbols and Colors on Traditional Prayer Flags
Prayer flags traditionally come in a string of five colors, each representing one of the five elements: blue for the sky, white for air, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for earth. In addition, the flags may be decorated with various symbols and images, including the Eight Auspicious Symbols of Buddhism, Tibetan deities, and sacred animals.
Here are some of the standard symbols found on Tibetan prayer flags and their meanings:
Wind horse (Tibetan: lung ta): This is a symbol of the human soul or spirit and is believed to carry prayers and good wishes to the heavens.
Lotus flower (Tibetan: padma): The lotus flower symbolizes purity, enlightenment, and spiritual growth.
The eight auspicious symbols: These are a group of eight symbols that represent the qualities of a noble being. They include the parasol, the golden fish, the conch shell, the endless knot, the banner of victory, the treasure vase, the lotus flower, and the wheel of dharma.
Mantras: These are sacred words or phrases repeated as a form of meditation or prayer. One of the most common mantras found on Tibetan prayer flags is “Om Mani Padme Hum,” which is the mantra of compassion.
Dragons (Tibetan: druk): Dragons are a symbol of power and protection, and they are often depicted holding a jewel or a pearl, representing wisdom.
Tigers (Tibetan: tak): Tigers symbolize strength and courage and are often depicted with a flaming pearl, representing enlightenment.
Garuda (Tibetan: khyung): Garuda is a mythical bird symbolizing freedom, protection, and wisdom.
These symbols are meant to inspire and uplift those who see them and remind them of the qualities they should strive to cultivate in themselves.
In Western culture, you will find a variety of prayer flags, from chakra symbols to inspiring quotes. I’ve been out hiking and seen handmade ones along the trails.
Many years ago, armed with my grandmothers’ sewing machine, I made several strings of blank prayer flags with lovely natural cotton.
I used them at our wedding instead of a guest book. I asked guests to sign them with their well wishes and inspiring comments to us. Our wedding prayer flag hangs on our back porch and blows in the wind, carrying our friends’ love throughout. We created a new tradition for ourselves by honoring the tradition and meaning.
How to Hang Prayer Flags
When hanging prayer flags, Tibetans believe it is important to do so respectfully, ensuring that the flags are clean and not touching the ground. It is also customary to hang the flags in areas with strong winds, as this helps to carry the prayers and mantras to all beings.
Steps to hang prayer flags:
Choose a suitable location: Prayer flags are usually hung outdoors where the wind can carry their blessings. Choose a high and open area so the flags can catch the wind.
Prepare the area: Clear where you will hang the prayer flags of any debris or obstacles.
Hang the prayer flags: Tie one end of the cord to a post or tree, then walk to the other end and pull the line tight. Tie the other end of the line to a second post or tree. The prayer flags should now be stretched out, ready to catch the wind. Ensure you have attached it securely while giving enough slack to allow the flags to ripple in the wind.
Offer prayers: As you hang the prayer flags, you can recite prayers or mantras, asking for blessings to be carried on the wind to the world.
Remember to replace the old prayer flags with new flags and new prayers as the dissolve.
I have a set hanging over my offering area in my garden. This year all but two of the flags have dissolved. I did not remove the old string of flags but did place a new one in the space to keep the positive energy and blessings moving and flowing.
On our My Healthy Life Box shop you’ll find a variety of prayer flags from traditional Tibetan prayer flags to chakra banners.
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In July 2020, I started a podcast — Grounding Journey — to connect with souls on a journey similar to mine. We began offering products in February of 2022 with our Sacred Practices Yoga Deck and a small Etsy store. Over the year, we grew our product offerings and created an online summit that reached over 1000 souls across the world.