Updated: Feb 28
Prayer flags are one of the most ubiquitous contributions of Tibetan/Himalayan culture to the modern material world. Known in Tibetan as rLung-rTa (pronounced loong-ta), literally meaning "wind-horse," these flags are raised across the Himalayas to mark auspicious occasions and encourage positive circumstances. The tradition has roots in pre-Buddhist Tibet, and remains a mainstay in Himalayan Buddhist culture to this day. In the west, strings of rLung-rTa (usually from Nepal) line bookshops and frat houses alike, with countless representations of Padmasambhava and Tara fluttering in some of the most unexpected places.
When I was just beginning my medical training, I had the fortune of attending teachings with Dodrupchen Sungtrul Rinpoche, a lovely lama and recognized speech emanation of the great 3rd Dodrupchen Rinpoche. In a break between teachings, a participant approached him and asked where she should hang a strand of prayer flags that she had just purchased for the upcoming Tibetan New Year. Rinpoche immediately opened his palm and asked for her age. He scrunched his eyes as he worked out a calculation in his mind, eventually identifying her natal zodiac animal and element. He then proceeded to tap out a circular pattern on his fingers, landing at the root of his middle finger. He looked up at the woman and said, "If you hang them after the new lunar year, you should hang them to the North of your house. Hang them on a Saturday during the waxing moon." She thanked him and went on her way.
This moment greatly intrigued me as a young practitioner and aspiring Menpa, and I greatly wanted to learn this calculation method. It wasn't until years later during my Traditional Astrology classes in TTM school, however, that I finally learned what he was doing.
In Tibetan "Astrology" (rTsis), there are two primary lineages linked to Tibet's two main neighboring regions - Kartsi (dKar rTsis), the "white calculation" tradition connected to India (rGya dKar) and the Kalachakra Tantra, and Jungtsi ('Byung rTsis), the "elemental calculation" tradition tied to China and the Taoist tradition. The former is largely focused on the calculation of periods of time according to Buddhist tantra, as well as observation of the planets and stars. While this has an effect on personal horoscopes and natal astrology, most prognostications are derived from elemental calculations. Jungtsi offers highly individualized calculations for a wide number of needs. Instead of focusing on the movements of astral bodies, Tibetan elemental astrology focuses instead on relationships between the five elements and their seasonal progressions, an extension of the fundamental concept that all compounded phenomena are composed of these five elemental principles.
One technique in Jungtsi is concerned with the eight parkha, trigrams related to the Taoist ba-gua found in the I-Ching. These are represented in the Astrological diagram known as Sipaho, the Cosmic Tortoise, arranged in a central ring between the grid of the nine magic numbers and the twelve animals of the zodiac. The parkha are described as the root principles from which the 12 animals arise.
Two forms of parkha are used in Tibetan horoscopes - the natal parkha/kyé-par adn the progressed parkha/bäp-par. The kyé-par is calculated in some natal horoscopes, but the progressed parkha is far more popular among modern astrologers, doctors, lamas, and laypeople, and is a even standard feature in modern Tibetan almanacs.
In Tibetan Astrology, the unique elemental charge of rLung-rTa can be calculated on a yearly, monthly, daily, or bi-hourly basis. The rLung-rTa of the present moment is compared with circumstances at the moment of birth in order to determine whether your windhorse is currently strong or weak. When your rLung-rTa conflicts with the rLung-rTa of the present time, difficulties can arise in relation to one's fortune, luck, and reputation. On a deeper level, weak rLung-rTa can portend a weak vital essence, as the concept of windhorse has long been identified with the bLa, or the temporary 'soul' in indigenous Tibetan tradition. If the rLung-rTa is weak, the bLa will suffer as a result, leading to a weak energetic defense system for the body and mind.
If rLung-rTa is weak, the most straightforward recommendation is to raise prayer flags. By doing this in the proper manner, on an auspicious day, and in an optimal direction, it is possible to counteract an existing weakness in one's windhorse energy.
How to do the Prayer Flag Calculation by Hand
This is one of the most straightforward calculations you can make in Jungtsi, and it can be easily performed without knowing anything about Tibetan Astrology. Here's a simple guide:
1. Calculate your Astro Age
In order to use the parkha method for determining where to hang prayer flags, you'll need your hand and your astro age. This is a calculation that takes time in the womb into consideration, and a view of age that identifies your current position with the year you are currently completing, as opposed to the year that you have completed. In the west, when we say we are 17 years old, this means that we have successfully completed 17 years of life. In Tibetan culture, if someone is 17 years old, this means they are working to complete their 17th year of life, including time spent in the womb. Birthdays are jointly celebrated on the Tibetan New Year due to the collective change in zodiac signs, including for newborns who have just began their first year out of the womb. This means that some infants are in fact considered to be two years old.
To calculate your current astro age, begin with the age you will turn during the present Lunar year. This changes over every Losar (usually around February/March). If your birthday has already occurred during the current lunar year, then you would start with your current legal age. If it hasn't, you will need to add +1 to your age (sorry). For those who are born in the first few months of the year, you may need to see which side of the Lunar New Year you fall on, as this will make a difference in your astro age.
If the Lunar New Year (namely the Tibetan New Year) has already occurred for the current year, then add +1 to your age. If it has not occurred yet, then do not.
As an example, for someone born on October 19th, 1978, they would consider themselves to be 40 years old in January of 2018. However, if they were doing this calculation in June, then they would need to consider themselves to be 41 years old, even though their legal age will still be 39.
2. It's All in the Hands
Once you've found your astro age, we'll move to the hand. Let's imagine that the fronts of our three central fingers form a 9-square grid, with the outer squares each representing one of the cardinal or intercardinal directions. As with most drawn diagrams, we will imagine that the top of the diagram at the tip of our middle finger represents the southern direction. This could feasibly be re-worked if you get tripped up by the upside-down compass, but if you ever intend to use Tibetan Astrology for other calculations, it's best to keep South at the top.
Now we're going to count up from one, following the outer squares until we land on our current age. Male-identified individuals and female-identified individuals will start from opposite positions and move in opposite directions. For men, we will move clockwise from the southern position. For women, we will move counter-clockwise from the northern position. The starting place is "1."
There is a somewhat simplified process for doing this, which is particularly helpful when you need to count out higher numbers in this process. Since there are eight squares, every tenth number will land on the corners in the intercardinal directions. For this reason, you can jump from corner to corner and count in tens, then reverting to single squares once you reach the target decade. For instance, for a man whose astro age is 63, you would start with "one" in the southern square, then count decades (starting with 10) along the corner squares moving in a clockwise direction. Once you reach 60, located in the northwestern square, you would start counting single squares with the value of one year each. 63 is then located in the eastern square.
If this method is too difficult or unclear, you can always just count one-by-one until you reach the proper age.
3. Observe the Direction
Once you've landed on the square associated with your current age, you've discovered the direction that corresponds with your yearly cha-lön (Phya Lon), the message of luck. This direction is associated with positive travel experiences, auspicious relationships, and other fruitful undertakings. It is one of four benefic directions, and is generally favorable for increasing fortunate circumstances. It is in this direction that we want to hang prayer flags in order to increase our rLung-rTa energy.
This calculation can indeed offer a plethora of geomantic information, as each one of these squares is associated with one of the eight parkha trigrams. But for our purposes here, only the direction in which you land is needed. So if you have landed in the east, like the 63 year-old gentleman above, then you will want to hang prayer flags to the east of your home in order to increase rLung-rTa.
When the time is right, arrange to hang the flags in the appropriate direction outside of your home. They should be outdoors so that the blessings can carry on the wind. They should also be in a clean place and should not touch the ground. 4. Choose an Auspicious Date
Prayer flags are commonly installed on Saturdays, Sundays, or Fridays, which are the generally auspicious days for raising rLung-rTa. However, the most ideal day would be on an individuals bLa (soul) day, which varies by animal. Mice/Rats and Pigs have a bLa day of Wednesday; Oxen have a bLa day of Saturday; Tigers and Hares are Thursday; Dragons are Sunday, Snakes and Horses are Tuesday (which is otherwise a bad day for raising prayer flags), Sheep, Monkeys, and Birds/Roosters are Friday, and Dogs are Monday. In general, it is better to hang prayer flags during a waxing moon as opposed to a waning moon, and it's good to observe positive elemental combinations (yogas) like Fire-Air and Air-Air, which can be easily found in Tibetan/Bhutanese calendar apps. The most commonly used elemental combination is calculated from the planetary ruler of the weekday and the element associated with the period's lunar mansion. It's also good to avoid "black days" (nyi nag), which can also be found in any Tibetan calendar or almanac. Some days will be specifically indicated as bad days for hanging prayer flags, which is pretty straightforward.
5. Bless and Hang your Prayer Flags
It's important, when raising prayer flags, to ensure that they have been properly made and consecrated before use. Proper rLung-rTa flags should be five colors with an image of the Windhorse surrounded by a Garuda, Dragon, Snow Lion, and Tiger in the four corners. These are the best for astrological purposes, unless an astrologer has recommended a specific color or deity image. Most deity image strands will include one Windhorse flag along with the others.
Before use, you should consider your intention for raising prayer flags. Aspirations or wishes can be written in ink on the back of the flags, particularly on the back of the first flag in the strand. Often these are dedicated to one's teacher, to sick relatives, and others who are struggling.
After clarifying your intention, the flags must be blessed through a smoke purification in order to be empowered for use. They can also be blessed by a lama. This is known as sang (bSang), a fragrant smoke offering made from juniper, cedar, or other fragrant branches along with sacred substances like the three sweets (sugar, molasses, and honey) and three whites (milk, butter, and curd). Alternatively, high-quality sang incense is produced by many incense manufacturers that can be burned as a stick or over a charcoal disc.
Ideally, a sang rite should be performed along with prayers for empowering rLung-rTa, but if this is impossible, then simply cleansing and consecrating the flags through a burnt offering (sage may be an appropriate substitute for juniper, if this is part of your personal tradition) and focused intentions.
A brief prayer for raising prayer flags was composed by Dr. Ju Mipham Rinpoche in the early 20th century, which can be found on the Lotsawa House website here. Longer prayers (like this one also composed by Dr. Mipham) have strong associations with King Gesar of Ling, the legendary Buddhist warrior-king of Tibet. In the Epic of King Gesar, many references are made to propitiations and rituals like bSang and rLung-rTa, which Gesar and his entourage use to improve circumstances and interact with local spirits. Over time, Gesar became synonymous with smoke offerings and prayer flags, even though these rites likely predate the legend by millennia. The Gesar epic itself is considered to be the longest epic story in human history, with revelatory bards across the Tibetan plateau revealing new chapters and vignettes of the story to this day.
It is, of course, advisable to have the requisite transmissions (namely a reading transmission) for any prayers or rituals used.
When the time has come to hang the flags, it is customary to shout "Lha gyel-lo!" ("The gods/deities are victorious!"). Raising rLung-rTa is a joyful, uplifting experience. It's also important to note that, due to the sacred images and mantras drawn on prayer flags, they should not be stepped over or disrespected.
6. Replace your Prayer Flags When Necessary
When your prayer flags have become old, tattered, or bleached by the sun, it's recommended to take them down and hang new ones. However, due to the sacred imagery, it would be inappropriate to throw them away like trash. If your flags are made of cotton or other natural materials, they should be burned (also a good opportunity to burn old dharma texts, etc.). If they are made of polyester, however, then it is best to respectfully bury them to as not to disturb the environmental energies by burning plastic. Never ever burn plastic, as this kind of pollution is known to be dangerous to one's health (this is affirmed both by Traditional Tibetan Medicine and modern science).
If you want to know the state of your yearly rLung-rTa (along with other features of the Tibetan elemental calculation system), you can book a consultation here.