Flying prayer flags is a tradition that dates back to the epoch of Buddha Shakyamuni. It was said that during that era, the asuras were always fighting with the devas due to their angry and jealous nature. So the devas approached the Buddha for help, who then instructed them to have his prayers written on the battle flags to fight against their adversaries. This knowledge came to Tibet around 800 CE, but the practice was only introduced by the great Indian master Atisha to Nepal and Tibet around the 10th century.
Since 2016, we have been raising prayer flags whenever we visit Ladakh. For one thing, Ngari Institute has all the conducive elements for doing such a ritual: high ground that is sunny and windy most of the time. As for the alternate years that we are not there, the flag-raising ceremony would be scheduled on Vesak Day according to the lunar calendar. For our group of Buddhist friends, this ritual not only helps sentient beings, but also clears our obstacles, and at the same time, we can raise some funds for Ngari Institute to help them with their day-to-day expenses. So, in a way, it is a yearly project for my friends and me that has a three-fold purpose.
The year 2020 so far has been a year full of unexpected challenges. Since August 2019, we had been planning to hold a medical camp in Ladakh in early July 2020. We were hoping that 11 of us could serve the community there for a week, and also do a flag-raising ceremony upon arrival. The pandemic has thrown our plans out the window, and I had not planned to do a flag-raising ceremony on Vesak this year. After canceling our trip in April and looking at the deteriorating situation, it was a little too late to plan for a ceremony, as we were only four days from Vesak.
On 14 May, while having a chat with Geshe Tsewang, I asked about the possibility of having the flags raised on Saga Dawa instead. He was immediately agreeable and thought that it was a good idea to help alleviate the state of the pandemic. Also, he assured me that it was possible to secure the number of flags we needed even though they were having a lockdown. I was wary about the situation all around. We might not be able to have many sponsors this time because many have lost their jobs or are without income from their businesses since our lockdown began at the end of March. I really did not have the confidence and courage to ask anyone to sponsor the flags, knowing how bad the situation is, let alone achieving the targets that we set in all the previous years. So my modest target for this year was sponsorship of 20 dharchors (the vertical, 2-meter-high flags).
Still, I was very excited and went into operation mode in less than an hour. I tried to do mass messaging to some of the old sponsors after talking to Geshe la. After all, I needed to work as fast as I could. I needed to do everything in less than two weeks in order to make things happen during Saga Dawa.
But I was truly surprised that within two hours that same night, more than 25 of the big dharchors were taken, with some orders for the lungtas (the horizontal flags) as well. I quickly messaged Geshe la the same night telling him that I needed more flags!
Things went very quickly for the next 10 days as word got around. I managed to find sponsors for all 60 dharchors in less than three days, breaking my all-time record! Then the disappointed late comers started a rush on the lungtas. So I took orders, updated the spreadsheet, checked the money transfers, and checked the name lists for accuracy every night into the late hours. But it was a joyous stress, I must say, because I have surpassed the previous year’s sponsorship and I know at least the children will somehow be taken care of through our limited effort at this difficult time. After multiple checks of the name lists, I got the first list out one week before Saga Dawa and the second list out four days before.
I must thank, from the bottom of my heart, the three teenagers who are staying back at Ngari Institute due to the fact that they could not go home during the lockdown. Rigzin Angmo (17 years old) and the two brothers, Lobzang Stanzin (15 years old) and his younger brother, Megmar (13 years old), with their meticulous handwriting, really toiled on the flags for days. Imagine writing six names on each of the 60 dharchors and two names on the 90 lungtas! That is 540 names altogether! Everyone was very impressed by their neat handwriting, more so for someone whose first language is not English.
The fourth of June was chosen for the ceremony by Geshe Tsewang, as it was an auspicious day with Wind-Wind as the elements that combine the sublime energy to fulfill one‘s wishes. It was a great joy to see all 60 dharchors erected and flapping in the wind, and also the 90 lungtas arranged in the form of a pavilion on the flatter area of the hill. Again, the three teenagers helped with the hoisting of the flags, as this time, most of the children were not back for school due to the lockdown and there were fewer helpers than we had before. As usual, prayers were done by the monks from Ngari, but social distancing forbid other sanghas to come and join the ceremony this time. After blessing the flags, when the flags were all up, a smoke offering was performed, and the ceremony ended with everyone tossing a handful of tsampa in the air as an offering, chanting: “Ki ki so so lha gyal lo!” We fervently pray that the devas and all theBuddhas and bodhisattvas will help us win this battle of the pandemic soon. I myself, as a believer, can see the working of how a good aspiration can overcome all obstacles and that things do happen!
With the strong wind, we hope that the prayers will be carried across the mountains and bless all the pervading space to pacify all obstacles and suffering that we are facing now. May all be auspicious!
(Edited by Barbara Resch)
Note: Click on the below web links to view videos of the prayer flags flying high at Ngari Institutes of Buddhist Dialectics:
Video 2: Setting up the dharchors
Video 3: Setting up the dharchors con’t
Video 4: Setting up the lungtas
Video 5: Completed dharchors and lungtas