Explaining Pilgrimage and Tibetan Prayer Flags

The Tibetans are an extremely religious people and one can see evidence of this in the number of prayer flags that are hung across bridges and at the tops of mountain passes, and in the number of pilgrims that make their way to Lhasa.

To the average Tibetan, pilgrimage is primarily a means of accumulating merit or good luck. It may be undertaken in the hopes of winning a better rebirth, ending a run of bad luck, curing an illness, or simply because of a vow to undertake a pilgrimage if a bodhisattva granted a wish.

Tibetans believe their natural landscape is imbued with a series of sacred visions and holy power places. There are countless sacred destinations, ranging from lakes and mountains to monasteries and caves that once served as meditational retreats for important yogin. Specific pilgrimages are often prescribed for specific ills; for example, certain mountains wipe out certain sins. A circumambulation of Mt. Kailash offers the possibility of liberation within three lifetimes, while a circuit of Lake Manasarovar can result in spontaneous Buddhahood. A circuit of Mt. Tsari can improve a pilgrim’s chance of being reborn with special powers, such as the ability to fly. Pilgrimage is even more powerful in certain auspicious months.

Pilgrimage is so important that many pilgrims go to great lengths to arrive in the holy city of Lhasa. Some will walk months or even years on the road in order to reach their destination.

Pilgrim guidebooks help pilgrims interpret the 24 “power places” of Tibet. Prostration and “kora” (circumambulating the object of devotion) are powerful ways of showing devotion. Pilgrims rub special healing rocks and squeeze through narrow gaps in a rock as a method of sin detection. Painted Buddha images and rock-carved syllables are said to be “self-arising,” or not carved by a human hand.

Offerings include yak butter or oil, fruit, tsampa, seeds, and money. Tibetans often throw printed prayers or tsampa into the air at holy mountain peaks, passes, bridges, or outside chapels.

Prayer Flags:
Prayer flags are omnipresent in Tibet, one of the country’s defining symbols. They are strips of colored cloth printed with Buddhist sutras and are strung up at the top of passes, streams, and houses to purify the air and pacify the gods. Prayers are thought to be released to the heavens when the flags flutter. The colors are highly symbolic: red, yellow, green, blue, and white represent the elements of fire, earth, wood, water, and iron.

Prayer Wheels:
Prayer wheels are filled with up to a mile of prayers and range from the hand-held variety that are twirled manually to the huge, water-powered versions. Prayers are recited with each revolution of the wheel. They range in size from a fist to a small building and can be powered by hand, water, wind, or hot air. Prayer wheels line circumambulation routes and pilgrims spin them to gain merit and to concentrate the mind on the mantras and prayers that they are reciting. They are another defining symbol of Tibetan Buddhism.