Windhorse and the energy of good fortune

By Michael Lobsang Tenpa

One of the sights fairly ubiquitous in the Tibetan Buddhist world—and these days, also in New Age stores and yoga studies of every kind—is the sight of the Buddhist prayers flags. Surprisingly, these colourful flags made of fabric are visually similar to the Mexican papel picado, the main difference being that the latter are made from paper. Both types of flags are displayed on different celebratory occasions and are meant to transform the environment—and the ambience—in different ways, bringing feelings of joy, aliveness and celebration to everyone who sees them.

Tibetan prayer flags, are, indeed, Tibetan in origin; unlike some other aspects of the Himalayan Buddhist ritual culture, they did not come from India, and their historical roots are firmly plated in the indigenous spiritual traditions of the Tibetan plateau itself. The proper name for these prayer flags is lungta (pronounced as “loong-ta”), translated most often as “wind horse”. In the Wylie system for transliterating Tibetan, this would be spelled as rlung rta – rta for “horse”, “rlung” for wind. However, certain experts in ancient Tibetan culture, including Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche and Raven Cypress-Wood, point out that the earlier, original spelling of the term was most likely klung rta; this difference does not affect the pronunciation, but changes the meaning of the word to “the horse of space”, or, alternatively, “the horse of good fortune”.

Whichever of these three primary translations we rely on, the overall symbolism remains the same—the horse in question is a symbol of the transformative energy that can turn negativity into something positive, enlivening all the excellent aspects of our being.

Animals and elements

On the outer level, lungta is associated with a mythical horse-like creature, which, for the Buddsist tradition, came to be seen as Balaha—the king of horses and an emanation of Avalokiteśvara.

While this noble horse itself (iconographically bearing a jewel on its back) represents the element of space, its four mythical companions, known as the “four dignities”—a dragon, a garuda, a snow lion, and a tiger—symbolise the remaining four elements. These five are often collectively depicted on prayer flags, with the horse in the center and the other four in the corners. This, along with the fact that most prayers flags use all five of the elemental colours—blue, white, yellow, red, and green—shows the powerful connection between lungta-related practices and the natural world.

In Tibetan astrology and medical system, strings of prayer flags are sometimes used to strengthen the specific element that seems to be temporarily weakened, either in terms of one’s birth chart or with regards to one’s specific health-related issues. One tradition is to hang up the flags in the color of one’s natal element (which depends on the specific lunar year one was born in) whenever that element is seen as being endangered—especially in one’s “obstacle year” (the year of the same animal one’s

birth year was associated with – Tiger, Dragon, Rabbit, and so on). Hanging up strings of flags that have all the five primary colours is said to strengthen and balance all the elements, creating positive interdependence for health and longevity in general.

A fairly common explanation of the reason for hanging prayer flags is also connected with their ability to bless the natural elements, therefore bringing benefit to all who would later be touched by the gusts of the blessed wind, the drops of the blessed rain water, and so on. To perform this function, the flags would most often be covered with mantras and prayers that are considered to be especially potent in terms of blessing beings and creating positive interdependence. This is one of the reasons for why prayer flags are ideally to be hanged in a location that’s open to the elements—on high hills, between tall trees, or at least on balconies and ledges where wind and rain are actually accessible.

Because the earlier Tibetan term eventually evolved into “wind-horse”, it also acquired particularly powerful associations with the element of wind, or air, defined as “that which moves”. While the outer wind—actual gusts of air—is that which carries the blessings of lungta to all sentient beings, it’s the inner wind that is primarily meant here: the nervous energy, or prana, circulating within our subtle energetic body. The windhorse itself came to be associated with this moving energy, and that which it carries—symbolically depicted as a jewel—is the mind. This comparison of energy being like a horse and the mind being like a rider is commonly used in the Tibetan Buddhist teachings on our energetic makeup and subtle anatomy. When one’s subtle energies are harmonised and are flowing smoothly (which is described as one’s “windhorse being strong”), the mind experiences harmony and finds it easy to connect to its true nature. Strengthening this energetic balance, and activating the positive winds of wisdom (as opposed to the afflictive karmic winds which bring suffering and drama) is one more reason for why prayer flags, symbolising lungta, are put up to create positive interdependence.

Windhorse, brilliance, and “field of power”

While the mythological king of horses is said to be the outer level of lungta’s symbolism, the elemental energy and the subtle energies of prana correspond to the secret and extremely secret levels, respectively. Between the outer and the secret lies the inner level, where lungta is interpreted as a combination of all the positive qualities: excellence, abundance, good fortune, vitality, creativity and so on. It is said that when one’s lungta is strong, these positive qualities naturally manifest—but its also true that lungta is just a label applied to the combination of all these positive things to make them easier to contemplate.

Connected to this concept of dynamic goodness are two more terms that play in important role in the Tibetan cultural tradition—in particular, in the Nyingma lineage stemming from the teachings of Guru Padmasambhava and his spiritual heirs. One of these concepts is that of wangtang, literally translated as “field of power”. Wantang refers to a magnetic aura born from our merit and positive qualities. A

person whose lungta is strong would naturally have certain magnetism which has nothing to do with manipulation or putting up a facade. Rather, it comes from the uninterrupted flow of positive qualities stemming from one’s basic goodness.

The second concept is that of ziji, which literally means “brilliance”. Ziji is the energetic quality felt in those who possess strong lungta and wangtang; it is most noticeable in spiritual practitioners who have worked on themselves to the point of becoming brilliant, even when their outer appearance is completely unassuming.

Teachings and theories related to lungta–as the energy of goodness–along with wangtang and ziji are meant to inspire our mind. It’s as if we are invited to consider: What would my life feel like if, through spiritual practice, I was able to strengthen the qualities of good fortune, excellence, dynamic creativity and inner abundance? How could those qualities shine through my outer identity to convey the energy of magnetism and brilliance? How could all of it help me serve the world and sentient beings? As we consider these points, we might feel inspired to do more practice—including the specific spiritual practices related to “raising lungta”, or strengthening the energy of our goodness.

Lungta practices

Incidentally, the word “lungta” itself also applies to a wide range of practices related to windhorse energy and its qualities. Many of these methods are not related to actually putting up physical prayer flags; rather, they teach us to work with our own energy and qualities directly.

One of the simplest practices in this category is a victorious exclamation that can often be heard in the Himalayan region, used by Tibetan and Bhutanese practitioners—the victorious cry “Ki Ki So So Lha Gyal Lo” (which roughly translates into “May the divine forces by victorious!”). This formula is often embedded into lungta-related practices, and is also proclaimed when crossing high mountain passes. Some practitioners even use to conclude any session of teaching and practice, reaffirming their own basic goodness and the overall flow of auspiciousness. The full instruction for this invites us to direct our gaze towards the open sky, to let our awareness merge with the boundlessness of space, and then to forcefully proclaim the words themselves, imagining that our windhorse energy rises limitlessly.

Other lungta practices take the form of short or elaborate prayers, written by such famous Tibetan masters as Patrul Rinpoche and Mipham Rinpoche. Some of these prayers would actually be printed on prayer flags, or used to consecrate them after the flags have been hanged. Quite often, a lungta prayer would include a meditation on the symbolism of windhorse, an offering practice of sorts, and then some powerful aspirations for goodness. Occasionally, mantras that multiply auspiciousness would also be recited—such is the case with the daily lungta practice that was composed by Ju Mipham.

While some lungta prayers are focused on Tara (who, in her green form, is herself a symbol of the purified air element), a lot of them have to do with another transcendent figure—that of mythological king Gesar, the hero of Tibet’s primary epic

tale that spans numerous volumes (when put to writing). Gesar, whose historicity is debated (Gendun Chophel famously did not believe in it), is seen as an archetypal, heroic emanation of Guru Rinpoche, meant to teach us about the qualities of lungta, wangtang and ziji. Riding a horse and accompanied by heroic drala beings (who are not unlike the Celtic aes sídhe), Gesar is celebrated both as a Dharma protector and as an archetypal teacher invoked for inspiration and protection; a small Gesar shrine can be seen on the long circumambulation route around the residence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Mipham Rinpoche, who is responsible for a lot of the windhorse literature, had a particular connection to Gesar and wrote numerous texts both on Gesar-related practices and on his mythic adventures.

What of the actual physical prayer flags, then? Putting them up unites all of the threads of goodness mentioned above into a single act of auspiciousness; for as long as the flags are up, they will continue strengthening our windhorse energy, or that of anyone we dedicate the flags to. To accomplish that, practitioners would traditionally first write people’s names on the rim of the flags, along with wishes for specific people’s wellbeing. Once that important step is done, the flags themselves would be purified (usually by receiving some purifying incense smoke) and blessed, and then put up to hang between two objects and to catch wind. At that point, additional lungta prayers would sometimes be recited, along with dedications and prayers of auspiciousness.

One should note that not every day is seen as being suitable for putting up prayers flags. Days that are not auspicious for this activity are called bhaden and are usually clearly marked in Tibetan calendars (both printed and digital). On one occasion, Lama Zopa Rinpoche asked a monk who put up the prayer flags on a Bhaden day to take them down and then to put them up again once an auspicious date arrives, showing that attention to detail is highly desirable when trying to create positive interdependence.

Another consideration has to do with choosing the flags themselves. Most mass-produced flags commonly sold in India and Nepal are made from synthetic materials which include a high percentage of plastic; however, some companies and individuals are turning towards making organic flags that are environmentally friendly and do not release microplastics.

The texts printed on the flags themselves also differ, and can be related to a number of different meditational deities or practices. Most flags would include all the five primary colours and be universal enough for most people to use on any occasion. Size-wise, it is recommended to choose flags that are larger than the size of one’s palm. In some cases, if one has received special recommendations from a lama, special types of flags—for example, single color—can be used; I once saw all the prayer flags surrounding the stupa of Boudhanath be replaced with red flags, no doubt upon someone’s request accompanied by an offering. Some practitioners try to put their prayers flags up in holy places, such as Bodhgaya or next to the three great stupas of Kathmandu; others bring them to the regions where Dharma is not yet established, making sure that the gentle breeze of Dharmic energy can gradually create auspiciousness for all who live. In any case, the underlying idea is to keep strengthening our own inner windhorse energy, making sure our positive qualities continue shining through and guiding all beings towards genuine happiness and wellbeing.