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Prayer flags bring hassle for Tibetan in Santa Fe

Tenzin Digkhang stands below the Tibetan prayer flags that his neighborhood's homeowners association has ordered him to remove. (Eddie Moore/Journal)
Tenzin Digkhang stands below the Tibetan prayer flags that his neighborhood's homeowners association has ordered him to remove. (Eddie Moore/Journal)
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Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A Tibetan Buddhist has two small strings of Tibetan prayer flags hanging from the top of the front porch of his south Santa Fe home. When they blow in the wind, he says, they “are used to promote peace, compassion and wisdom.”

But for Tenzin Digkhang they have brought anything but.

Since at least March, he’s received complaint notices from the Colores del Sol Homeowners Association, ordering him to pay a $50 fine and remove the flags because they allegedly violate subdivision bylaws.

One email notes that the association can file suit against him “for injunctive relief” if necessary.

Digkhang said he’s not taking the flags down and that he has appealed the association’s enforcement action. Until late Monday – after the Journal had asked the homeowners association about the case – he had heard nothing since April.

“I won’t (remove the flags) because I know I have my religious rights,” he said at midday Monday, as he stood in front of his home on Floras del Sol Street. “They think they are just flags. I tried to tell them what it means to me and she didn’t want to listen to me.”

Digkhang was referring to communications with Helen Waters, community manager for the homeowners association board.

“It’s nothing personal,” she told the Journal Monday morning. ” It’s based on the governing documents.

“I’m sure we will work with the homeowner,” said Waters, who works for AAM LLC, which provides homeowners association management. But she couldn’t be specific.

“I am not allowed to talk about homeowners’ accounts with anyone but homeowners,” she said.

The prayer flags are small, handkerchief-sized rectangles in different colors. Strings of them are seen on many houses around Santa Fe, which has a significant Tibetan population.

Technically they are not flags, Digkhang said.

The cloths are “Tibetan religion prayer wills,” or lungta, Tibetan for “wind horse,” he said.

“Every other Tibetan living around New Mexico” puts up the religious symbols, Digkhang said, and he puts up new ones every New Year. He bought his house in Colores del Sol, a development of the Centex firm, in 2011.

“If I am Catholic or Christian, it’s like telling me I have to remove my cross from the wall or my Christmas lights,” he said. Digkhang’s wife is Catholic.

He said Waters told him “you can put (up) an American flag but you can’t put any other flag.” He said he had read the association’s rules when he bought the house but they didn’t mention flags.

In a March email to Digkhang, after an initial notice of violation, Waters said “that my reference to ‘colored flags’ in the violation letter was not meant to offend you.”

“Prior to your emails I did not know that there was a religious significance to the flags,” Waters wrote. She referred him to the subdivision’s “flag guidelines” and said she would review the content of computer-generated violation letters “as you found it to be unfriendly.”

Digkhang got an April 17 email from Waters that said his appeal would be heard by the association board “this coming week.” But he got another violation notice on May 14, reiterating the violation and the possibility of litigation.

Monday afternoon, after the Journal made inquiries, Digkhang said he had received an email from Waters saying the board would have a decision on the appeal by the end of this week and that if he is granted a variance, any fines would be “waived at once.

Family fled Tibet

Digkhang was born in India, where his parents fled during the Chinese occupation of Tibet “for a better future for us,” he said. The Chinese still occupy Tibet, and in the late 1950s and 1960s thousands of monasteries were destroyed. Digkhang, 33, came to the U.S. in 1998, attended Santa Fe schools and a technical college in Albuquerque.

He explained the religious meaning behind the flags.

Prayer flags flutter in the breeze on Tenzin Digkhang's porch. He said that many people appreciate how prayer flags bring joy to their beholders. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Prayer flags flutter in the breeze on Tenzin Digkhang’s porch. He said that many people appreciate how prayer flags bring joy to their beholders. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

“When you are putting up a flag it means when the flag blows in the air, we believe it brings blessings for everybody, everybody who surrounds it, everybody who sees it, everybody that can feel it gets blessed.”

The red, white, blue, green and yellow colors on the flags represent the five elements. Woodblocks are used to decorate the prayer flags with mantras, prayers and images. Prayers are written in Tibetan Sanskrit.

“As the wind passes over the surface of the flags the air is purified,” Digkhang wrote in an email to the Journal , and “many people have noticed how the prayer flags seem to uplift the environment they are in and bring joy to those that see them.”

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