When the tradition of hanging Tibetan prayer flags began more than 2000 years ago, Tibet was ruled by warlords who carried their own flags into battle. The native people took this as their inspiration but spun the intent on its axis when they made their own flags to honor the nature gods of Bon, their shamanistic religion. They used five colors to represent the five elements: blue for sky or space, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for earth. They believed these flags would carry blessings on the wind to anyone nearby, so they took to hanging them over mountain passes and rivers to benefit all who passed underneath.
In the 7th century, Buddhism largely took the place of Bon, absorbing many of its characteristics including the flags, and bringing the new ideals of peace and compassion. The early prayer flags displayed both Buddhist prayers and pictures of the fierce Bon gods who they believed protected Buddha. Over the next 200 years, Buddhist monks began to print their own mantras and symbols on the flags as prayers for peace, prosperity, wisdom, and compassion to be sent out into the world with each breeze.
There are two types of prayer flags, those hung horizontally and those hung vertically, attached from a high place to the ground. Vertically hung prayer flags are known as Dar Cho, with “Dar” meaning to increase life, fortune, health, and wealth, and “Cho” representing all sentient beings.
The flags most commonly seen (as in the picture above) are typically hung horizontally, and are known as “Lung-ta” which translates into “Windhorse”. The central image on each flag is often of a horse with three flaming jewels on its back, representing the Tibetan Buddhist trinity. This trinity consists of Buddha, the enlightened one; Dharma, the path of Buddhist teachings; and Sangha, the Buddhist monastic community. The Windhorse is meant to evoke power, subdue evil, and act as the vehicle of enlightenment.
There are several other creatures that are commonly seen on prayer flags.
There is the Senge, or snow lion, who symbolizes bravery.
Tag, the tiger, represents the strength one must possess to follow the Dharma and become enlightened.
Kyung is the destroyer of evil; he soars on a bed of clouds with flames emanating from his horns.
Finally, there is Druk the dragon, whose roar is said to cut through the fog of ignorance, which is the prime obstacle on the path to enlightenment.
The prayer flags may be hung indoors, but they are designed to be strung up outside where the wind will disperse their messages if you choose to do so. After some time the flags will fade and fray, symbolizing the natural passing of all things. It is believed that when prayer flags fade and blow away thread by thread, the prayers become a permanent part of the universe. Every time you look at prayer flags, let them remind you to continue to send out your own prayers for peace and kindness in the world. As you do so, you will benefit from their blessings as well.