The History and Meaning of the Buddhist Flag
For a movement so steeped in history like Buddhism, dating back for millennia, the flag that represents it is surprisingly young. Just at the end of the 19th century, and only as a response to exterior factors, was the Buddhist flag created and introduced to practitioners.
Maybe it is because Buddhists see the world as one, borderless, absolute, that no sooner need for an individual flag had arisen.
When it did, however, Buddhism designed a flag like no other.
History of the Buddhist Flag
The Buddhist flag was created by the Colombo Committee in Sri Lanka as a response to the UK’s oppression of Buddhists in the region. Hoisted in public on the first Vesak day celebrated under British rule, 28 May 1885, it was created to give hope and unify local practitioners in times of repression and great adversity.
The first rendition had an elongated shape that proved inconvenient for general use, so a shorter, more flag-like version was developed soon after – the version still in use today.
Officially, the Buddhist flag made its debut in 1889 when it was presented to the Emperor Meiji of Japan by Anagarika Dharmapala.
It took more than a half a century, though, for the flag to gain official international recognition among Buddhists. Only in 1958 the World Fellowship of Buddhists adopted it, paving the way for wide-spread use.
From that point on, especially in Asia, the Buddhist flag could’ve been seen accompanying that of sovereign nations during celebrations, as Buddhists from more than 60 countries now had a flag to represent them all.
Colors and symbols of the Buddhist flag
The original Buddhist flag, officially adopted in 1958, comprises of five (5) vertical strips of solid color – blue, yellow, red, white, orange – displayed in order from left to right, to which a strip made of the same colors follows. This final strip displays all colors in the same order but perpendicularly placed to the first set of five.
The flag is meant to represent the colors that radiated from the Buddha’s aura when he achieved enlightenment, and each of them carries a distinct meaning.
Blue, or nīla in Sanskrit, it’s said to have radiated from the Buddha’s hair and it represents the Spirit of Universal Compassion.
Yellow, or pīta, it’s said to have radiated from the Buddha’s epidermis and represents the Middle Way.
Red, or lohitaka, it’s said to have radiated from the Buddha’s flesh and represents The Blessings of Practice.
White, or avadāta, it’s said to have radiated from the Buddha’s teeth and bones and represents The Purity of Dhamma.
Finally, Orange, or mañjiṣṭhā, it’s said to have radiated from the Buddha’s lips, palms and heels and represents The Wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings.
The final strip, combining all the previous five colors, symbolizes the universality of the Truth of the Buddha’s Teaching.
Variants of the Buddhist flag around the globe
Although found in many variations and forms, most renditions of the Buddhist flag closely resemble each other.
The first set of 4 colors, blue, yellow, red, and white are present and identically placed in most Buddhist flags. It’s only the fifth, the original orange, that’s replaced with different colors around the world.
Japan’s Jōdo Shinshū replaces the orange strip with one of pink.
In Tibet, orange transforms into marron, coming from the Tibetan monastic robes that bare the same color.
The pink robes of Myanmar’s bhikkhunīs, the female Buddhist order, inspired the flag here to contain pink instead of orange.
Nepal has plum stripes instead of the orange ones, while the Laotian version contains a strip of bright green also in the place of orange.
More differentiated Buddhist flags exist but are adopted by smaller communities. A simplified version comes from Japan’s Soka Gakkai. It limits the flag to only the first three colors, blue, yellow, and red, making it almost identical to that of Romania.
Korean Buddhists can be seen raising a simple white flag with a centered svastika, a symbol tainted by the horrendous actions of the Nazis but one that predates them by centuries.
Vertically oriented variations of the classic Buddhist flag have popped up in Vietnam in cities like Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh.
The aesthetics of the Buddhist flag, although somewhat different from country to country, closely resemble each other. If visually they are not identical, it’s the meaning and sentiment behind them that matters most. In that regard, all Buddhist flags are a celebration of the wonderful and unique Buddhist way, a rallying call for all practitioners.
In keeping with the Buddhist way of thinking, its flag is packed with meaning. It wholly represents the movement and what it stands for, acting as both rallying symbol and synopsis.
Since its introduction in the 19th century, it inspired Buddhists to hold on in times of trouble and to unite and blossom in times of joy.
Even a novice, with no prior knowledge about its history and meaning, upon seeing its diverse color scheme made up of bright tones would instantly be led to think of unity, of peace, and beauty.