During a recent visit to UC Santa Barbara, I noticed, for the umpteenth time, Tibetan prayer flags hanging in the least likely of places: above a liquor store entrance or dangling from an apartment building with red cups littered in the background. Perhaps I am just oversensitive to these multicolored flags due to my interest in religion, but over the past few weeks, I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the recurring presence of these unassuming strings of fabric in my life.
Each of my daily trips down Telegraph Avenue inevitably reveals another glimpse of a Tibetan prayer flag behind a shop’s door or on a merchant’s stand. The colored flags that dance pleasantly in the wind always seem to catch my eye, and although I know what they are called, I had never officially looked into their meaning. Curiosity and coincidence got the best of me, so I started my own amateur research.
First, the flags themselves. According to an article posted on prayerflags.com, Tibetan prayer flags aim to “produce a spiritual vibration that is activated and carried by the wind across the countryside” with the intent that “all beings that are touched by the wind are uplifted and a little happier.” Contrary to popular belief — or at least contrary to what I had understood for a long time — these flags do not seem to carry specific “prayer requests” out into the vast universe. Rather, they contribute to a more general and widespread sense of unity and prosperity.
The same article later states that, “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.” While the content of the flags’ text varies and is inspired by Buddhist tradition, these prayers are tinged with universal concepts that seem to be trying to act upon humanity and improve — however slightly or imperceptibly — the human experience as a whole.
In another particularly interesting note, the Peace Flag Project explains that the flags disintegrate organically over time in order to symbolize “the natural passing of all things.” Given the biodegradable frenzy that is especially pervasive in Berkeley culture, this last element is one of the many reasons that the meaning of the flags resonates with me, both as a Berkeleyan and a college student.
While Buddhism in general is not usually a headline-grabber, I did stumble upon a recent Daily Cal article regarding a proposed street name change in Berkeley. The proposed name “Dharma Way” — “dharma” meaning “true … correct, … the right way to act,” Berkeley resident Santosh Philip said in the article — was not well received by the community, and the supporters have withdrawn their proposal. But I sensed an ideological link between the prayer flags and the decision to retract the renaming proposition: a greater concern for public cohesion and happiness.
In a society in which personal agenda dominates everything, I think the message behind both the Tibetan prayer flag and the retraction of the street name proposition can serve as a reminder to everyone that the world is bigger than just one person. The power of positive energy and concern for the other are two elements of Buddhism that should be applicable to every human being, regardless of one’s religious creed.
Arguably, the college experience is necessarily an egotistical span of time for students, and I am just as guilty as anyone of forgetting that the world doesn’t actually revolve around me. But I am stunned by the simplicity behind the Tibetan prayer flags, which are likely reflective of a greater Buddhist doctrine. Amid the crushing stress of midterms, wouldn’t it be nice to think that, even as you walk into your classroom, a whisper of positivity has floated into your consciousness from a prayer flag swaying in the Tibetan mountains? And, conversely, how satisfying would it be to know that your own wind-filled flags could be depositing doses of happiness and goodness throughout the corners of the Earth?
I realize this idea might be a bit too Disney for some, but, personally, I revel in the romance. Is it really that unbelievable that happiness can grow from flags? We find happiness at C.R.E.A.M or at the bottom of a really good beer, so why not simple prayer flags? Ideological gems like these emerge from many different religious traditions, continually inspiring me to not only give religion a second — and sometimes third or fourth — chance but to also keep the faith in humanity.
So, if the stress of college life is too much to handle on your own, take a cue from the merchants on Telegraph and hang some Tibetan prayer flags, or just stand in front of anywhere they might waving. Dare to let the happiness in.
Contact Hannah Brady at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @brady_hm.