My home church in Iowa City, Iowa, will soon have an addition to its grounds: a kiosk that invites passersby to leave a prayer request in a notebook and tie a ribbon around a nearby tree as a symbol of their petition. Because our church stands next to a well-traveled sidewalk, we hope that the little shrine will catch the attention of those walking by, an invitation to enter into sacred space and time in the midst of a busy city.
Our rector had the idea for the kiosk on a sabbatical trip to Wales, where similar prayer stations are common in places where Celtic Christian traditions remain strong. But this practice of symbolizing prayers with bits of cloth exists in other faiths as well. One of my favorite sacred sites, Bear Butte in South Dakota, has many pine trees that bear strips of cloth tied around their branches. Weathered by the strong prairie sun and wind, they bear witness to the prayers of those who placed them there while taking part in vision quests and other ceremonies.
I was reminded of my church’s new prayer shrine on a recent visit to a place that on the surface seems very different from my spiritual home: Deer Park, a Tibetan Buddhist center near Madison, Wisconsin. Founded in 1975, the complex is one of the nation’s leading centers for this tradition-in-exile, home to a community of monks and nuns and visited numerous times by the Dalai Lama. Its central temple is a gilded marvel, full of the ornate iconography and brilliantly colored paintings that are a hallmark of the branch of Buddhism that flourished in Tibet before the Chinese invasion of the 1950s.
While the temple is beautiful, I was most taken by the prayer flags that encircled its stupa, a sacred tower that symbolizes the Buddha’s enlightenment. I’d seen such flags before, for they’ve become a relatively common sight in my hometown, but I’d never given much thought to their significance. Watching them flutter in the wind, I realized how similar they are to the prayer ribbons that will soon grace my own Episcopal church.
A kindly Tibetan monk explained that the symbols and mantras on the flags are meant to broadcast blessings to the surrounding countryside. The slightest movement of the wind carries the prayers far and wide, he said, spreading Buddhist teachings on peace and compassion.
It is intriguing to compare the Tibetan prayer flags with our Christian prayer ribbons. There are differences in how they are viewed, certainly, for Tibetan Buddhists believe the flags are primarily for the benefit of the world, while in Christian use the ribbons symbolize the prayer of an individual.
But seeing those bright flags waving in the wind, I think our two traditions have much in common. Whether we tie these bits of cloth outside a church, on a sacred mountain in South Dakota, or in a Tibetan temple, these outward symbols reflect our inner yearnings. They are quiet reminders that the world contains more than the ephemera of daily life, the endless flow of worries and distractions.
I don’t know what will happen with our little prayer kiosk on the corner of College and Gilbert Streets. I fear it might be vandalized. I hope it won’t simply be ignored. But I think there is a chance that it will be used, and that the tree next to it will gradually fill with brightly colored strips of cloth. I can imagine a worried university student pausing for a moment to tie a ribbon and say a prayer for an upcoming exam, or an elderly man stopping on his way to the library to place a ribbon on a branch in memory of a beloved wife.
No matter where these fluttering pieces of cloth are tied, it is the same wind and the same spirit that stirs them, bearing witness and broadcasting blessings.