Prayer Flags Salute Our One Unbreakable Affiliation

Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind.

One said to the other, “The flag is moving.”

The other replied, “The wind is moving.”

Huineng overheard this and said,

“Not the flag, not the wind; mind is moving.”

There’s something compelling and eternal about Tibetan prayer flags. While the purpose of many a flag is to express one’s loyal affiliation separate from other affiliations, the intention behind making prayer flags is the opposite. We send forth these prayers to dissolve what separates us from one another and clarify the guiding principal of life that we serve beyond the borders of nationality, race, class, and even religious affiliation. When we see these bright kites, they cause us to look up and out and become flexible of mind with the breeze in play. They make the unseen seen and seem to carry their own life from within. They are at once joyous and serious.

Our one overarching prayer is that we awaken together.

Right in the midst of our current social turmoil, with all its urgency to do something, is the very time to pause from doing and renew the strength of one’s center, faith, and intention. Enormous challenges are before us that when encountered as a whole easily end up as cynicism, denial, or despair. As Buddhists, we know that turning toward the suffering in the world is a long journey — one that requires the excellent sustainable fuel of courage and joy over the lesser motivations of anger and fear. While on one hand I cannot know the particular suffering of another, there is just this one suffering that links us. How will we sustain our intention to meet throughout our lifetime?

We can learn a lot from these colorful Tibetan “darcho” dancing freely around a rock stupa in the wide open high plateau and now amazingly adorning many a neighborhood porch halfway across the globe. It’s interesting to note that this tradition did not begin as Buddhist practice and has a felt sense of being rooted in something more primal and instinctual.  Originally used by Bon priests to propitiate local deities and heal the sick, only later did the flags take on the Buddhist wish for the wellbeing of all. Made of bright colors symbolizing earth, water, fire, air and space, they freely offer sutras and dharanis embellished with images of animals and symbols of enlightened mind. Some flags pair opposites, for instance, depicting two animals that would often be seen as mortal enemies — a much needed dharma in this time of public hostility and divisiveness.

So what does a Zen prayer flag practice look like in our own time and language? What does it mean to offer a prayer in a practice that teaches letting go of attachment and outcomes? Is that Zen?

There is a difference between our wishful fantasies that lull us to sleep and the awakened wish that inspires courage and response. In our Zen tradition, while our actual prayers may take on particulars, they are generated not from desperation and fear, but a sense of alignment with the awakened mind to do good for others. Beyond this small identity that wants to be so effective, we can simply ask for assistance without knowing where it will come from. This is true humility.

There is a wonderful and curious line we recite in a particular dedication of merit that says “Whenever these devoted invocations are sent forth, they are perceived and subtly answered.” At once, the prayer sent forth is immediately answered. What is affecting what? Is the wind affecting the flag? Is the flag affecting the wind? Do they move together? Ultimately, there is no need to think of prayer flags as having an effect or not. We can let go of that agenda. They are simply the presence of the moment and like posts on the internet or a poem we’ve written, they venture outward past our immediate sphere like ripples in water after a stone is released.

Consider with us this mediation in this New Year.

In a quiet still place, ask yourself afresh and with heart: In what way do I suffer? What suffering around me touches my own life and heart? Extending beyond my tribe to what I know of the world, what comes forth? Is there a link, a common longing? Our prayers derive more strength from their sincerity and simplicity than their sophistication.

Calling this particular shared suffering to mind, invite the skillful bodhisattva energies to emerge from within. Consider compassion, wisdom, courage, joy, and great vision. What arises to meet this suffering? Most importantly, notice the quality of mind that meets this suffering. Is it anger or fear or judgment, or is it love or kindness or courage? If it is anger or fear, bring compassion to this and return to the question.

What do you wish for all beings who suffer in this way?

I often think of the many ways we feel unsafe and threatened by one another — fearful of judgment, of violence, of being humiliated, or rejected. The wish that all beings be free from fear distills down to a simple three-word prayer. Freedom from fear. What is an image that reminds me of fearlessness?  A bright sunflower? A woman walking on a tight rope?

What moves with our prayer? The flag, the wind, or your own heart? When we send forth these missives, the Buddha has already arrived to greet you. Immediately, we open up to being moved by one another. The ultimate flag we fly each day as Zen practitioners is our own rakusus, patchwork robes stitched together with discarded cloth. Our prayer is zazen. Our prayers are not wishful fantasies; they condition our eyes and hands and turn the attention to what matters. What is inaugurated is the unbreakable affiliation with our own buddha nature.

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