While cultural assimilation taking place in China occupied Tibet is one of our major contention, the cross adoption of cultural mores in India and other exile diasporas is not analysed as widely. China’s brutal occupation of Tibet in 1959 that drove His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama and thousands of Tibetans into exile ensued more than just the spread of Tibetan Buddhism to a niche global audience. In the process of adaptation, certain symbols of Tibetan religion and culture took off and gained more grounds than others like the adoption of momo eating culture.
A recent trend we have all noticed is the use of Tibetan prayer flag as interior car accessory strung across inside the rear window of thousands of cars on the streets of Delhi, Shimla, Dharamshala and everywhere. It is also common to come across bike enthusiast embarking on tours to have their cruiser bike handles decorated with the smaller size Tibetan prayer flag.
The frequency of such cars that I spotted on my trip to Shimla some weeks ago had me musing on the phenomena. On the face of it, it seem as if the perennial prayer of the Buddhist to have the Buddha dharma spread far and wide is getting answered as prayer flag is an important symbol of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet, we must step up to capitalize on opportunities such phenomena present and ensure that they are accompanied by right narrative versus letting it be. Sometimes, widespread incorporation of certain cultural mores could usher in the end of it by inadvertent changes in meaning and symbolism that occur in the process, grateful to have survived.
The prayer flag in Tibet is strung high on the mountain peaks, roofs and trees as the Tibetan people believe that the wind that passes over the surface of the flags gets sanctified by the mantras and spreads good will and compassion into all pervading space. As the images fade from exposure to the elements, it becomes part of the universe. Tibetans usually hoist new prayer flag of varying size during Losar (Tibetan New Year). The new ones are strung alongside the older ones and really old ones are burned, not disposed off. It is also a common practice in Tibet and Tibetan refugee settlement like Ladakh to hoist lungta(luck) prayer flags on a mountain before important life events to garner luck. Monasteries and households in Tibet also erect vertical prayer flag in the courtyard like the one below.
©media.glimpse.org Vertical prayer flag (Dharcho)
Prayer flag can have different mantras printed on it although what I am referring to here mostly is the one that carries the quintessential Buddhist mantra om mane Padme hum that seems to be gaining more popularity as a car accessory.
Let’s squeeze in the real question now. Do the people who use Tibetan prayer flag as accessory know this? Probably not, as I do not always know all the background information of things I like and buy. For those who employs the usage of this flag in anyways, I take the opportunity to shed some light on the religious aspect of this flag and importance of the mantra depicted to engender understanding and inject more meaning in its consumption.
It’s not that I see any harm in the practice, it looks beautiful and I am sure there is blessing involved as Buddhist mantras invoke blessing in many ways. Viewing the written form of the mantra is said to have the same effect – it is often carved into stones, like the one below and placed where people can see them.
It is said that all the teachings of the Buddha are contained in this mantra Om Mani Padme Hum and it can not really be translated into a simple phrase or sentence but attempts have been made and I would like to present the available information.
The right pronunciation
The vowel u in the last syllable Hu is pronounced as in the English word ‘too’. The final consonant m in the same syllable is pronounced ‘ng’ as in ‘song’ – Om Mani Padme Hung. The syllable Pad is pronounced Pe (peh) by many Tibetans. So it is recited as Om Mani Peme Hung.
The mantra originated in India; as it moved from India into Tibet, the pronunciation changed because some of the sounds in the Indian Sanskrit language weren’t easy for Tibetans to pronounce.
Om, it is composed of three letters, A, U, M; these symbolise the pure exalted body, speech and mind of a Buddha and Bodhisattva.
Mani, meaning jewel, symbolises the method, great compassion and love. Just as a jewel is capable of fulfilling the outer needs of sentient beings, similarly, love and compassion are capable of fulfilling the inner needs of sentient beings.
Peme, meaning lotus, symbolises wisdom. Just as a lotus grows from mud but is not polluted with mud, similarly, wisdom “the supreme knowledge” is grown from the ordinary mind but not polluted with ordinary thoughts.
Hum, indicates union. The union of method and wisdom leads to pure exalted body, speech and mind of enlightened beings.
Illustration of standard Tibetan Lungta Prayer Flag
Thus the six syllables mantra, Om Ma ni Pe me Hum, mean that through the practice of a path that is a union of love and compassion with wisdom, you can transform your impure body, speech and mind into the pure exalted body, speech and mind of a Buddha