Prayer flags are believed to have originated with the Shakyamuni Buddha, who had prayers written on flags that were taken into battle to protect the warriors. The traditional Bon religion of Tibet, which was in effect before Buddhism, also employed prayer flags in which important symbols were put on flags for protection. It’s believed that they later incorporated Buddhist prayers onto their flags when the religion became the predominate one of their culture. When prayer flags are flown, they are believed to carry the qualities of strength, wisdom and compassion, which is conveyed on the wind to benefit all beings.
The writing on the flags depicts a variety of prayers, including those for wealth, peace, wisdom, and health. Prayer flags also display mantras, such as the Om Mani Padme Hum, which is the blessing of Chenrezig, the embodiment of compassion. This blessing is said to incorporate all of the teachings of the Buddha.
The colors of Tibetan prayer flags symbolize each of the five elements. Blue symbolizes ether, or the wind element. White symbolizes the air element. Red stands for the fire element. Green is for the water element and yellow symbolizes the earth. The colors also represent the five directions, north, south, east west and center. They also symbolize the five wisdoms associated with Buddhism; compassion, harmony, wisdom of sight, kindness, and perfect wisdom. The colors are always in a certain order, beginning with blue and then white, red, green and yellow.
Prayer flags contain symbols that are sacred and should always be cared for and respected according to Tibetan Buddhist tradition. They should always be placed high up, either inside or outside. They should never be discarded or placed on the ground. If they are no longer wanted, they should be burned.
Do not worry if your prayer flags become tattered and faded, as this is a natural part of distributing their beneficence to the world when the wind carries the prayers to all beings. Tibetans always leave them hanging, no matter how tattered and faded, but will place a new set of flags over them or alongside to accompany them.
The hanging of prayer flags should be a special celebration and should be companioned with your own prayers for health, safety, wisdom, healing and compassion, not only for yourself and your friends and family, but for all beings throughout the universe.