Tibetan Prayer Flags and the Five Buddha Families

This post is for Clay.

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Prayer Flags are ever-present in the Tibetan landscape. Tibetans place them for protection over doorways or gates. They love to leave them on mountain tops and at mountain passes. The photo above shows prayer flags left on Vulture Peak in Rajgir, India, the site of recitation by Reverend Gotama of the Heart and Diamond Sutras, famous in the Zen tradition of China and Japan. These flags were no doubt left by Tibetan pilgrims at one of the most famous Buddhist sites in India. I took this photo on my trip in 2006.

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This photo was taken by me at the first 4,000 meter pass on the way from Chengdu to Dzachuka, the headwaters of the Yangtze. This pass is not far from the famous Dzogchen Monastery, one of the most beautiful places in the world.  In addition to leaving prayer flags at such places, Tibetans also love to let fly on these occasions small prayer flags called Lung ta or wind horses. I was blue with altitude problems on top of this pass. We let fly a bunch of Lung ta on top of this pass.

Prayer flags typically contain images of five sacred animals. In the center is the Lung ta, or wind horse. Surrounding him are the dragon, the garuda, the snow lion, and the tiger. The prayers on the flags are in Tibetan script. I wish I could translate, but, alas, my Tibetan is not adequate. This is what Wikipedia says about these: “Surrounding the Lung ta are various versions of approximately 400 traditional mantras, each dedicated to a particular deity. These writings include mantras from three of the great Buddhist Bodhisattvas: Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), Avalokiteśvara (Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion, and the patron of the Tibetan people), and Manjusri.” Manjusri is the god of wisdom and learning. When I studied Tibetan we always recited Manjusri’s mantra as an aid to comprehension. 

The five colors of the prayer flags were associated with the five Buddha families. They are always arranged in the order of blue, white, red, green, and yellow. The best reference that I have on the five Buddha families is the book by the scholar / practitioner Reginald Ray, Secret of the Vajra World. The table below is a partial version of a table in his book.

Characteristic

Buddha Family

Buddha

Vajra

Ratna

Padma

Karma

Color

white

dark blue

yellow

red

green

Position

center

east

south

west

north

Presiding Buddha

Vairochana

Akshobya

Ratnasambhava

Amitabha

Amoghasiddhi

Khanda

form

consciousness

feeling

perception

karmic formation

Element

space

water

earth

fire

wind

Primary function

being

thinking

consuming

relating

doing

Wisdom

all-encompassing space

mirror-like

equanimity

discriminating

all-encompassing

Enlightened style

spaciousness

clarity

generosity

love

efficiency

Neurotic style

spaced out

aggressive

territorial

grasping

competitive

Realm

god

hell

hungry ghost

human

jealous god

About Randal Samstag

Randal has an undergraduate degree in political philosophy, but has a graduate degree in engineering and has earned his bread for 30 years working on municipal and community water supply and wastewater collection and treatment systems in the US, Caribbean, Latin America, and Asia.
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2 Responses to Tibetan Prayer Flags and the Five Buddha Families

  1. homer0230 says:

    One more beautiful post from a force of nature.

    • Ciao Clayton,

      Actually, this post was for my other “Clay” friend, Clay Wilson, who is in the hospital dealing with a serious illness. But all the best to you, too.

      Randal

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