Prayer Flags

Our next door neighbors are Tibetan.  We don’t know them too well, but we do know that the wife was among the performers for the Dali Lama the last time he was in D.C.  They moved here from New Jersey, but their parents have lived in northern India for a long time, having had to leave Tibet because of the Chinese occupation of their country.

We always know when the parents are in town for a visit, because they bring with them their Buddhist traditions.  The neighbors themselves seem pretty secular, but the grandfather sits on their deck and chants for long periods of time in that particularly pitched monotone—a soothing and persistent hum on a sunny autumn afternoon.

And with every visit their deck is draped, as it is right now, with a string of fresh prayer flags!   Such flags are a distinctly Tibetan Buddhist thing.  The ones they use are the Lung ta style, square and strung to hang horizontally or on an angle from a high point to a lower point.  The traditional colors of blue, white, red, green, and yellow  (the standard left-right sequence) symbolize the five Tibetan elements of sky, air, fire, water, and earth.  And the flags are usually covered by images and lettering, again traditional in content and form.  In the center is a strong horse with three jewels on its back.  The horse symbolizes the sudden transformation of bad fortune to good fortune.  The jewels symbolize  Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha (teacher, teachings, and community), the “three cornerstones of Tibetan philosophical tradition.”   These colorful, rippling flags contribute so much more to the already diverse multicolored glory of the neighborhood’s autumn leaves.

There are myriad variations in prayer flags, of course, both in color and content.  While the tradition is to print the lettering and images in dark ink using a woodblock, our neighbors’ seem to be in the same color as the flag, but paler than the bright flag color.  Substitute images, languages, and texts all abound.  There’s even a set for sale online with beautiful paintings of different Rocky Mountain wildflowers.  We haven’t inspected the neighbors’ flags closely enough to see just how traditional or innovative they are.

But we do know how they work.   The passing winds carry the prayers to everywhere on earth—not to the deities—to bring goodwill and compassion to all.  Such ubiquitous blessings are not to be taken lightly.  And, praise God, we are directly downwind from those flags.  The power of their prayers flows over our arborvitae hedge, straight across the patio.  We are blessed in many ways, not the least by these powerful emanations of the World Soul.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2022.