The meaning of lungta (windhorse) can be described on several levels:
- Outer – a mythical Tibetan creature
- Inner – positive qualities such as ‘good luck’
- Secret – the space element (one of the five elements)
- Most secret – the inner air or wind within the body
Outer Level: Mythical Creature
On the outer level, the lungta is a mythical Tibetan creature from pre-Buddhist times that combines the speed of the wind and the strength of the horse to carry prayers from earth to the heavens.
Inner Level: Positive Qualities
Lungta is associated with positive energy or ‘life force’ and with ‘good luck’. It is both the subduer of evil and the vehicle of enlightenment.
The lungta symbol is often depicted on prayer flags, which are flown to generate merit and increase one's life force. Lungta prayer flags typically display a tiger, a snow lion, a garuda, and a dragon, (the four dignities) with a lungta in the center. Certain lungta prayers also refer to these four symbols.
The tiger, snow lion, garuda, and dragon are ancient symbols of the qualities of lungta that originate with pre-Buddhist Tibetan and Chinese astrological traditions. Generally, they symbolize the fearlessness and resilience of lungta. (See Shambhala: The Path of the Warrior.)
Secret Level: The Space Element
At a deeper level, the lungta and the four dignities symbolize the play of the five elements, out of which all phenomena are formed. The lungta symbolizes space, the ground of all manifestation; in fact, in astrological texts lung ta is sometimes spelt ཀློང་རྟ་, longta, 'horse of space'. The tiger symbolizes the wind element; the snow lion, earth; the garuda, fire; and the dragon, water.
Most Secret Level: The Inner Air or Wind
In Tibetan Buddhism, the mind is seen as being dependent on, or mounted on, the subtle energy or inner air or wind within the body. This subtle energy is therefore called the ‘windhorse’, in Tibetan lungta. Whether the wind-horse is strong or weak determines whether positive or negative tendencies dominate the mind. On an everyday level, the windhorse is also very much linked to what is commonly known as ‘good luck’.
Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche explains:
- "All the experiences [of the six realms] are the result of karma, and it is mind that is responsible for the creation of karma, nothing else. Every experience of passing pleasure and pain and all the seemingly small and incidental occurrences of our lives arise because of the mind.
- However, we have no power or control over the mind at all. We may have in our mind the intention of doing something of a very virtuous and positive nature, but if something goes wrong our mind can change instantly and become very negative. We can also experience states in which we are motivated in a negative, non-virtuous way and then find that our motivation changes and becomes positive.
- What really controls the mind is lung [Tib.], the ‘wind’ or ‘subtle energy’ that determines the direction that the mind pursues. Thoughts arise in our minds and as they arise and we react to them, we create karma. The windhorse, the mount upon which the mind rides like a rider on a horse, controls or directs the thoughts arising in our minds.
- If we are confused about the essential nature of an arising thought, it may well be a cause for the perpetuation of samsara. If there is no confusion about the fundamental nature of the thought, the essence of that thought can free itself into dharmakaya. As the thought frees itself, the enlightened mind of buddhahood arises. The very same thought can lead to a state of freedom or to a state of confusion, and the direction it takes depends upon lung ta.
- Lung ta is actually sem, ‘the ordinary, conceptual mind’. When lung ta is low, everything becomes a problem: our ability to make progress with both our worldly projects and the Dharma will decrease. One of the signs of lung ta being low is not feeling well or being ill at ease. This is a common symptom in the present age; almost everybody’s mind is unhappy, unclear and dull.
- If lung ta flourishes and becomes more positive, then even former tendencies that brought about non-virtuous or negative karma—ordinary thoughts of the five poisons of attachment, aversion, ignorance, jealousy, and pride—can be transformed into a more positive manifestation. They arise in their true nature as the five aspects of yeshe, or 'primordial wisdom' of 'timeless awareness' (rigpa), through the power of lung ta.
- However, if our lung ta is neither flourishing nor nurtured, even if we are motivated to do something positive or virtuous, our motivation can change or be spoilt. For example, we might enter the path of Dharma and make attempts at establishing a regular practice, but find that our ordinary, negative thoughts drag us down and perpetuate samsara, because our lung ta is weak and our minds are continually weighed down by negativity. Even if people think they will practise the Dharma, do retreats or meditate on compassion and emptiness, unless their lung ta is stable the outcome will be the opposite of what they intended.
- From the outset the lung ta of beings throughout the three realms and of ordinary human individuals in this realm has been impaired and flawed. On top of that, in these times of spiritual degeneration, a continual degrading of our own and others’ lung ta is taking place. The mind becomes increasingly obscured and rigpa becomes increasingly hidden from the ordinary mind.
- When we pray to Guru Rinpoche and invoke his blessing, offer sang and engage in other practices that cause the flourishing of lung ta, we awaken the clarity aspect of mind. We awaken our rigpa, so that it is more perceptible to us. The ultimate point of such practice is to awaken the clarity aspect of our minds, to bring us into closer contact with our own rigpa. We may even discover the enlightened intent of kadak, or ‘primordial purity’, where neither suffering nor even the concept of suffering remain to be dealt with."
Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche points to another etymology of the term, deriving from the Tibetan klung rta:
- The word lungta (ཀླུང་རྟ་, klung rta) is composed of two syllables: the first, lung, represents the element 'space' in the fivefold classification of the elements 'earth, water, fire, air and space' and signifies 'universal foundation' or 'omnipervasiveness'. [...] The second syllable ta (horse) refers to the 'excellent horse' (རྟ་མཆོག་, rta mchog), and since in ancient times in Tibet the horse was the symbol of travelling with the greatest speed, in this case it seems to refer to the transmutation of every thing that depends on the five elements from negative to positive, from bad to good, from misfortune to good fortune, from baleful portents to auspicious signs, from poverty to prosperity, and it implies that this should ensue with the greatest speed.
- [...] I believe this to be the true meaning of lungta. In more recent times the custom has arisen of spelling this word རླུང་རྟ་, rlung rta (wind horse), ascribing to it the meaning 'that which rides the wind', but I think this is derived from the practical function of the lungta flags of being raised in the sky and moved by the wind.
Teachings Given to the Rigpa Sangha
- Namkhai Norbu, Drung De'u and Bön, translated by Adriano Clemente, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1995 p. 68-70