You can see them pretty much around any corner in Boulder: Bright, primary colored squares of cloth strung together, floating in the wind or gently resting on porch railings.
These are Tibetan prayer flags.
The red, white, green, yellow and blue flags that you see are, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, called “lung-ta,” with lung meaning “wind” and ta meaning “horse.” These flags traditionally are hung in hopes of good luck and fortune.
Within the Buddhist religion, these flags can be used for merit making and sending out prayers of good intentions through the wind. Although the prayers with good intentions are pretty much the subject for any owners.
These flags have been linked to the hippie counterculture of Boulder, but one may wonder whether the owners and “hangers” of them — not to mention passersby — truly know what they represent.
Tenzin Passang, owner of Tibet Gallery on Pearl Street, said, “If people don’t know what they are, they come in interested. They will say their neighbors have them and then want to know what they mean.”
“I got them from my mom when she traveled to India,” University of Colorado senior Jenna Rehnborg said, “because I’m obsessed with Mount Everest and they’re hung by people who summit it and at base camps as prayers for the climbers.”
Rehnborg admits to “not knowing how they’re supposed to be used,” and said, “they’re actually in a drawer somewhere right now.”
Erica Laley, a senior at Naropa University, does not own prayer flags, but she knows the general gist of them.
“The prayer flags are meant to bring peace and compassion,” she said. “The different colors represent the different elements.”
Laley can even name which element goes with each color. She said she can credit knowing all of this through some of the special core required courses at Naropa such as Contemplative Practice.
As to whether Laley’s fellow students and others in Boulder actually know what their own prayer flags mean, she said she’s skeptical.
Holly Gayley is an assistant professor in CU’s Religious Studies department, specializing in Buddhism and Tibetan literature. In her office she has a small set of paper prayer flags hanging above her doorway, but, according to tradition, “If they’re made of paper they’re purely for decoration.”
As to why so many in the Boulder area have prayer flags adorning their porches or doorways, Gayley credits the large Buddhist population in Boulder, as well as her opinion that all things Tibetan attract interest in the area as well.
Also, “Who wouldn’t want to send prayers of compassion out into the world?”