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Buddhism

Last modified: 2016-06-08 by rob raeside
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[Standard Buddhist flag]  image by António Martins-Tuválkin 27 November 2001


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'Standard' Buddhist Flag

It has blue-yellow-red-white-orange vertical stripes, each 1/6 of the distance from the hoist. The sixth stripe (?) consists of 5 horizontal stripes of the same color starting from the top. The right hand vertical orange stripe merges with the bottom horizontal orange stripe. This is the flag depicted on the FLAG CHART published by Shipmate and authenticated by the Flag Research Center.
William Grimes-Wyatt 22 January 1996


Meaning of the Flag

The Buddhist flag, first hoisted in 1885 in Sri Lanka, is a symbol of faith and peace used throughout the world to represent the Buddhist faith. The six colours of the flag represent the colours of the aura that emanated from the body of the Buddha when He attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree. The horizontal stripes represent the races of the world living in harmony and the vertical stripes represent eternal world peace. The colours symbolise the perfection of Buddhahood and the Dharma.

The Blue light that radiated from the Buddha's hair symbolises the spirit of Universal Compassion for all beings.
The Yellow light that radiated from the Buddha's epidermis symbolises the Middle Way which avoids all extremes and brings balance and liberation.
The Red light that radiated from the Buddha's flesh symbolises the blessings that the practice of the Buddha's Teaching brings.
The White light that radiated from the Buddha's bones and teeth symbolises the purity of the Buddha's Teaching and the liberation it brings.
The Orange light that radiated from the Buddha's palms, heels and lips symbolises the unshakable Wisdom of the Buddha's Teaching.
The Combination Colour symbolises the universality of the Truth of the Buddha's Teaching.

Therefore, the overall flag represents that regardless of race, nationality, division or colour, all sentient beings possess the potential of Buddhahood.
From http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Ithaca/4886/flag.htm, located by Dov Gutterman, 9 April 1999


On Importance of Flags in Buddhism

"FLAG is a recurring item of Buddhist cult, dangling from the ceiling or temples' columns inside, or from a pole outside. Flags represent Buddha's virtues and mark out for him, in the same manner the military flags signalize the army's chief; flags also stand guard at Buddha's pictures. Buddhist scriptures list five types of flags: lion's, Makara monster's, dragon's, Garuda bird's, bull's. Flag is a traditional offering to Buddha by the devouts, together with flowers and incense. At the same time flag represents the virtues of Buddha and the virtues the devout wants to obtain, therefore flag has a very important ritual meaning: it can prolong devout's life in order to let him/her increases his/her merits. This is the case of Indian Emperor Asoka (272-231 B.C.) who lived 12 years more after a serious illness so he could build new other reliquaries (stupa). A flag dangling into a temple at the moment of a devout's death, adds merits to him/her and even makes him/her be born again in on of Buddha's paradises. In fact flags are ornaments of famous Buddha Amithaba's paradise. In Tantric Buddhism adepts' head is touched by a flag, as it was an unction."
from "Enciclopedia delle Religioni", Garzanti, Milano 1989 (Italian translation of "Knaurs grosser Religion Führer", München 1986)
Giuseppe Bottasini 3 December 1994

Many people, including Buddhists, believe that their flag dates back to the time of Dutugamunu (second-century BC). In fact, the flag was invented in 1880 by an American journalist, Colonel Henry Steele Olcott. Olcott was a fascinating character. A former soldier and lawyer, he set up the Theosophical Society of New York. He arrived in Sri Lanka with the renowned spiritualist Madame Blavatsky on 17 February 1880 - a day which was subsequently celebrated as Olcott Day in independent Sri Lanka. He founded the Buddhist Theosophical Society, devised a Buddhist catechism, encouraged Buddhist versions of Christmas carols and cards, and inspired the founding of Buddhist schools and and the YMBA - the Young Men's Buddhist Association. There are six colours in the flag, but the human eye can see only five. They are described in the Scriptures as emanating from the aura around the Buddha's head. There are 5 vertical stripes of red, yellow, blue, white and orange. The sixth colour is a compound of the first 5, but for design purposes its five ingredients are all shown in small horizontal stripes on the fly.

Olcott felt that local Buddhists in Sri Lanka needed a symbol to rally around. His flag achieved that: it became the emblem of the international Buddhist movement and is flown today worldwide in Buddhist buildings and at Buddhist celebrations. When he died in 1907, Olcott's body was shrouded in both the Buddhist and American flags before his cremation.

Sources:
An Introduction to Buddhism, Peter Harvey, CUP, 1990
Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka, Gombrich & Obeyesekere, Princetown UP, 1988
A Popular Dictionary of Buddhism, Christmas Humphreys, Curzon, 1984
The World of Buddhism, Bechert & Gombrich, Thames & Hudson, 1984
http://www.lankaweb.com/dhamma/index.html
David Cohen
, 23 July 1997

I also visited the Buddhist Society of Western Australia during my research. Several members told me that they have seen various combinations of the colour scheme of the Buddhist flag at various locations around the world. There doesn't seem to be a definite order of the colours - they said that it can vary from country to country.
David Cohen, 23 July 1997

I have been told by local Buddhists that the flag is not universal, but belongs to the Theravada sect. I believe he was indicating that the flag is not used in the same way as the Christian, Papal, and Episcopal flags, etc.
Lee Herold
, 20 December 2000

The different "ways" of Buddhism are the "Theravada" of Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka, and the "Mahayana" of Vietnam, Tibet, China, Korea, and Japan, which some subdivide further. My understanding is that the 1885 flag represents all of them, though I don't recall seeing it in Japan.
Al Kirsch
, 20 December 2000

One of my customers brought in a prayer flag this week and was explaining its meaning and how it works. The flags are unhemmed, and as they unravel the prayers are carried by the wind.
Rick Wyatt, 12 September 2009


The Banner of Victory

The eight auspicious signs of Buddhism are related to a main event in the life of the historical Buddha (Cakyamuni). On the morning following the night Buddha spent under the Bodh Gaya tree and during which he reached awakening, joy spread throughout the universe. Celestial beings gathered and brought many presents for the Awaken. Eight of these presents became the auspicious signs:
- the umbrella
- the two golden fishes
- the treasure bowl
- the lotus flower
- the white conch
- the endless knot
- the golden wheel
- and last but not least, the banner of victory, symbolizing the power of the Buddhist teaching and the victory of the Good Law.

The problem with this banner is that it usually does not look like a 'regular' banner. Inside the temples, the banner is made of a long vertical cylinder wrapped with pieces of colour fabric which look exactly like ties, usually hanging from the temple ceiling. The banner of victory is also placed very often on the roofs and terraces of the monasteries, as (multi)coloured cylinders often topped with a trident.

This message ends my series about flags in Ladakh and Zanskar. I have tried to report and explain everything flag-related I saw there. Once again, my interpretations are probably flawed by my limited knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism. I thank Ms. Lobsang Darmla, our local young guide in Leh, who answered with competence and knowledge to all our questions about Buddhism, including the most fanciful. Her discrete generosity and beautiful smile, added to her deep religious knowledge, should remain among the strongest remembrances of my travel.
Ivan Sache, 31 August 2001


Buddhist guru, "Master Sheng-Yen Lu

Seen in Maryland, USA, a religious flag with a yellow background with a lotus in green and red and with red Chinese characters on it. This flag was devised by a certain Buddhist guru, "Master Sheng-Yen Lu."
Clairone Delaney, 11 April 2001

Master Lu Sheng-Yen is a self-styled 'living Buddha' who eats meat and drinks alcohol, thereby considered a heretic by mainstream Buddhism.
Miles Li, 12 April 2001


Six-coloured Buddhist flag

[Six-coloured Buddhist flag] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 19 December 2010

A six-colored variant of the Buddhist flag replaces a single orange field with two fields in light and dark shades of orange, respectively. Its only photo to be found so far is at Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/globerunner/13579978/. Unfortunately, only the date when the photo was taken is given on the page - 2004-07-17 - but no info about the place, so the true origin of the flag remains unknown. It could even be designed by the very person who took the photo. Regardless of that, it is obviously meant to be a Buddhist flag.
Tomislav Todorovic, 19 December 2010


Vertical Variants

[vertical Buddhist flag] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 18 March 2012

A vertical variant of the "standard" Buddhist flag can be seen on a photo at this site: http://vexil.prov.free.fr/vietnam/vietnam.html. The flag was used at the Trân Quôc temple in Hanoi, along with the much more common horizontal variant. It is yet to be seen whether it exists in Vietnam only; that is probably not the case, considering that the basic design is internationally used and that a similar flag, differing only in color set, was created independently in Japan, so the flag might have been independently introduced at different places.
Tomislav Todorovic, 18 March 2012

Another photo of the same flag, taken at the coast of West Lake, Hanoi, on 2011-01-02, can be seen at https://www.flickr.com/photos/37423935@N00/5390294774. Another photo from Hanoi, taken on 2010-02-12 at https://www.flickr.com/photos/amyogeek/4434537375 shows two vertical flags, hoisted with vertical orange field at the hoist, the opposite of the practice seen elsewhere, together with a "standard" horizontal flag, hoisted correctly.

So far, all examples of this flag's use have been from Vietnam, where vertical variants of important flags, like the national flag or that of the Communist Party, seem to be quite popular. The use of this flag outside Vietnam is still to be verified.
Tomislav Todorovic, 29 June 2014

[vertical Buddhist flag] image by Tomislav Todorovic, 7 July 2014

Another vertical variant also exists, with swallow-tailed ending and hung of a crossbar, much like the German Banner (Bannerfahne). It was photographed in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on 2009-01-27: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nguyen_ngoc_chinh/3232943638 and in Cambodia, exact location not specified, on 2013-09-20: https://www.flickr.com/photos/91836905@N08/10299963943. This verifies the use of Buddhist flags in vertical format outside Vietnam, in Southeast Asia at least. The use in other regions is yet to be verified.
Tomislav Todorovic, 7 July 2014

Rectangular vertical flags hung from crossbars, much like the German Banner (Bannerfahne), are hoisted along the road leading to the Sri Dalada Maligawa (Temple of the Sacred Tooth), in Kandy, Sri Lanka. Photos currently available on the Web were taken on 2006-11-19, 2012-12-27, and 2013-08-14. This verifies the use of Buddhist flags in vertical format outside Southeast Asia.
Tomislav Todorovic, 19 February 2016