Saturday, August 22, 2009

Cairn and Prayer Flags

The point of Long Beach, a conservation area where I walk many mornings, is a sandy, stony little spit between a long inlet and a wide bay with the open sea beyond. Over the last couple of months I have noticed that the stones are being piled in cairns, two or three but one is growing steadily larger, plus there is an arrangement that is a peace sign and another that is a heart. I imagine teens coming out there in the evenings, giving in to one of the most ancient impulses of human beings -- to pile rocks on top of one another as a symbol that they have come this way. {Below is the largest cairn as it looked this morning -- two days ago it have even more stones balanced one-on-one on the top, the top 6 or 8 have fallen.

As Rachel pointed out, this is what the first altars of the Hebrew desert tribe was like, just stones, no man-made objects. I have seen cairns, some very, very large, on the passes in the Himalayas and often did a triple clockwise circumambulation because that is what "is done". Those almost always were adorned with Tibetan prayer flag or "wind horses" -- the cotton squares strung together, the five auspicious colors: white, red, blue, yellow and green, and stamped on them a prayer and often a picture of a horse. Some I have seen were weather worn to tatters, softest pastels and words too faded to read -- the prayers seemed to have gradually come off and been carried away as they were meant to be.

I saw other cairns at what seemed random places in Mongolia, most were quite large, they were adorned with some prayer flags but mostly with sky blue katas [ceremonial scarves] or with orange ones. [Sky blue is the favorite color of Mongolia, the color o their enormous sky.] These cairns were called ovoos and were often places where people came to give thanks for good luck and to pray when luck was needed. The grateful might leave crutches or vodka bottles, some people left paper money, some left sheep's horns.

As it happens I have a bundle of prayer flags purchased for me by someone [I cannot now remember who] who asked if I wanted anything from Lhasa. I told him or her that the only thing I regretted not purchasing was a bundle of the prayer flags which are inexpensive and always for sale by venders in the plaza in front of the Jokhang [the holiest shrine in Tibet and center of pre-Chinese Communist Lhasa]. So I had a small bundle, perhaps 3 dozen, all on a ribbon. I searched the house yeeterday trying to remember where I put them when I moved here. finally I found them and cut off a set of five, big enough for the largest cairn. This morning Rachel and i affixed them to the stones. We did not have a strong breeze so I could not photograph them fluttering but they will.

I will be curious to see if they are left there. I think they will be but I do not know the attitudes o the cairn builders. Possibly they don't have a clue what these are. They will see they are written in a strange script. Maybe they will hate that and take them down. Maybe they will think it something wonderful and leave them. And, of course, the wind can be fierce. I don't think it can pull them loose but I might be wrong.

The pictures above are to show the vista toward the open ocean and also toward the houses beyond, along the shore of what I am guessing is Ostervile, one of the ritzier areas here.

A final note. these do not have horses stamped on them but some of the "auspicious signs: of Buddhism, including a conch shell. I would have preferred wind horse although for a long time I could not understand why the mountain people had chosen horses to carry their prayers and not one of the big birds that are more familiar and native to the mountains. But then I learned that the mountains were first settled by people from the steppe of Central Asia who, indeed, are horse people [think of Genghis Khan and his warriors] These prayer flags are pre-Buddhist and have been decorating cairns for thousands of years. Now some decorate a small cairn on a Cape Cod beach.

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