Traditionally, prayer flags are used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. The flags do not carry prayers to 'gods,' a common misconception, rather the Tibetans believe the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread the good will and compassion into all pervading space. Therefore, prayer flags are thought to bring benefit to all.
By hanging flags in high places the "Wind Horse" will carry the blessings depicted on the flags to all beings. As wind passes over the surface of the flags which are sensitive to the slightest movement of the wind, the air is purified and sanctified by the Mantras.
The prayers of a flag become a permanent part of the universe as the images fade from exposure to the elements. Just as life moves on and is replaced by new life, Tibetans renew their hopes for the world by continually mounting new flags alongside the old. This act symbolizes a welcoming of life changes and an acknowledgment that all beings are part of a greater ongoing cycle.
The best times to put up new prayer flags are in the mornings on sunny, windy days.
Traditionally, prayer flags come in sets of five, one in each of five colors. The five colors represent the elements, and are arranged from left to right in a specific order. Different elements are associated with different colors for specific traditions and purposes
* Blue (symbolizing sky/space)
* White (symbolizing air/wind)
* Red (symbolizing fire)
* Green (symbolizing water)
* Yellow (symbolizing earth)
The center of a prayer flag traditionally features a "Ta" (powerful or strong horse) bearing three flaming jewels (specifically ratna) on its back. The Ta is a symbol of speed and the transformation of bad fortune to good fortune. The three flaming jewels symbolize the Buddha, the Dharma (Buddhist teachings), and the Sangha (Buddhist community), the three cornerstones of Tibetan philosophical tradition.
Surrounding the Ta are various versions of approximately 400 traditional mantras (powerful ritual utterances), each dedicated to a particular deity (in Tibetan, deities are not so much gods as "aspects of the divine" which are manifest in each part of the whole non-dual universe, including individual humans). 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.
In addition to mantras, prayers for the long life and good fortune of the person who hangs the flags are included.
Because the symbols and mantras on prayer flags are sacred, they should be treated with respect. They should not be placed on the ground or used in clothing. Old prayer flags should be burned.
During the Cultural Revolution, prayer flags were discouraged but not entirely eliminated. Many traditional designs may have been lost. Currently, different styles of prayer flags can be seen all across the Tibetan region.