On our first full day at Zhongdian (AKA Shangri-La) we took a journey in the surrounding environs to visit Gyalthang Ringha monastery, a sweet little temple with a multiplicity of prayer flags surrounding it.
Since prayer flags are such a universal item in Tibetan, Nepalese and Mongolian culture it may be useful to say something about them here.
Prayer flags are largely hung up at temple and mountain passes and their main purpose is to bless the countryside around them. Their use predates Buddhism and is associated with the primeval Bon religion.
Prayer flags are usually printed with wood blocks and their different colours relate to aspects of the universe. The colours, arranged from left to right, are blue, symbolising sky and space, white standing for air and wind, red representing fire, green standing for water and yellow denoting the earth. These are the five universal elements, or pure lights, of life itself. In Tibetan alchemy it’s the balance of the five elements which produce health and harmony in one.
But what’s written on the flags themselves? There are prayers and mantras transmitted by the gods or devas containing important formulae to protect one against the demons or asuras which permeate our universe. Truly our lives are a battle between good and evil – such is the nature of the primal force which creates and destroys the universe – the arcane dialectic between life and death.
Prayer flags also assist the souls of the dead to reach the sphere of the gods. Indeed, on many of them there’s a horse galloping in an upward direction which symbolises carrying the spirits of the dead, Pegasus-like, to the higher regions and escape from the relentless wheel of samsara or reincarnation.
This quadruped is called a wind-horse or ’lung ta’ (strong horse). It bears three jewels on its back representing represent the Buddha, the Dharma (or divine law) and the Sangha (or Buddhist community). If you are suffering bad luck then hanging a prayer flag with a lung ta can change your bad times to good fortune. It’s truly worth trying, I’m sure. Just hanging up a prayer flag will bless you with good fortune. (Incidentally, the animals on the corner of a prayer flag are known as the four dignities and they are the dragon, the garuda – or heavenly eagle -, the tiger and the snow lion).
As prayer flags fade they become part of the universe and add their little quota of peace and accord to the cosmos.
I often think how different the significant of flags are between those in the part of the world we were visiting and which stand for peace, and those in the west which so often represent nationalism and all the partitions of humankind that that word brings – war and devastation. Nothing could be further apart than the evil black flags carried by terrorist groups and the harmonious colours of the Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the high places of a country which so singly has sought those things which are really of the highest matter to us – reconciliation, amity and divine love.
There is so much to learn about Tibetan Buddhism and I have just scratched the surface. Imagine what it must be like for a protestant (or indeed someone of any other religious persuasion) to enter into a Catholic shrine and try to make sense of it all. It’s because religion is itself a metaphor for all those aims that we would ideally wish life to be and metaphor is itself dependent on the environment which surrounds one, whether it be high snowy mountains, vast rocky deserts, icy expanses, infinite oceans or impenetrable forests.
Anyway, to get back to more earthly concerns. During our visit the Gyaltang Ringha monastery had also inmates which were not strictly admitted to it. Some pigs had wandered into its confines, perhaps to seek more earthly nourishment. We helped one of the monks to let the swine out in the surrounding woods where I’m sure they’d find plenty of food to scavenge for.
Like the monks and our adorable Tibetan guide, Anna, we burnt pine incense needles in one of the big braziers as an offering to the gods :
Gyalthang Ringha was an unassuming temple monastery but one which was little-known and largely free from sight-seers. It was truly a place to fill one’s ambiance with serenity and joy. We felt very happy there….