A look into Prayer Flags, a symbolic Buddhist artifact with an ancient and manifold history, and how they represent impermanence.
In the West, we constantly want to replace old things. Shirt has a hole? In the bag for the Salvation Army. Microwave making that funny noise again? In the garbage it goes.
Well, prayer flags don’t work that way. In the Himalayan region, you see them dancing on mountaintops, in valleys, or along the road. Anyone can put them up. The flags are often just left to the passing of time (though old ones can be burned, spreading merit in smoke). Freshly hung, they’re bright, seen for miles. The wind changes them. First they get a little stringy along the bottom. Designed to slowly fray, they’re not made for endurance. As the sun hits, day after day, they fade. Soon the flags are near illegible, turned almost gray. Yet, this seems to increase their merit. By the time they disintegrate, the space around them feels different, lighter. Prayer flags, like anything, are highly impermanent.
The prayer flag has a long history, dating back to ancient Tibet, China, Persia, and India. The flags are inscribed with symbols, prayers, invocations, and mantras.
The wind carries the blessings to all living beings. While mountains are their ideal location, if you don’t have a mountain handy, the flags can also be hung pretty much anywhere, as long as they’re off the ground. I know a woman who hangs prayer flags on her clothesline, much to the detriment of drying clothes. If your neighbors complain the flags are starting to look a bit ratty, just tell them “it’s for your own merit.” I’m sure they’ll believe you.
Jan Lundy says
Thank you for this dear, thoughtful post. I will never look at tattered prayer flags in quite the same way again. And I think I am going to take you up on the idea of attaching a set to my clothesline. I love hanging out laundry to dry in the sun to seal in its warmth and energy. Why not send some prayers and Love out as the same time? Blessings to you…
Claire Heisler says
Blessings to you as well!
I made some prayer flags out of my sewing scraps last year when we had to put our dog down. It was a long, difficult decision, made more difficult by the fact that she was physically healthy, but very emotionally disturbed. We had tried many different approaches, but she was a danger to people and to herself as well. I put her pawprints on three of the flags in paint before she died.
We hung those flags on the front porch the day that she was put down, with thoughts of her and wishes for her peace and our own peace. It's been difficult, but as the flags fray and flap and fade I find that when I look at them I feel happier instead of sadder. I don't know when that change happened. It's healing.
Darilyn Avery says
That's a beautiful story about a difficult decision… I get strength from your strength
Hi Laurel, we also have a dog with whom we tried many approaches but have not yet made the final decision. I know how difficult this kind of situation can be. If we reach a final decision I like the idea of putting his paws on the flags. Thanks for sharing.
Prayer flags are mantras put in the wind for the blessings of all beings, people, animals, plants and minerals. The symbols travel through the wind, through the world breath to give blessings to all. It is a strong symbol. But prayer flags are the symbol as well of impermanence: and it is a powerful message, everything fade away and that's the beauty of life itself, the cycle of our human life.
I have an enclosed porch and over 4 years ago I put up 6 prayer flags in different colors and with mantras and prayers on them. Because the porch is enclosed the prayer flags do not breathe in the wind but they do fade with the passage of the sun day by day. Impermanance.
I put prayer flags along the furthest rail of my porch, facing east and the river….they were there for quite some time until i noticed a squirrel one day chewing on the ties….two days later the entire string of flags was gone….i believe she ran off with them for her nest….they were nowhere to be found….i love to think her babies were born on great blessings.