Buddhist Arts

Buddhist Flags: History and Meaning

Buddhist flags flutter around temples and monuments throughout the world today. And banners and flags have always waved above important Buddhist monuments. Early texts describe pilgrims donating colorful banners at stūpas and monasteries. Yet, the six-striped flag we see today is a modern development.

Here we offer an excerpt from Khenpo Gyaltsen’s A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation: An Explanation of Essential Topics for Dharma Students. Khenpo explains how modern Buddhists chose the colors of this flag.

Generally speaking, flags are used to display a group’s excellent qualities and to express their individuality. But specifically, a flag’s utility is to express one’s identity, and to indicate victory and success. For the same purpose, the Buddhist flag was created with this intention. In 1884, the Buddhist flag was created in Sri Lanka by the American military officer, Mr Henry Steele Olcott, on Lord Śākyamuni ’s birthday.

Buddhist flags
Henry Steele Olcott

The flag has six colors representing the six colored lights that the Buddha radiated at the time of complete enlightenment. The colors of the flag were decided upon in 1956 after six conferences were held in friendship among the Buddhist community in Burma.  

Buddhist Flags: The Colors

The meaning of the six colored stripes of the flag in subsequent order are:

  1. The blue stripe represents the blue light-rays that radiated from the Buddha’s hair. These pervaded the whole cosmos with love, compassion, peace, and happiness.
  2. The gold stripe represents the golden light-rays that radiated from the Buddha’s skin. This displayed the Middle Way, free from the extremes of permanence and nihilism.
  3. The red stripe represents the red light-rays that radiated from the Buddha’s flesh. This displayed excellent realization from practice and virtuous merit.
  4. The white stripe represents the white light-rays that radiated from the Buddha’s bones and teeth. This displayed genuine accomplishment without flaws or stains, along with the truth that the Buddha’s teachings on the nature of liberation are ever-present, whether in an excellent or empty kalpa (meaning whether the Buddhas teach or whether no Buddhas are present).
  5. The orange stripe represents the orange light-rays that radiated from the Buddha’s palms, heels, and lips. This displayed the power of wisdom and the majestic brilliance of the dharma’s rich essential meaning.
  6. The last stripe of combined colors represents the universal truth of the Buddha’s teachings. The horizontal stripes represent the world’s people in harmony, peace, and happiness. And the vertical stripes show the continuous tranquility of the Buddhist community.

Buddhist Flags: A Universal Message

The Buddhist flag in its entirety signifies the indivisibility of all sentient beings regardless of situation, race, nationality, class, color and so forth. For all sentient beings have within them the seed of omniscience and each has the capacity and potential for enlightenment.   

This teaching is an excerpt from:

A Lamp Illuminating the Path to Liberation: An Explanation of Essential Topics for Dharma Students by Khenpo Gyaltsen (translated by Lhasey Lotsawa Translations, Nepal: 2014, pp. 250-2). For more information, please click here.

Reflection Exercise

When you see visual symbols such as banners or statues, do you find them supportive of your practice? Many times in our daily life, we encounter unpleasant or violent images. Do you use visual supports to help remind you of basic values, universal truths or basic goodness? What images are helpful for your mind? If you don’t currently surround yourself with visual cues, try incorporating something small to start. Then, watch your own mind for awhile. Does the visual cue remind you of core values? Are you inspired or uplifted by seeing it? Finally, how can you add such helpful reminders in your daily routine?

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Suggested Reading

Dudjom Rinpoche, The Nyingma School of Tibetan Buddhism, trans. and ed. by Gyurme Dorje and Matthew Kapstein (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991), vol. 1, pages 468–474.

Ngawang Zangpo, Guru Rinpoche: His Life and Times, Ithaca: Snow Lion, 2002.

Nyoshul Khenpo, A Marvelous Garland of Rare Gems: Biographies of Masters of Awareness in the Dzogchen Lineage, trans. Richard Barron (Junction City: Padma Publishing, 2005), pages 41–48.

Padmasambhava, Legend of the Great Stupa, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1973

Padmasambhava & Jamgön Kongtrul, The Light of Wisdom, trans. by Erik Pema Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1986-1999), pages 43-47 & Appendix 5.

Taranatha, The Life of Padmasambhava, Shang Shung Edizioni, 2005

Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles, Shambhala, 1996.

Yeshe Tsogyal, Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava, translated by Kenneth Douglas and Gwendolyn Bays (Emeryville: Dharma Publishing, 1978, republished 2008).

Yeshe Tsogyal, Lotus Born: The Life Story of Padmasambhava, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2004.

‘The Life of Guru Padmasambhava’ in A Great Treasure of Blessings, The Tertön Sogyal Trust, 2004.