TIBETAN BUDDHIST PRAYER FLAGS
Prayer flags Prayer flags are colored pieces of cloth that have Buddhist sutras printed on them. They are strung up at mountain passes and along trails and streams and are attached to chortens, temples and other sacred structures so their prayers can be released in the wind to purify the air and appease the gods. When the flags flutter in the wind, Tibet Buddhists believe the sutras on them are released to heaven and this bring merit to the people who tied them. The tradition of tying prayer flags evolved out of worship for the God of Soil, and important Bon deity in Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism.
Tibetan prayer flags are inscribed with auspicious symbols, invocations, prayers, and mantras. The Tibetan word for prayer flag is Dar Cho. “Dar” means to increase life, fortune, health and wealth. “Cho” means all sentient beings. Prayer flags are simple devices that, coupled with the natural energy of the wind, quietly harmonize the environment, impartially increasing happiness and good fortune among all living beings. [Sources: Timothy Clark, Radiant Heart Studio; Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org]
The prayer flag tradition is ancient, dating back thousands of years to ancient Buddhist India and to the shamanistic Bon tradition of pre-Buddhist Tibet. There were similar traditions in ancient Persia and China. Bonpo priests used solid colored cloth flags, perhaps with their magical symbols, to balance the elements both internally and externally. The five colors of prayer flags represent the five basic elements: yellow-earth, green-water, red-fire, white-air, blue-space. Balancing these elements externally brings harmony to the environment. Balancing the elements internally brings health to the body and the mind. <>
Buddhists added their own texts to increase the power of the flags. There are ancient symbols, prayers and mantras for generating compassion, health, wish fulfillment, and for overcoming diseases, natural disasters and other obstacles. In this present dark-age disharmony reigns and the elements are way out of balance. The earth needs healing like never before. Prayer flags moving in the wind generate a natural positive energy. Acting on a spiritual level the emanating vibrations protect from harm and bring harmony to everything touched by the wind. <>
Prayer flags are said to bring happiness, long life and prosperity to the flag planter and those in the vicinity. Early Tibetan people plant prayer flags to honor the nature gods of Bon. They hung the flags outside their homes, over mountain passes and rivers and places of spiritual significance for the wind to carry the beneficent vibrations across the countryside. When Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century, it absorbed many Bon traditions, including the flags The early Buddhist flags contained 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 mantras and symbols on the flags as blessings to be sent out to the world with each breeze. Thus they became known Prayer Flags. <>
Dharma prints on the prayer flags bear traditional Buddhist symbols, protectors and enlightened beings. As the Buddhist spiritual approach is non-theistic, the elements of Tantric iconography do not stand for external beings, but represent aspects of enlightened mind i.e. compassion, perfect action, fearlessness, etc. Displayed with respect, Dharma prints impart a feeling of harmony and bring to mind the precious teachings. <>
Links in this Website: BUDDHISM IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; HISTORY OF BUDDHISM IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; HISTORY OF TIBETAN BUDDHISM Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN BUDDHISM SECTS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN BUDDHISM TEXT, BELIEFS, GODS, SYMBOLS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN BUDDHIST OBJECTS, RITUALS AND TEMPLES Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN MONKS AND LAMAS Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN MONASTERIES AND PILGRIMS Factsanddetails.com/China ; BON RELIGION, CATHOLICS AND ASTROLOGY IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; RELIGIOUS REPRESSION IN TIBET Factsanddetails.com/China ; DALAI LAMAS Factsanddetails.com/China ; PRESENT DALAI LAMA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DALAI LAMA’s CURRENT LIFE Factsanddetails.com/China ; DALAI LAMA AND POLITICS Factsanddetails.com/China ; PANCHEN LAMAS AND LAMA CONTROVERSIES Factsanddetails.com/China ; KARMAPA LAMA Factsanddetails.com/China
Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Religious Tolerance Page religioustolerance.org/buddhism ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion ; Buddhist Centre thebuddhistcentre.com; A sketch of the Buddha's Life accesstoinsight.org ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika buddhanet.net ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) sacred-texts.com ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ignca.nic.in/jatak ; Buddhist Tales buddhanet.net ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi accesstoinsight.org ; Victoria and Albert Museum vam.ac.uk/collections/asia/asia_features/buddhism/index ; Tibetan Buddhism: ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Tibetan Buddhist archives sacred-texts.com ; Buddha.net list of Tibetan Buddhism sources buddhanet.net ; Tibetan Buddhist Meditation tricycle.org/magazine/tibetan-buddhist-meditation ; Gray, David B. (Apr 2016). "Tantra and the Tantric Traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion. oxfordre.com/religion ; Wikipedia article on Tibetan Buddhism Wikipedia ; Shambhala.com. larges publisher of Tibetan Buddhist Books shambhala.com ; tbrc.org ; Tibetan Philosophy, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu/tibetan ; Book: Tibetan Buddhism by L. Austine Waddell
History of Tibetan Prayer Flags
According to some lamas prayer flags date back thousands of years to the Bon tradition of preBuddhist Tibet. Shamanistic Bonpo priests used primary colored plain cloth flags in healing ceremonies. Each color corresponded to a different primary element - earth, water, fire, air and space – the fundamental building blocks of both our physical bodies and of our environment. According to Eastern medicine health and harmony are produced through the balance of the 5 elements. Properly arranging colored flags around a sick patient harmonized the elements in his body helping to produce a state of physical and mental health. Colored flags were also used to help appease the local gods and spirits of the mountains, valleys, lakes and streams. These elemental beings, when provoked were thought to cause natural disasters and disease. Balancing the outer elements and propitiating the elemental spirits with rituals and offerings was the Bonpo way of pacifying nature and invoking the blessings of the gods. [Source: Timothy Clark, Radiant Heart Studio *=*]
It is not known whether or not the Bonpos ever wrote words on their flags. The preBuddhist religions of Tibet were oral traditions; writing was apparently limited to government bookkeeping. On the other hand the very word, “bonpo,” means “one who recites magical formulas” Even if no writing was added to the plain strips of cloth it is likely that the Bonpos painted sacred symbols on them. Some symbols seen on Buddhist prayer flags today undoubtedly have Bonpo origins, their meaning now enhanced with the deep significance of Vajrayana Buddhist philosophy. *=*
From the first millennium AD Buddhism gradually assimilated into the Tibetan way of life reaching great zeal in the ninth century when the religious King of Tibet invited the powerful Indian meditation master, Guru Padmasambhava, to come and control the forces then impeding the spread of Buddhism. Guru Rinpoche, as he is popularly known, bound the local Tibetan spirits by oath and transformed them into forces compatible with the spread of Buddhism. Some to the prayers seen on flags today were composed by Guru Rinpoche to pacify the spirits that cause disease and natural disasters. *=*
Originally the writing and images on prayer flags were painted by hand, one at a time. Woodblocks, carefully carved in mirror image relief, were introduced from China in the 15th century. This invention made it possible to reproduce identical prints of the same design. Traditional designs could then be easily passed down from generation to generation. *=*
Famous Buddhist masters created most prayer flag designs. Lay craftsmen make copies of the designs but would never think of actually creating a new design. There are relatively few basic designs for a continuous tradition that goes back over a thousand years. Aside from new designs no real innovations to the printing process have occurred in the past 500 years. *=*
Most prayer flags today are woodblock printed. Some shops are now starting to produce prints made from zinc faced blocks that can be etched photographically resulting in finer detail than the hand carved woodblock. Natural stone ground pigments have been replaced by printing inks, usually having a kerosene base. Most of the companies in the west prefer to use silkscreen printing techniques as wood carving is a time consuming skill requiring lengthy apprenticeship. When the Chinese took over Tibet they destroyed much of everything having to do with Tibetan culture and religion. Prayer flags were discouraged but not entirely eliminated. We will never know how many traditional designs have been lost forever since the turmoil of China’s cultural revolution. Because cloth and paper prints deteriorate so quickly the best way to preserve the ancient designs is by saving the woodblocks. Woodblocks, often weighing several pounds, were too heavy for the refugees to lug over the Himalayas and woodblocks no doubt made wonderful firewood for Chinese troops. Most of the traditional prayer flags today are made in Nepal and India by Tibetan refugees or by Nepali Buddhists from the Tibetan border regions.
Texts on Tibetan Prayer Flags
Early in the 7th Century the Tibetan King Song Tsen Gompo sent his minister to India to learn Sanskrit and writing. The Tibetan script we see today on prayer flags was modeled after an Indian script used at that time. Texts seen on prayer flags can be broadly categorized as mantra, sutra and prayers. [Source: Timothy Clark, Radiant Heart Studio *=*]
A mantra is a power-laden syllable or series of syllables or sounds with the capacity of influencing certain energy dimensions. The vibration of mantra can control the invisible energies and occult forces that govern existence. Continuous repetition of mantras is practiced as a form of meditation in many Buddhist schools. Mantras are almost always in Sanskrit – the ancient language of Hinduism and Buddhism. They range in length from a single “seed syllable” like OM to long mantras such as the “Hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva.” They are not really translatable; their inner meanings are beyond words. Probably the oldest Buddhist mantra and still the most widespread among Tibetans is the six-syllable mantra of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion. OM MANI PADME HUNG! Printed on prayer flags the mantra sends blessings of compassion to the six worldly realms.*=*
Sutras are prose texts based on the discourses directly derived from Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha who taught in India 2500 years ago. Many sutras have long, medium and short versions. Prayer flags use the medium or short versions. One short form of sutra often seen on prayer flag is the dharani. Closely related to mantras, dharanis contain magical formulas comprised of syllables with symbolic content. They can convey the essence of a teaching or a particular state of mind. The Victory Banner (Gyaltsen Semo) contains many lines of dharani. Praise to the 21 Taras, the Long Life Flag and the White Umbrella are also examples of prayer flags using Sutras. For purposes of categorization all the other text seen on prayer flags can fall under the general term “prayers.” These would include supplications, aspirations and good wishes written by various masters throughout the history of Mahayana Buddhism. *=*
Symbols on Tibetan Prayer Flags
Wind horse Symbols by definition have meanings larger than their mere appearance. In the case of sacred Buddhist symbols the meanings are often hinting at vast notions beyond words. Long treatises have been written on the meanings of such symbols. Listed below are brief meaning of some of the more common symbols. [Source: Timothy Clark, Radiant Heart Studio *=*]
The Wind Horse (Lung-ta) carrying the “Wish Fulfilling Jewel of Enlightenment” is the most prevalent symbol used on prayer flags. It represents good fortune; the uplifting life force energies and opportunities that makes things go well. When one’s lung-ta is low obstacles constantly arise. When lung-ta is high good opportunities abound. Raising Wind Horse prayer flags is one of the best ways to raise one’s lung-ta energy. *=*
The Eight Auspicious Symbols (Tashi Targye) is one of the most popular symbol groupings among Tibetans and also one of the oldest, being mentioned in the Pali and Sanskrit canonical texts of Indian Buddhism. These Eight Symbols of Good Fortune are: 1) The Parasol- which protects from all evil The Golden Fish – representing happiness and beings saved from the sea of suffering; 2) The Treasure Vase – sign of fulfillment of spiritual and material wishes; 3) The Lotus- symbol of purity and spiritual unfoldment; 4) The Conch Shell –proclaims the teachings of the enlightened ones; 5) The Endless Knot- symbolizing meditative mind and infinite knowledge of the Buddha; 6) The Victory Banner – symbolizes the victory of wisdom over ignorance and the overcoming of obstacles; 7) The Dharma Wheel – symbol of spiritual and universal law; 8) The Vajra (Tibetan: dorje) is the symbol of indestructibility. In Buddhism it represents true reality, the being or essence of everything existing. This pure emptiness is unborn, imperishable and unceasing. *=*
The Four Dignities: These four animals—1) the Garuda, 2) the Sky Dragon, 3) the Snow Lion and 4) the Tiger— are seen in the corners of many Tibetan prayer flags – often accompanying the Wind Horse. They represent the qualities and attitudes necessarily developed on the spiritual path to enlightenment. These are qualities such as awareness, vast vision, confidence, joy, humility and power. *=*
The Seven Precious Possessions of a Monarch are: 1) Precious Wheel, 2) Precious Jewel, 3) Precious Queen, 4) Precious Minister, 5) Precious Elephant, 6) Precious Horse and 7) Precious General. These seven objects collectively symbolize secular power. They give the ruler knowledge, resources and power. In the Buddhist interpretation a comparison is drawn between the outward rule of the secular king and the spiritual power of a practitioner. To the spiritual practitioner the Seven Jewels represent boundless wisdom, inexhaustible spiritual resources and invincible power over all inner and outer obstacles. *=*
The Union of Opposites (mithun gyulgyal) is an interesting group of symbols. These mythological beings are joined rival pairs of animals created to symbolize harmony. A snow lion and a garuda, normally mortal enemies, were combined to form an animial with a snow lion’s body and a garuda’s head and wings. Likewise a fish was put together with an otter and a crocodile-like chu-srin was married to a conch shell. These composed creatures are often put on Victory Banners for the reconciliation of disharmony and disagreement. *=*
Deities and Enlightened Beings: Deities in Vajrayana Buddhism are not gods as such but representations of the aspects of Enlightened Mind. Their postures, hand gestures, implements and ornaments symbolize various qualities of the particular aspect. The three main aspects of enlightened mind are compassion, wisdom and power, represented respectively by Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani. There are other images depicted on prayer flags that look very similar to the transcendental deities. These are actually enlightened human beings such as Shakyamuni Buddha, Guru Padmasambhava, and Milarepa. *=*
The Elements Vajrayana Buddhism divides the phenomenal and psycho-cosmic world into five basic energies. In our physical world these manifest as earth, water, fire, air and space. Our own bodies and everything else in the physical world is composed of these five basic elements. On a spiritual level these basic energies correspond to the 5 Buddha Families and the 5 Wisdoms. Prayer flags reflect this comprehensive system through color; each of the 5 colors relates to an element and an aspect of enlightened mind. It should be noted that there are two systems used so there is sometimes confusion about which color corresponds to which element. The order of the colors in prayer flag displays remains the same in both the systems. The color order is always: yellow, green, red, white and blue. In a vertical displays the yellow goes at the bottom and the blue at the top. For a horizontal display the order can go either from right to left or from left to right. *=*
According to the Nyingma School (Ancient Ones) the color element correspondence is: Blue – space White – air (sometimes referred to wind or cloud) Red – fire Green – water Yellow – earth The New Translation Schools switch the colors for air and water but keep the order of the colors the same. *=*
Types of Prayer Flags
Prayer flag types can be divided into about two-dozen categories; half a dozen of which comprise a large majority of the flags we see today. Wind Horse (Lung- ta) flags are by far the most common prayer flag, so much so that many people think that the word lung-ta means prayer flag. Their purpose is to raise the good fortune energy of the beings in the vicinity of the prayer flag. The wind horse, usually in pictorial form, always occupies the center of this flag. The outside corners of the flag is always guarded by the four great animals – the garuda, dragon, tiger and snow lion – either in pictorial form or in written word. The texts on the flags differ; usually a collection of various mantras or a short sutra. The Victory Banner Sutra (Gyaltsen Semo) is the most popular. [Source: Timothy Clark, Radiant Heart Studio *=*]
Victorious Banners are used to overcome obstacles and disturbances. Shakyamuni Buddha gave the Victory Banner Sutra to Indra, king of the god realm. Indra was instructed to repeat this sutra when going into battle in order to protect his troops and to assure victory over the demigods. The sutra has many protective dharanis to overcome obstacles, enemies, malicious forces, diseases and disturbances. Victory Banner flags display this sutra along with symbols such as the wind horse, the Eight Auspicious Symbols, the Seven Possessions of a Monarch and the Union of Opposites. Often there are special mantras added to increase harmony, health, wealth and good fortune. *=*
Health and Longevity Flags usually have a short version of the Buddha’s Long Life Sutra along with prayers and mantras for health and long life. Amitayus, the Buddha of Limitless Life is often in the center of the flag. Two other long life Deities, White Tara (peace and health) and Vijaya (victorious protection) are sometimes included. *=*
The Wish Fulfilling Prayer (Sampa Lhundrup) is a powerful protection prayer written by Guru Padmasambhava. It is said to be especially relevant to our modern age and is good for raising one’s fortune, protecting against war, famine, and natural disasters, as well as overcoming obstacles and quickly attaining ones wishes. These flags often have Guru Rinpoche in the center and repetitions of his powerful mantra OM AH HUNG VAJRA GURU PADMA SIDDHI HUNG. *=*
Praise to the 21 Taras was composed by the primordial Buddha Akshobhya. It was written into Sanskrit and Urdu by Vajrabushan Archarya and translated into Tibetan by Atisha in the 11th century. The first 21 Tara prayer flags are attributed to him. Tara was born from the compassionate tears of Avalokiteshvara. As he shed tears for the countless suffering beings one tear transformed into the Savioress Green Tara who then manifested her twenty other forms. The prayer to the 21 Taras praises all her manifestations. The flags with this prayer usually depict Green Tara in the center and often conclude with her root mantra OM TARE TUTARE TURE SOHA. The purpose of this flag is to spread compassionate blessings. *=*
Other prayer flag categories are too numerous to describe in this article but a few of the more popular designs are listed as follows: Avalokiteshvara – Bodhisattva of Compassion, The Warrior-King Gesar, The White Umbrella for Protection, the Kurukulle Power Flag, Manjushri- Embodiment of Wisdom, Milarepa – the Yogisaint, and the Vast Luck Flag. *=*
Raising Prayer Flags
Prayer flags typically come on ropes to be hung in horizontal displays or printed on long narrow strips of cloth that are tied on vertical poles. Prayer flags on ropes are printed on 5 different colors of cloth (yellow, green, red, white and blue) so sets are always in multiples of 5. Pole flags are either a single solid color or the 5 colors sewn together into one flag. They range in height from about 3ft to 40 ft or more. Pole flags often have colored streamers or “tongues” that are imprinted with special increasing mantras meant to increase the power of the prayers written on the body of the flag. It is also common to see displays of many plain white prayer flags on poles erected around monasteries and pilgrimage sites. [Source: Timothy Clark, Radiant Heart Studio *=*]
Most prayer flags are printed on polyester or nylon blends. Surprisingly, good quality cotton is hard to find in Nepal and India. Price differences for prayer flags are often due to the different qualities of cloth. Tibetans don’t mind the gauzy low thread count cloth (the wind passes through it easily). Synthetics vs. cotton is a matter of opinion. Some feel that polyester and nylon are more durable, some say they fade faster. Cotton colors tend to be richer and cotton threads are better for the environment. *=*
Placing prayer flags in and around one’s home or business imparts a feeling of harmony, increases the spiritual atmosphere and brings to mind the teachings of enlightenment. By placing prayer flags outdoors their sacred mantras are imprinted on the wind, generating peace and good wishes. Ropes of prayer flags can be strung horizontally between two trees (the higher the better), between house columns or along the eaves of roofs. Sometimes they are strung at angle (be sure that the wind horse points uphill). *=*
When raising prayer flags proper motivation is important. If they are put up with the attitude “I will benefit from doing this” – that is an ego-centered motivation and the benefits will be small and narrow. If the attitude is “May all beings everywhere receive benefit and find happiness,” the virtue generated by such motivation greatly increases the power of the prayers. Tibetan tradition considers prayer flags to be holy. Because of they contain sacred texts and symbols they should be treated respectfully. They should not be placed on the ground or put in the trash. When disposing of old prayer flags the traditional way is to burn them so that the smoke may carry their blessings to the heavens. *=*
The wind horse (longa) is the main symbol found on prayer flags. On his back the horse carries the Three Jewels of Buddhism---the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. The colors on prayer flags is highly symbolic. Red represents fire; green, wood; yellow, earth; blue, water; and white, iron.
The wind horse is an allegory for the human soul in the shamanistic tradition of East Asia and Central Asia. In Tibetan Buddhism, it was included as the pivotal element in the center of the four animals symbolizing the cardinal directions and a symbol of the idea of well-being or good fortune. It has also given the name to a type of prayer flag that has the five animals printed on it. Rlung rta, pronounced lungta is Tibetan for "wind horse." [Source: Wikipedia +]
In Tibet, a distinction was made between Buddhism and folk religion (usually a reference to Bon). Windhorse was predominantly a feature of the folk culture, a "mundane notion of the layman rather than a Buddhist religious ideal," as Tibetan scholar Samten G. Karmay explains.However, while "the original concept of rlung ta bears no relation to Buddhism," over the centuries it became more common for Buddhist elements to be incorporated.
Windhorse has several meanings in the Tibetan context. As Karmay notes, "the word [windhorse] is still and often mistakenly taken to mean only the actual flag planted on the roof of a house or on a high place near a village. In fact, it is a symbol of the idea of well-being or good fortune. This idea is clear in such expressions as rlung rta dar ba, the 'increase of the windhorse,' when things go well with someone; rlung rta rgud pa, the 'decline of windhorse,' when the opposite happens. The colloquial equivalent for this is lam ’gro, which also means luck."
In his 1998 study “The Arrow and the Spindle,” Karmay traces several antecedents for the wind horse tradition in Tibet. First, he notes that there has long been confusion over the spelling because the sound produced by the word can be spelt either klung rta "river horse" or rlung rta "wind horse". In the early twentieth century the great scholar Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso felt compelled to clarify that in his view rlung rta was preferable to klung rta, indicating that some degree of ambiguity must have persisted at least up to his time.
Karmay suggests that "river horse" was actually the original concept, as found in the Tibetan nag rtsis system of astrology imported from China. The nag rtsis system has four basic elements: srog "vital force", lus "body", dbang thang "field of power", and klung rta, "river horse". Karmey suggests that klung rta in turn derives from the Chinese idea of the lung ma, "dragon horse," because in Chinese mythology dragons often arise out of rivers (although 'brug is Tibetan for dragon, in some cases they would render the Chinese lung phonetically). Thus, in his proposed etymology the Chinese lung ma became klung rta which in turn became rlung rta. Samtay further reasons that the drift in understanding from "river horse" to "wind horse" would have been reinforced by associations in Tibet of the "ideal horse" (rta chogs) with swiftness and wind.
On prayer flags and paper prints, windhorses usually appear in the company of the four animals of the cardinal directions, which are "an integral part of the rlung ta composition": garuda or kyung, and dragon in the upper corners, and White Tiger and Snow Lion in the lower corners. In this context, the wind horse is typically shown without wings, but carries the Three Jewels, or the wish fulfilling jewel. Its appearance is supposed to bring peace, wealth, and harmony. The ritual invocation of the wind horse usually happens in the morning and during the growing moon.
The windhorse ceremonies are usually conducted in conjunction with the lhasang ("smoke offering to the gods") ritual, in which juniper branches are burned to create thick and fragrant smoke. This is believed to increase the strength in the supplicator of the four nag rtsis elements mentioned above. Often the ritual is called the risang lungta, the "fumigation offering and (the throwing into the wind or planting) of the rlung ta high in the mountains." The ritual is traditionally "primarily a secular ritual" and "requires no presence of any special officiant whether public or private." The layperson entreats a mountain deity to "increase his fortune like the galloping of a horse and expand his prosperity like the boiling over of milk.
Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Wheels
Prayer wheels are devices inscribed with mani prayers and containing sutra scrolls attached to their axels. Each turn of a prayer wheel represents a recitation of the prayer inside and transports it to heaven. Varying in size from thimbles to oil drums, with some the size of buildings, prayer wheels can be made of wood, copper, bronze, silver or gold. They can be turned by wind or water or rotated by hand and are often stuffed with prayers handwritten in pieces of cloth. Some prayer wheels have handles and look like devices that take up string on a kite. Others are large and hang from temples with thousands of prayers inside that when unraveled are more than a mile long. Pilgrimage paths (koras) are often lined with prayer wheel. Pilgrims spin the wheels to earn merit and help them focus on the prayers they are reciting.
Prayer wheels are known as Mani wheels in the Tibetan language. According to Tibetan Buddhist belief, spinning a prayer wheel is just as effective as reciting the sacred texts aloud. This belief derives from the Buddhist belief in the power of sound and the formulas to which deities are subject. For many Buddhists, the prayer wheel also represents the Wheel of the Law (or Dharma) set in motion by the Buddha. The prayer wheel is very useful for illiterate members of the lay Buddhist community, since they can "read" the prayers by turning the wheel. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org, June 3, 2014; religionfacts.com ]
Hand-held prayer wheels are carried by pilgrims and other devotees and turned during devotional activities. Rolls of thin paper, imprinted with many, many copies of the mantra (prayer) “Om Mani Padme Hum,” printed in an ancient Indian script or in Tibetan script, are wound around an axle in a protective container, and spun around and around. Typically, larger decorative versions of the syllables of the mantra are also carved on the outside cover of the wheel. Tibetan Buddhists believe that saying this mantra, out loud or silently to oneself, invokes the powerful benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion.
A prayer wheel is generally a hollow metal cylinder, often beautifully embossed, mounted on a rod handle and containing a tightly wound scroll printed with a mantra. The external cylinder of a prayer wheel is made out of repoussé metal, usually gilded bronze. The wheel is supported on a handle or axis made of wood or a precious metal. On the outside of the cylinder are inscriptions in Sanskrit (or sometimes Tibetan) script (often Om mani padme hum) and auspicious Buddhist symbols. This outer part is removable to allow for the insertion of the sacred text into the cylinder. The uppermost point of the prayer wheel forms the shape of a lotus bud. The cylinder contains a sacred text written or printed on paper or animal skin. These texts might be sutra or invocations to particular deities (dharani or mantras). The most common text used in prayer wheels is the mantra Om mani padme hum.
Prayer wheels come in many sizes: they may be small and attached to a stick, and spun around by hand; medium-sized and set up at monasteries or temples; or very large and continuously spun by a water mill. But small hand-held wheels are the most common by far. Tibetan people carry them around for hours, and even on long pilgrimages, spinning them any time they have a hand free. Prayer wheels at monasteries and temples are located at the gates of the property, and devotees spin the wheels before passing through the gates. Larger wheels, which may be several yards (meters) high and one or two yards (meters) in diameter, can contain myriad copies of the mantra, and may also contain sacred texts, up to hundreds of volumes. They can be found mounted in rows next to pathways, to be spun by people entering a shrine, or along the route which people use as they walk slowly around and around a sacred site -- a form of spiritual practice called circumambulation.
Theoretically, Buddhist prayer wheels are allowed to slow down but never to stop. They are generally spun very quickly in a clockwise fashion. The merit earned from the written prayer (usually om mani padme hum written in Tibetan or Sanskrit) is regarded as weaker than that of a spoken prayer. The more prayers one offers, the more merit he or she earns, which improves his or her chances or receiving a higher reincarnation and eventually achieving nirvana. Yak grease is used on the handle to make them spin more quietly.
Mani Stones in Tibet
Mani stones Mani stones are flat-surfaced stones carved by Buddhist devotees to earn merit. Most are inscribed with prayer "om mani padme hum" ("Hail to the Jewel in the Lotus"). They are often placed alongside trails near Tibetan-style monasteries and temples. In some places you can find prayer walls, hundreds of meters long composed of mani stones. Travelers should always pass these walls on the left and consequently most prayer walls have trails on both sides.
Mani stones are called Man Zha in Tibetan, meaning “Sanskrit mandala.” In remote areas, far from temples, they serve as prayer halls and shrines for local Tibetans that otherwise have difficulty reaching more conventional places of worship.
Mounds of stones, or cairns, with Mani stones in them can be found almost everywhere, in monasteries, beside villages, crossing, along paths and on mountains. Some of the stones are inscribed with pictures or characters, with prayer flags stuck in the middle usually. Sometimes they are decorated with sheep and yak horns. These are used as places of worship for local Tibetans, especially villagers who have difficulty accessing to temples. There are commonly two kinds of Mani mounds: one is piled by rocks of different sizes and the other is characterized by blocks and pebbles carved with inscriptions and sculptures, which are built in an undulating line.[Sources: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org and travelchinaguide.com ]
Upon encountering a mani stone mound, Tibetan people circumambulate it clockwise as a prayer offering for health, peace, and protection. As a way to earn merit some devout Tibetans pick up a stone and touch it to their forehead, while murmuring mantras and then drop the stone on the mound. This way the mounds get larger and larger. Objects with divine connections such as skulls, horns and the wool of animals and even human hair can be added to the mound. It is believed that requests made to Buddha are answered by circumambulating the mound.
The world's largest Mani stone mound is located in Xinzhai Village of Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Qinghai province. Said to have been started by the first Rinpoche of Jiana after he settled in Gujie Monastery in Xinzhai, the mound became bigger and bigger over the centuries and now reportedly contains 2.5 billion stones. Tens of thousand Mani stones are engraved with words of law, calendar calculation, art theory, sutra texts and Buddha carvings.
Mani stones are regarded as a sacrifice to the Buddha. They can feature different colors and shapes and have different images and texts engraved on them but most are simple ones with the mantra are 'Om Mani Padme Hum'.Mani Stone handicraftsmen are generally peasants or herdsmen in spring, summer and autumn. They only engrave stones in winter. In the old days, Mani stones contained Buddhist texts incantations and mottos accompanied by painted and engraved images to educate illiterate people.
Mani stone walls may be inscribed with characters and pictures produced by an artist. They commonly have the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” accompanied by images of deities, monsters, strong animals and other Buddhist-related images. These walls are found near temples and monasteries and can be seen on cliffs faces in Lhasa and Shigatse and other areas. Some regard Mani stones like patron saints that can be stored in a house or taken along when going out.
Tsha Tsha: Tibetan Clay Figurines
Tsha Tshas are small clay figurines unique to Tibet. They can be with different all materials and can display characteristics associated with different periods and different monasteries. Their small size made them convenient for early Buddhist pilgrims to take. "Tsha-Tsha" are viewed as small stupas or amulets. The Buddhist artwork found on them was introduced from ancient India. There are relief image versions made out from a one-side mold and round stupa versions made with a two-sided mold. [Source: traditions.cultural-china.com, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org <>]
Tsha Tshas feature images of Buddha, Buddhist deities and Bodhisattvas. There are round, square and triangular types usually a few centimeters wide. Some of them consist of a single image while some are comprised of hundreds of images. The most common raw material for Tsha Tsha is clay, which is shaped using concave-shaped mold, and then dried or fired in a kiln. Sometimes colors are painted on them. Wild oats or some sacred objects are embedded into the back at the time of making. Valuable Tsha Tshas are made with precious materials such as pearl, agate and saffron imbedded in them that are viewed as medicines. Such figurines are believed to provide curing properties as well spiritual assistance. The most precious Tsha Tshas are made of the mixture of clay and the ashes and remains of the late lamas. They are like mini stupas and are carried as amulets capable of warding off wickedness and strong magic. <>
Tsha tshas shaped like stupas are first shaped with a clay mold and then baked. They are typically cone-shaped and come in different sizes. Inside the model, there is a small piece of paper written with Buddhist scripture and a small amount of highland barley. They are usually placed beside a real stupa or a Buddhist statue as an offering. In the Aba district, Tibetans pray for a bumper harvest year by putting small clay stupas at the side of a road or village, or burying them in their fields in hopes that they will kill harmful insects. [Source: Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/]
Tibetan monks and lay persons make Tsha Tsha is to accumulate Buddhist merit. The completed Tsha Tsha is mainly used to fill the inner shrines of bigger stupas or statues. Tsha Tsha are also used for dispelling illness or praying for good luck. Sometimes they are worshiped at Tsha-khangs—sacred cairns placed at sacred mountain, lakes and caves. Tsha Tshas are often found with prayer flags and Mani Stones. <>
Lhasang: Smoke Offering to the Gods
In the lhasang ("smoke offering to the gods") ritual juniper branches are burned to create thick and fragrant smoke. This is believed to increase the strength in the supplicator of the four nag rtsis elements, derived from Chinese astrology: "vital force", lus "body", dbang thang "field of power", and klung rta, "river horse". Often the ritual is called the risang lungta, the "fumigation offering and (the throwing into the wind or planting) of the rlung ta high in the mountains." The ritual is traditionally "primarily a secular ritual" and "requires no presence of any special officiant whether public or private." The layperson entreats a mountain deity to "increase his fortune like the galloping of a horse and expand his prosperity like the boiling over of milk. [Source: Timothy Clark, Radiant Heart Studio]
To perform ihasang, people gather outdoors around a fire, or indoors around a brazier of glowing charcoal. Directing verses to spirts and positive energies, they offer juniper and other substances, while circumambulating the fire and chanting “Ki Ki, So So Ashe Lha Gye Lo Tak Seng Khung Druk Di Yar Kye!.” [Source: shambhalatimes.org]
According to Sakyong Jampal Trinley Dradül: “When we do a lhasang to bring down the magic energy of enlightenment and drala, the smoke of the lhasang is said to purify those obstacles that are actually on us. It gets into our pores and allows us to have a fresh start. A lhasang is considered to be very important, because it immediately raises our windhorse. It connects us with the dralas, the enlightened beings. It is said that how we lead our life affects our personal drala. We can weaken our personal drala, or we can increase our personal drala, purely by how we lead our life.” [Ibid]
Weisang: Sacred Smoke
Weisang is a Tibetan household’s custom of burning offerings to make cloudy smoke and is viewed as a kind of praying or smoke offering. “Wei” means simmer in Chinese. 'Sang' is a Tibetan 'ritual fireworks'. Material for Weisang includes pine, juniper and cypress branches and leaves of herbs such as Artemisia argyi and heath. It is said that the fragrance of the the smoke produced by burning pine, juniper and cypress, not only cleanses unlucky and dirty things it also aromatizes the palace of mountain god who is pleased after smelling the aroma. [Source: Chloe Xin, Tibetravel.org tibettravel.org]
Weisang is an ancient and widespread Tibetan custom. According to the traditional Weisang ritual: first cypress and juniper branches and herbs piled up and lit. In the fire and smoke roasted barley flour or grain is placed along with a few drops of holy water. Weisang is done on many occasions, such as to celebrate a bumper harvest, ward off attacks by enemies, defeat an opposing team, bring peace and prosperity, attract good luck to a weddings or funerals, ensure safety on a road trip, and ward off illnesses. As an everyday act of worship, Tibetans commonly burn some cedar or juniper branches with herbs outside temples and monasteries and in front of the gates at their homes to eliminate the evil and purify the air.
According to the legend, Weisang came from the ancient tribal custom of welcoming brave fighters returning in triumph. In order to clean off the dirt and dust—and perhaps traces of fighting and death—people burned herbs and a pile of cypress and juniper branches, which were dipped in water, then waved on the fighters. Over time this custom was adopted as a kind of sacrifice to the gods, a prayer for peace and victory, and means of communicating with gods.
After a woman has given birth, people burn yak dung in front of gate to inform they are not supposed to enter and to get rid of the polluting atmosphere produced by procreation. Then people pile up a scree pile. If a boy is born, people pile up more chalk scree. If a girl is born, people use other kind of scree and light Wei-Song nearby. At New Year’s time Tibetans burn mulberry branches to keep evil from entering the house.
Text Sources: 1) Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China , edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com \*\; 4) Chinatravel.com chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org *|* New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated July 2015