While many have the impression that Buddhism is a religion not known for its icons and symbols, this is not an accurate assessment. There are many components to the worship of Buddhism that are integrated into its worship. One such item is that of the prayer flag. In fact, so common is the prayer flag in certain circles of Buddhism that the flag is the defining symbolic item that clearly displays a Buddhist place of worship or the home of a practitioner of Buddhism.
So, what are prayer flags and what is their purpose? The following overview may provide some insight into these questions...
Prayer flags are commonly found in Tibet and they are usually employed to decorate monasteries and homes. (These are not the exclusive domains for the flags as mountain passes can be adorned with such flags as well) In general, these flags are symbolic of Buddhist worship but there are other specialized purposes to the acquisition and display of these flags. Actually, the origin of the flags predates the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet. Specially designed flags were commonly flown for both good luck and for prosperity. With the integration of Buddhist worship in Tibetan society, the flags began to be incorporated into the iconography of Buddhism.
In some ways, Buddhist prayer flags aid in integrating many elements of the natural world into the human conceptualization of how Buddhism should be acknowledged. How is this so? Basically, the flags represent human theories and emotions that are spread through the world via the elements. In particular, the element of wind is what aids in spreading the message of Tibetan Buddhism.
How is this achieved? Basically, mantras are drawn into the flags which are hung on homes and temples. As the wind blows through the flag, it is believed that the wind will 'pick up' the words on the flag and spread them throughout the world. Wherever the wind blows, the words and sentiments of the mantras will be carried. Considering the positive nature of the mantras, this is a good thing because feelings of prosperity and enlightenment would be carried throughout the world. Or at least that is the prime intention.
Please do not assume, however, that the flags are minimalist in design and creation. They are not merely drapes with words scrawled on them. In reality, many of these outstanding prayer flags are designed with true artistry. This makes the most artistic of flags impressive to behold. This is why many purchase such flags because they make truly outstanding decorations. Perhaps one of the best benefits of these flags is that even if you only purchase them for decorative reasons, the mantra printed on them can still be effectively carried with the wind. Consider that a 'fringe benefit' of having the prayer flag's attractive appeal to the decorative minded that might not be totally aware of the religious undertones.